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Dean Furda says that alumni interviews often add more insight to applications.

Credit: Tiffany Pham

Almost every student currently applying to Penn this year will have an alumnus reach out to them for an interview, but it wasn’t always this way.

In 2012, there were about 4,000 volunteer alumni interviewers, and they only interviewed about 16,000 students — half of the application pool at the time.

The main reason participation was sparse was because the program was “no one’s full time job,” said Director of the Alumni Interview Program Patrick Bredehoft.

Bredehoft also served as director in 2012 when the program moved from the Admissions Department, where it had been for the last 50 years of its existence, to the Alumni Office.

The idea was to have designated staff organizing the alumni interview process, rather than continuing to lump the program onto admissions officers’ already-full plates, which had proven to be ineffective.

“I need to think about high school students, guidance counselors, and I love our alumni but they might be third or fourth in a given day of who I need to think about,” Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said.

And with so few students interviewed, it couldn’t really be taken into account as an important part of the application, he added. Furda wanted to change that. He looked to the successful programs at Princeton and Brown, and noticed that the key to their success seemed to be the interview program’s integration with their own alumni offices.

So, the program moved to the Alumni house and received a staff all its own.

The system worked for Penn, too.

The numbers speak for themselves — last year, 9,000 alumni conducted interviews and reached out to 34,000 students. Furda said the interview component matters a lot more now.

“We’ve become accustomed in this office to having an alumni interview,” he said. “When we don’t have it, we feel like we’re missing something — an element, a voice, a perspective, an insight — even if it’s just confirming what you already thought you knew, or if it’s providing a broader perspective.”

Rachel Cohen, a 2012 College graduate, is one of the alumni who provides this valuable insight. She has conducted many interviews in the past, and is currently in charge of coordinating virtual interviews that take place around the world.

Virtual interviews are offered to students who could live anywhere, but specifically where there aren’t any Penn alumni nearby to make an in-person interview feasible. And although that might sound like it could be Thailand or Nicaragua, Cohen said one of the areas with the fewest students interviewed in-person was actually California.

“There are large pockets that actually might surprise you,” she said.

Cohen takes on what is essentially an extra job because she’s passionate about giving back to Penn.

“I believe the future of Penn is bright and I want to be a part of making sure the best and the brightest students are admitted,” she said.

1994 Wharton graduate Terence Cooper, who also received a Wharton MBA in 2003, is another Penn alumnus and interviewer, but he organizes interviews that happen in and around Houston, along with a couple others. He called on football metaphors to explain how the system works, saying that the different chairs “run a zone defense” to make sure every student in the Houston area gets an interview.

Cooper was interviewed when he lived in Houston and applied to Penn in 1990, but when he moved back to Houston in the late 90s he found out that interviews were no longer conducted in the area.

“I ended up calling Penn,” he said.

Cooper said he likes being involved with the interview program because it keeps him feeling young.

“When you get older you might get jaded,” he said. “But seeing the applicants come in and they’re very ambitious and optimistic — it’s invigorating.”

A previous version of this article said that 14,000 applicants were interviewed in 2012. 16,000 applicants were actually interviewed that year. 

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