How *not* to handle your college interview...

Quick caveat: I wasn’t sure whether this should go in the Pit or if it belongs in MPSIMS. I didn’t really consider it a pitting since these stories occurred months ago and while it was slightly aggravating at the time, I now find it more amusing than anything else. Anyway, in honor of having my local “association” completing all of our interviews for the year, I thought I’d submit a few anecdotes from some of the more… interesting candidates, in the hopes that Dopers could use the information if they are ever in a similar situation. (But, if you actually need these “helpful hints”, may Og have mercy on your soul…)

One of the perks about being an alumnus of my university is that we have the option to interview high school seniors who have applied, with the “interview season” usually lasting from December to February. The alumni associations are divided by county, and since I live in one county and work in another, I am a member of both. It just so happened that one year, the county where I work was in dire need of interviewers (and they needed the interviews to be completed as soon as possible), and so I volunteered. However, because I like to handle these interviews over the weekend, I try to have them come to a Starbucks location near where I live, resulting in kids having to drive 30 minutes or so for the interview.

When assigned applicants, we typically get their contact information - e-mail address, phone number, home address, etc. I use my “professional” e-mail - - to reach these kids. In my introductory e-mail, I let them know a few basic things about me and how I handle the process: I’m less than ten years older than they are, I try to make the interview as informal and “friendly” as possible, etc. I tell them that I will be wearing jeans and a t-shirt and invite them to do the same, but if they want to dress business casual, that’s understandable. If I don’t receive a reply to that e-mail within a few days, I then call them. And that brings me to the first applicant…

I talked to one kid on the phone this past weekend, and it was obvious (both from his name and his accent) that he was from Africa. Before I got a hold of him, I spoke with his younger sister. I don’t know how many Dopers have had the unfettered joy of having their call answered by a small child and then the immense pleasure of trying to convince the child to hand the phone to an adult. Now, multiply that euphoria by the fact that the child has no idea who you are, they have a grasp on the English language that is tenuous at best, and their accent is thicker than dense brush.

She finally puts her brother on the phone, and I introduce myself. We have a few difficulties in our conversation, but we finally establish that, when he knows days and times available for our interview to occur, he will e-mail me and we will conduct all our future correspondence through that. I figure he might have problems with my e-mail address, since the last letter of my first name is the same as my middle initial. After spelling out my e-mail (with the two "W"s, back-to-back, and going to great lengths about that matter), I hang up. Days go by, no e-mail from him. I get a call back, 5 days later. (Side note: Every phone conversation consisted of “Hello?” “Mr. LastName?” “Yes?” “This is Joe Applicant.” “Oh, hi Joe!” 20 second pause before he says anything else.) He says that he got my e-mail wrong, and so I spell it for him again. Guess what the mistake was…

Before I continue, I must add that my last name is very “simple.” Composed of one syllable, it is also a word commonly used in the English language.

So, finally, I received the following e-mail from him:

*Dear FirstName LastName,

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to have an interview for UniversityName. I am a resident of Town, State. Because I do not know where you live I feel it would be best If we both choose a location that will be easily accessible. Once again thank you.

Yours Sincerely,

Joe Student*

Now, despite the fact that my last name is a common term, and that my name is in my e-mail address, he somehow manages to completely misspell it. It wasn’t a simple transposing of two letters, or a minor typo, either. The only thing I can think of is that he attempted to spell it, phonetically.

During our subsequent e-mail exchanges, I tell him the location of my “preferred” interview spot. The e-mail contains a mapquest map of the location, two different sets of directions of how to get there (depending on whether he was going to come from the north or south) and I list several physical landmarks for additional assistance.

That brings us to the day of the interview, scheduled for 1 pm. I arrive 20 minutes early, in order to make sure that we have a comfortable place to conduct the interview. 40 minutes later, he still has not arrived. I wonder if he is having issues with parking, or if he might already be in the Starbucks and I just didn’t notice him. When he answers the phone, and I ask where he is, he informs me that he just left the house 5 minutes ago, and is on his way. He left for the interview 15 minutes after it was supposed to begin. I don’t respond, thinking he might have an explanation for running so late. Nothing. I tell him that he’s 30 miles away, and that I will see him in 30 minutes or so. At 2:30, I receive a phone call, with him asking where I am. I proceed to tell him my location in the Starbucks. He clarifies and asks, “No, where is the Starbucks?” I use the street names and the landmarks to help guide him, but to no avail. He doesn’t see anything like that, and starts naming the roads that he is passing. None of them are familiar.

