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February 06, 2012

General Characteristics of Admissions Officers, Students, and Alumni Interviewers

Clients frequently ask me, if they are given choice, about whether to choose an interview with an alumni, a student, and/or admissions officer.  While my answer to such questions might be very school specific, at times I think it is really just a question of my client's preference.  Still, for most applicants, I would suggest choosing an admissions officer if you can. Otherwise,  between campus (unknown student interviewer/admissions officer) and alumni, it is less clear.  Therefore, I think it is useful to consider the general characteristics of the three different types of interviewers.  This is just my perspective based on helping clients prepare for MBA interviewers since 2001.  Keep in mind that what follows is neither school or individual specific, but really just general characteristics, which may or may not apply to the specific school you interview with or your particular interviewer.  

Explanation of the above table

Maturity & professionalism
One of the best reasons I can think of for choosing to interview or hoping to interview with an admissions officer is that you can assume the person you deal with will be a mature professional.  Based both on what clients have told me and by reading a large number of interview reports, I know that student interviewers are not always reliable in this respect.  Consider that at least some student interviewers are doing this work because it gives them interviewer experience.  
With alumni, I wish I could say the situation was totally positive, but actually the worst interviews I have heard about were with highly unprofessional alumni, hence my "variable" for a category that is, generally speaking, professional and mature.  Most alumni interviewers are mature and professional, but a few are really bad eggs.
Among top US MBA programs, the school with the most alumni interview horror stories is most certainly Columbia Business School.  Given their very open process where candidates choose from many possible alumni, there appears to be very little direct oversight over the interviewer selection process. It is no wonder that CBS admissions seems to frequently conduct short follow-up telephone interviews with applicants.  
For 2012 admission, Wharton eliminated alumni interviewers completely and I think this was good thing for applicants overall, though it was not well implemented in R1 (not enough interview spaces in overseas locations and lack of initial clarity about telephone/skype interview options), but they now seem to have their act together.  Anyone familiar with the Wharton interview process (Especially before Fall 2011) could see that the quality of the interviews being conducted was simply highly variable.  By using only admissions officers and well trained students, Wharton is not only giving applicants a more fair interview experience, but likely getting better interview reports.
WHAT DO IF YOU FEEL THAT A STUDENT OR ALUMNI INTERVIEWER DID NOT TREAT YOU IN A PROFESSIONAL MANNER AND YOU EXPECT A NEGATIVE EVALUATION:  Document what you experienced in as much detail as possible.  Was the interview expressing some sort of inherent bias against you?  Was the interview using rude language?  Was the interviewer unreasonably aggressive?  Was the interviewer asking you for some sensitive information or a business related connection? Next, discuss what you experienced with a trusted adviser (admissions consultant, mentor) who you can expect honest feedback from.  If after that discussion, you feel that you really were not treated appropriately, contact admissions and provide them with the full details.  Admissions Directors are aware that problems arise and assuming your case is valid, you will likely be offered a new interviewer. At minimum, you will be helping to prevent some asshole from wrecking other applicants' chances.

Knowledge of current program 
The issue comes up most frequently in the "any questions" section of the interview. While you should assume that an admissions officer knows their program well, even if they don't because they are new to the program, you should feel free to ask them questions about the particular parts of the program you are interested in.  For students, they will know about the current program, but as this would be limited to their experience,  don't be surprised if they can't comment on every course or club.  Just ask open-ended questions so that you don't put someone in the position of indicating repeatedly that they have not taken it or experienced it. Asking open-ended questions always applies to alumni as well, because depending on when they graduated, their knowledge of the current program is highly variable.  Asking a member of the Class of 2010 about courses she recommends makes sense, but asking that question to a member of the Class of 2000?  Just ask questions that you think your interviewer will have some reasonable basis for answering.

