Sunday, March 7, 2010

The soft negative

I often hear students throw soft negatives into their interviews. When I say "soft negative" I mean some small, seemingly insignificant negative - nothing that you dwell on, but just throw in for additional context. It can be a soft negative about yourself ("I didn't do that well in physics" "I'm not as good at cello as I am at trombone") or it can be about somebody else in your life ("My algebra teacher was terrible" "The hulu hoop club didn't really do well so the school disbanded it") Both are extremely dangerous territory. You don't want to go there. If you're the type of person who uses soft negatives often, either to downplay your acheivements or show the reality of a situation, practice the interview and ask somebody to catch you every time you begin to say something negative, no matter how soft.

At a first glance, the soft negative doesn't seem so damning. What is wrong with being modest, you may ask me. What is wrong with being truthful? My algebra teacher really wasn't that great.

Let's start with the first. The point of the interview is to sell yourself. You want your interviewer to leave thinking that you are one of the smartest, most confident, and most mature candidates she has ever met. What does your interviewer really have to go by? She hasn't spoken with your teachers, your classmates, your coaches. She doesn't go to your school, in many she hasn't seen all of your stellar report cards or read your recommendation letters. She is coming in with a completely clean slate. People tend to believe what they hear. If you say good things about yourself (which, by the way, is what you are there to do and what your interviewer expects you to say), she will leave with a positive impression. If you try to be modest, she will take that at face value as well.

Here are examples of things not to say:
"I won the Excellence in Calculus Award - but it was only schoolwide, not at the city level."
"I played soccer for two years, but then the third year I didn't make the team."
"I'm going to be salutatorian - I was almost valedictorian, but then this girl took a few more classes than I did, and they're weighted so I ended up in second place."
"I've been volunteering at a homeless shelter for the past three years - but it's not a big deal, most of the students from my school do that."

All of the above may certainly be true. But think about it this way: Your job is to tell the best story possible with the pieces of information you have. It is possible to see things from different perspectives. You may be volunteering at a homeless shelter because you care about the welfare of the less fortunate, or because your parents told you it looks good on a college application. But your job in the interview is to paint yourself in the best light possible.

Now, let's talk about the second caution I gave - saying something negative about somebody else. This is the part you should really watch, because even small criticisms can be costly. When you say something negative about somebody else, it causes your interviewer to question if:

1) you are making excuses for poor performance on your part (i.e. I didn't do as well on my AP Exam because our teacher was terrible)
2) you are a difficult person to get along with and tend to be critical of others
3) you tend to see the world in a negative way

Resist the urge to overshare - whether it is about your parents, your friends, or your teachers. Don't criticize unless it is intentional and you have done something to change it - that is, your story casts you in the best possible light. Keep in mind, your interviewer is evaluating you to see how you fit into the spirit of the school - how you function as a team player, and as a member of a community - not just in an academic setting.

There is one exception to this rule. You can say something negative both about yourself and about somebody else if it is central to the story you want to tell. For example, if you used to be oblivious to animal rights, but then spent time at a slaughterhouse and became a vegetarian as a result, that is a compelling story to tell. If you found that your school didn't offer AP Latin, which you wanted to take, and you fought to be allowed to do an independent study in it with a teacher in another state online, that is a great story.

Hopefully I've given you a lot to mull over in this post. This is hard stuff -- harder than it seems at first. Many adults haven't mastered it, and so they continue to struggle through job interviews for years to come. I think the problem is that we are socialized to relate to other people. And throwing out soft negatives is an easy way to do that - you stand in line next to somebody and you say, "Ugh, this line is long!" We want people as friends who are imperfect - easy to relate to, won't judge us too harshly. But when we're looking for employees, for award winners, or for the next group of the best and brightest students, we want perfection. We want to be awed and inspired. I've found that I judge so differently when I'm sitting on the other side of the table.

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