Monday, April 1, 2013

Acing the interview - how to sound interesting

A question from a reader:
How do I sound interesting in the interview?

Sounding academically interesting is a slightly different ball game than what you might say on a first date or at a cocktail party.  There are two main components.

First, there are the things you do.  Sports, debate, cheerleading, visiting CERN.  This is generally easy to get right, although may need to spend four years at it. 

Second, there is the way that you think about things.  This is the trickier part to get right - and the few students who do will wow their interviewers.  

Let's step back - a liberal arts education, first and foremost, is about the interdisciplinary approach.  What this means is that you are able to take a subject or a theme and easily integrate multiple ways of looking at the same subject.  This is not always easy, and when done correctly, it can be very impressive.

Here's an example: your interviewer asks you what your thoughts are on your school's recent transition to uniforms.  You happen to have led a very vocal student protest that has landed you on the cover of your local paper.  The obvious thing to talk about would be the emotions and reactions of the student body - the limits of self-expression, the burden on low-income parents to provide uniforms.  

But the broader and more thoughtful response would include a discussion of how uniforms impact the people who wear them.  Perhaps you can reference the work of psychology professor Ellen Langer, whose studies show that in clinical settings such as hospitals or nursing homes, uniforms are divisive and keep people from relating to one another on a personal level.  You can approach uniforms from a historical angle, noting that school uniforms in England date back to the infamous reign of Henry VIII, during which time children were dressed in blue (the cheapest dye) to show humility.  

The notion of interweaving multiple angles into an interdisciplinary approach is one that you can read more about on a new startup called HIPPO Reads - a literary curation startup focused on pulling together multi-disciplinary reads across a variety of subjects.  This is also my latest venture, and the reason that my blogging her has been sporadic at best.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Finding Strength in Weakness

I have a question from a concerned dad: What is my son's school is tough, so his GPA is weak as a result?  Or, alternately, what if he has a great GPA at a school considered "weak"?

I have an answer for you, but I'm not sure you'll like it.  The answer to your question is Yes.

Yes, so what?

Yes, there are strong schools where good students earn imperfect GPAs.  Yes, there are easier schools where 4.0's are given out like candy.  And there are those in between.  And it doesn't really matter which you chose.

Admissions officers know all these things as well, and it their job - and our job as interviewers - to sift through the application to make sense of the entire candidate.  Think of the GPA as a qualifier.  One piece of the puzzle.  The mistake you should not make - and the mistake you should keep your child from making - is in thinking that there is a "correct" answer to this conundrum, a proper way to approach it, a "perfect" way to assemble the puzzle that will automatically get your son in.

I've talked to these candidates in interviews, and it is easy to see that behind the perfectly written essays and stellar AP scores and strong GPAs is a student who has gotten so caught up in the numbers that she has not truly explored herself.  And what the admissions office most wants to know is not just what you are capable of on paper, how you are measured quantitatively, but what you can potentially be capable of as a person.  Not today, not tomorrow, but a few years down the road.  And that doesn't come from your GPA.  It comes from being honest with yourself, and from having parents who encourage honestly.

Here are a few values that college counselors don't talk about enough:
Courage.  Humility.  Open-mindedness.

Students who cultivate these values will do better not just in the admissions process, but in life.

At this point, you are probably scowling a little bit at your screen, because you have asked me a serious question and I have instead given you a lecture about passion.  Let me come back down to earth and try again.  Lots of students go crazy trying to optimize their GPA.  Is a harder class with a lower grade better than an easier one?  Is a class at a community college more impressive than an AP class?  Should I transfer to a tougher high school even though I won't be valedictorian?

The answer to all these questions is you are asking the wrong question.  The grades do not matter.  What is important is which environment will help you grow.  Where will you learn more?  Where will you be surrounded by people who inspire you?  Where will you best shine?

Perhaps the easier school has a phenomenal drama department.  Perhaps the tougher school has an incredible teacher you've wanted to work with.  The answer to your questions should never be about the numbers - it should be about you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Interviews for the introvert

I get this question from time to time, and it's a good one:
How do I interview well if I'm an introvert?  It takes me a while to warm up to people, and I don't have a naturally bubbly personality.  Will I be at a disadvantage?

