Hannah Anderson didn’t know if she could attend ACU because of the cost.
She spent her senior year of high school trying to find scholarships, and thought she had found the answer when she was invited to interview to be a Presidential Scholar, which could mean as much as a full scholarship to the university.
She had the grades, the test scores and the service she thought would give her an edge. So she traveled the 300 miles from her home in La Vernia, a small town east of San Antonio, to campus for the interview.
“They asked a lot about service, cultural interactions and my passions,” Anderson said. “I talked about my involvement with church and mission work and volunteering in nurseries. I was involved in theater in school, I was vice president of my honor society and I was a girl scout for 10 years. I was fourth in my class.”
But she didn’t get the scholarship.
Like Anderson, the vast majority of prospective students who interview for a Presidential Scholarship receive no funding from that program. And the university is continually tweaking its method of selecting recipients.
The Office of Admissions selects about 300 high school seniors to interview for a Presidential Scholarship each year. Of those, 40 students, fewer than 15 percent of those who interview, will receive a half, three-quarters or full-tuition scholarships.
Faculty and staff members conduct the interviews, structured to learn about the candidates’ leadership and character qualities. Officials acknowledge the interview process for the Presidential Scholarships isn’t intended to be completely objective, which some students find disappointing or frustrating because one interviewer may receive a different impression from a candidate than another interviewer.
Tamara Long, director of admissions, said candidates’ answers outweigh their test scores. These answers, given in the interviews with two people employed by the university, are based around leadership, service and church involvement.
The interview process now is different in most aspects than it was just a few years ago; some of the changes began last year.
In 2010, students knew whether they were eligible for either a half- or full-tuition scholarship, and a three-quarters option was not available. Now all the interviewing students are eligible for any of the three levels of scholarship.
“It lets us have more money to spread out to more students,” Long said.
In the past, students were also required to write on-the-spot essays.
“We’ve started counting the writing section in the SAT and ACT scores instead,” Long said. “We knew it was very stressful for the students to write them and grading was a challenge because they were handwritten.”
Candidates were also required to answer questions in two one-on-one interviews rather than one interview with two people.
“The one-on-one interview didn’t necessarily set up all students to share openly, but it did help a student who was naturally more extroverted,” Long said. “We felt moving toward a two-person, conversation-style interview would let us better identify all students we felt should be presidential scholars.”
However, some students disagree about which format would be better.
Jessica Schmidt, junior nursing major from Carlsbad, N.M., interviewed for the scholarship during her senior year of high school in 2010. She recalls her interview with Jama Cadle, assistant director of alumni relations, being much more significant than the other.
“One of her questions was if I had shared my faith with any of my friends,” Schmidt said. “I almost started crying because a few days before I had shared my faith with my best friend throughout high school. He was not a believer and I had the chance to sit and talk with him for four hours about Christ and my belief.”
Schmidt also talked about her accomplishments and abilities in both interviews, but this one stood out as more memorable for both of them.
“When I was leaving the interview, she said she hoped her kids grew up to be as a good of a role model as I was,” Schmidt said. “I don’t remember much from the other interview because he asked me about my accomplishments, but she asked me about me.”
Schmidt was awarded a full-tuition scholarship. She would not be able to be at ACU if she hadn’t.
Schmidt said she liked the one-on-one interviews and would’ve found a two-on-one interview more intimidating and less conversational.
Zach Carstens, freshman biblical text major from College Station, received the scholarship for three-quarters of his tuition. He said he thinks he benefited from the new interview structure.
“There were two people witnessing the interview so one person couldn’t skew the answers,” Carstens said.
However, Anderson said she would’ve preferred the old method.
“I’m more extroverted, and talking with one person would’ve been easier than two,” Anderson said.
Long said the process isn’t supposed to be completely unbiased, but the two-on-one interview is supposed to make it less subjective.
“Those two people are both hearing the same story and scoring it in their mind, and when that student leaves they can talk about what they heard to make sure they’re on the same page,” Long said. “Before, you may have scored students entirely differently than others and I don’t think it had the highest integrity for the fairness of the students. Interviewers now have someone to validate or challenge what they heard.”
A recent change to scholarship recipients’ requirements is that they are no longer required to live on campus. Until last year, all new scholars would be required to either work in Residence Life or live in University Park Apartments.
The Office of Admissions staff members expects the tweaking and changing to continue.
“We’re always working to improve the process,” Long said. “I would hate to see it stay the same.”
Long took the position of the director of admissions last year, but she’s led the Presidential Scholarships for four years. She said it isn’t a perfect system but is always trying to improve.
“How do you perfectly pick the top 40 students to receive these scholarships?” Long said. “Probably everyone invited for the interviews qualify, but how do you pick the 40 most exceptional?”
Fortunately for Anderson, she was able to secure outside scholarships and grants in addition to the standardized test-based scholarship she receives from ACU. Anderson, now a freshman psychology major, had to find a cashier job at McKay’s Bakery to help pay for school.
“Money’s definitely an issue,” she said. “My parents are constantly on me to continue to apply for scholarships even though I’m already here.”