Ivy League Alumni Quit Admissions Interviews as Success Slips

With admissions notifications from Ivy League colleges going out as early as today, it’s more than just applicants awaiting the results.

Alumni interviewers like University of Pennsylvania graduate Andrew Ross say they’re getting annoyed that fewer of the students they endorse win acceptance. Some are ignoring calls to do more and others are quitting the volunteer job altogether. Ross has interviewed more than 50 applicants in a decade and only seen two or three get in.

“Is it worth it to interview if I’m not going to have any influence on the students getting in?” said Ross, 33, who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and runs a children’s entertainment business. “If it doesn’t mean much, then they should find a better way to use our time. It just kind of feels ridiculous.”

As competition for admission soars, Ivy League colleges that enlist their graduates as interviewers to build loyalty are angering them instead. Admissions deans at Penn in Philadelphia; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, say they use alumni interviews to confirm impressions of student applicants, glean details and personalize the process. Frustrated alumni may stop volunteering or reduce their donations, said Doug Ulene, 48, a 20-year volunteer for Brown who now coordinates efforts in southwest Westchester County in suburban New York.

Long-Term Consequence

“If alums start becoming disenchanted with the process and it changes their feelings toward the university, it may end up being a bad thing for the university in the long haul,” Ulene said.

Alumni sign up for interviews to stay connected to their college, to meet high school students in their communities and to try to understand the admissions process for their own children, Ulene said.

All eight Ivy League institutions in the northeastern U.S. say their applications rose to records this year. At Penn, the increase was 17 percent to more than 31,600. Last year, 14 percent won admission, a rate that will drop this year because the number of seats isn’t increasing, said Eric J. Furda, Penn’s dean of admissions.

Ross, the Penn graduate, says his acceptance rate has fallen in the past five years. None of his recommended students made it in. The frustration was part of the reason he stopped donating to the school a few years ago, he said.

Not everyone is discouraged by their acceptance track record. Eric Vayle, an alumnus of Stanford University, near Palo Alto, California, began volunteering for its pilot alumni interviewing program three years ago. Only one of Vayle’s 12 students have gained admission.

Brightest Minds

“I don’t see this as a reflection on me,” said Vayle, 45, a commercial real-estate consultant in Atlanta. “This is an interesting diversion that allows me to touch some of the brightest minds. In the end, part of me wants to sell Stanford.”

Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University began interviewing applicants in-person in the 1920s as a tool to identify Jews, according to Jerome Karabel, author of “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

“To ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment, and physical appearance, a personal interview was required, a final screening device usually conducted by the Director of Admissions or a trusted alumnus,” wrote Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Yale Response

“That a number of the Ivies tried to limit Jewish enrollment in the 20’s and 30’s seems clear,” Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, said in an e-mail about Karabel’s research.

Yale doesn’t have an “independent basis for evaluating what role alumni interviewing might or might not have played in that process,” Brenzel said. “Certainly alumni interviewing does not have such a role today.”

No official records at Princeton support Karabel’s conclusion, said Emily Aronson, a spokeswoman for the university. Harvard has “no information to provide” about Karabel’s research while present-day alumni interviews “have helped ensure that Harvard College is more diverse now -- ethnically, religiously, geographically and in terms of financial means -- than any time in history,” Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman, said in an e-mail.

As interviewers drop out these days, Brown volunteer coordinators, such as Shawna Draper Schaffner in Orange County, California, must spend more time recruiting.

Recruitment Blitz

Schaffner, 32, sent 150 individual e-mails to alumni in her area, beginning in December. The search yielded four new volunteers, she said.

Ben Harvey ignored Brown’s January e-mail asking graduates to meet with high-school students. The 32-year-old party and concert producer in New York had met with one to five applicants annually, for five years. None of his candidates have made it into Brown, so he quit.

“I put so much time into it, and there was very little payoff,” Harvey said.

After none of the nine students that Liz Larsen interviewed over five years got into Dartmouth, she ignored an October e-mail asking for help, she said.

“I’ve had some really outstanding candidates, and I’ve written them glowing reviews and they’ve been rejected,” said Larsen, 35, the mother of 4-year-old twins in Newton, Massachusetts, and a management consultant.

‘Really Passionate’

Students take the meetings seriously. Trevor Nash’s seven interviews took him on a tour of Atlanta, from a Starbucks coffee shop for Dartmouth and a Barnes & Noble Inc. bookstore for Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts; to a physician’s office at Piedmont Hospital for Yale in New Haven, Connecticut; and the law firm of King & Spalding, for Princeton in Princeton, New Jersey.

When possible, Nash e-mailed the alumnus a three-and-a-half-page resume the night before and prepared talking points about his pursuits.

“I wanted to show I was really passionate and you can’t get that through when you’re writing your activities on two lines on an application,” Nash, 18, said.

While the information in an interviewer’s report often confirms impressions garnered from essays, transcripts and recommendations, the alumni interview has made a difference in about 10 percent of 4,000 cases in Stanford’s pilot program, said Rick Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid.

Shifting Expectations

While a student’s intelligence may be apparent on paper, a passionate conversation about physics “may be quite powerful in an interaction,” Shaw said.

Stanford has told alumni that few students will win admission, Shaw said. This year, Stanford admitted 7.1 percent of its applicants, the lowest share in the university’s history, said Bob Patterson, director of admission.

Princeton University, which last year interviewed 99 percent of applicants, has tried to change interviewers’ expectations, shifting the focus from “trying to get students in” to being ambassadors for the university, said Janet Rapelye, dean of admission.

Princeton graduate Beth Flaming, 38, met with about 15 students in more than eight years as an alumni interviewer for the school. Only one got in. Flaming, a Chicago lawyer and the mother of two young children, stopped interviewing three years ago.

“I’ve always thought it was an ambassador-type role,” said Flaming. “That being said, what great purpose is being an ambassador to 20,000 people who are not going to get in?”

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