Why I’ve Stopped Doing Interviews for Yale

Last year, I conducted alumni interviews for Yale applicants. It’s an easy gig. You take a smart, ambitious 17-year-old out for hot chocolate, ask them about their life, and then report back to the university, “Yup, this is another great kid.”

I recently got an email asking me to re-enlist. Was I ready for another admissions season?

I checked “No,” mostly because “Aw, hell no” wasn’t an option.

Why my reluctance? No grudge, no beef, no axe to grind. It’s just that the whole admissions process is so spectacularly crazy that participating in it— even in the peripheral role of “alumni interviewer”—feels like having spiders crawling out of my eyeballs.

In the last 15 to 20 years, Yale’s applicant pool has gone from “hypercompetitive” to “a Darwinian dystopia so cutthroat you’d feel guilty even simulating it on a computer, just in case the simulations had emotions.”

I don’t fault the admissions office. For every bed in the freshman dorms, twenty kids are lining up, at least five of whom are flawless high-school rock stars. From that murderer’s row, they face the impossible task of picking just one to admit. There’s no right answer.

But two things freak me out about this process.

You may have heard this chestnut: “The hardest thing about getting a Yale degree is getting accepted in the first place.” For me, it rings true. Thousands upon thousands of the rejects from Yale would have thrived there, if they’d just gotten the thick “yes” envelope instead of the thin “no” one. (That includes the five totally amazing kids I interviewed last year, none of whom got accepted.)

Dozens of people have asked me, “Wow, how did you get into Yale?”

Not a single one has ever asked, “Wow, how did you manage Yale coursework?”

With so many uber-qualified students lining up, top colleges don’t—as you might expect—look for the “very best.” They don’t even operate on a single, well-defined notion of what “best” means. Instead, they pick and choose. They go for balance. They’re just trying to fill their campus with a dynamic, diverse cohort of freshmen. Consistency and “fairness”—whatever that would mean—have nothing to do with it.

It’s like making a trail mix. I don’t care whether this particular peanut is more “deserving” than that particular chocolate chip. I’m just choosing high-quality ingredients to strike a nice balance of flavors. Nothing more.

It might not be “random” from the university’s perspective. But it is from the students’. One year favors trumpeters, the next favors bassoonists, and kids have no way of knowing whether their particular skills will be in demand this time around.

All this wouldn’t be particularly troubling, except when coupled with this fact:

Just look at the demands of the Common App. “Write me a confessional essay. Document your leisure activities in meticulous detail. Muse on a philosophical question. Tell me what you love about my school. Give me testimonials from your teachers.”

The application becomes an autobiography, an audit of your whole self: ambitions, achievements, convictions. The process feels customized, personalized, complete. Before they make a decision, Yale insists on peering into your very soul. (Either that, or they’re gathering the data to build your robot doppelgänger.)

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I get why they want all that information. But all this data puts a mask of intimacy on what is fundamentally a factory process. No matter how sincere their intentions, the Yale admissions team is beholden to grim statistical reality: 94% of students are getting rejection letters, period.

Being rejected by a university ought to feel like getting swiped left on Tinder. There’s nothing terribly personal about it. They don’t really know you. The university is just looking out for its own interests, and you don’t happen to fit into the picture.

But between everything—campus tours, information sessions, supplemental essays, test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and alumni interviews—the application process becomes a lengthy and weirdly romantic courtship.

Rejection feels less like turning down a first date than getting left at the altar.

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Long story short, that’s why I’m not doing Yale alumni interviews anymore. As much as I loved my college education, it drives me crazy to be the face of a process that’s unpredictable, opaque, and (at least 94% of the time) disappointing.

I find myself compelled by the so-crazy-it’s-gotta-be-right proposal of the psychologist Barry Schwartz: run admissions by lottery. Says Schwartz: “Every selective school should establish criteria [for admission]…. Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random.”

Before you write Schwartz’s proposal off, remember this. Currently, we’ve got a random process, disguised as a deliberative one.

Why not take off the mask?

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241 thoughts on “Why I’ve Stopped Doing Interviews for Yale

  1. Lots of experience shared in one beautiful article. The one particularly resonated with me is to force everyone to write their autobiography at teen age. My friends used to joke that “They basically want to know why you are guaranteed to be a nobel laureate in a decade or two, at most”

  2. Fantastic read. This was brilliant. I couldn’t agree more on almost all University admission processes across the boarder.

  3. A really great read. Thanks so much for sharing such insight into College admissions. I have a friend who got the thin letter from Yale last year. He was devastated, but found at an equally amazing school in UChicago. I think Schwartz’s proposal would be great in depersonalizing the final decision. Thanks for sharing!

