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January 04, 2006

Doin' it For the Kids

You probably didn't know this about me, but I have school spirit, yes, I do. I show it by conducting student interviews for the University of Chicago -- which is to say when an applicant to the university wants an interview but can't actually get to the school, they farm it out to alumni, and apparently I'm the alumnus they're farming it out to for rural western Ohio and eastern Indiana. The applicants will then make the trek to the Scalzi Compound, where, assuming Kodi lets them through the door (note to self: feed dog before arrival of interviewees -- we don't want a repeat of that unpleasant 2003 incident), I'll chat them up for a half-hour or an hour or so, and then talk about them behind their backs to the admissions committee. That's the way it gets done.

As it happens, I think I'm pretty good at doing these interviews, partly by professional training: when I was a film critic I did several hundred interviews with film stars and film makers and then had to craft their egotistical, drug-fueled "insights" into coherent newspaper articles; by comparison, interviewing generally polite teens is a positive delight, not in the least because the kids are being interviewed in the hopes of getting into college, rather than plunking themselves into a chair out of a contractual obligation. It matters. Sure, you might think it'd be fun to interview, say, Johnny Depp. But try dragging something useful out of him at 8:30 on a Sunday morning after he's clearly had a "busy" night (this was during his "let's trash the hotel room with Kate Moss" phase). The shiny glow wears off pretty quick. My understanding is that Mr. Depp is slightly more communicative now. Good for him.

Of course, it's also on point that I try to be useful to the kids I'm interviewing as well, because I remember the alumnus who interviewed me for The University of Chicago, and not to put too fine a point on it, he well and truly sucked at it. Not only did he ask boring and rote questions and didn't appear to be paying too close attention to what I was saying in reply, he also didn't exactly go out of his way to make the U of C sound like a place anyone would want to attend. Let's just say a man who explained his U of C social experience with the words "I didn't really make any friends until the last six weeks I was there" isn't the guy you want waving the flag for the place. Now, despite this fellow's ineptitude in the interviewing process, I did get in, and I did attend, so I guess he did no real harm. But still. One should hope for better than "did no real harm" in one's admission interviews.

(The best college interview I had, for comparison's sake, was the one with an alumna of Bennington College, who halfway through the ridiculously fun interview switched from saying "if you go" to "when you go" when referring to the school. And I almost did go, too -- aside from the school's arty reputation being appealing to a budding young writer such as myself, the school's 8-to-1 female to male ratio was appealing to my deeply hormonal 18-year-old self. But even being 18 and hormonal, I realized that Bennington's "build your own major" ethos was death for someone as fundamentally lazy and unstructured as I was. So I went with the U of C and its ramrod-straight classical "core curriculum." It made a man out of me, it truly did. And I avoided writing four years' worth of painful Bret Easton Ellis-esque stories about drug-addled dormitory bisexuality, which I think we can agree is all to the good.)

I do occasionally wonder if I am the most on-point ambassador for the U of C that the alumni committee could have chosen, because in a number of ways my U of C experience was not, shall we say, representative. In four years at the school, I think I spent a grand total of six hours in Regenstein, the school's main library, and I don't ever remember going into the Crerar, the science library, even once. I hear it's very quiet, just perfect for studying. Well, see, that's the other thing. This "studying" thing I heard so much about. Didn't do too much of that (that would explain the 2.8 GPA).

On the other hand, the fact that I was an atypical U of C student and yet still retain an almost insensible affection for the place suggests something good about it, and something that I intuited when I made the school my first choice: It's the sort of place that gives you the opportunity to make of it what you will, and which will let you do whatever you want if you show the desire to do it. I wanted a place where I could learn how to write, and the school gave me that both in the expected ways (via the school newspaper and the city's print media, who were always looking for cheap stringers) and in unexpected ways (via jamming so much damn information about the world into my head that I couldn't help but begin to make interesting connections with it all). And now I do what I wanted to do when I grew up. I don't doubt that being at the U of C is integral to that.

Which comes back around to why I like doing student interviews for the U of C: because I like the idea of helping to match up the school, with all its potential, with a kid who I see is looking for an opportunity to do more than grind out four years for the degree at the end of it. It doesn't mean I'm looking to see if the kids are like me; I don't think that would be useful. But I am looking to see how much they actually want out of their college experience. I think the U of C should get kids who demand a hell of a lot out of the place, and will go out of their way to get it. If that's there, I think that's a good match.

