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Oberlin Admissions Interviews International Style

November 6, 2008

IST airport Istanbul, Turkey (reposted by request on May 20, 2009)

I'm sure glad that I don't get paid based on the number of blogs I write. It's been almost a month since my last blog. Since then I've visited Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, home!!!!, and I just finished 3 days in Istanbul. I've met a lot of wonderful counselors and potential Obies, but also had another mishap. My wife, Katya, joined me for a weekend in Rio de Janeiro and we were robbed on the famous Copacabana Beach. Scary, but we are ok. Our 2+ hours at the local police station were useful for putting things into perspective. We met another couple at the station who had also been robbed. They were in the middle of a year-long around-the-world vacation. They mentioned in passing that it was "only" the second time that they had been robbed on their trip. So I guess I shouldn't complain.

While in Lima I had a chance to interview a young lady who was studying at the local American high school. As I was talking to her I mentioned my blogging and used my interview to ask her what she thought I should write my next blog about. She offered a couple of good ideas, but in the end I've decided not to take advantage of her suggestions. Instead I'm going to talk about the role of interviews for international applicants to Oberlin.

First, though, a disclaimer is in order. Please do not assume that the information that I'm going to give you applies to other colleges. In fact, it isn't even completely accurate for US-based students applying to Oberlin. It really is just intended to help you think about the interview process for foreign-based students interested in applying to Oberlin.

At Oberlin we don't require interviews, and when students do have them, they play a very limited role in the selection process. Domestically, interviews are given primarily by student interns who work in our admission office. Professional counselors like me mostly just handle them when the volume on any given day exceeds our available interns. We also have alumni in many parts of the US who can do interviews for those students who would like a chance to talk about Oberlin, but who can't make it to campus.

Regardless of who is doing the interviews, we don't do much actual evaluation. The process is really designed to make sure that students get the questions answered and for us to get to know students on a more personal basis than we can through the relatively dry text of the Common Application. When we do our write-ups, it is much more about how the chat went and what the most interesting aspects of the students were. While we often do comment on whether or not we think the applicant would be a good fit at Oberlin, it is very rare that we come up with a comment like "this student would be perfect at Oberlin" or "I think this student would find it hard to thrive here." Thus interviews just help us paint a more complete picture of students.

Since we don't require interviews and most of our applicants don't have them, it would be somewhat unfair to place a lot of emphasis on them. When it comes to international students, almost no students have interviews. This makes us very reluctant to give a student who has an interview any kind of real advantage over other students. We are more interested in being fair to the whole applicant pool. In some cases, we don't even offer interviews. In China, for example, we have over 100 requests per year for interviews and only have the alumni resources to interview about 10 or 20 kids. Consequently we have decided that it is most fair to all of our Chinese applicants not to offer interviews to any of them. In other parts of the world, our ability to supply interviews is often adequate to the demand and we can sometimes arrange them.

Sometimes our professional staff do interviews while we travel. However, this is usually not an option even if we are in your city. A typical visit to a city for one of us goes something like this: Arrive at the airport around 10 pm. Find transportation to the hotel, check in and try to get to sleep by midnight. We usually have school visits starting at about 8:00 in the morning, which, of course, means getting up around 6:30 or 7:00 depending upon how far the hotel is from the school. Three or four visits later it is 4:30 in the afternoon. As often as not, we haven't had any lunch. We grab our suitcases, head for the airport, since one needs to check in at least 2 hours in advance, then we board a plane and head off to the next city/country where the process starts all over again. On those rare days when we do have a gap in our schedule, we usually need to spend that time sleeping, eating, packing, or dealing with e-mails (or writing blogs!). Thus it is pretty rare that we can find time to interview you. So please don't take it as a sign that we aren't interested in you as an applicant. It just means that we are exhausted.

But what is an interview like when I do actually find time to offer one? Or what is it like if we arrange an alumni interview? Or if you come to campus? The answer depends on both who is interviewing you and the natural ebb and flow of the discussion. We always try to make sure that you get a chance to ask all of your questions, but otherwise it can vary immensely. My goal is to find some question to ask students that they have never thought about before. It may even be a question that doesn't have an answer. But I like to get a feel for how students think through a problem. The trick is to ask enough mundane questions to happen upon something that makes a good "thinking question." Quite often I fail to find something and the interviews are relatively boring. Other times my questions are just too off-the-wall or academic and the students don't come up with much. But I usually attribute that to my inability to ask a good question rather than their inability to answer them. Once in a while, though, a good one comes along. Here are some examples from the last year.

One student mentioned that she liked to cook and create recipes. One of the chefs that appear on US TV is Rachel Ray. She often puts out recipes that use 5 or fewer ingredients (not counting salt, pepper, and olive oil). So my question for this student was to devise a new recipe that meets these requirements.

Another student mentioned that she was into poetry. So I convinced her to write a haiku that she thought expressed Oberlin's personality.

A star tennis player was interested in studying physics, so we got into a major discussion about the relative merits of heavy vs light tennis racquets and the physics behind the advantages/disadvantages of each. Another tennis player had to hypothesize as to why tennis balls are fuzzy!

I once asked a violinist why violins have the shape they do and who came up with the crazy idea that one should play a stringed instrument by dragging stretched hair over the strings.

Which finally brings us back to international admissions and my poor victim in Peru. My question for her was what should I write my next blog about. If you have any good ideas, pretend that you're being interviewed by me and post a suggestion. I'm running low on ideas. And the if you follow this up by sending an e-mail with all of your questions to international.admissions@oberlin.edu you will pretty much have duplicated the international admission interview process and I will not have missed my flight - which by the way is almost ready for boarding. Next stop Thessaloniki, Greece via Athens.

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