It’s January, which means it's time for college interviews. But how much do they count and for what?
The short answer is this: it depends on the school. No one but the college decision-makers at each school knows, and each school weights the elements of the application differently.
But there is some evidence suggesting that the interview may not be as important as we think, or important for the reasons we think.
What do you mean the interview may not be that important?
According to the NACAC 2012 State of College Admissions Report, only 6.2% of colleges attributed “considerable importance” to the interview. And 25% of colleges attributed either “moderate” or “limited” importance in the overall admissions decision, while 42% attributed “no importance” to the interview (presumably many of those schools don’t hold interviews at all).
At a panel I attended at the 2011 NACAC Conference, a Princeton rep was asked by an audience member how important the interview was and she responded that, in essence, they didn't matter that much. In a2011 Daily Beast article, John Birney, senior associate director of admissions at Johns Hopkins was quoted as saying that “[Interviews] are not a significant factor in the vast majority of cases."
Keep in mind that each of these examples is from one person who works for one school, and each should be taken each with a grain of salt. But based on recent conversations I’ve had with admissions reps at national conferences and my own research, my sense is that the interview is not in general a "make-or-break" factor. (See exceptions below.)
So what’s the point of the interview?
1. To demonstrate interest in the school. Some schools track how much active interest you’ve shown: Did you visit? Did you interview? Are you applying early? Together, these factors can have some sway over the admissions decision, although how much (notice I'm saying this a lot) varies from school to school. So the fact that you did the interview--regardless of how you think it went--counts for something.
2. To give additional information. Do you feel your essays didn’t really show you in your best light? Or have you done impressive things since applying that weren’t in your original application? You can share these things in your interview. (Personal note: this happened to me. In between applying and interviewing for Northwestern my senior year of high school I won a couple pretty big drama awards and got a chance to talk about them with my interviewer. She was excited about what I shared, said she thought I’d really love the NU Theater program, and actually convinced me during my interview to write to NU to change my major on my application. I did, and I got in.)
When might the interview matter?
The second part of the John Birney quote above goes, "But for a kid who is on the bubble, where the decision could go either way, a fantastic interview with an alumnus could make the difference.” (Translation: there might be some cases, perhaps few and far between, when the interview matters a lot.)
What if I refuse an interview?
That’s another time that an interview (or rather lack of an interview) could matter. If you’re offered an interview and refuse, it could look bad, or at least raise questions about you. So if you do get offered one, I’d say accept it.
Is it bad not to interview at all?
Depends on how important it is to the school.
How can I tell how important it is to the school?
You can take a hint from the school’s website. Swarthmore, for example, points out that while the deadline for an on-campus interview was December 6, don't worry because “if you are not able to interview, it will not impact your admissions decision in any way.” (My translation: relax), while Yale’s website says, “An interview is not a required part of the application process, but we encourage you to meet and talk with a Yale alumnus/a or student interviewer when possible.” (Translation: make it happen)
So what are you saying, Ethan: should I interview or not?
Armed with the knowledge that your interview will matter something in between “not at all” and “a lot,” yes, you should still interview.
How do I request an interview?
In some cases, the college will contact you. But if you want to make sure you get one, Google “Request alumni interview for [school name here]” and you’re likely to turn up something like this page for Sarah Lawrence, which directs you to an Alumni Interview Request form.
Okay, so I’m going to interview. What do I do next?
Step 1: Don’t freak out.