Posted by john at January 4, 2006 01:17 PM

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Dean | January 4, 2006 01:38 PM

school's 8-to-1 female to male ratio was appealing

Hmmm. I wonder if Bennington would accept a Canadian whose strictly mediocre high-school grades were earned in 1978.

John Scalzi | January 4, 2006 01:43 PM

The question to ask is if the Bennington students would.

Jason M. Robertson | January 4, 2006 02:01 PM

As a fellow UofC alum and current Reg staffer I am curious if you have any thoughts on the presidential search currently underway? You would have been attending during Gray's tenure, I'm guessing. Curiously enough, I didn't interview when applying to the UofC. The only place I did--Swarthmore--was the only school to reject me, so I guess it was a good thing...

John Scalzi | January 4, 2006 02:06 PM

I haven't been really following the current search, although I'll be interested in who they eventually pick. Yup, I was there during the Hannah years.

Re: interviews -- interestingly, with the exception of the University of California system (which had to take me because of my SATs), the places I got in were the places I interviewed. No interview, no admission.

Dave | January 4, 2006 02:35 PM

And I avoided writing four years' worth of painful Bret Easton Ellis-esque stories about drug-addled dormitory bisexuality, which I think we can agree is all to the good.

You clearly didn't live in the right dorms, then.

You know your sophmore roommate's on his way out when he gets so stoned on 'shrooms that he tries to make a Bloody Mary out of Harold's chicken sauce and vodka.

B.S. '87.

John Scalzi | January 4, 2006 02:54 PM


"You clearly didn't live in the right dorms, then."

Well, I didn't say there wasn't drug-addled dormitory bisexuality. Just that I was not expected to write about it.

Also: Mmmmm... Harold's. I do believe my very first column for the Chicago Maroon was on the subject of Harold's.

Douglas | January 4, 2006 03:09 PM

Really? I get to be the first to make any comment about this typo?

"...Regenstein, the school's man library..."

That's truly sad because all that comes to mind is nothing more creative than, "Huh huh huh. He said 'man library'".

John Scalzi | January 4, 2006 03:16 PM

Now you know why I didn't go there that often. Just not my thing. Except for that one time. But it was only six hours.

Fixing the typo --

Burns! | January 4, 2006 03:19 PM

Those kids can come to Ohio, but they can't make it from eastern Indiana to Chicago? Isn't that about equidistant? Honestly, if they can't make their way to Chicago for the interview, are you sure you want them in school there?

dgm | January 4, 2006 03:22 PM

Well, who knew you were a maroon? Since i'm new to your kingdom of fans, perhaps i'm the only one who did not know this. I'm an alum, too, although--and don't hold this part against me--of the law school. It sounds like I spent more time in the reg than you did.

I recall that the U of C ranked something like 299th out of 300 (just behind westpoint) in a "study" of how much fun students were having in college. The best part was the school's official reaction: they were proud!

But I digress. I just wanted to say that I agree with you that the U of C is a special place, but not for everybody--only for those people who dared wear those boxer shorts with the University logo and "It's hard!" written across them.

John Scalzi | January 4, 2006 03:23 PM

Burns: Well, remember I'm on the western edge of Ohio -- my county is on the state border. We're a lot closer than Chicago for much of Indiana.

dgm: I remember that survey. I was deeply amused by it.

JonathanMoeller | January 4, 2006 03:23 PM

U of C is the only place I've visited that has its own lamassu.

Naomi | January 4, 2006 04:30 PM

I have a (female) friend who was interviewed for Harvard by an aging male alum. Who asked her, among other things, "Why should Harvard let you in when you're just going to drop out to get married?"

She left, thought about it, and called the admissions office to let them know they might want to find a different interviewer. (As an aside, she's now 35 and still unmarried. She didn't go to Harvard, though, she went to Carleton, which is where I met her.)

doubt | January 4, 2006 05:07 PM

Hah! I win on the slacking. 2.67 GPA. :-P

(For proper calibration: graduated from Rice a bit over a decade ago. I did know one lazier student than me... But only one.)

MoXmas | January 4, 2006 05:19 PM

Man, I had a couple of guys from my NW Indiana high school go to UofC (aorund '87 to '91). Whenever I visited, the sheer amount of dedicated drug consumption blew me away. (And I was going to school in NYC with folks who were doing crack "in solidarity with the members of the community" which such a bewildering combinaiton of college liberal angst and suburban racism that I was impressed.)

