As potential fresh-faced students start to arrive on campus and admissions interviews wrap up, I begin to recall my younger years as a prospective student and Columbia neophyte, both apprehensive and relieved after my extensive college search.
The college application process is dauntingly huge, somewhat inefficient, and, mainly, shockingly random. As we now lie snugly under the blanket of an admittance rate somewhere around 6.4 percent, it is sometimes hard to remember the fortuitous nature of our position. It’s funny that a number that once inspired fear in the hearts of many now results in congratulatory fist bumps when renewed at the end of each admissions cycle amid cries of “Yeah! F*** Yale!” Most people at Columbia likely believe that they belong here. Yet with the multitude of qualified top-achievers applying to the best schools in America, the lucky few who are chosen to attend the school by the “crack squad of qualified personnel” on the admissions committee, as local favorite Jerry Seinfeld would say, are not better than all the rest. I’m being facetious, but I have heard some frightening stories about some collegiate admissions committees.
I remember treating the college application process as The Second Coming—developing emergency disaster relief kits, applying to a total of 19 schools. In retrospect, I realize my actions were insane. But now with the sagacity of one who is thoroughly practiced in applying, I feel qualified to offer some advice.
Columbia is on a roll, continually improving its application process. It somewhat recently did away with its own lengthy application (which was graciously still in place for the class of 2014) in favor of joining what is fondly known as the Common App. By the time I blearily filled out Columbia’s application, in a mixture of non-Common App resentment and despair, I possibly selected ethnomusicology as a desired major in a last-ditch effort to differentiate myself.
Something I do recall quite well, though, was my Columbia interview. Since not all students receive interviews (I wonder what the actual data on related admission rates looks like), I was slightly worried by the apparent lack of a middle-aged man jostling to meet me for coffee at an inopportune time I would readily agree to. But finally, such a man did contact me and suggest we meet after hours at my high school. After the interview commenced, I would be unable to extricate myself for the next three and a half hours. Although he was a nice and enthusiastic person, I learned as much about the charms of “marrying a Barnard girl” as I did about the academics—although he did quiz me on Greek mythology for a good 45-50 minutes, which was a lovely surprise. While I ended up liking him, I can’t say the same thing about all my interviewers, and perhaps a saner applicant would have walked away.
Although they may produce some amusing stories or useful contacts, college interviews today are costly, unreliable, and, frankly, useless. Interviewers are not wholly representative of colleges, and an unfortunate pairing can discourage prospective students. Also, in a process that is already somewhat random and unfair, the interview forms the most biased and incomparable component of the application. It is frequently said that people subconsciously judge others within seven seconds of meeting them. Although this is simplified, such a mechanism makes evolutionary sense, for sizing up possible dangers has survival benefits. Additionally, studies have shown that qualities that are not essentially related to future success, like physical attractiveness or even vocal attractiveness (apparently something we should be worrying about?), influence interviewer evaluations. If a person is deemed attractive, he or she is also quickly perceived as intelligent, trustworthy, kind, and mentally healthy. Strangely, they are even thought to have a happier marriage and be a better parent.
In fact, recent studies suggest that many institutions should do away with interviews completely. Medical schools in Canada, Australia, and Israel have eliminated the personal interview component in the last few years, and universities in Britain have long been discussing the possibility. Unstructured interviews have been shown to provide virtually no predictive power of future academic or vocational success. Structured interviews, in which the questions are all standardized and comparative, are slightly better. While Columbia interviewers, starting only this year, are given some basic training, some universities, like Harvard, have more systematized processes in which your interviewer is given information about your test scores and activities in a résumé-type format and must go through a shadowing process.
Although it can be argued that the interview is not a substantial component of the college application process anyway, it seems to offer little except for possible harms. Applicant pools selected without interviews are similar or better than those chosen with them. But some qualities like professionalism, ethical judgment, and interpersonal skills are difficult to evaluate on paper. Instead of a useless, unstructured interview with a chiefly unqualified interviewer, a more systematic ethical dilemma, problem-solving activity, or creativity task could take its place, such as those used recently with more frequency in graduate school applications and business interviews (although neither the applicant nor the admissions committee would likely appreciate setting up the lengthy case interviews some of us have been through while prepping for jobs). The college application process still leaves much to be desired, and Columbia should use its momentum over the last few years to continue to innovate and hone its student body.
Sydney Small is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics-philosophy and neuroscience. Small Talk runs alternate Thursdays.
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