Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Questions from an international student, or how to sound good without showing off

An international student writes:

Firstly, my situation:

I am an international student applying from South Africa, and have not had a Harvard interview before this one (which will take place by phone on Friday.) On Harvard's site, it says that applicants from South Africa will only be contacted after their apps have been examined, and this was confirmed by my interviewer who said;

"As the admissions officer who has the pleasure of reading applications from South Africa, I recently had the opportunity to do the preliminary review of your application to Harvard College."

Obviously then, I am not out of the running completely, but am wondering what form this interview will take. From your experience, what would an interview like this be focussed on? Would it be fairly general (Similar to other Ivy interviews I have had earlier) or is this a 'late interview', Meaning that they have some specific concern about my application. If it is a ‘late interview,’ could you help me with what this would entail and what problems this may be a result of. My major worry is that it is happening so near to the deadline for the decisions. Please, any advice you may have on the specifics of the situation would be appreciated.

Also though, any general advice about Harvard interviews that you could give me would be appreciated. I have obviously read your blog, and so have some idea already of what the interviewer looks for, but could I ask some other questions.

As she has already read my application, should I talk about things/experiences that are in there, or should I broach new topics? Similarly, she will know my test scores etc, so I assume that I should not offer those unless prompted.

Possibly the most important thing I wish to ask though; I am a fairly modest person. Inwardly, I am very confident in my abilities, but do not like espousing all my successes to people. I am very conscious of not appearing arrogant, as that is a trait I detest in others, but obviously, in an interview this can be a hindrance. Is there any advice that you can offer about how to get around this but still get my successes across. I am sure though that any interviewer will also be very negatively disposed to an arrogant applicant, so it is a thin line to cross, and one I do not wish to.

Before I jump in here, I should say that international interviews are different from domestic ones in a few respects. I personally have only conducted domestic interviews, so I do not see the candidate's application at all or in part, unless I request it personally. That said, I can tell you that Harvard (to the best of my knowledge) does not conduct any kind of interviews intended to be a "last chance" for a candidate who is on the fence. I, as an interviewer, have never been given any instructions to the effect of, "Hey, we're really not sure about this guy - give him some pretty hard questions and see if he passes the bar." The instructions to me, and the post-interview forms I have filled out, have always been exactly the same.

With respect to the interview - let your interviewer guide the questions. She'll ask you talk about specific things - most likely, she'll want to hear you discuss your application in your own words.

As regards the second portion of your question, namely how do I say good things about myself without seemingly egocentric? That is a great question and a skill that is important to learn early on in life, because whether you're talking to a boss or a scholarship committee, you need to know how to cast yourself in the best possible light.

There are a few different ways of doing that.

1) Show, not tell. What do I mean by that? Well, you can say, "I'm the best math student in our school," which admittedly sounds like you're bragging. Also, it's a judgement. Or you can say, "I didn't think much of my ability to solve multivariable calculus equations in my head until I won the district math prize three years in a row. My principal surprised me by telling me I was the only student in the history of our school district to do that." Do you see how different those sound? Give your interviewer facts. That helps create difference between sounding full of yourself and just telling the truth.

2) Be enthusiastic. I guess this sort of another way to do "Show, not tell." If you want to get it across that you love reading more than your average high school student, and possibly more than your average Harvard applicant, be enthusiastic about it. Don't be afraid to let your natural passion come out in your interview - this is the place for it. Tell the interviewer about all those times you read The Iliad under the covers when your parents thought you were asleep. Talk about the book drive you organized. And if the interviewer brings up a book that you've read, talk about it. Show your passion.

3) Brag... but modestly. This one's a bit trickier, but you can pull it off if you couch your successes in the light of overcoming obstacles, or surprisingly yourself. It's the difference between going in and saying, "I was such a good intern that I was allowed to help the engineers take apart the combustion engine," versus "One evening I saw the engineers staying late to take apart the combustion engine. I just wouldn't leave, I kept watching them. I was worried they would get annoyed, but apparently they liked my enthusiasm because they actually invited me to help them. And I was the one who put it all together when they were done - it was the most memorable part of my summer."

4) Most of all, relax. Enjoy your interview. If you're genuinely enjoying the conversation and happy to be there, it'll show. You've worked hard, this is your chance to talk about it to someone who will appreciate it!

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