Friday, November 16, 2012

College recruitment

It's college-application season, which means it's also college-application-interview season. This is the fourth year I've served as an alumna interviewer for my alma mater, and I continue to have somewhat conflicted feelings about it. I do, after all, teach at a local college, and part of me feels weirdly disloyal to my institution and to my students--even though there's only a very small overlap between the students who apply to Regional U and the students who apply to INRU.* Another part of me feels pre-emptively defensive: I remember what it was like to be a high school senior snobbishly passing judgment on the local colleges and universities. And a third part of me wonders why, of all the things I could volunteer to do, I'm doing this: feeding the hungry and clothing the naked it ain't.

But I enjoy doing the interviews and I enjoy learning more about the community to which I belong. It's interesting to learn where bookish teenagers go for fun, what kinds of educational extras middle-class parents are (and are not) willing to pay for, and how the local high schools compare. By now I know which school has an IB program, which has a state-championship sailing team, and which holds its classes in three-hour blocks.

Also, I'm good at it. Unlike some of the alumni interviewers in the region (dudes who got an MBA or MD thirty years ago, never knew anything about their institution's undergraduate program, and have no idea how to evaluate a high school student's "promise"), I know INRU well: I spent ten years there, the last three of them teaching undergraduates. I can craft an effective prose profile. And much of my day-to-day life involves working with, trying to draw out, and get a feel for the potential of late-adolescents and young adults. Relative to the average, my admission success rate is high.

So I suppose that I'm serving my community by advocating for kids who, however talented and sometimes economically comfortable they may be, aren't connected to the centers of elite power. Many live in semi-rural communities, most attend public schools, and few have traveled widely. A good number of the students who leave will never come back, but they help to diversify INRU and whatever centers of power they may wind up in--and I guess that still counts as raising the region's profile.

And there are other rewards. A while back I interviewed a kid who just didn't want to talk about himself. He was affable and laid-back, and I quickly got a sense of his wide-ranging talents, but he refused to spin the autobiographical soundbites that lots of college applicants specialize in. He didn't want to boast, he didn't want to say much about the unusual personal hardship he'd overcome, and for the first 30 minutes I felt like I had no sense of his actual personality. Finally I asked him if he had any questions for me, and the entire dynamic of the conversation shifted. He asked me at least three times as many questions as any kid I've interviewed before or since--and they were deeply thoughtful, sometimes rather personal questions: about my own experiences at INRU and my impressions of its students and its social and intellectual dynamics. He listened intently, he asked follow-up questions, and I suddenly understood why this unassuming kid was captain of virtually every sports team, why he'd been elected student-body president, and why he insisted that pretty much everyone at his high school got along: the nerds and the jocks and the goths and so on. It was pure, natural leadership--not showy, not demanding, not domineering--of a sort I'd never seen before.

Interviewing for INRU also helps remind me that students are students: the kids I interview aren't much different from the kids I teach. And most are worth getting to know.

*For those joining us late, Instant-Name-Recognition University is the stupid pseudonym I invented for my alma mater seven years ago--i.e., too late to change it now.


Bavardess said...

I love your description of that last kid. So good to hear stories like this when we are constantly being told how entitled, spoiled, and self- interested young people are today ( something I don't see at all in my 20-year-old son or his friends).

Susan said...

I too have interviewed for my alma mater, but here inrural CA, the east coast colleges are very far away. At least some of the students I talk to I think are badly advised, in that they are not helped to think about what kind of university they want to attend. And they don't (apparently) understand the differences between institutions. I sometimes want to stop being an interviewer and be a teacher, 'cause they need better college advising.

What I see are not mostly middle class kids, but smart working class kids who someone has encouraged to dream. But I don't think people have thought about how best to bridge the gap between here and there. And it's a huge distance.

Flavia said...


Yeah, I really don't see it either. The vast majority of my students, and the vast majority of the kids I interview, are just really nice: respectful, eager, kind, and all that jazz.


I wonder about advisement, too. I see almost no working-class kids (which suggests that, in my region, they're not being advised to dream big), but I do see students who, though hard-working and ambitious, really just aren't competitive: they may have great GPA and test scores, lots of extra-curriculars. . . but they lack in that thing, whatever it is: curiosity about the world, intellectual eagerness, reflectiveness, and so forth. Maybe it's they who are overreaching, but I suspect sometimes their college counselors and teachers don't really know what it is that distinguishes the strong student from the one who's something more.

Phoebe said...

I guess this is my wariness re: "holistic" showing, but I'm not sure that whether students appear to possess an impossible-to-pin-down quality should play a role in determining if they're "competitive" in college admissions. It's fine if something other than grades and scores is entering into it (extracurriculars, leadership positions, etc.), and I see the value in these interviews in weeding out kids who seem great on paper but off for some reason in person. But I'm not confortable with the idea of one kid being chosen over another, without there being any concrete reason as to why. It's always going to be somewhat subjective, but my sense is that an otherwise qualified applicant who appears to one observer/interviewer to lack that special something would seem to another to possess it.

Flavia said...


I think we're just going to have to disagree about this.

