The interview as a student selection device – any good?

How should a university decide which students to admit? Should it all be done on the basis of a formula, usually related to final school examination results? Or should there be a more detailed assessment, perhaps including interviews?

If interviews were considered the best method, not many universities would have the resources or staffing to conduct them. Two universities that do make use of interviews for student selection are Oxford and Cambridge. However, not everyone finds this method impressive. Recently an applicant to an Oxford College decided, after her interview, to write the College a rejection letter, pointing out that the setting for the interview was likely to be off-putting for students from more modest backgrounds.

Of course interviews are a standard selection tool for employment. A concern always is that an interviewer may ask inappropriate questions, or may be influenced by irrelevant considerations on meeting the applicant in this way. However, over recent years interviewing for employment has become much more professional, and interviewers are usually well trained. But those factors likely to influence selectors inappropriately – i.e. those potentially liable to prompt discriminatory or prejudiced assessments – are even more likely to be factors in student selection, with less likelihood that the interviewers would be properly trained or fully aware of the risks.

There are probably no perfect methods of student selection. But it is important, to the greatest degree possible, to use objective methods, and interviews do not particularly help. Few can afford to use them anyway, but for those who don’t it may be a good idea to stop thinking that they would be better if only they were affordable. They almost certainly would not be better.

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5 Comments on “The interview as a student selection device – any good?”

  1. Vince Says:

    I had an interview with the then dean of arts at UCG/NUI,Galway to get in. So I’m of the opinion it depends if the orientation is accepting or rejecting.
    But I don’t really see it a being a flier except in well defined and narrow circumstances.


  2. I agree with every word of this post except the ‘probably’ in your last paragraph. The interview is a useless selection tool even in the employment context, and much worse than useless for HE Admissions purposes.

  3. James Fryar Says:

    Who knows? Until a university actually evaluates such things scientifically, it’s pure guesswork.

    So, you take in students for several years based on marks alone and analyse the progression rate through the course.

    You modify the selection process to include interviews, then analyse the progression rate through the course.

    If there is a difference in progression rates, you know how effective or ineffective the interview process was. You then decide if the benefit-to-workload ratio is worth having interviews.

    The results might depend on the programme. It might depend on the types of students who apply. It might identify the academic outliers who, despite their mediocre grades, will sail through the programme with honours.

    My point is whether interviews are a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ idea is definately something you can assess on the basis of evidence. The real question isn’t ‘are interviews a good or bad idea’ but ‘are universities using interviews despite having never properly evaluated their effectiveness?’.

  4. OMF Says:

    Interviews allow fatuous dandies to bluff their way into positions they should not be let near.

    Nothing beats a written examination. Set a standard, mark to it, and you will never have too much trouble in selecting anyone.

  5. Ros Donaldson Says:

    Unfortunately my own experience has been that I was nothing more than a bank draft. No interview process only a very brief telephone conversation where I expressed some concerns only to be told ‘don’t worry, it will be fine’. It was anything but. Support, communication and reaction to any challenges were dreadfully managed, if at all.

    As a mature learner this experience of further education at such a highly regarded institute has left me with a very poor view of further education establishments. In speaking to more people it would appear I am not the only one to have had this experience. While the interview process is costly and time consuming I feel there should at least be something more robust than what I experienced.


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