Letter From Washington
by Alex Rawson email@example.com
A view from the Alumni Schools Committee
By Alex Rawson '01
As a new alum who feels very much indebted to Princeton, I want
very much to be able to give back to the school. But, also as a
new alum, I don't have nearly the wherewithal to do so by the traditional
financial means. Instead, I offered my time to the Northern Virginia
Alumni Schools Committee to interview Princeton applicants
an experience I was not surprised to find rewarding, but one which
I less expectedly also found frustrating.
If for no other reason, it is rewarding to imagine the sheer magnitude
of the work that the ASC's do: an interconnected web of alumni interviewing
nearly 10,000 applicants from 5,000 schools in all 50 states and
more than 100 countries.
But it is also truly rewarding almost refreshing
to hear the perspective of students who are still in high school.
They have a naÔvetÈ that is, shockingly, deeper even
than my own. They are unflinchingly and sometimes painfully
honest. They have little cynicism, they impose no secret
agenda, and they have few clever interviewing tricks. All of which
poses a thought-provoking contrast to parts of my own now six-month
old business career. Put differently, Bill Richardson '73, chair
of the Northern Virginia ASC who has been interviewing for more
than 15 years, explains that interviewing is a good way to keep
current. "You get an insight into a generation," Richardson
muses, "because the students are the same age every year."
Moreover, despite repeated lamentations about undue parental pressure
in the national media, and even despite plenty of evidence of familial
pressure at Princeton itself, most of the applicants I interviewed
seemed to be operating under their own steam. Their own curiosity
and interest seemed to reign.
Where I found the ASC interviews most rewarding, though, is when
the applicant has a curiosity that becomes a much larger passion
for ideas. It's a bit clichÈ, but when most of us think about
what made our own Princeton experiences special, we think of time
spent talking to curious, passionate people trading ideas,
stories, and values, and arguing just to understand the other side.
For some of the applicants, one can almost visualize them thriving
in that environment. They are one step ahead of you in the interview,
anticipating your next question and arguing, sometimes just for
argument's sake, where an idea strikes them. And God forbid
they even occasionally ask a question of you. "All the
students are terribly bright," Richardson says, "but my
favorite part of the ASC work is when you really find something
in common with a student and get rolling with a great interview."
In those few cases, the interview becomes more of a conversation
than an interview, and those are the sessions that are truly memorable.
Unfortunately, as much as those few interviews are rewarding,
they come in only a handful of cases, and that is also where the
ASC process becomes frustrating. One can begin to see how difficult
the task of the admissions office is and one can also begin
to see how the viable applicant pool starts to shrink. You become
acutely aware that barely one-tenth of applicants will get in
that even though every applicant you speak with is talented and
qualified, the odds are strongly that not even the best among them
will be accepted. "I suppose I have had more disappointments
than successes," says Richardson. "Especially when a student
really lights you on fire and then doesn't get in."
Those frustrations have likely existed for as long as the applicant
pool has been extremely talented, but the composition of that applicant
pool and therefore the feel of the ASC process has
changed in other ways. "Kids, and their parents," Richardson
explains, "are more and more sophisticated consumers."
They follow the U.S. News rankings, they know increasingly more
about Princeton before showing up for the interview, and they weigh
options much more methodically. As a positive corollary, the reach
of Princeton's appeal has broadened widely over time. "As Princeton
has become higher and higher on people's radar screen," Richardson
observes, "there are more and more people applying from a wider
and wider geographic area what Dean Hargadon would call 'casting
the net widely'."
Of course as the applicant pool grows, the admission rate shrinks
commensurately, and in many ways that makes the job of the ASC's
all the more difficult. The lower the percentage of students accepted,
the more ASC members not to mention students will
But even if none of the students I interviewed are accepted this
year, I would return to the ASC again without a second thought.
Because if even one student I interview is accepted and then matriculates,
I will know that I have represented Princeton fairly. I will know
that I have had an impact on the university, however small, beyond
my own tenure as a student. And until I have the means to give financially,
that small gift of tangible impact will do just fine.
You can reach Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org