No.  You'll interview just fine.  The key to nailing your interview is not to give a drama club worthy performance, or to share everything from your favorite toenail color to how you felt about your breakup last week.  Keep in mind, a college campus overrun with extroverts would be just an undesirable as one with without any of them at all. 

The key to nailing your college interview (and, by the way, every interview you do from this point out) is to practice.  Figure out what the three things are that you want your interviewer to walk away from the interview knowing about you.  Make them as specialized as possible and make sure you have proof.  Are you a very empathetic person? Exceptionally determined in the face of adversity?  Creative at solving difficult problems?  Write your list, and then back it up with a story.  Interview questions are often open-ended.. Find a way to get your point across. 

Practicing the interview and going in with a game plan will get you into your comfort zone.  Don't rely on yourself to ad lib.  As an introvert, a road map of your story should get you comfortable with what you are going to say.  Neither an introvert nor an extrovert interview well if they are unprepared.  Several interviews come to mind with bubbly students who obviously did not practice, and ended up interviewing poorly in spite of their personal charisma. 

One more caveat: Be sure to make the interview a conversation.  If you are nervous, it is easy to fall into the trap of recitation.  Make sure you are engaging with and reacting to your interviewer - she is not an audience, but a person.  Ask a few questions.  Laugh at a joke.  Respond to her enthusiasm for a specific subject.  Don't get sidetracked by this, but don't let the opportunity to connect slip. 

If you need a mantra, let it be this: The interview is not about charming the pants off your interviewer.  It's about communicating clearly and well what it is that makes you different and sets you apart.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Blogging your way into college

A question from a reader: should I start a blog?

P- writes: Your "Summer Vacation" post talks about pursuing the things you're passionate about in unique ways.  I have been thinking about starting a blog where I can report about current events in India and analyze their signifcance. I feel that blogging about India's progress towards accepting many of the things that were once prohibited will be a great way for me to showcase my general interest in social studies and writing. However, I'm not sure that blogging is "unique." My parents think that is a good a idea, but what do you think about it?

Here's a general rule to follow.  The more popular the activity, the more successful you need to be to stand out. 

Blogging is attractive because if it is done well, it can have tremendous exposure.  That said, there are lots of people out there trying to do it well.  You may very well have written the most insightful blog in the world, but if only your parents read it, it won't really matter.

I know what you're thinking - if I write insightful, interesting posts, won't an admissions officer (or interviewer) read it and be impressed by my thoughtfulness and quality of writing?  It's possible, but not likely.  However, if your blog makes it onto a top ten list somewhere, gets you quoted somewhere, leads to a guest post on the Huffington Post... you get the drift.  Way more for you to leverage here.

Here's an example: Lena Chen earned noteriety blogging about her sex life at Harvard - hardly an academic topic.  Today she works as a freelance journalist, speaking on panels, moderating discussions, appearing at colleges.  The risk she took with her blog earned her the credability to write about the politics of gender and sexuality.

The moral is that it's not what you do, but how you do it.  Just as you can turn a job at a bakery into an incredible experience, you can squander an internship with NATO and get nothing out of it.

So, here is the most important criterion: pick something that genuinely engages you.  And here's the corollary: do it in a way that engages you.  If you like interacting with people and need lots of feedback to feel excited about a project, blogging may not work for you unless you make sure you structure in lots of time to network with other bloggers and talk about your blog to people in real life.  Blogging, especially when you are starting out, can be a very solitary activity, at least until you get traction.  That's why there are a lot of blogs sitting out there in the internet with only a handful of posts before the author got bored.

There's one other thing - the subject.  Is this really what you want to write about?  Do some real thinking about what subject is so exciting for you that it gets you out of bed in the morning.  What is so interesting that you fall asleep thinking about it?  

If you love what you're doing, and think about it every day over the summer, the rest should follow. 
Aim and high, and really want it.  It's better to blog about Bollywood movies and be passionate about it than to write about Indian current events if you're only somewhat engaged.

