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International college admissions: Getting to know you

5 ways virtual interviews are improving the process
University Business, June 2016
In the 2014-15 academic year, the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities grew at the highest rate in 35 years, increasing by 10 percent to more than 970,000 students. (Image: Thinkstock.com/Rawpixel Ltd)
In the 2014-15 academic year, the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities grew at the highest rate in 35 years, increasing by 10 percent to more than 970,000 students. (Image: Thinkstock.com/Rawpixel Ltd)

The power of the admissions interview is, in context and value, unmatched by any other element of the enrollment process, says Jonathan Burdick of the University of Rochester.

The meetings “add color to what is otherwise a black-and-white representation of a student, or add a third dimension to what is otherwise flat pieces of paper,” says Burdick, dean of college admission and vice provost for enrollment initiatives.

The case for these conversations with prospective students is even more important with internationals. First, there are more of these applicants than ever before. In the 2014-15 academic year, the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities grew at the highest rate in 35 years, increasing by 10 percent to more than 970,000 students, according to the “2015 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.”

Because students from other countries, or simply from areas far from their desired college, can’t attend in-person interviews, admissions professionals are turning to virtual interviews as a way to evaluate candidates—helping ensure the selection of those who will make the most valuable contributions on campus.

In particular, the ability to hear and see applicants from other countries converse in English can address the mounting concern over admitting students with subpar English language skills.

At Rochester, international admissions staff have traditionally traveled overseas to conduct interviews with international prospects. But this year, about one in five took place over Skype, Burdick says. “The ability to speak and listen in an informal but structured approach is a pretty good indication that students have the tools they need to make progress academically. Although TOEFL is a good test, we’re getting much more improved predictability out of interviews.”

On the student side, interviews provide a competitive advantage. Of Rochester’s 1,225 international students who interviewed, 41 percent of them received an offer letter, compared to the general admit rate of 25 percent for all international students.

Elsewhere, depending on the size of an institution and how many international applicants it attracts, virtual interviews play a variety of new roles in the selection process. Take a look at five of its most promising uses.

1. Differentiating among high-scoring students

Georgia Tech’s international applications from China escalated from 32 in 2007 to nearly 3,000 this academic year. So it’s not surprising administrators began searching for new filters to help them choose from among the many highly qualified students applying.

“With questions surrounding documents fraud and manipulation of transcripts, we needed a better way to find the right students,” says Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission.

Moreover, the admissions department was getting feedback from professors and others on campus that conversational English skills weren’t reflecting high TOEFL test scores. And some international students were self-segregating socially.

Around 2010, Georgia Tech began conducting Skype interviews to try to identify students who would be most likely to assimilate. But, says Clark, his team quickly realized these efforts would be limited because of how much time and effort was required. The time difference between the U.S. and Asian countries was the biggest obstacle, requiring staff to log on late at night—a schedule that just wasn’t feasible. Plus with Skype, there was no real way to verify that you were speaking to the actual applicant.

That’s when Clark’s office began working with InitialView, an interview service provider. This admissions season, the Beijing-headquartered company, owned by Americans, had conducted a total of more than 32,000 interviews as of early April, nearly doubling last year’s 17,000. “Most schools see us first as a fraud prevention tool, but then realize it’s a great way to evaluate soft skills,” says CEO Terry Crawford.

The sessions are designed to see how students think on their feet—and even rattle them in cases where it seems like they’re
trying to fall back on memorized answers. “At many schools, it’s become a de facto requirement. If students don’t do an interview, they essentially get put in another pile,” says Crawford.

By 2014, the competitive edge of doing a virtual interview was clear at Georgia Tech, with 53 percent of entering freshman having submitted one as part of their application. “Now when we talk to professors in classes that necessitate more dialogue and interaction, we hear far less about quality of English language and willingness to participate in classroom discussions,” says Clark.

The same is true at Santa Clara University in California. Of the 827 international applications received for the 2016-17 school year, 20 percent took advantage of the video interview option through Vericant, another third-party interviewing service. “This is a significant increase from the year prior, largely due to enhanced marketing encouraging the interview option,” says Becky Konowicz, director of international admission.

Applicants are also showing an increased interest in interviews as a way to stand out in a more competitive applicant pool. “Overall, our admit rate for international students this year was 38 percent, but we admitted 60 percent of those who interviewed,” she says. Colleges make it clear on their international student admissions web pages that interviews, though not required, are highly recommended.

