The Importance of the Alumni Interview: Tips for Success

This is a picture from the movie Risky Business.
The alumni interview is one component of the holistic college admissions process.

Originally Published on October 17, 2017:

Did you recently hear from an alumni interviewer asking you to meet in person or virtually? If so, you might be excited. You might be nervous. You might wonder if this means you’ve got a strong chance of earning admission. And you might be curious how you can best prepare to ace the alumni interview. Well, you’ve come to the right place to find out the inside scoop on alumni interviews and their role in the college admissions process.

The Alumni Interview Is a Piece in the Admissions Puzzle

It’s important first to understand that the alumni interview is but one piece of the puzzle in the holistic college admissions process. Other components include the quality of the student’s high school and its relationship with various colleges, the rigor of the student’s coursework, grades, test scores, extracurricular pursuits, essays, letters of recommendation, and more.

How Important Are College Alumni Interviews?

Of these pieces in the holistic college admissions puzzle, the alumni interview is less important than all of the above components. That’s right. A student’s grades, the rigor of their coursework, activities, essays, and letters of recommendation are all more critical in the elite college admissions process than the sit-down with an alum.

How to Secure an Alumni Interview

Securing An Alumni Interview Is Not An Indication of the Strength of a Student’s Candidacy

Many students (and their parents) get excited when they hear from an alumni interviewer. They think, not unreasonably, that it’s an indication that the college is strongly considering their candidacy. After all, why else would they take the time to sit down with you? But that’s not how alumni interviews at America’s elite colleges go.

Instead, colleges try to interview as many applicants as possible. It has nothing to do with the strength or weakness of one’s candidacy. A student with no chance of earning admission has just as good of a chance of securing an alumni interview as a student with an excellent opportunity to get in. After all, a key purpose of the alumni interview is for a college to make their alums feel like they’re still intimately involved in the goings on of the school. And why? An actively engaged alumni base is more inclined to donate money to their alma mater!

Not Securing An Alumni Interview Is Not An Indication of the Weakness of a Student’s Candidacy

Some students (and their parents) work themselves into a sweat because they have yet to hear from alumni interviewers to set up a meeting. They often think this is not a good sign, that they’re at a competitive disadvantage because some of their peers have upcoming interviews while they do not.

But they’re wrong to think it’s not a good sign. It’s no sign other than that the college has too many applicants to assign to interviewers, alumni interviewers are busy, or there aren’t alumni interviewers available in the area to meet. It’s as simple as that, so applicants who have yet to hear from interviewers should relax. And so should their parents!

Do Alumni Interviews Matter in College Admissions?

Now that students and parents are clear that the alumni interview is but a piece of the holistic college admissions puzzle — and one of the less critical pieces at that — they shouldn’t be so stressed about the opportunity to sit down with an alum.

Now, if the student makes inappropriate comments during the interview, can it hurt the student’s chances of admission? Absolutely as the interviewer is likely to include these comments in their report. But an excellent alumni interview evaluation is rarely a difference-maker in the admissions process. So breathe in, breathe out, and don’t forget to smile!

Alumni Interviewers Often Inflate Their Role in the Admissions Process

Because so many alumni play the interviewer role, it’s difficult for colleges to police them. Some are right out of college, recent graduates hoping to stay involved with their alma mater. Others are half a century out of college, still involved with their alma mater all these decades later. It depends!

Yet because there are so many alumni interviewers worldwide and the admissions offices rarely train them, they often say things the admissions office would not approve. In our experience at Ivy Coach, Harvard interviewers tend to ask the most inappropriate questions. They may over-inflate their importance in the admissions process, saying, “When I make a recommendation, admissions officers listen.” Yet few alums genuinely have such clout.

Or they may ask inappropriate questions like, “What other colleges are you applying to?” It’s not their business! Students should thus pivot like any good politician when confronted with inappropriate questions. Instead of citing a laundry list of colleges, they can say, “Well, this is the school I most wish to attend,” and hope the interviewer takes the hint.

Frequent Alumni Interview Questions

Recurring Alumni Interview Questions
Tell me about yourself.
What are your favorite activities that you do at school?
What are your favorite activities that you do outside of school?
What’s your favorite class?
What’s your least favorite class?
What would a teacher say about you?
What would a friend say about you?
What’s your favorite book?
What’s another favorite book of yours?
Do you feel your academic record is an accurate measure of your work in high school?
Tell me about your family.
What do you love about your school?
If you could change one thing about your school, what would it be and why?
What’s a story in the news that interests you right now?
If you had a free Saturday afternoon, what would you do and why?
What do you want to study in college?
Why do you want to go to this college?

5 Tips to Prep for Alumni Interviews

  1. Prepare answers to the recurring alumni interview questions, especially the “Why College” question. Prep in front of a mirror to see yourself and ensure you’re smiling and engaged.
  2. Check your wifi connection the day before if the interview will be on Zoom. Or, if it’s in person, do a dry run to the coffee shop where it will take place the day before to ensure you don’t get lost or caught in traffic.
  3. Make sure to dress formally. Even if the interviewer tells you it’s a casual conversation, we always prefer our students to dress formally. If the interview is on Zoom, you’ve only got to prepare an outfit from the waist up!
  4. Save time by not Googling your interviewer. You don’t need to work into the conversation on what you know about the person. It’s unnecessary, and you’ll risk coming across as a sycophant.
  5. Stick to the script. Even if the alumni interviewer is a recent graduate to whom you can relate, make sure to present yourself the same way you would present to an older alum. Too often, students treat alumni interviews as more informal when the interviewers are young. Don’t make that mistake. Young interviewers can write bad write-ups just as older interviewers can!

Alumni Interview FAQ

Can my alumni interviewer see my application?

No, alumni interviewers are not privy to your application. They typically can see only basic details about you, such as your high school, your hometown, and a few other details.

What if my alumni interviewer asks my SAT or ACT score?

Alumni interviewers should refrain from asking about your SAT or ACT score. It’s not appropriate — particularly now that most elite universities, with exceptions like MIT, are test-optional. But they ask because they can be nosy. If you didn’t take the SAT, you could say so. If you did and you didn’t report it, you can say you didn’t report scores. If you have a great score, you can answer the question even though it shouldn’t have been asked in the first place.

Should I send a “thank-you” note to my alumni interviewer?

We always encourage students to send “thank-you” notes the next day. The thank you note should cite some specifics from the meeting, so it doesn’t read as generic.

Is it better to meet in person or virtually if given the option?

It doesn’t matter. If the interviewer prefers a virtual meeting, meet virtually. If the interviewer wants an in-person meeting, meet in person. And make yourself available — on their schedule. Don’t get off on the wrong foot with the interviewer by having scheduling difficulties.

Interview Prep with Ivy Coach

If you’re looking for assistance in preparing for an upcoming alumni interview, Ivy Coach offers interview prep. If interested, fill out our free consultation form to learn more.


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  • Jill says:

    How about late interviews? We often hear about last minute interviews in March, conducted way past report submission deadlines for alumni, do they have any value?

  • Tom H. says:

    You mention it doesn’t matter if one doesn’t get an yinterview but I have never known anyone getting into Harvard who lived in the US city and was never offered one.

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