BusinessWeek online, January 2008

BusinessWeek

Webcam Interveiws Disconnect Imposters
Phone interviews allow for possible deception, but the growing use of Webcams by schools is making it more difficult to use a stand-in

by Alina Dizik

Who’s really on the other end of the line during a phone interview? It could be the student on the MBA application””or a well-spoken cheater.

It used to be that business school officials couldn’t necessarily tell one from the other. But now, with the widespread use of Webcams, one avenue for potential cheating””including coaching or having an imposter sit in for the applicant””is being narrowed.

Busted!
While most B-school interviews are conducted in person, that’s not always possible, particularly when candidates are living in other countries. And that’s when the temptation to test the boundaries of ethics, such as referring to prepared notes or using a stand-in, can come into play.

No one knows how often it happens. Anne Cooper, the admissions director at University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business said in an e-mail that she suspects””but can’t prove””impersonation in one or two cases in each incoming class of about 120 full-time students. Cooper says the difference in a student’s English-language skills once he or she comes to campus is an automatic tip-off.

“There’s no way to confirm that you are speaking with the same person that shows up,” Cooper says. “It’s disconcerting when it happens, because you want to know that you’re dealing with someone of integrity.”

Starting this month, Georgia is requiring that phone interviews be conducted via Webcam. Several other schools, including Penn State, Arizona State, and Ohio State offer it as an option. While cutting down on cheating is just one of the reasons schools are adopting Webcam interviews, the technology has other benefits they’re not ignoring.

When Is It Cheating?
“It’s always suspect, in terms of dialogue, who’s on the other end of the phone [line],” says Rudy Pino, the director of admissions at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business. Over the phone, interviewers listen for suspicious clues such as rustling paper, delayed responses, and requests for the interviewer to repeat questions””possible indications that the candidate is searching notes for an answer or consulting with someone.

Pino estimates that every year close to 5% of about 160 full-time students receive an unethical amount of help””which includes anything from scripted answers to having a well-versed helper present during their phone interview.

Besides outright impersonation, its not really clear where the ethical lines in phone interviews are, admissions experts say. Even if it’s not strictly forbidden, when admissions officials like Carrie Marcinkevage, the admissions director at Penn State’s Smeal School of Business, get a scripted or delayed answer, they automatically become concerned about the applicant’s ability to succeed in an MBA program. An applicant can use notes to “hide language deficiencies, glide over unfavorable parts of an experience they don’t want to reveal, or worse, to give someone else’s answer,” Marcinkevage explains in an e-mail.

But Los Angeles-based admissions consultant Stacy Blackman says there are different expectations for a phone interview than for an in-person meeting. “I don’t know that [script reading] is necessarily unethical if you prepared it yourself,” adds Blackman who discourages her clients from reading word-for-word answers because that prevents them from coming across as genuine.
Webcam interviews also let schools record and store images for later use. Alison Merzel, admissions director at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, another MBA program that officially started using Webcams this year, is impressed with the screening potential. “You can capture an image and compare it with their GMAT or TOEFL image; it gives you the option of having identification,” she says.

VoIP Makes It Easy
Although Webcams have been around for years, the proliferation of VoIP technologies like Skype (BusinessWeek.com, 11/29/07) or Yahoo! Messenger means that MBA admissions offices can now see them as a feasible, low-cost option.

Mandy Stowers, a first-year MBA student at Ohio State who conducts admissions interviews, says she hasn’t received any negative feedback on their new Skype-based offering because of the applicants’ familiarity with the program. Stowers predicts that more than half of this year’s international students will choose Webcam interviews conducted over Skype rather than speaking via telephone and says that many candidates already had Skype IDs and simply had to log in. “It’s been pretty positive””we’ve had people who scheduled phone interviews actually switch to Skype interviews.”

Georgia’s Cooper said the school has started using Cisco’s WebEx technology, which has the capability for one-on-one interviews. With WebEx, an applicant can log in and schedule a date and time while having technical support readily available, says Cooper. And even though the service is costlier than just signing up for Skype, Cooper says the investment is worth it. “We wanted to find reliable alternatives, and I believe more schools will be moving in that direction.”

Smile, You’re on Camera
The adoption of Webcams for admissions interviews is changing the rules in more subtle ways as well. For instance, with this technology an applicant can’t interview for business school in his or her nightclothes. On the other hand, it’s a little more forgiving than an in-person chat. For his Webcam interview with Penn State, Ross Cain combined his everyday shorts with a suit and shirt because he knew his interviewer wouldn’t see below his computer desk. “I was kind of like the ESPN sportscasters,” he recalls.

And exactly how you handle yourself during the interview is also a bit jarring. During a Webcam interview in December, Xiaoyu Zhang, a Penn State applicant from Shanghai, had a hard time deciding on how best to make eye contact with Smeal’s Marcinkevage. Zhang had to look at the Webcam above the monitor, instead of into Marcinkevage’s eyes on the computer screen. But other than a few mishaps, Zhang says the Webcam was worth it. “Via phone you can only convey 7% of the whole message””I can’t use my hands, I can’t smile.” He’s surprised more schools don’t provide the option.

Another factor with Webcams: They give a glimpse into applicants’ homes and work environments. So interviewees and interviewers have to think about set design. “I think you could do two things: take it in a very professional direction and draw the attention away from the background so all the attention is on you, or you could use the background to develop a sense of who you are,” recommends Marcinkevage. (She’s also had to modify her own interviewing space. Since starting the process in November, she’s removed unkempt-looking binders from a shelf and found a new spot for her purse””both of which could be seen through the camera lens.)

But even though most admissions officials encourage in-person conversations that take place on campus, both applicants and interviewers are pleased with the Webcam. After the first year of conducting Webcam interviews, Merzel says Ohio State hopes to continue taking advantage of emerging video capabilities. “There’s limitations, it’s still not perfect,” she says. “But we will move toward [using Webcams] as technology improves.”