Even the beer drinking was done with single-minded dedication. I remember one Wednesday night at some damn UofC frat where the drinking only compared in my experience to the drinking done during Little 500 at Indiana University (considered a party school). On a Wednesday!

Mainly, though, I remember that every male UofC student talked about how ugly the women at the school were, and the female UofC students talked about how ugly the men were. Both groups seemed enraged and proud at the same time.

John Scalzi | January 4, 2006 05:33 PM

I don't think U of C kids are actually any uglier than the mass of college kids out there, and if I may say so, my college girlfriend was more than reasonably hot. It's just that the women use relatively little makeup and the men use relatively little hair gel.

Re: U of C frats -- yeah, they're a little weird. I think only 5 or 10 percent of the kids were in the greek system at the school. My sophomore year, my friends Marty, Dan and I started our own "fraternity": Delta Iota Mu. The sweatshirts with the "frat" initials summed up our opinion of them.

Paul Estin | January 4, 2006 05:40 PM

I loved doing alumni interviews for U. Chicago. I hated actually writing them up, though, which is the main reason I don't do them any more. (And there are plenty of younger alums in the Boston area to pick up the slack, anyway.)

John: "I do believe my very first column for the Chicago Maroon was on the subject of Harold's."

The first column of yours that I *read* was the one about not getting upset when people mistake the U of C with a state school "because knowledge of the U of C is a very good mark of social rank." (Still got a copy of that? :-)

dgm: "I recall that the U of C ranked something like 299th out of 300 (just behind West Point)"

Even better-- U. Chicago was dead last, #300. It was, indeed, considered "less fun" than West Point (which was #299). It wasn't just the school that was officially proud, so were all of us alumni, who cheered whenever we chanced to hear the news of our "distinguished" placement. (This reaction makes more sense when you examine the methodology of the survey, which was done by a men's magazine and included such criteria as "lots of campus bars", "easy women", and "easy classes". Florida State placed #1. To a typical U. Chicago student in the 1990s, student life in Tallahassee would be, shall we say, nonideal.)

Regarding "looks":

I think U. Chicago students are about average in looks, running the same range as at any other school, but they don't put as much effort into dress, makeup, etc. (Got more important things to do.) There were definitely some hot women there, including a couple of my ex-girlfriends.

Brian Greenberg | January 4, 2006 05:57 PM

Can I just say that posting a picture of your ex-girlfriend on your blog indicates either:

a) you're still friendly with her, or
b) you haven't seen her since & just don't care anymore

and, of course:

c) you don't care that your wife knows you still have a picture of your ex-girlfriend, that it's easy enough to find to be worth scanning in for a blog comment, and that you still think she was more than reasonably hot.

Of course, given everything I've read here over the last several years, I think we already knew (c).

Christopher Billett | January 4, 2006 06:06 PM

When I was travelling and passed through America, I went from Arkansas to Chicago for a week. (Now there's a juxtapose for you!) Alongside Wellington, Perth and Sydney, it's one of my favourite cities in the world. I couldn't even say why! I was tired all the time I was there (woken up at 6am by the L running pass my bedroom window) yet it still blew me away. Christmas was a great time to be there, too.

I absolutely know how you feel about film people, too! It's bad enough the stars (when I worked in special effects, we had Jonathan 'Riker' Frakes in for a year, on and off, doing Thunderbirds. I was the only Mac expert in the house at the time, so it fell on me to answer his computer queries. Let's just say if he was truly 'driving' the Enterprise, I'd make sure I was in a Galaxy Far Far Away...) but add in to the equation producers with their jumped up egos, cocaine habits, empty lives and completely and utterly irrepresible egos and it's enough to drive you insane.

Oh, I'd also heard Depp has straightened up a bit - I'm willing to forgive all for his performance in Pirates of the Carribean anyway!

Mei | January 4, 2006 06:21 PM

Fellow U of C person here. Like you, I also spent very few hours in the Reg, though many in Harper, and quite a few in the nicely quiet Crerar. *g*

I love the U of C. (I'm a Hannah Gray-era person.) I love the core curriculum. The school's reputation for being supremely not fun was not only unfounded, it also made me want to go even more.

I have fond memories of my U of C interview -- I was/am local -- and the guy I got cemented my enthusiasm for the place.

The changes in Hyde Park since I lived there make me a little sad -- the sight of the Border's annoys me for some reason -- but one can't stop progress! *g*

Raphael | January 4, 2006 07:06 PM

Of course it's not really any of my business, and this isn't meant against you in any way- but one man/woman application interwiev committees for a large university? Isn't that a bit too much power in two hands? I don't think that you'd do a bad job at it, mind you- but it still sounds a bit odd to me.

