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Dissent: Nix the Alumni Interview

The Harvard Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located at 5 James St.
The Harvard Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located at 5 James St. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Ruby J.J. Huang, Jacob M. Miller, and Ivan Toth-Rohonyi, Crimson Opinion Writers
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

Following the Supreme Court’s summer ruling effectively ending affirmative action in university admissions, Harvard instructed its alumni interviewers not to consider race when evaluating applicants.

For our Board, this is a sad turn of events. The alumni interview — in their view, the best opportunity for students to showcase their full personality to admissions officers — has become subject to red tape around discussions of race. But this argument overlooks a flaw that has always festered in Harvard’s application system: alumni interviews themselves.

On paper, alumni interviews are a perfect mechanism for the admissions committee to construct a clearer picture of applicants beyond a smattering of scores, a resume of extracurriculars, and a tasting menu of essays they have written.

In practice, though, Harvard’s alumni interviews are anything but perfect.

A decentralized alumni interview system introduces unfair randomness to the college application process. Since Harvard’s alumni interviewers are volunteers who appear to receive minimal guidance beyond a long, dense guidebook from the admissions office and a single training session when they first volunteer or return from a hiatus, standards used to evaluate applicants could vary depending on the interviewer. We don’t want to see any applicant’s chances of admission dropping simply because they were assigned a tough alum.

Next, students applying from locations with fewer alumni interviewers may not be assigned an interview at all. In particular, this can pose a problem for international applicants, who are already navigating a less-than-intuitive process of applying to study in an entirely new country. Such an unequal process, where students from some locales miss out on the opportunity to shine in an interview, is not justifiable in a process that should evaluate all applicants equally.

Furthermore, alumni can become interviewers without any background in college admissions. The only eligibility criterion listed on Harvard’s website is that alumni interviewers hold a degree from one of Harvard’s schools. The three of us — we hope — will have earned a Harvard degree within the next several years, but we struggle to see how that will qualify us to determine who deserves admission to Harvard College.

Beyond that, with only one required training session under their belts, it seems likely for alumni interviewers to have implicit biases. It’s easy to imagine a doctor subconsciously preferring applicants who want to study medicine, or an interviewer bonding with an applicant over a shared love for Shakespeare.

Alumni interviewers without rigorous training could allow these personal interests to blind them in a way that professional interviewers seasoned in interviewing are more likely to avoid. Combined with the current arbitrariness of the interviewer assignment process, this could aggravate the lack of overarching standards that makes interview evaluations unfair.

Implicit biases may also lead more insidiously to prejudiced judgments of applicants. Subconscious racial bias is a pervasive phenomenon that could easily spill into biased interviewer recommendations.

If the Editorial Board truly supports more objective admissions criteria such as SAT scores, then the Board must also reject the subjectivity inherent to the current system of alumni interviews.

Standardized testing has its own set of well-documented and researched flaws, but at least those flaws are well understood. As for alumni interviews, how can we establish a reasonable baseline to judgments of character, when these judgments can vary dramatically based on the quirks of an interviewer?

Since the fall of affirmative action, we remain especially skeptical of interviews as a net beneficial admissions tool. After all, the case brought before the Supreme Court originally emerged as a lawsuit alleging that Harvard discriminated against Asian American applicants by assigning them lower personality scores compared to white applicants — personality scores that were in part determined by alumni interviews.

Given that this allegation of anti-Asian discrimination was not resolved by the Supreme Court’s summer ruling, we believe the interview component of the admissions process requires a greater rehaul than mere compliance with the Court’s decision.

The Board addresses readers applying to Harvard this fall, as though prospective students have any power to fix a flawed admissions process. We, instead, turn to the College, providing two ways in which administrators can improve the interview component.

Either fix the interview — or nix it.

If the College would like to keep the interview component, then it should provide professional interviews to all applicants and standardize interviewing procedures to the best of its ability.

If the College cannot guarantee equal treatment for all applicants, then it should not offer interviews at all.

The alumni interview has always been broken. As the University reckons with its post-affirmative action admissions system, today is as good a time as any to right the biggest wrong in the process: the alumni interview.

Ruby J.J. Huang ’24, an Editorial Comp Director, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. Jacob M. Miller ’25, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a Mathematics concentrator in Lowell House. Ivan Toth-Rohonyi ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Sociology and Computer Science concentrator in Adams House.

Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

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