Arbitrary Questions
You've reviewed all of the interview reports on Clear Admit and Accepted and/or the question lists I have on my blog (At the moment consisting of CBS, Chicago Booth, Cornell, Haas, HBS, INSEAD, Kellogg, Michigan, MIT, Stanford, Tuck, and Wharton) or found such questions elsewhere, but how much can you depend on those being the types of questions you will be asked?   For admissions interviewers, you can likely assume they will stick to the script and are less likely to ask seemingly arbitrary questions, but such questions are still possible.  With students, they also tend to stick to the script, but it is a bit more variable. With alumni interviewers, this is more likely.  The best indicator of the likelihood that you will be asked unexpected, seemingly arbitrary questions is the extent to which they come up in actual interviews.

Experienced at Interviewing
With admissions officers, it is safe to assume that they will be experienced at interviewing unless they are newbies (It does happen).  With students, it is less likely they will be experienced and this is why there exist many interview reports that mention the relative inexperience/awkwardness of the interviewer. Alumni interviews are likely to be very experienced, but new graduates might not be.

Experienced the MBA program 
While some admissions officers will have attended the MBA program they work for, most have not and only some of them will have an MBA. Students will have obviously experienced the program, but as they are in the midst of it, they might not be as able to discuss it overall as an alumni interviewer who has experienced it completely. 

Realistic about the program
You can expect students and alumni to be realistic about the program and even though they are representing their school, you can expect them to tell what they like/liked and dislike/disliked about the program when you ask a question like "What do you like best/least about the program?"  With admissions, you would not necessarily ask them the sort question anyway.  Their real connection to the MBA program is highly variable and since half their job is to market the program as well as administer who enters the program, you can't expect total honesty. 

Sells the Program 
When it comes to actually selling their program,  I don't assume much difference between an MBA admissions officer and a car salesman except that the car salesman can give you a real test drive. Of course, in an MBA interview, only lower ranking programs need to do much sales.  I have never heard of an admissions officer at HBS selling their MBA because they don't need to.  The easier it is to get in, the more likely adcom will be doing the selling. With student interviewers, this is highly variable.  It is likely that an alumni interviewer will sell the benefits of the program, especially when they clearly like who they are interviewing.

Ability to ask more focused & personalized questions
Admissions interviewers are most likely to be able to really ask focused and personalized questions, whereas student interviewers being less experienced, probably are not.  Alumni interviewers are likely to do as well.  In general, more experienced interviewers know how to ask better questions that relate to the applicant.

Uses shared primary (not English) language with applicant    
It would be unlikely that an admissions officer or student interviewer would use any language other than English for an interview.  With alumni outside of the US and other native English speaking countries, this is quite variable.  I think one good reason for getting rid of alumni interviewers  is that using a language other than English for at least part of the interview happens too often regardless of the fact that admissions officers don't want it to happen at all (and make that clear in the directions they give alumni).  While it might seem it is to the advantage of the applicant, I have had a number of clients who felt that it is was not to their advantage to switch between languages and communication styles, to interview with an alumni who was not that comfortable speaking in English, and/or to not fully have the opportunity to highlight their high level English skills. This issue is particularly common in East Asia.  I have heard of this arising elsewhere, but not with as much apparent frequency. For international students with limited English ability, interacting with an alumni interviewer who shares your linguistic background is generally a better choice.

Same nationality as applicant
Like it or not, most people find it easier to talk with someone who shares their cultural assumptions, so having the same nationality as your interviewer can be an advantage. For applicants located in the their home country and applying internationally, the best argument for selecting an alumni interviewer over a student or admissions officer is that it will likely be easier to communicate with someone who even if they don't share your nationality, at least understand your culture.  Alumni interviewers, whether resident foreigners or those who share your nationality will likely need significantly less explanation to understand you. For applicants interviewing in their home country with a student interviewer, be aware that your interviewer maybe an international student.  Bottom line: Especially if you don't know who your student or, in some more limited cases, alumni interviewer is ahead of time, don't make any assumptions about their background.

Greatest impact on admissions decisions
I don't care what admissions offices say about all interviews being the same.  While that is certainly theoretically true, I think it is safe to assume that interviews with admissions officers are more likely to have a greater impact on admissions decisions than those conducted by students or alumni. If an admission officer is truly impressed by a candidate, their ability to communicate that in their evaluation will simply carry greater weight.  To think otherwise is naive.  Call my cynical about this. I can take it.

Click here to find out about my interview preparation services.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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