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Yale alumnus honored for interviewing high schoolers

John N. Walsh III has interviewed more than 850 local high school seniors trying to get into his alma mater, Yale University, over the last four decades, so he naturally has his favorite stories about some of the applicants.

There was a top student and excellent rower with a severe stutter, whom Walsh congratulated on being elected vice president of his class. The young man, struggling with his words, smiled and quipped that he might have been elected president – if only they had more time for the school meetings.

There was a young lady who applied to Yale only because her father had gone there. After a long discussion, she agreed to let Walsh write a letter on her behalf to her real first choice, a small college in Maine.

And there was an accomplished hockey goalie with a prosthetic leg who didn’t get into Yale. Walsh called some friends from Harvard, including a former hockey opponent of his. The young man got into Harvard and served as a back-up goalie, whose teammates kiddingly used to hide his prosthesis while he was in the shower.

For about 35 years, Jack Walsh, a 1967 graduate, has become the top advocate for local high school seniors applying to Yale. Most, of course, don’t get in – the prestigious Ivy League college now accepts only about 1 in 15 applicants – but more than 100 students he’s interviewed and recommended have been admitted.

Walsh, a Nichols alumnus who also graduated from Harvard Law School before becoming an insurance executive, served for years as a one-man Alumni Schools Committee for Yale. One year, he interviewed 72 local students, each one involving more than an hourlong meeting, followed by a written report sent to the university.

For those efforts, Yale recently thanked Walsh, honoring him with its Alumni Schools Committee Ambassador Award, in a ceremony on the New Haven, Conn., campus. As one Yale official said, “Jack has set the standard for interview reports.”

Alumni at many top-notch colleges like Yale interview applicants in their home cities in an effort to personalize the whole process and provide some insights about the prospective student, something that might not jump out of a bulky application folder.

That’s clearly a need for a school like Yale, which has more than 30,000 applicants each year vying for about 2,000 admission slots.

“The alumni interview reports give the Yale admissions committee a sense of animation, of personhood, a window to the candidates’ souls,” Walsh said. “Otherwise, the folders might focus unduly on standardized tests, transcripts, class rank, essays and teacher recommendations.”

Walsh gave an example from the business world, suggesting how tough it would be to hire a new CEO if you had 15 applicants – but couldn’t meet any of them.

Those interviews also provide the students with a local human face to attach to what might seem like a large, impersonal and even intimidating college.

Besides serving as chairman of Walsh Duffield Co., Walsh chairs the local Darwin Martin House capital campaign and has served as board chairman at Children’s Hospital, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Nichols, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the American Red Cross and AAA.

Walsh talked about the benefits he still gets from the interviews with such accomplished teenagers.

“These wonderful people keep us young and teach us about gothic dress, modern music, new capacities within our handhelds and a series of new sensitivities to lifestyles and modern career paths, which keep us relevant and educated.”

He’s thrilled with changes he’s seen in his alma mater since his graduation 48 years ago. Yale, he admits, once earned its reputation as inbred, New England, preppy, rich and partial to legacy applicants.

About two-thirds of the undergraduate student body used to come from private schools; now it’s about two-thirds from public schools.

“Lately, they’re looking for people who have achieved, not people with connections,” he said. “I’m proud of that.”