Are admissions interviews "useless"?

Jason Dana, an assistant professor of management and marketing at Yale University's School of Management, argues in the New York Times that most interviews for job candidates and college applicants are "useless."

Dana blames the format of the common "free-form, unstructured interviews in an attempt to 'get to know' a job candidate" for their lack of value. He cites research that shows interviewers tend to form inaccurate impressions about interviewees in these types of interviews.

In fact, according to Dana's research, free-form, unstructured interviews can actually be "harmful," since they can override more valuable information about interviewees from other sources.

For the study, Dana and colleagues asked a group of student interviewers to predict a fellow student's GPA based on:

  • An interview;
  • The interviewee's course schedule; and
  • Past GPA—which interviewers were told is the most accurate predictor of future GPAs.

The students were also asked to predict performance of students they did not interview, using only GPA and course schedules.

5 questions an interviewer really wants to know—and how to answer

The researchers found that student interviewers' GPA predictions were more accurate for the students they did not meet.

Furthermore, none of the interviewers noticed that half of the interviewees had been directed by the researchers to make up answers to questions rather than respond honestly. The student interviewers who received random answers said they "got to know" the interviewee at higher rates than did those who received honest answers.

The takeaway, Dana writes, is that "people have no trouble turning any information into a coherent narrative"—even if that information is incorrect or random.

The right approach to an interview

Unfortunately, Dana says unstructured interviews have become increasingly popular—especially among college admissions officers hoping to place less importance on standardized test scores and GPA. But Dana argues that interviewers can make the process more valuable if they:

  • Add more structure to their interviews;
  • Make sure all candidates receive the same questions; and
  • Use interview techniques that measure skills, rather than using the time to chat or ask personal questions.

According to Sarah Kessler writing for Inc.com, experts suggest a three or four part structure for interviews that includes an introduction, time for behavioral questions, time for the candidate's questions, and general information about next steps in the process. Kessler also notes that interviewers are increasingly adding some form of skills test, such as role playing exercises, to job interviews.

Do interviews have any value for admissions?

Others in higher education are growing more skeptical of the value of admissions interviews at all.

"There are so many things we’ve learned over the years when it comes to recruiting students that turn out to be counterintuitive,"  says Peter Farrell, a managing director and senior principal with Royall & Company, a division of EAB.

While it might seem to make sense to many that interviewing students would lead to better admission decisions, Farrell says more often than not, interviews just create a "hurdle in the process that dissuades many of the very students colleges most want to recruit."

Read more about why students decline their dream schools

"We’ve seen, time and again, that removing roadblocks in the application process by waiving requirements such as supplemental essays or even application fees facilitates more robust applicant pools with no measurable diminution of academic quality," Farrell adds.

Instead, admissions teams are now transitioning their interviews away from selection and now use them as a moment to learn more about their students and become better recruiters, he says. "After all, most colleges are looking for reasons to admit students, not deny them" (Dana, "Gray Matter," New York Times, 4/8; Kessler, Inc.com, accessed 4/20).


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