Now, one of the streets on the intersection of the Starbucks is also the name of a town located 40 miles away. Do you see where I am going with this? At this point, I’m thinking unless this kid has saved a busload of nuns or found a cure for cancer, his chances for admission are that of a snowball in Satan’s crotch. But, I was already committed to the interview, and each kid deserves a chance, even if they have the reasoning skills of a lobotomized Labrador, so I tell him to get here as fast as he can, but that I do not have much time remaining, as I had plans later in the day.

Finally, at 3:30, he arrives, wearing a suit and tie - quite the contrast to my shirt and jeans. We conduct the interview, and he hands me his resume (a practice commonly practiced by applicants). As I review it, I see one of his activities is the “Hackeysack Club.” Intrigued, I ask about this organization, thinking there may be some sort of hackeysack league I’d never heard of, complete with tournaments, celebrities and the sort. “Oh, it’s just a few friends and I. We play hackeysack after school.” At this point, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson. But, no, I keep pressing. “So, you don’t have a school sponsor or a coach or anything?” “No, we just play hackeysack sometimes after school.” “Ah.” awkward silence

Scanning further down his resume, I notice his “skills.” Maybe it is just me, but I would think that if someone is familiar with Windows XP Pro, then they would also be familiar with Windows XP Home. Furthering this drastic leap in logic, if they were seated at a computer running Windows 2003, Windows 2000 or even Windows 98, I do not think they would break down in a sweaty panic. As such, I do not think it would be necessary to list each of those on one’s resume, nor do I think that same behavior would need to be applied to Excel, Microsoft Word, MS Works, etc. I do, however, think that if he were to get into a car wreck at some point while his resume was in the car, the great amount of padding in the document would protect him from any physical harm.

So, the interview concluded, we went on our separate ways, and I’d like to think I wrote a very entertaining evaluation for the Admissions Committee.

Sorry this was so long. I have a few other stories, but if this is not well-received, I don’t want to waste board-space. :slight_smile: Like I said when I started, I really hold no ill will towards the kid, despite some of the things said in the story. If this needs to go to the Pit, feel free to move it there, Mods.

Wow, that was painful. You’re very patient to follow through with it! Did you hear back whether he was accepted…?

One of my friends posits that the reason he didn’t get into Harvard undergrad was the evidence of the chicken wings he dropped on his application. :smack: In my case, it was the interview where I expressed all the things I wouldn’t be good at, not being aware that you’re supposed to sell yourself. :smack::smack::smack:

As far as the email address goes, I’d give him a pass on that one.

My work email address is my full first name dot last name. My first name is a common one, but it’s spelled in a slightly less common way than normal. Not my idea, my parents named me that. So pretend my email is

Note that Athina is normally spelled with an E: Athena.

Every single time I spell out my email address to someone, I point this out. It usually goes something like:

“My email address is Please note that my first name is spelled slightly different than normal - it’s A T H I N A, that’s with an I, not an E. A T H I N A. A lot of people get it wrong, so I always try to spell it out.”

The person on the other end inevitably says “OK, I got it.”

Two days later, when I didn’t get the email they said they were going to send, I call them and ask what’s up. They say “Oh, I sent it right after we talked.”

I say “Maybe you got my email address wrong. Can we check it?”

“Sure, I have it right here.”

“How did you spell Athina, with an I or an E?”

“A T H E N A.”


This has happened more times than I can believe, with native English speakers. It’s gotten so bad that most of the time now, I ask for their email address, and I email my address to them so they can just hit reply.

What’s even worse is that there’s someone out there that has the address with the wrong spelling. That poor girl gets a LOT of my email, I’m afraid.

Why would various alumni be interviewing prospective students? Isn’t their acceptance up to the Admissions department? And wouldn’t they be mainly interested in classes taken, grades, SAT scores, that sort of thing?

My niece is waiting to hear on her college applications now. She’s been accepted to several schools, but she’s really waiting to see if she gets into Harvey Mudd in California, or Vanderbilt in Nashville. But I don’t think any of the schools asked for more personal input than essays.


