Alumni interviewers help Admissions shape College classes
By Bill Hudgins '72
you recall your interview for Columbia? Mine was in November 1967.
I don't remember much of what the admissions officer and I
discussed. Surely, some of it involved my deep desire to leave my
red-clay Virginia hometown for the bright lights of (Upper)
must have been persuasive. Before he left, the admissions officer
told the headmaster of my boarding school that he thought that I
would be accepted. That left me with a strong sense of obligation
and gratitude, so when Admissions recruited me in the late '80s to
become a volunteer on the Alumni Representative Committee, I
Today, ARC includes 2,667 alumni in 136 regions around the
world, which range from the boroughs of New York City to entire
states — such as Tennessee, where I am the chairperson
— to great cities such as Singapore.
members interview many of the applicants to the College as well as
to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science
(SEAS). They also represent their schools at college fairs and
attend or host receptions for potential applicants and their
acronym ARC is apt. The members form a human bridge between the
applicants and Admissions. "The ARC member may be the only Columbia
representative that the candidate meets face-to-face during the
admissions process," notes the ARC handbook.
a bridge that runs both ways, say ARC members, many of whom say
they feel enriched by meeting so many outstanding young people and
satisfied that they contribute materially to Columbia's
Take, for example, Marc McCann '88, who financed his Columbia
education through a combination of a John Jay Scholarship, grants,
work-study jobs and student loans. McCann taught high school until
eight years ago, when he joined a nonprofit agency that operates
free programs for Pennsylvania children.
"Given my financial background, my nonprofit wages and the fact
that it took 13 years to pay off my student loans, I was looking
for a way to give back to a great college without spending money.
ARC provided that opportunity to me," McCann says.
feel more connected to Columbia and I have a better handle on the
current students. I just plain love kids and people, and
interviewing candidates is always interesting. The 10 or 20 hours,
or whatever time I give, is a small way to help the College without
reaching into my wallet."
interview season starts in October for early decision candidates
and runs to the end of February. In November 2000, Admissions put
the entire process online as a part of Columbia's Web site. ARC
chairpersons use the secure site to communicate with members,
assign interviews and track the status of applications.
Interviewers can upload reports to the site, saving uncounted hours
Because the Admissions Office already has documentation on
grades, interviewers look for more qualitative, subjective
information: How do the applicants think? Are they truly interested
in Columbia, or are they just going through the motions to appease
parents or guidance counselors? Do they appear to possess the
intellectual curiosity, drive, discipline and resilience to thrive
Recalls Selina Lam '99E, part of the East Bay (Calif.) ARC
group: "My interviewer asked about the classes I was taking at the
time and my extracurricular activities. We spent a lot of time
talking about the part-time job I had. She wanted to know the kind
of work I did and the level of responsibilities I had. I had
various part-time jobs and summer internships throughout high
school, so I spent a lot of time telling her about
Labounsky '68E of Long Beach, Calif., has a long list of key
success indicators he looks for in an applicant. Among them are
vision, intellectual creativity, capacity to generate new ideas,
leadership, motivation, implementation skills, organizational
skills, time management skills, good-vs.-bad habits, interpersonal
skills, personal dynamism/charisma, a "go do it" energy level,
breadth of interests, intensity and depth of interests,
persistence, determination and stamina to "get it done," personal
character traits, personality traits (e.g., extrovert/introvert),
propensity to give more than to receive, mental agility, sharpness
and power, intellectual development, deep-thinking abilities,
conceptualization capabilities and the ability to see the big
Undergraduate applications have skyrocketed in recent years,
leading to dramatic drops in admissions rates. A record 14,094
applications were received by the College for 1,007 places in the
Class of 2005, compared to 8,714 applications just six years ago.
The College admitted 1,720 students, producing a selectivity rate
of 12.2 percent, the lowest in Columbia's history and third-lowest
in the Ivy League behind Harvard (10.7) and Princeton (11.7).
Engineering has experienced a similar boom, with applications
rising 82 percent since 1995.