  4. My daughter and I entered the Yale admissions office recently, it was dingy and crowded with families awaiting the information session. She had worried about everything, it was her first college interview ever and she only had two days notice..would her hair , shoes and dress be appropriate…. did we practice the right questions and answers? Looking around I told her to never second guess herself, take a deep breath and embrace the moment. When the room cleared out, my daughter was greeted warmly and wisked away for her interview. Waiting for her a lot of thoughts swirled through my mind, from the lack of coffee and saggy drab couches to the beautiful molding…. but most importantly how amazing my daughter is. She is as perfect as a child could be (but fought for every A) and I am blessed that she is one of the kids with a real chance at the lottery that is the Ivy League. We will learn a lot about rejection this year, and it’s ok, we will scrap her up and dust her off. I loved your blog, but don’t discredit your time interviewing students, a little humanity and hot chocolate always makes rejection less painful.

    1. I just wanted to say that I wish your daughter the best of luck in getting into an Ivy League school, but I will also say that if she gets a place that she gets what she really wants. Some people find out that it’s not the course they wanted to do, or that the pressure of maintaining the required grade average can be enormous, Most universities are quite understanding of this and will allow for some initial variation of this. Every student is different so I do hope that she finds her way and is happy with the outcome. After all that’s the most important thing.

        1. My daughter received an email from a Yale College alumna to
          schedule an interview. I’m so very excited for her but….cautioned her to be calm and realistic (I secretly want so very much for her to be accepted but I have to prepare her for the reality of be rejected). This article helps me do this…

  5. I really enjoyed reading reading this immensely as it took me back to my uni days. I experienced quite a different entrance to university as ill health had forced me to stop my high schooling altogether. When I was in my twenties I applied to a top university as a mature age student (interview and letter to the administrator) and felt rather vindicated when a place was offered until my father (who had received a perfect high school mark for his exams and won a place doing mathematics at Oxford) said he wouldn’t buy me a car as I hadn’t got into uni properly. I really wasn’t sure what to take away from that. Perhaps if there was hot chocolate was involved it wouldn’t have stung that much. Here I am about to sign up for uni again so perhaps the entire process wasn’t that painful after all.

  6. Sounds like it’s worse than a job interview. At least with the job, you have some idea of what they are looking for (someone who can actually do the job advertised).

  7. a really great read… what a writing….
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  8. This is amazing. I soon will be doing a blog post on UCC and how I aspire to study history there! Please follow me!:)

  9. This was very interesting and informative in many ways for me in particular. Due to me still having to finish school and find a college, I can see a bit of a relationship between both the interviewer and those being interviewed now. This has opened my eyes to a broader subject on how these processes work and what may have or will come of them sometime in the future.

    1. But it’s not just Ivy schools. I worked for GWU admissions briefly, and left as quickly as I could when I realized how little student interaction I would have and just how much data crunching I’d be doing instead. It’s largely a roulette wheel process, and when the numbers are large I guess it has to be, but it’s still upsetting.

  10. I’m not yet ready to begin applying for college, but when I was browsing through blog posts and saw this one I felt I had to read the rest of the post. I really liked what you said about how college application essays puts “a mask of intimacy” on a factory like process, making the the student feel crushed if they’re turned down even if the college had no reason to turn them down other than the fact that the college can’t more that the amount allow everybody. This might make me feel a bit better when receiving a rejection letter, though doubt it. Even though I see why it would be hard to continue being part of the admissions process if all the time you watch great kids get turned down, however I don’t see why you wouldn’t still want to help these kids out and tell them what you told me in this blog post. If you give them this information they might feel better when they get rejected, even if they don’t listen to you originally. Have you ever considered being part of the admissions process at another school, and comparing the two?

  11. hmm.. its true… afterall GPA is necessary for it..
    but what happens to the student who don’t get better GPA or struggle to get even if they are better?
    A foreign student is directly rejected if GPA is not much as required even if he/she is a better skilled personal !
    liked your post (y)

  12. Great read. I stopped interviewing for the Brown Admissions Office a couple of years ago for a different set of reasons, but I have had the same reaction in the past. In a way, the randomness, or the appearance thereof, is a necessary evil in the pursuit of a diverse population that, in theory, brings different strengths and perspectives to enrich the environment. Allegedly objective measures like GPA and test scores don’t tell enough about the person as a whole, just how well that person is at taking exams. I think the pursuit of a well-rounded, interesting person is both a remarkable strength and weakness of the American system.

    Systems in most other countries are reliant mostly, or in many cases entirely, on finishing / entrance exam results, which takes out the appearance of randomness because it seems more objective and systematic. The baccalaureate, proprietary entrance exams, etc. The downside is obvious. The American admission process goes beyond the grades and exam scores, but it becomes less measurable, less quantifiable. It is a more human approach, done in a human manner, which is, more often than not, really rather random. Could it be improved? Probably, but I haven’t a solution.