Interviews usually aren’t required, they’re just something the applicant can do as an additional way to sell himself. Or at least that’s how it was explained to me when I was applying to college. I don’t think any school required them but I still did some - two, I think. I remember my Harvard interview being really awkward because the alum was about 60 years older than me and didn’t care about any of my interests.

It’s pretty common for alumni to interview applicants for the schools I know of. It’s not a requirement (neither is an interview by Admissions) but it’s a way for the applicant to make more of an impression, learn more about the school, etc. I wouldn’t think it’s weighted as highly as other criteria but it’s additional input.

And why do you consider it a “perk” to conduct these interviews?

Slight hijack, and no offense meant:

I don’t understand the point of most alumni activities. Networking for job purposes, yes, but apart from that?

Why would I want to donate money or time to my college? To me it was a very simple business transaction - I paid them tuition, they gave me a degree. We’re done.

It depends. Sometimes schools have local alums interview prospective students, so that they can get some more personal input.

I interviewed with an alumus for Harvard, but had an on-campus interview for U. Chicago, since I lived in the area.

Often it is hard for students to get to the college itself, if it is far away to participate in an on-campus interview. The alumni interview is a good substitute for the on-campus interview and lifts some of the burden off the admissions office.

With respect to why should I donate etc to my college, well, my college gave me tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money and supported my undergraduate research (in a research lab) through undergraduate research “grants”. Writing these undergrad grants and the research experience helped me get into grad school. Not all these expenses were covered by my tuition, for sure or even other students tuition. I donate so that other students can get scholarships and have those opportunities.

From what I’ve gathered, the logic behind it is that it is hard to get “the full impression” of the student merely by how they appear on paper. The interview is to get to know the applicants more intimately, and see if they would be a good fit at the university. Granted, it’s hard to truly “get to know” someone after 1 hour of conversation, but it is still better than nothing. The form we fill out, post-interview, asks about what our impressions were of the applicants, special accomplishments or achievements, what their perceived strengths and weaknesses are, if we think they would be a good fit on campus, etc.

Yeah, I guess I can go ahead and reveal that the university in question is Princeton. We get a lot of applicants from across the globe, and I think the interview process is to give an added dimension to the applicants. When I interviewed, I had a similar situation, Marley. My interviewer was an oncologist and, as such, was very blunt. After meeting him in his home and getting a tour of his Princeton memorabilia, we begin the actual interview with him saying, “Just so you know, I’ve never interviewed an applicant who was then accepted.” Talk about a blow to the gut.

No offense taken. Princeton really fosters “alumni ties” - moreso than a lot of other universities, from what I’ve gathered from friends. Every year, the weekend before graduation, they have a weekend-long event called Reunions, where alumni come back to campus, drink beer, attend lectures, and other events. It’s one of those things that you really have to experience to understand.

Also, I enjoy being able to participate in the future of these kids, granted, I believe my say is negligible at best when it comes to the decision as to whether they are accepted or not.

I feel more than a little sorry for the kid. A lot of the things he did are quite possibly a result of a gulf between another culture and America. Perhaps the idea of an informal interview just didn’t make any sense to him (or his parents!), hence the suit and tie. The CV makes it sound like he’s simply been given no advice or guidance in how to do these things. And so on.

I wore formal interview clothes to my alum interviews–it’s a sign of respect like at a job interview. I don’t think that’s the real issue in the OP.

I have students born and raised in the USA who would have done worse.
It is amazing that so many students today never learned the basics of writing a simple email, preparing a resume or learning how to conduct themselves at an interview of any kind.

I am sure it didn’t help matters that this student was foreign, but most likely everything you observed was self-taught; the resume, the struggle to write an email, the attempt to be good at the live interview - at least this kid made the effort. I have had students simply blow off interviews without even bothering to contact the interviewer and let them know they were not coming.

This doesn’t excuse your student in that example, but I just wanted to mention he has a lot of company when it comes to students with zero interview skills.

Yeah, I sympathize with the kid on the little sister thing, and on the drive. Driving 30 minutes to an unfamiliar neighborhood is something some high schoolers are a lot more ready for than others, and in ways that I don’t think have a lot to do with their potential in college. At the point where he requested a more convenient location, it would have been nice to see if another alum could have met him closer to home. Granted you are all volunteers and maybe it wouldn’t have been possible.