"I've been astounded by the quality of the kids we're
interviewing," says Vasos Panagiotopoulos '81E of Whitestone, N.Y.
"I've felt that more than half of them are superior to most of my
former classmates. The two of the 27 I've interviewed who got in
am constantly amazed at how much the bar gets raised every year,"
echoes Aloshri Mukerji '97E of Burlington, Mass. "I start to wonder
how I ever got into the school. This year, I met a student who had
great grades, played sports, was involved, and on top of that had a
job at a local hospital where he was writing programs to help
decipher MRIs — and he was writing electronic music on the
side as a hobby. You wonder how he finds enough hours in the
ARC representatives suggest that Columbia's current attractiveness
has led to more unqualified and even uninterested candidates who
vie for time, attention and interviews.
most amusing thing that I have encountered in an interview was a
candidate who was incapable of summing up in cogent, coherent terms
WHY," says Nina Tannenbaum '99 of New York City. "Why Columbia, why
the Core, why New York, why whatever. As an interviewer, the
hardest thing is convincing myself of the candidate's ability to
"When I asked one candidate what so interested him about
Columbia, he responded, 'I just think it would be cool to go to
Columbia. Columbia is, like, cool. It'd be fun, like, I don't know,
it's just cool.' I grinned at my candidate with reassuring
agreement and said, 'Yes, Columbia is cool,' as 'lacks intellectual
heft' struck me as the cogent synopsis of him. This was confirmed
by other aspects of our conversation, but his response to the 'Why
Columbia?' question just happened to be the tip of the
Applicants and alumni are well aware of the competition for
admission. "Not one of the six who I interviewed in the last year
got in!" grieves Bob Mauri '67 of Gaithersburg, Md., echoing a
common lament. "Consequently, I find myself playing somewhat the
role of a therapist. I tell the student about how bad the odds are
of getting into Columbia, the unfathomable nature of the Admissions
staff's criteria, and that denial of admission at Columbia has no
bearing on their talents and promise."
Furda, executive director of undergraduate
Eric Furda, Columbia's executive director of undergraduate
admissions, "As interviewers and admission officers, we are
painfully aware that highly qualified and compelling candidates are
not admitted, given the finite number of spots in the class. In
fact, Columbia's relatively small enrollment and the size of the
applicant pool means that many eminently qualified candidates will
not be admitted.
"Even though I am ultimately responsible for the decisions made
by this office, I would be stretching the truth to say that I like,
relate to or want to be friends with every student admitted to the
class. I think it's dangerous when articles paint a picture of an
admissions officer who advocates for students because the applicant
reminded the officer of himself or herself when he or she was
applying to colleges.
take the alumni reports seriously, but there are times when a
compelling candidate with a strong interview cannot be admitted. At
other times, there may be candidates who did not impress the
interviewer but present a mix of talent and accomplishment in other
parts of the application that will contribute to the incoming
Although only about half of all applicants are interviewed,
Furda maintains, "There is no clear advantage or disadvantage to
having an interview in terms of the admit rates, although students
do feel that they are at a disadvantage if they are not
interviewed. If the interviewers are being critical in their
observations, there will be a balance between interviews that
strongly advocate for a candidate and others that are less
our brand-conscious society, prestige drives some applicants. "I've
been doing interviews in the Washington, D.C., area since 1993,"
says Alan Freeman '93. "I'm increasingly impressed by the quality
of the applicants, but disturbed by the fact that more and more
seem to be applying to Columbia based solely on its reputation as
one of the country's top schools, and not necessarily because they
know what distinguishes Columbia from its peers.
example, the students I interviewed six or seven years ago knew all
about the Core Curriculum and were able to explain why they wanted
that collegiate experience as opposed to anything else. They seemed
to have applied to Columbia based on a thorough understanding of
why Columbia was different from other schools.
"These days, I find that most applicants have never even heard
of the Core and have not even visited the campus. I can only
surmise that their interest in Columbia is based on little more
than what they've read in the U.S. News & World Report
Although the College and SEAS offer extensive print, video and
online information, nothing can quite substitute for someone who's
been there and done that. Many applicants don't visit campus until
after being accepted, so often the ARC interviewer is that person.
