The giggling began moments after John Dolan unveiled his plan to the university admissions staff: Each would retake the SAT test and apply to the University of Denver, just like a typical high-school applicant.
"We were laughing and saying, 'Are you kidding?' " recalls Shanna Hamblin, an assistant director of admission at DU.
But it was no joke. Mr. Dolan, vice chancellor for enrollment, wanted to sensitize the staff to the limits of student-evaluation methods like the SAT.
So Ms. Hamblin, Dolan, and 14 other staff members sharpened their No. 2 pencils. They also dug up high-school grades and assembled a "whole-person index score" of extracurriculars, from football to yearbook.
Finally, at a special meeting last month, the group evaluated each other's
Admissions officers find out if they'd get in
"applications" anonymously. One candidate had good grades and test scores. But he only played sports and worked after school - not much else. Thumbs down.
Then Dolan spoke - and the committee froze. "You just rejected me," he said.
The vice chancellor was in good company. Only eight of the 16 made the cut. And as some of DU's finest were shot down by the numbers, concerns grew that the process wasn't telling the full story.
Two young admission counselors conceded they would not have voted to admit themselves using the current criteria. Another with a PhD in English won admission from the group - but was disappointed with a low verbal SAT score. Born in Germany, she tripped over the difference between "swagger" and "strut."
Amusing, humbling, and enlightening by turns, the experiment showed that DU's evaluation system needed tweaking, "We took that goofy test and we learned a lot about what it measures and doesn't measure," Dolan says. "I was comfortable about getting in, but I did not. I had good grades and decent test scores, but what worked against me was my whole-person score."
In the end, the University of Denver is keeping the SAT. But it's adding an antidote to admission by numbers: the personal interview. "We think the SAT is useful - but we want to dilute its impact and give students a voice on their application," says Dolan, who notes that an interview would have let him explain that he attended a private boarding school and worked long hours to afford it.
Starting next January, the University of Denver will deploy an army of interviewers across 17 cities to interview an estimated 1,400 applicants for early admission. That pilot test is a huge logistical task, but not as big as the plan to interview all 5,000 two years hence.
The decision to require personal interviews runs counter to a decade-long shift in the opposite direction.
"Over the last five or 10 years, the required interview began to fade," says Marybeth Kravets, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va. "Many students can't get to campus, so there's a fairness issue. And with the incredible numbers of applications, it's very hard because the schools just don't have the manpower to do all those interviews."
Northwestern University in Chicago, for instance, was inundated by applications and interview requests following a 1995 Rose Bowl football appearance. It soon eliminated its requirement for "evaluative interviews" on campus.
"We were booked three to four months in advance and people were getting angry," says Carol Lunkenheimer, Northwestern's director of undergraduate admission. "Either we had to change our approach, or hire a lot more staff."
Northwestern interviews about 4,000 applicants each year using alumni. While optional, they are used to help evaluate an applicant. Similarly, at Princeton University, interviews are optional but recommended, and may be used to evaluate students, says Fred Hargadon, dean of admissions. About 70 percent of applicants sign up.
Other schools, like Providence College and Stonehill College, dropped evaluative personal interviews several years ago. Stanford University and the University of New Hampshire have never had them. The University of Virginia considered adding interviews with alumni in the mid 1990s, but decided against it.
Yet a few schools like Harvard, Yale, and MIT insist on interviewing as many as possible, though it's not mandatory.
Harvard logged 19,000 applications this spring. But "I don't know how we could do without [the interview]," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admission. "We're admitting people, not credentials. We want to know what people are like, and we've never discovered a way to do that except to meet."
The organizational time and expense involved "are considerable," she says, but interviews are increasingly valuable.
Because of legal concerns, "teacher recommendations are less helpful than they used to be - much more guarded," Ms. Lewis says. "Test scores have been recentered upward and diluted. Grade inflation has made it unlikely you'll see a transcript with B's or C's on it."
But for every booster, there is a critic. Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, was an admissions officer for 15 years at Stanford University. "We rarely missed them," he says. "Overall, interviews represent just one more complication, one more hurdle to get right, one more way for parents to nag kids, one more source of anxiety, one more expense."
Similarly skeptical is Patrick O'Brien, a high-school admissions counselor for 27 years, and now a California-based interviewer for Marquette University in Milwaukee.
"As a high school counselor, I had the strong suspicion that the interview was a process used by 'select' institutions to weed out their applicant field," he says. "This process is patently unfair because it puts all the burden on the student and the family. Why wouldn't they be nervous and be willing to 'sell their soul' to give the interviewer what she/he is looking for?"
His comments hint at a new wrinkle in admissions: enhancing the "yield" factor.
To get a higher ranking, an institution could simply not admit any students that the interview indicated were not intensely interested - thereby raising its yield, or the percentage of admitted applicants who go on to enroll. The yield is used to gauge the desirability of an institution and plays a prominent role in certain national rankings.
"I believe some institutions are being forced off the high road in their behaviors as they chase the rating game, requiring interviews as a way to identify student interest in the institutions rather than as a way to better understand a student," says David Erdmann, dean of admissions at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
But the University of Denver's Dolan won't budge - in part because of what he discovered recently as his staff culled 900 admittees from 4,800 applicants.
On a March afternoon this year, he was collared in the student union by a young Albanian woman. Despite having little money, she had traveled from New York, rejection letter in hand, to tell him the university had made a mistake.
English was not her first language and she had done poorly on the SAT verbal test. But Dolan saw in her someone who didn't have a parent to consult, yet was bold enough to travel and confront him.
"We did make a mistake about her," Dolan says. "It took me 20 seconds to decide she needed to be admitted."
He told his staff the story - and his concerns. "How many people like this did we miss because our file emphasizes SATs too much?" he says. "That's when I decided we were going to take the test ourselves - every stinking question."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor