By choosing to continue online interviews indefinitely, colleges (with the exception of Trinity) are making the application system less reliable and less fair. Interviews are essential to give grantees a holistic picture of applicants, transforming them from a data file into a well-rounded human being. When done right and properly invested, they make the application process fairer and more humane. But by doing so they risk making Cambridge even more inaccessible, even though the change is entirely unnecessary.
As an overwhelming body of evidence on online learning during the pandemic has shown, maintaining online interviews goes against equal opportunities. The university can expect applicants to have access to a stable internet connection and a quiet room, but the reality is far more complicated. Rural students are likely to struggle far more than their peers; Students who rely on their phones for Internet access are at a significant disadvantage compared to students with laptops; In many cases, students in cramped living conditions or without their own rooms will not be able to perform as well and even then will not be able to concentrate as fully.
Online interviews are a step backwards and create far more problems than they solve
Doing interviews online also carries the risk of keeping interviews open. Students at top schools or who have paid for extensive tutoring may have direct access to the large number of resources that have been made available to them. Students crammed with practice interview feedback, speaking cues, or canned responses are now even better able to make the most of it, including in the interview itself—and the only way to avoid that would be to keep anti-cheating – Demand measures where students film themselves, which are expensive and inaccessible.
Face-to-face interviews weren’t perfect. There were major differences between colleges in providing accommodation and funding for travel. Cambridge can – and should – afford to allocate the funds needed to even the odds. But online interviews represent a step backwards that creates far more problems than it solves.
Equally important, the interview process has the potential to humanize a place that can be profoundly alien to students. Small talk with other interviewees in the waiting room, discussing college life with JCR volunteers a year or two above you, all of that is replaced by the cold, blank screen of a Zoom waiting room and a deafening silence afterwards. Many successful applicants now arrive at their college with no idea what it looks or feels like.
Three years into the pandemic, colleges can no longer use the excuse of the pandemic to pursue even more destructive cost-cutting. From rent increases to curfews to unprecedented restrictions on visiting other students, college bureaucrats continue to use the pandemic to justify power grabs. Students and now also applicants bear the brunt of the ongoing overstrain at universities. JCRs, SU, Dons, alumni and students cannot allow colleges to continue to hide behind such excuses and must push for interviews to be conducted in person again.
When students apply en masse to Trinity, the only college now willing to sponsor an in-person interview, they will no doubt reconsider. Until then, the university management intends to take a path that almost every student and fellow will reject for reasons of cost at the price of centuries of tradition. We hope that smarter minds will prevail.
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