And that, as Robert Frost might have said, can make all the
Questions about city and dorm life abound. Some of the most
frequent questions are about crime and personal safety. Stuart
Berkman '66 of Atlanta, a 30-year-plus ARC veteran whose daughter
is a member of the Class of 2005, recalls a comment made by the
father of a first-year College student. The family has just moved
to Atlanta from Washington, D.C., and the father said that his wife
was concerned about crime in New York City.
replied (and he agreed) that no one who has lived in Washington and
is now in Atlanta has any right even to think about safety concerns
in New York! Washington and Atlanta are either No. 1 and No. 2 or
No. 2 and No. 1 in the U.S. in terms of violent crime, while New
York is not even No. 100."
ask whether New York City will distract them from academic demands,
while others worry about the reverse. They ask about food,
transportation, internships, jobs, financial aid, accommodations,
roommates, and ethnic and religious organizations. They even ask
about the curriculum.
Visiting the campus and its facilities is helpful, but not all
students can do so. For many, ARC is their connection to
PHOTO: MICHAEL DAMES
members also reach out to applicants by hosting or attending
receptions for prospects. These can be simple gatherings at an
alum's home or more elaborate affairs, as Philadelphia ARC chair
Mark Momjian '83, '86L relates. His group holds a winter reception
every year on the Sunday before the Super Bowl. More than 250
student-applicants and their parents attend, as well as ARC
members, current Columbia students and area alumni.
honor the students accepted in the early decision pool and award a
$1,000 scholarship to the winner of our annual essay contest, which
is open to current undergraduates from our area. The award rotates
every year among Barnard, Columbia College and SEAS."
also honor famous Columbians. "A few years ago, we celebrated the
life of Clement Clarke Moore, the esteemed Hebrew scholar and
author credited with penning the famous poem, 'A Visit From Saint
Nicholas.' Two students from the Akiba Hebrew Academy (both of whom
were accepted in the early decision pool) presented the world
premiere of ''Twas the Night Before Christmas' in
Irving Chang '60C and Nick NgPack '78 host a similar gathering each
summer in Honolulu. "Parents have been very pleased, as we cover
topics such as banking, buying winter clothes, getting set up in
the residence halls and other mundane subjects about which parents
like to hear," says Chang. "The new kids enjoy the get-together as
they meet their classmates and the upper classpersons and get the
skinny on the school. The upperclasspersons enjoy it because they
are networking with the alums, and they get to see the new
do ARC members get from their participation?
"Interviewing is fun and enjoyable," says Labounsky. "The more
you do it, the more you hone your interviewing skills, which can be
useful when your employer asks you to interview applicants for new
or expanding project/program positions.
hear what the applicants say about their schools, classes, and
teachers and so much more about what it's like in their schools
today in comparison to what you remember of your school experiences
years ago. This feedback helps you to gauge just how good these
supposedly better high schools are [that are] right in your
love being an interviewer for the applicants to Columbia in West
Tennessee, simply for the stimulation that it provides me," says
John Boatner '62. "No altruism, here! Quite to the contrary. My
motivation is entirely self-oriented."
Ferguson '74 started interviewing while a senior, served as an
admissions officer for two years, and now heads the East Bay
Committee in Piedmont, Calif. "I saw that through being an
interviewer for Columbia I was going to meet a lot of interesting
and knowledgeable people and broaden my horizons
Ferguson says it also can be personally satisfying, recalling
"a memorable moment: being stopped on campus by someone who asked
if I remembered him. I said no. He said, 'You interviewed me when I
applied here, and what you said made me decide to attend, so I
wanted to say thank you.' "
About the Author: Bill Hudgins '72 of Gallatin,
Tenn., is editor-in-chief of Road King Magazine, a bimonthly
publication for long-haul truck drivers. The author wishes to thank
all College and SEAS alumni who took time to respond thoughtfully
and at length to his requests for their experiences with ARC
activities. "Your enthusiasm and insights are tributes to your Alma