The Ambivalence of Alumni Interviews

Brown University's Van Wickle Gates

Three years ago, the Brown University Alumni Relations department got in touch with me and asked whether I’d be willing to interview applicants to Brown.

I still remember my own alumni interviews for Brown and for Harvard. I got lost on the way to the Brown interview–back in the days before we had things like GPS and cell phones. Very embarrassing. And then the interviewer turned out to be the father of one of my classmates.

By the time I had my alumni interview, I’d already visited Brown, which I have to confess wasn’t my first choice, but which I really enjoyed visiting, nonetheless. I stayed with a trio of young women who called themselves “The Latin Lounge” and I remember how mind-blowing the array of associations and clubs was to me. (I ended up joining the Classics Club, the Equestrian Club, and the Fantasy Gaming Society, which does give you an impression of the variety available.)

Actually, by that time I had visited Brown twice, the first time with my father during my junior year in high school. My father graduated from Brown in 1964, and I remember him showing me the letter he got saying that the children of alumni always got extra consideration, all other things being equal. I don’t know whether my father was or is a big donor. I imagine all alumni with children applying to Brown get the same letter. Indeed, my interview form on eBASC has a line labeled “Brown relationships.”

I don’t know whether the friend whose father interviewed me applied to Brown, or was admitted. She didn’t go there, though one of my other classmates did. In a graduating class of 57, that’s a pretty high percentage.

Simone, Diane, and Sallie at their college graduation

I graduated from Brown in 1989. That’s me on the far right of this photo. The other two are my friends Simone and Diane. Simone was the first person in her family ever to go to college, and we could hardly get her out of the Sciences Library to socialize. She became a high-powered lawyer in Washington, DC. Diane is a psychology professor at Hood College.

But I digress. Anyway, though I’ve been a faithful reader of the Brown Alumni Magazine, and an occasional donor, I had never done a stint as an alumna interviewer. I don’t remember being asked previous to 2013. Maybe it was just because I had updated my contact information after I got married, and they knew where to reach me. (On the other hand, maybe they asked and I don’t remember.)

Or maybe it was the insane flood of applicants causing them to recruit more widely than ever before. I don’t know what makes a college “hot.” Maybe Emma Watson has something to do with it. Brown was relatively hot when I was in high school, but during the past few years, my alma mater has been getting record numbers of applicants.

Record. Numbers.

More than 30,000 high school seniors applied to enter Brown in the fall of 2015. Last year Brown admitted 2660 applicants.

I wouldn’t be an admissions officer for any money.

The alumni interviews are supposed to help the Office of Admissions get a better feel for whether a student will fit in well at Brown. They’re also supposed to help the applicants, who may not have visited the university in person, get a better feel for whether Brown is a good fit for them.

The people coordinating the interviews tell us, and tell us to tell the applicants, that the interview can’t hurt their chances. I don’t know whether that’s really true, but certainly the alum doing the interviewing is not the person making the decision whether or not to accept the student. As an alumna interviewer, I don’t see the student’s transcripts or application form. I see the student, and have the fairly challenging task of not only assessing that student’s personal and intellectual qualities in approximately half an hour, but then describing them on the form provided by eBASC.

And, of course, I’m not trying to decide whether this impressively accomplished young person (they are all over-achievers) would fit into the Brown I remember from the late 1980s, but whether s/he would do well at Brown now.

I haven’t been back to Brown since the 1990s. I would have liked to go to my 25th reunion last year, but life was too fraught, and none of the friends I’m still in touch with were going. So I don’t have any recent direct experience of campus life to share with the students, and the alumni magazine talks a great deal about other alumni (the ones who are searching for cures for rare diseases or become the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Bank, and who could really depress you if you let them) and not as much about current student life.

So I needed to do some homework. I read a pile of articles in the Brown Daily Herald (which always seemed something of a scandal sheet when I read the printed version at breakfast in the Ratty, but which seems pretty sober and sensible today). There was a lot of discussion about the new alcohol policy (no booze at parties in dorms) and also about the new proposals for dealing with sexual assault.

Should I have mentioned said policy to this year’s applicants? It was clearly not something on their minds, though the incident which spurred the new proposals made headlines last year, and President Paxson sent printed letters to all of us alumni. In the course of the conversations I was having, the question “Do you worry about being assaulted at a party on campus?” did not come up naturally. Maybe it should, though the new alcohol policy is meant to reduce incidences of sexual assault, particularly in circumstances where all parties involved have impaired judgment and quite possibly impaired memory, as well.

