Web Exclusives: Letter From Washington
by Alex Rawson ’01ahrawson@alumni.princeton.edu

February 27, 2002:

Getting into PU
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 face disappointment.

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 ahrawson@yahoo.com