It's easier to find a way to make your passion sound impressive on a college application than to fake passion for something that you think sounds impressive.

Friday, June 17, 2011

And... I'm back

This blog has been sadly neglected for a few months because I've been working hard on another very important endeavor... a HarvardInterviewer baby!

Obviously people have been asking what my husband and I are doing to prepare our little one for Harvard. Given that she's only three months old, we don't have a definitive list.

But I do want to talk about what role parents can play in giving their kids a leg up, and I'll do that in the next few posts. A parent's role in encouraging excellence is tricky. I don't really believe that spending money stuff makes a big difference.

The posts will be about reframing success and how you can encourage your child to want to find ways to set herself apart.

In the meantime, if you've contacted me about a quote or comment for an article during the past three months - my apologies. I'm fantastic at email... except when I'm learning to take care of a newborn. Please try me again if I can still help.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Online data: the final chapter

So, I've had a few questions since my last post, and they invariably run along the lines of, "This comes up when I search for my name/facebook account/website. Do you think it's bad?"

Let me give you a mantra. If in doubt, take it out.

See? It even rhymes. But in all seriousness, folks, if you have to ask, it probably shouldn't be out there. The point isn't whether or not I think calling someone "fucking awesome" is an inappropriate thing for a seventeen year old to say. (Personally, I don't.) The real litmus test is - would you intentionally say it during your interview? Or write it in your essays? If the answer is no, just make it private, password protect it, or delete it. Easy peasy.

Moving right along. Interview season is mostly wrapping up across the country, applicants are receiving their admissions letters, and everybody else is gearing up for application season 2011. I'm planning on shifting gears to more general application questions. If you have some that you'd like me to address, leave it in the comments... or send it my way via email.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr: Cleaning up your act

My last post got a lot of attention, which I found surprising because I assumed that it was obvious. It turns out I was wrong, which was great because I'm glad that I put it out there.

To recap, I said that your Facebook profile, like any other social media that bears your full name, often comes to the attention of college admissions teams and you should be careful what you put on there.

But now that you know social media can count (sometimes against you) what do you do to clean up your act?

1. An image is worth a thousand words. Look at pictures first. When you google yourself, do any come up that are compromising? If so, untag yourself. Make them private. Or, if that doesn't work, ask your friends to take them down. Remember that Google will save a cache of some websites, so take care of this early.

2. Illegal activities. Some of your admissions team will be liberal and will smile fondly at youthful hijinks. Others won't. Don't risk it. Photos or references to you participating in anything illegal need to go immediately. That includes drinking, smoking, fighting, destruction of property, climbing over fences (i.e trespassing), setting off illegal fireworks, etc. What if it just looks illegal? Take it down anyway. Or label it clearly, i.e. "Training for the big boxing match" or "Rehearsing the bar fight scene for school play"

3. General silliness. You making goofy faces. Fan fiction. Having a food fight. IM conversations you had with your best friend when you were thirteen. All of these are examples of things that, while in and of themselves are fun and innocent, can be net negatives. Consider carefully before leaving anything like this in the public domain. What is the image you want to project? Is this helping you?

Now that you've found the offending data, what do you do about it? Either make it private, or delete your last name. If there's a website with photos, put a password on it. If we're talking about a facebook profile, play around with privacy settings. There are ways to leave up any info you'd like to share (i.e. you winning the debate tournament) while omitting the ones you'd like to keep private.

A few final words. There's been this flurry about admissions officers checking Facebook or other sites. As far as I know for Harvard has no official policy and I would be surprised if many colleges did. I have not been given any guidelines to follow. Here's the risk for you: if there's no policy, and I'm not checking consistently, I don't have a baseline. I don't have a list of things to watch for. I don't have a protocol. So, if you happen to accidentally leave up something that happens to grab my attention in the wrong way, there's a chance it will influence me more than it should, or even more than I consciously think it does.

Today, your public image is more than who you are in person. It also includes who you are online. That's true for you as a college candidate, it's true for me, and it's true for your grandmother. It's the new reality, and there's nothing revolutionary or scary about it - but it is important to learn to live with it and manage accordingly.