Administration

When Admissions Interviews Get Weird

Tom Williams, CQ Roll Call, Getty Images

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas concedes in his new memoir that he was hung over during his interview at Brown U. But, say admissions officers, his experience was tame compared with what they’ve seen.
July 02, 2015

When admissions officers interview applicants, nothing strange or hilarious happens — most of the time. Which is to say nobody ever forgets the exceptions, like the young man who screamed at small animals, or the young woman whose wardrobe oversight prompted her to flee the room.

But before we get to all of that, let’s stop to appreciate what U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz claims to have done many years ago. In his new memoir, A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America, the Texas Republican and presidential candidate describes partying — hard — the night before his interview at Brown University. Surely, the lucky admissions counselor who interviewed him didn’t expect his pitiful request: "I had to ask her to please lower her voice because, I told her, I was really hung over," Mr. Cruz writes. "That probably did not leave the best of impressions."

Alas, the poor fellow ended up enrolling at Princeton University, which is also quite prestigious. Which prompts the question: Was his Princeton interview anything like the one portrayed in Risky Business? As movie buffs may recall, a representative from the university conducts an interview in the 1983 film, which stars Tom Cruise as a high-school student whose father wants him to go to Princeton. After the interviewer suggests that the student is "not quite Ivy League" material, a fresh-faced Mr. Cruise clasps the man’s leg and dons a pair of shades. "You know, Bill, there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years," he tells him. "Sometimes you gotta say what the heck." Except he used a more colorful term than "heck."

In real life, teenagers often try to please college reps, though sometimes they act like arrogant jerks. Margaret C. Lysy recalls a young man who arrived 10 minutes late for his interview, clutching a cup of steaming-hot coffee he’d picked up on the way. To which one can only say, "Dude …"

Ms. Lysy is associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University, which, unlike most colleges, requires interviews. Usually, she says, the conversations are helpful. Occasionally, that’s because applicants manage to convey their sincere lack of interest in the university.

A while back, Ms. Lysy interviewed a young man at a boarding school whose older sibling had attended Georgetown. She recalls he gave one-word answers to each question, glaring at her all the while. "He just had this hostile energy," she says, shivering at the memory. The interview was over in five minutes.

Ms. Lysy shared a happier exchange with a quirky kid in New Hampshire. He adopted fake accents, described his fondness for eating glue, and, when asked why he played football, said, "for the suffering." Eventually, Ms. Lysy realized the applicant thought she was an alumna — not an admissions officer. When she clarified that she worked for the university, his jaw dropped. "Good Lord," he said.

Conventional chitchat isn’t enough for some students. At Pitzer College, an applicant once requested permission to dim the lights during an interview. He then whipped out a glow stick and performed a light show. "The counselor was stunned the whole time," says Angel B. Pérez, who previously led the college’s enrollment division.

Now vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, in Connecticut, Mr. Pérez has experienced the highs and lows of interacting with teenagers. There was the rejected applicant who came to his office to say, during an impromptu interview of sorts, that the college had made a mistake. Mr. Pérez was so swayed by the young man’s request for a second chance that he admitted him on the spot. "One of the most moving experiences in my career," he says. "Shook his hand and said, ‘You’re in.’"

Not so moving: The young woman who sat down behind his desk and propped her feet up. He knew it was self-sabotage, the behavior of a student who had showed up only because her mother had attended the college.

Distracted by Squirrels

Sometimes, prospective students share more — a lot more — than anyone asked for. Over the years, admissions officials have told me about applicants who, out of the blue, described nonvisible piercings, their dating histories, even their sexual experiences.

Usually, though, the moments that stand out are just … awkward. As an admissions officer at Washington University in St. Louis years ago, Marie Bigham encountered some colorful characters. During one interview, an applicant lit a cigarette. When she asked what he was doing, he apologized — for not offering her one. So she kicked him out of her office, just as she figures she would have done if someone had confessed that he or she was hung over, as Senator Cruz did.

Another time, an applicant who hadn’t said much for several minutes asked Ms. Bigham an odd question: "When is the math test?" Baffled, she explained that the university didn’t require one. "He asked why not, then stood up and left," she says. "Never came back."

One day when the weather was nice, Ms. Bigham suggested doing an interview out on the quad. While chatting with a young man on a bench, he became distracted by nearby squirrels. "Really distracted," she says.

At one point the applicant stopped in midsentence and yelled at one of the bushy-tailed rodents. "Full-throated, angry yelling," she says. Though they went back inside, the student didn’t seem to recover.

‘Really Screwed Up’

Now director of college counseling at the Isidore Newman School, in New Orleans, Ms. Bigham hears from her students when interviews don’t go well. One time a young woman called her, sobbing hysterically, to say she had just ruined her chances of getting into a highly selective college. Her mother grabbed the phone to declare the student had "really screwed up."

When Ms. Bigham called the college to inquire further, the admissions officer who had interviewed the applicant explained the situation. As described by the counselor, the story went like this: The student had worn a short skirt to the interview, during which she nervously rubbed her knees together. A few minutes into the interview, the applicant’s skirt flew up, and she apparently realized that she wasn’t wearing underwear. Then she ran out of the room, crying.

Ms. Bigham recalls the kindness of the admissions officer, who asked her to assure the student that "it’s OK, really." (The student was later admitted.)

And Ms. Bigham remembers the same admissions officer telling an embarrassing story of his own: When he interviewed at his first-choice college, he was so nervous that he vomited on an alumni interviewer. (He got in anyway.)

In the end, just about any faux pas might pale in comparison to another. As foolish as it was for the young Senator Cruz to tell an admissions officer that he was hung over, it certainly could have been worse.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.