2. Making better admissions decisions

“I began to know virtual interviews were going to work when it helped me deny students,” says Kregg Strehorn, assistant provost for enrollment management and undergraduate international recruitment at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which enrolled 305 international students from 37 countries in 2015. “When I first saw a student I otherwise would have admitted because of high scores, but I saw her real ability in the interview, that’s when it became an even more important tool for us.”

The chance to vet candidates also helps smaller institutions such as Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, which enrolls only between 15 and 20 international students every year. “We have more often than not discovered students we felt were poised to be academically and socially successful,” says Sara H. Newhouse, vice president for admission and financial planning. “But there are also instances where we learned that the student was below our standards and would ultimately not be the right fit.”

3. To find diamonds in the rough

Outside of mainland China, such as in South America and Africa, virtual interviews play a different role, says Clark of Georgia Tech. “Test scores aren’t as high, but then the interview comes and the depth of knowledge and ability to respond becomes another piece of the file that helps me feel confident in the decision to admit them.”

This qualitative approach can help colleges bridge the gap between education systems that are fundamentally different from what we have in the U.S., says Nicki Fung, co-founder of Vericant. “A lot of the scores and metrics students submit to the U.S. may or may not mean the same thing here.”

Sometimes, it’s the interview that will push a student to the front of the line, says Strehorn of UMass Amherst. “There are times when a student completely pops, and I think ‘this is amazing.’ I can get a sense of how the student might do in a Western-style classroom with peers, faculty and staff, and I’ll write to that student and say, ‘I want to admit you.’ ”

4. Encouraging international student leaders

Virtual admissions interviews can also help predict how engaged students will be once they get to campus, Strehorn says, something that touches other departments beyond the admissions office.

With three admissions cycles using InitialView interviews completed, UMass Amherst is now just beginning to analyze whether interviews can help predict not only academic success, but integration and social involvement. Strehorn gives these examples of key questions to consider about admitted internationals:

  • Are they making friends?
  • Are they going to class and speaking English?
  • Are they joining clubs?

The hope is that students who exhibit strong conversational skills in virtual interviews will be more outgoing, and can ultimately become campus leaders who can mentor incoming international students and bring them into the fold.

Along those lines, Georgia Tech has invited current international students to view admissions interviews and share their feedback on whether they feel the applicants could perform well. “It’s been kind of fun and interesting to engage some of our current students,” Clark says, pointing out that they have a unique perspective since they’re the ones who are sitting in the classroom.

Being part of the process also gives the students who are helping a sense of institutional pride. “At the end of the day, that has such great implications, because they become far more invested in building the future of the institution,” he says.

5. Gaining a recruitment advantage

Building relationships with students who might come to your campus is a huge benefit, says Birmingham-Southern’s Newhouse. “The students that we interview are the ones from whom we will most often see a commitment.”

The college plans to expand the virtual admissions concept to other areas of admissions, she adds. “We want to create a more robust campus-visit experience for students by eventually integrating live Q&A panels, and setting up a virtual class visit if a student is interested in experiencing our learning environment.”

Her school contracts with the software provider iXplore Universities to communicate with students in China, and also has a campuswide subscription to a videoconferencing program called BlueJeans. “It’s a much more stable interface and can connect more than just two people,” she says. “In essence, we can offer a group learning opportunity or information session.” Communicating with multiple students at once can save time.

Virtual interviews can be especially helpful for highly specialized programs that hand-pick students. That has been the case for Mindy Harr, director of program development for interdisciplinary health sciences at New York Institute of Technology’s School of Health Professions.

Whereas larger programs may use interviews to narrow the playing field when there is application overload, Harr uses them as a recruitment tool for her online MS in Clinical Nutrition program.

She uses a videoconferencing platform called Zoom, which is similar to Skype, but also allows people to share their desktops.

Harr sometimes shares presentations, on the platform and her international applicants are able to show their World Education Service transcripts.

One success story involves a student in her class from Bangkok. “She was considering other programs, but she appreciated the fact that I gave her the opportunity to meet virtually,” Harr says. “That influenced her decision to come to the program.”

Resources: Virtual interview providers

Dawn Papandrea, a Staten Island, New York-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.

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