An ex of mine once passed some fairly lethal gas in one of his med school interviews. The doctor interviewing him was presumably familiar enough with human anatomy to realize what had happened. He did not get into that med school, but did get into another one and is practicing medicine today.

“Just so you know, I’ve never interviewed an applicant who was then accepted.”

Well, I guess he’s the kiss of death!

Yeah, when I first spoke with him on the phone, I realized there would likely be a communication gap. That’s why, in all subsequent communications, I tried my hardest to make sure he understood everything to the best of his ability. The suit-and-tie itself wasn’t a big deal. Hell, despite how much I tried to put other students at ease, I’ve had others wearing similar “formal” clothes. The only reason I included his attire in my OP was just it seemed to be another example of him not following instructions. By itself, none of the “missteps” were very damning, but, there were so many instances where he just didn’t seem capable of following directions (i.e. getting my e-mail wrong, misspelling my name, leaving for the interview after it was supposed to begin, travelling to the wrong location, dressing so formally and then having some things on his resume that just, frankly, shouldn’t be there). I just realized that this kid would probably be in way over his head if he was accepted.

Trust me, I really did appreciate the kid’s efforts. I’ve had a few who made it quite obvious that the only reason they were at the interview was due to the urging of their parents. The only thing I actually “faulted him for” was the 2 hours spent waiting, and his lack of understanding that he could have handled that better. I don’t know how he came to misspell my name, but I really think he tried to type my name as it sounds. Still, my name, correctly-spelled, was in both my e-mail address and signature…

Unfortunately, there weren’t many others. I did give him the option of meeting some place else, but he seemed fine with the location. In retrospect, that could have been due to the fact he didn’t want to come across as difficult. Something else that struck me as odd is how many of these high school seniors end up being driven to the interview by parents. I can somewhat understand those who are coming from 20 miles away, but I’ve had a few who travelled less than 5, and at the conclusion of the interview, they’d call their parent to come get them. I like to imagine that these parents are hiding across the street, watching the entire interview. One of the reasons I choose that particular Starbucks is because it is next to a bookstore where the parents can go, if they need to kill time.

My alma mater does not conduct interviews. But I freely give of my time as a representative of the school at local college fairs and other activities when I can. I understand that many people do not develop a connection to their school (usually in the case of a larger and/or public school), but that would be the exception rather than the rule where I went. Our alumni clubs are extremely active across the country. Yes, career and business networking is an aspect and reason for that, as it is with any social gathering/organization. But our alums have developed a strong connection having had overall very positive experiences at the school, and wish to give back when possible.

Personally, I found the story hilarious. I have interviewed job candidates for many of my past employers and have found that some people just aren’t good at interviewing, regardless of where they were born. I don’t feel sorry for this kid. Basically, people are suggesting that you should feel sorry for him (and hinting that he should be given a pass) because of his being foreign (this might be just some cultural/language gap) and suggesting that he has been self-taught, so it’s ok. It’s not ok to give him a pass – especially if other applicants are just as qualified (I assume grade-wise he is acceptable to Princeton or he wouldn’t be given an interview?) and have the basic skills to 1) respond to the email/phone call with some sense of comprehension and 2) make it to the interview on time.
I am not a believer that foreigners/old people/idiots/the handicapped/my precious snowflakes/aliens/inferior gods/the monster under the bed should get a pass on basic skills just because they haven’t bothered to learn them. If there were an actual communications gap – your name was not actually part of the email address, you didn’t go the extra mile to send him directions to the location, etc – then I could see giving the kid some extra understanding. As it stands, I agree with your summary.
I will say, though, that I have to give the kid props for the Hackeysack Club, I would totally give him marks for that! Give us another story.

The rest of it, maybe not, but leaving the house five minutes after the scheduled start time is pretty darn damning in my mind!

For two of the colleges I applied to, it was required. For one, the alum interview was weighed as part of the application (10% or so). For the other, the alum interview was done after they had approved or denied the student (but before they told the student about the decision). If the alum agreed with what had already been decided - no big. But if the alum came to the opposite conclusion as the admissions committee, then they’d re-evaluate the student from scratch. A great interview could turn a “We regret to inform you…” into a “Welcome to the class of …” and vice versa.