Penn State's honors college considers adding interviews to admission process

Michele "Mitch" Kirsch, associate dean for student affairs, at Penn State Great Valley. She says an interview can reveal more than an application.
Michele "Mitch" Kirsch, associate dean for student affairs, at Penn State Great Valley. She says an interview can reveal more than an application. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 07, 2013

Pennsylvania State University is contemplating a new tool for admission to its Schreyer Honors College - an interview.

The 1,900-student honors college hopes to better assess an applicant's interpersonal and communication skills, while engaging alumni who conduct the interviews, said Michele "Mitch" Kirsch, associate dean for student affairs.

"An interview can tell you more things about an applicant than just a flat application sheet of paper," Kirsch said.

The honors college, based at the main campus, piloted interviews in Pittsburgh and Washington last year, where alumni met with 197 applicants.

This year, it expanded the pilot to New York City and the Philadelphia area, from which it draws its largest applicant pool. About 500 applicants are expected to interview at the four locations.

The college announces its admission decisions in early March. The honors college offers an academic elite environment with more intensive curriculum, leadership programs, and scholarship money.

While in the pilot stage, the interviews are not used in admission decisions, Kirsch said.

But results from last year's pilot showed that they could have a significant impact if adopted as a practice.

In 26 percent of the cases, the interview could have changed an admission decision - either for the positive or negative, she said.

"It was more than we expected," she said.

While interviews are commonplace for Ivy League colleges and other selective institutions, they're relatively rare among larger state universities. Their importance in admissions has declined as officials struggle to cope with ballooning numbers of applications from students who apply to more schools than they had in the past, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

In 2011, only 6 percent of colleges surveyed nationwide gave the interview "considerable importance" in admissions, down from 11 percent in 2008, the group reported.

But some honors and other specialized programs tend to "have more requirements and enlist more tools to vet their applicant pool," said David Hawkins, the association's director of public policy and research.

Schreyer's external advisory board in 2009 recommended that the college explore adding interviews to insure that the best students would be selected. A committee of students, staff, and alumni contacted schools that conduct interviews, including the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, Duke, and Washington Universities. The committee recommended a pilot.

"Our mission is achieving academic excellence, building global perspective, and creating civic engagement," said Anthony Shelton, 22, a senior finance major from Kennett Square who served on the committee. "With the interview process, we want to hear that the candidates are expressing some of these ideals."

Interviews also could result in more students accepting admission, Kirsch said. In last year's pilot, 55 percent of interviewees accepted admission, compared with 37 percent of those not interviewed.

The university held its second round of Philadelphia-based interviews at Penn State's Great Valley campus in Malvern on Saturday and Sunday. Among the alumni who took part was Betsy MacKenzie, 45, a 1989 graduate of North Wales.

"It puts a personal touch, I think, on the whole application experience," said MacKenzie, who works in business development at a large pharmaceutical company. "It probably will help them get potentially even a better caliber of students."

Each interview runs about a half-hour. Alumni, who are trained, ask about extracurricular activities, interest in Penn State and postcollege goals, among other topics.

Penn State's honors college was established in 1997 with a $30 million gift from the late William A. Schreyer, a 1948 graduate and former chair of Merrill Lynch, and his wife, Joan. Admission has become increasingly competitive. About 3,000 students apply annually, and about 700 are accepted for 300 positions in the freshman class, Kirsch said.

Typical applicants get almost all A's and take advanced placement and honors courses in high school, Kirsch said. In addition to academic record, the college also looks at demonstrated leadership and service skills. Applicants answer essay questions and supply recommendations. SATs are not considered.

Freshmen receive a $4,000 scholarship, renewable each year. They are enrolled in academic programs across the university and are required to take a minimum of 35 credits in honors courses out of at least 120 needed to graduate. They also do a thesis.

A final decision on interviews will be made after this year. If adopted, they would remain optional.

During last year's pilot, more than half of those eligible participated.

John Connolly, 19, a freshman from just outside Pittsburgh, interviewed and was accepted.

"It was nice to have that opportunity," said Connolly, a chemical engineering major whose parents are Penn State grads. "It gave me a very good sense of what the honors college had to offer."

He also interviewed at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, two Ivy League schools, and got in, but chose Schreyer.

He said he's happy with his decision, touting the opportunities for honors students. Connolly recently met with a professor over dinner to discuss music, then they saw the performance they discussed the next evening.

"I had a chance to hear what he had to say and pick his brain," he said. "It was a cool thing."

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq

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