    I actually don’t have a problem with the appearance of opacity. I think it appears opaque because they are unable to articulate the boundaries, the score card. I actually think they shouldn’t. In fact, I don’t see it as opacity. Rather, I see it as being honest about being subjective, not having a pretence about being objective. I would like to think that it is still deliberate, just not as well defined as one might like.

    As for the competitiveness with respect to admission is concerned, the statistics have become scarier each year, at least superficially. No school that I know does any analysis of how many applications were actually worth considering. The real measure of competitiveness is the number of places available for the net number of applicants worth considering. For every interviewed candidate that seems very strong, there are several candidates that makes one wonder why he or she is bothering. I used to ask during the interview the names of other schools to which the candidate applied (mainly because the list says something about the candidate’s self assessment) and was frequently stunned by the sheer number of targeted schools. In my days, 5 would have been a lot. Now, it seems that it would be below the minimum number. The money being spent on application fees alone is something that was unthinkable back in the mid-80s.

    So, is it more competitive? I don’t know, but the workload for the admissions office certainly has increased beyond what one could have imagined three decades ago.

    Also, I noticed that the impression of increased competition has given rise to more exaggerations, tall tales and probably blatant lies about extracurricular activities and accomplishments. I’m sure they were always there, but I think it is getting noticeably worse. I’ve interviewed candidates whose lives were so full that it could only be true if they had 72-hour days and never slept. The emergence of the shadow essay writing industry is also relatively new, with the market demand fuelled by the same reason. Furthermore, I do get the feeling that the competitiveness and the sense of entitlement amongst these 17-year olds today are of a somewhat different scale.

    I’m not sure whether the whole thing is a vicious circle, a virtuous circle or neither of the above.

    I think Schwartz’s proposal does have merit, particularly because mathematically, the schools should end up with more or less the same level of diversity over time. However, I think the difficult part is defining the de minimus criteria. Scores on proprietary entrance exams? Fun and games…

  13. Hahaha I’m a high school student right now and the “How college rejections should feel” cartoon is very clever and humorous. I DIG IT!! But I have one question, do you think your feedback to the University as an interviewer actually helps in the application process?

  14. All you can do is treat each candidate with utmost respect and genuine concern for his or her future, regardless of the likliihood of admission to Yale per se. Yale exists to help the young of this screwed-up planet save themselves, the Earth and Yale, in that order. My interviewer in 1969 sent letters to Harvard and Princeton on my behalf, just in case Yale had no room for me. He was an orphan, a Marquette alumnus, a wealthy TV producer, had no family connection to any Ivy League school. He simply felt not enough LA kids were applying to the Ivy League.

  15. Surprisingly insightful information. But information that seems to echo in “top” educational establishments the world over! The people I see with PhD makes me ask… “and what can they teach me?” Often they have bigger egos than experience.

  16. Reblogged this on Innovate.EDU and commented:
    A deeply affecting article about the irrationality of admissions to top-tier universities. Students and parent alike are convinced that rankings matter and the being admitted to #10 is better than settling for #11. In fact, millions of dollars are spent on this proposition.

    In fact, everyone is so convinced of this (despite the apparent randomness of the process) that armies of 18-year-old high school students are willing to alter their aspirations to make it through a selection scheme that doesn’t much care about them.

  17. Who knew? I always thought it was the best of the best of the best (with lots of money) hmmm Interesting read for sure. Thank you for this post. 😀

  18. Hi Math,

    Good read, I like it. I’m an executive searcher in the Netherlands, and sometimes I think the same about interviewing candidates. Not for Yale, but for all those companies that really don’t have a clue where they are looking at.

  19. Reblogged this on No Nonsense Consultancy and commented:
    Heb net even een reactie geplaatst op deze blog, op deze site. Wat een gevoel van herkenning is dit! Maak van Yale bedrijf X, Y of Z, en vooral de vergelijkbaar grote organisaties: wie zoek je? En waarom? Waar kijk je dan naar? Controleer je dat ook? Enz. enz.

    Hoe zit het met uw eigen ‘comfort zone’??

  20. I really liked the comparison with swiping left on tinder and being left at the altar – really hit home that one. Ultimately, I think the problem is one of supply and demand. Universities rarely require so much of students and getting admitted is only difficult because so many want to be joining a top university. A university only needs certain abilities so in a sense it is entitled screen out the ones that don’t make the mark and pick the rest out of a hat.

  21. My daughter received an email from a Yale College alumna to
    schedule an interview. I’m so very excited for her but….cautioned her to be calm and realistic (I secretly want so very much for her to be accepted but I have to prepare her for the reality of be rejected). This article helps me do this…

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