I also looked at the Focal Point page that lists all the undergraduate concentrations. When I was at Brown, two departments they had that not many universities do were Egyptology and History of Math. Apparently the History of Math department was disbanded in 2005, and Semiotics was renamed to Modern Culture and Media even before I graduated. (One of the first things that students enrolled in the introductory semiotics course had to do was write a paper without margins or paragraph breaks. That would be tough to do in Microsoft Word, but most people actually used typewriters for that assignment, as MS Word hadn’t been invented yet.)

I don’t think they had an Environmental Studies concentration when I was an undergrad, nor one in computational biology (a.k.a. bioinformatics), the intended major of one of the applicants I interviewed today. I had to look that one up. And I definitely don’t remember a program in entrepreneurship. (Right now it’s the program in Business, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations, but it’s undergone at least one name change.)

Mind you, I would not have been interested in a program in entrepreneurship back when I was an undergrad, but since I’ve become self-employed, I’ve come to think that universities, and indeed high schools, should teach the subject and encourage students to start their own businesses. According to an article I read last night, a number of Brown students do. In fact (a Google search has just revealed to me), there’s a student-run Brown Entrepreneurship Program, too. In 2014, Forbes magazine listed Brown as one of America’s top schools for entrepreneurship. There’s even a Venture Launch Fund for student startups.

To which I say, “Yay, Brown.”

Clearly, Brown University is still a place that offers fantastic educational and extracurricular activities for students, and it doesn’t seem that different in spirit from the school I attended. I wish I’d taken better advantage of the New Curriculum (no longer so new even then—it’s only two years younger than I am) and taken classes in more departments. And I wish I could go back and take some of the courses on offer now.

I also wish it were somehow possible for all the fabulously talented students who are applying to get in—at least if they really want to go there—while keeping Brown small enough to provide a great undergraduate experience. So far none of the ferociously talented, over-achieving applicants I’ve interviewed over the years has been admitted, though one was wait-listed. And all of these kids are more accomplished than I was at that age. (I swear I would never get in if I had to apply today.)

More than that, though, I have worried about how any of them will be able to face the financial burden attending an Ivy League school would put on them. When I was at Brown, the university couldn’t even manage need-blind admissions. I had a classmate who put “$48,000 balance due” on his mortarboard.

During her presidency, Ruth Simmons worked tirelessly at fundraising, and now there are much better financial aid packages available. The financial aid facts page for Brown University says that 44% of the class of 2018 is receiving financial aid and 65% of them have no loans in their initial financial aid package. (I’m not quite sure what “initial” means. The first year?)

But here’s the thing. The same facts page says that the average need-based award (including scholarships, work-study, and loans) is $44,268. But the cost of a year at Brown is closer to $60,000, once you add housing and meal plan to the $48,272 tuition. So even with a generous financial aid package, most students, or their parents, are going to have to come up with another $15,000 each year.

I suppose what that does is make the cost of attending Brown roughly equivalent to the cost of attending a less-elite institution. And parents who are in a position to save money start doing so when their children are born. But it still seems to me that the cost of attending university—any university—in the United States is far too high. Particularly in today’s economy, it doesn’t seem that any education, or any experience, could be worth taking on a crushing level of debt for the rest of your life—and that’s exactly the position many people find themselves in. None of these kids I’ve talked to can count on getting a job after graduation, or keeping it if they do. The default rate on student loans has dropped, but it’s still 13.7%.

California’s community colleges are already bursting at the seams, perhaps because more and more people are making the decision to get a practical and affordable education rather than attempting to take on the responsibility of a traditional college degree. Despite the massive numbers of applicants and the touching stories in the BAM about those students who have come from nothing and succeeded at Brown, I can’t help worrying that my alma mater will end up populated primarily by the offspring of the 1%.

It’s no longer possible for a reasonably-successful middle class parent, as my father was, to cover the cost of an Ivy League education and give his child the gift of graduating free of debt. And that makes me feel extremely ambivalent about encouraging applicants to attend Brown, in the unlikely event that they get in.

WordPress fangirl, ghostwriter, linguistic alchemist, podcast consultant, and accidental vapor advocate. Married with 2 cats.


  1. Was signing in to the Brown alum site to see if I could handle a FaceTime interview. I, also from 1964 and with a son in your class, have been interviewing for years. I retired to north western Mich, lower peninsula, at about the lateral aspect of the ring finger on the mitten.