Jason M. Robertson | January 4, 2006 07:12 PM

This claim that UofC women are unattractive is pure poppycock to my mind. Yes, there are schools with a higher percentage of blonde and tanned Midwestern aesthetic women, but that's a poor way to judge.

As I live just a block from the Borders I have to argue that any late-closing business on 53rd Street is a boon, all the more so for having books. So far 57th Street seems to be holding on OK. I was just there the other day and they had several copies of the TP Old Man's War, both shelved and in a display next to Anansi Boys.

John Scalzi | January 4, 2006 08:53 PM

Brian Greenberg:

In fact, Shara (my ex-girlfriend) and I are such good friends that The Ghost Brigades is dedicated to her. Krissy, needless to say, has not an issue with me remaining friends with Shara, because why would she.


The interview I do is only a small part of the entire application process. The final decision to admit or reject does not rest with me.

Jason M. Robertson:

Oooooh, me and Neil Gaiman. Couldn't ask for better placement (for me, that is).

Michael Feldman | January 4, 2006 11:10 PM

I've worked in the admissions office of Sarah Lawrence College (a place much like Bennington in many respects, including that whole skewed male/female ratio) for three years now, and after slaving away as a tour guide for two of those years, I've become a senior interviewer. Basically, the job consists of seniors in college interviewing seniors in high school, and recommending them or politely suggesting that they should look for a different place. I've had tremendous fun in this job, and have met some truly inspiring people, kids in high school with the maturity level of a graduate student.

While Sarah Lawrence is looking for independence and excellent writing skills rather than perfect GPA's, I still think the philosophy of trying to see what they're looking for in college and finding out who they are as a person is much better than simply asking rote questions and grilling applicants about oddities on their transcript (I have a friend who applied to Harvard, went in for an interview, and within two or three minutes the interviewee, a Harvard student, told him he should really look somewhere else because his GPA wasn't quite high enough and ended the interview). In my view, the interview is actually a chance for applicants to ask ME questions, and I've found that I can get a rather clear uderstanding of their personality from that.

In any event, interviewing is a rewarding experience, in no small part because you get the chance to make your school look enticing to people that would truly have a great time there, and would contribute a lot to the school. It's a great job, and I hope to follow in your footsteps as an alumni interviewer, John.

Sue | January 5, 2006 08:45 AM

I went to school when I was, allegedly, a responsible adult, having put it off till after I was married. Because I carpooled to the junior college I went to in California (couldn't afford anything more than that at the time), I spent a fair amount of time in the library doing the reading I needed to get done. But once I transferred to San Jose State, I developed a habit of ducking into the library at the beginning of the term to get any research materials I needed and then getting out as fast as possible. As a history major, this made me something of an oddity. Clearly, it worked out OK for me, seeing as I finished with a 4.0 in my major and a 3.99 overall. But I did face a fair amount of "What do you mean, you only spend 20 minutes in the library each semester?" from friends. The faculty, apparently, didn't care so much.

dichroic | January 5, 2006 03:50 PM

I did alumni interviews for Penn for a few years, but was a bit discouraged to find out that the interview reports are apparently not at all a factor in the student's admission. (Pity, because Penn rejected a few applicants I think would have been far greater assets to the school than, say, me.)

They said the interviews were just to give the students a chance to ask questions of someone who had been there which, considering how many things have changed, struck me as a stupid idea.

John Scalzi | January 5, 2006 04:02 PM

Interesting, dichroic. I know the U of C actually weighs the interviews as part of the process, but I don't know how much significance they attribute to them. I figure they're most useful for kids who are on the cusp -- a thumbs up or down from an alum probably means more then.

Brian Greenberg | January 6, 2006 01:53 PM


I'm a Penn alum too (Wh'91) and back in the day, knew a couple of folks in the admissions dept. My understanding was that the alumni interview went in the file as a recommendation letter, just like any of the other letters students send in. As John suggested, I'd assume a recommendation from an alumnus would be viewed as more informed than anyone else, but I guess that's the human element in the equation...

Inat Hajduk | January 7, 2006 03:58 AM

You don't do interviews for prospective graduate (Ph.d) students do you? ;)

Now that would be cool, get to meet one of my favorite authors _and_ (hopefully ;) have him put a good word in for me at the school of my choice ;)

Of course, it would not be possible because I am here in Chicago as it is but it would make a nice story...

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