Tom Barton ’98: Interviewing prospective Princeton students is ‘enriching and meaningful for both sides’

Headshot of Tom Barton '98

Tom Barton ’98, history professor at the University of San Diego and Alumni Schools Committee (ASC) co-chair for the Princeton Club of San Diego, has been interviewing prospective students for ASC since 2005.

What has your experience been like interviewing local students who are applying to Princeton? Would you recommend it to other alumni looking to get involved with volunteering opportunities?

Interviewing has given me the opportunity to meet a diversity of extraordinary young people over the years while reflecting on my own experience as a Princeton student and subsequent journey as an alumnus. Meeting high-caliber students interested in pursuing undergraduate studies at Princeton helps me maintain a tighter connection to the Princeton community despite living thousands of miles away on the opposite coast. I also feel that giving applicants the chance to meet face-to-face with a former Princeton student based in the area helps to humanize what can be a stressful and lonely process, especially in the post-pandemic world. I think that any alumnus who feels gratitude for his or her experience at Princeton should give interviewing a try because it can be so enriching and meaningful for both sides.

When did you begin interviewing Princeton applicants, and what motivated you to do it?

I first started interviewing for ASC back in 2005 when I was living on a remote island in New Zealand. My wife (also from the class of 1998) and I had just moved there after living in Spain and France for several years, and I was interested in reconnecting with the Princeton community. Since the Princeton club out there was quite small and didn’t have any presence on our island, I decided to try out supporting ASC. Having to catch the ferry to downtown Auckland to meet with these applicants was well worth it. I had some fascinating conversations with New Zealander high schoolers and have been hooked on contributing as an alumni interviewer ever since!

What do you enjoy about talking to the students?

It is such a privilege to get to meet with the best and brightest young minds in the San Diego region while reliving my Princeton experiences. Even though the conversations are generally only half an hour or so, we usually cover quite a lot of ground, and I’ve learned so many fascinating and unexpected things about various topics, from innovations in biomedical engineering to writing poetry to pursuing Eagle Scout badges. Serving as an alumni interviewer is an enviable opportunity to become better acquainted with the next generations of leaders and luminaries who will shape our world over the years to come.

What changes, if any, have you noticed over time regarding applicants?

While I’ve definitely noticed an increased interest in STEM over the years, it is often difficult to pin down these trends because applicants are generally so well rounded and passionate about so many things. I’ve also observed, happily, steadily growing diversity in terms of race, gender identity, and socioeconomic background, the latter of which is especially heartening because I know that the Office of Admission and ASC have jointly sought to increase the accessibility of interviewing to underserved students. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the vast majority of these students remain deeply engaged in learning and have a fire for pursuing their various endeavors. The energy level of these students and their capacity for achievement is often mind-boggling.

Can you recall a particular interview with a student that made an impression on you?

A recent applicant somehow managed to play four different sports competitively, which required her to get a special waver from her high school principal, while pursuing a packed schedule of honors and AP-level courses. I was left wondering how she had any time left in the day to eat and sleep! I found playing two sports in high school to be very difficult, so the dedication and engagement of this student really stood out to me.

What do you think applicants gain from their conversation with you (whether or not they are admitted)?

I think that the interview helps make the application process less intimidating and gives students the ability to add a human element to their other application materials. It also gives applicants a chance to get to know Princeton better and to ask questions about the experience. In a way, they are evaluating us (as ambassadors for Princeton) as much as we are interviewing them. For those that gain admission, the interview can sometimes make the difference between matriculating versus heading off to Yale or Harvard and, furthermore, helps them begin to build a sense of the Princeton traditions and community before ever stepping foot on campus. Finally, while it’s hard to speak for them, I hope that they get as much out of speaking with me as I get out of speaking with them. The best interviews are the ones in which we forge a connection and are able to learn from one another.

A version of this interview originally was published by the Princeton Club of San Diego.