I was being deliberately vague, because I don't want to give the impression that one specific question, or behavior, is decisive. But to put a term to what I'm looking for, it's something like "curiosity"--a quality not so much of being interesting, which can be quite subjective, but of being interested (in things, in people). Although that quality manifests in different ways in different kids, it's actually pretty easily recognizable, if you spend a lot of time with students, esp. when those students are not all already at a place like INRU. (I don't think I could have picked it out when I was teaching there, because pretty much everyone has it; I absolutely can now, when I teach 100+ public-school students a year.)

Extra-curriculars are a partial proxy for this quality of being-interested-in-stuff, but it's not true that more activities = more interests, or a more inquiring mind, and so forth. Ideally, it's the recommendation letters and the essay that most fully communicate this thing-beyond-the-numbers; my interview is just an add-on, something that confirms those impressions or (occasionally) produces a new one.

The thing is, everything in college admissions is at least somewhat subjective and (a much more salient critique) culturally-dependent: kids who are verbal and who perform intelligence and curiosity in certain ways are going to be read as more intelligent and curious. But that's true in other spheres too: they're more likely to get good grades and more likely to have teachers and coaches advocate for them.

The one useful thing the alumni interview offers is take someone who doesn't already know the kid and someone who (ideally) knows the institution and its student population well, and give a snap judgement. They aren't weighted very heavily, because: hey, random stranger, snap judgement. But the quality that I'm looking for is in fact the same thing the admissions committee is looking for, and sometimes it helps.

Do plenty of candidates with this quality get turned away, even with great grades, etc.? Yes, of course--and I'm glad I'm not the one having to make fine distinctions about who's MORE talented, curious-about-the-world, and so forth. But the thing itself isn't that hard to spot.

Phoebe said...


Thanks for your response! I suppose we do disagree, but now have a better sense of over which issue. Basically, I don't disagree that it's possible for someone - certainly for someone in your position - to assess which students are intellectually curious. My concern isn't that this is unknowable, or entirely subjective. (It's somewhat subjective, but as you say, it all is.) Rather, it's that a) it has to be frustrating, as an applicant, to feel as though one checked all the boxes and then some, only to not qualify on account of lacking that certain spark (and I say this as someone who likely benefitted from "spark" given what I lacked in, for example, decent physics grades), and that b) far more broadly, I'm not sure what I think about assessment of potential rather than achievement.

Which isn't just about "holistic" - I'm not sure what I think of high schools like the one I went to, with an admissions test. What if, rather than channelling all the spark-havers (or high-scorers) into a few colleges (and under the current system, we rightly see it as a problem that spark-havers from certain regions/communities fail to get discovered and channeled), everyone went to a regional college, sorted out there what they were good at, and were then judged on the basis of achievement? The results would likely look similar, in terms of who ends up most conventionally successful. But for those reasons, I might prefer this never-gonna-happen alternate system. Or I might not - I have no experience of it.

Flavia said...


Aha! Yes, I consider those different issues, but important ones. I take your point (here, and in posts on your own blog) about the ways that "holistic" assessment leaves candidates feeling that they're being judged as a person, and found wanting, and God knows I can recollect that feeling from my own youth. . . but, eh. I guess I think that that's an important feeling to grow out of or to get past. Given that many, many talented people get turned away from fancy schools, based on hair-splitting distinctions about merit--or simply because the admissions committee would prefer to admit a kid from Wyoming rather than another from Massachusetts--it really isn't personal. (Or at least, it probably isn't!) The candidate has no way of knowing.

On the issue of "potential," though, I'm almost 100% in agreement; both admissions committees and applicants would to well to be humble about their own predictive powers, esp. the more finely the data are ground down (variations in SAT scores, GPA, etc.). But, alas, judgements about "potential" still occur even at much later life stages: when hiring a CEO for an embattled company, for example, the Board still has to make presumptions about how a candidate's past performance in a different environment--maybe even an entirely different industry-- will translate into future results.

But I don't disagree that other systems might be both fairer and healthier for the social fabric.

scr said...

In the tech industry we simply call the combination of ability/combination/aptitude "the knack." Typically you know if someone has it within the first minute of an interview.

You can train a monkey to do virtually any repetitive task, but being able to learn/adapt/think on your feet and fundamentally understand technology is something you can't teach.

Flavia said...


I like that term--and I agree that it's immediately apparent, in an interview situation, whether someone has it or doesn't, for the purposes of the job (or college, or whatever) that they're applying for.

I also tend to agree that it can't be taught. But on thinking about this further, I'm not sure I want to double down on the idea that someone either has it or doesn't in some absolute or immutable way, or that it can't develope over time. Among my own students, I've definitely seen kids go from being pretty uncommunicative and unforthcoming to being just luminous with interest and enthusiasm (usually not over the course of just one term--more often several terms, as they grow up, or encounter a subject they like, etc.).

That's definitely not the same thing as saying it's latent in everyone; I don't believe that. But some people may be later bloomers or stuck in circumstances that don't stimulate or reward their curiosity.

INRU can't afford to take a chance on whether someone might or might not turn out to be a late bloomer. But that's one of the pleasures of my job: seeing that it does happen!