    My oldest grandchild was not interested in Brown until this last year, is an achiever and a soccer player, and an adolescent who rarely communicates with elderly men. I nudge her, when in AP Amer History I gave her the then recent book Valiant Traitor on Benedict Arnold which approaches history exploring more than most. As an old sailor Philbrick’s life in literature since Brown is full with words.

    I share the ambivalence and am glad Brown is standing for debt free graduation. Few are accepted to Brown or to any more coveted schools from our part of Midwest. I start every interview suggesting their parent read Frank Bruni’s book, “where you gomis not where you’ll be”. Almost always tell the eager applicants I know not their scores but presume they were good enough for the counselor to suggest and that gumption and desire to learn are more important.

    The last two admitted were unique. One when asked what he was reading outside of school, said Plato’s Republic. Not a common response, the other was from a family with limited funds and was accepted with a caddie scholarship to the U of MI. When he e mailed me I told him it was the correct choice and with his desire to study history and archaeology he would do well.

    I like to ask for their thought about what success means. (Some appear well coached.) And follow with an Emily Dickinson quote to watch the response.

    So I use the time of interview more to explain about the open curriculum, the apparent interaction with professors, not common in the early sixties, and the interaction of students from many backgrounds. One applicant asked if the poetry department was open to binary students. After finding out the term from my children and searching the poetry department I responded to her.

    So enjoyed your post and will send it on.

    Richard Scott

    1. Hi, Richard.

      I, too, was thrilled to see that financial aid packages at Brown are now loan-free. All those years of building the endowment have paid off. (I wish I could have contributed more to it.)

      Brown didn’t ask me to do interviews this year, and I had to wonder whether it was on account of this blog post. Reading your description of the questions you ask applicants makes me want to do interviews next year.

      1. I cannot believe they dropped you. I wrote when Imfirst read Bruni’s column and bought his book that for those of us wheee thenodds are close to 1i 10, that our job as interviewers is to encourage them to continue to strive, on as it were.
        Interesting your a classicist. My room mate Al Ward went from Brown for PhD and taught classics. Was the hardest working friend I had. My second son a music arranger and conductor of choirs turned down Brown, and the Cal Rech, as he said music more important to him. Later he said harder than math. But he had a joint major. Latin and music at Western Mi. He told his mom it was recreational Latin. He used to write Cartsgo defendants est on dirty back window in her car..
        Interviewing almost done, but need more to do.

        At75 it is hard to drive through snow and ice to meet kids. Full of hope. Or Spero as it were.

        My name in high school was scottus magnus eruditissimusque, a bit of hubris. My wordpress is scottus humilis.

        1. It may have been simple oversight, especially if a new person took over managing interviewers for this area. I’ve known things like that to happen, with no malice aforethought. I should get in touch with them again. This past year was probably not a good time for me anyway.

          I was done with snow by the time I left Michigan in 1994. People in England didn’t believe I’d moved there for the weather. (Well, it was not the only reason, but I don’t think I ever saw more than 2 inches of snow in 4 years.) California is overpriced and has a lot of issues, but I don’t have to shovel the driveway or put snow tires on.

  2. I, too, am ambivalent about the interview process. Perhaps, however, for a different reason. Most of the candidates I endorse do not get in. My son, who graduated a few years ago, reminds me that there are thousands of very talented and qualified applicants so its no surprise that my odds are low.
    More importantly, I am not sure what the interviews are for. Are they a vehicle for Brown to say to the world “we are interested in all of you”? Clearly they are not a vehicle to attract talent, as all of my interviewees would love to be admitted.
    And what does it say to the candidate that the interview is really not important to the admissions committee?
    So, I feel ambivalent as well. I do the interviews anyway, because I love meeting young adults and learning from them. I am not sure about all the rest!

    1. My sense of the reason for doing them was to try to get a sense of whether the candidate would be a good fit. This may be difficult for me to speak on, as I’m not on the campus and only have the BAM’s word for what it’s like to be a student now. But even my relatively modest experience has shown that some of these kids really, REALLY want to go to Brown, and to others it’s one of several good choices. My niece interviewed recently despite Brown not having the program she most wants to be in. I can’t imagine that an interviewer would recommend her, knowing that.

      I don’t recall that I ever interviewed anyone who didn’t impress me, though some seemed a better fit than others and some were frankly amazing. I don’t think schools encourage anyone to apply who isn’t qualified at all, and the competition these days is terrifying. No one I interviewed was accepted, either, and it is kind of depressing, but I also have confidence that those kids will do well no matter where they end up.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.