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!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The A+ Interview

Let’s recap. You’ve got the basics down. You know your resume cold. You’ve picked a few key anecdotes that stress the things that are truly impressive – whether your love of music, or your ability to win a spelling bee despite dyslexia. Now you want to know what exactly takes the interview from good to great, from B+ to A+.

In order to understand what it takes to make the interview great, you need to start by understanding who your interviewer is.

Your interviewer will always be a Harvard graduate, not an employee of the admissions office. Being an interviewer is not a paid position: it is like volunteer work that your interviewer does in between all the other things that probably keep him or her busy: a time-consuming, stressful job, family obligations, community activities, etc. So, why does an interviewer interview? There are several reasons. Some do it because they feel an obligation to help Harvard out. Some do it because they want to have a hand in picking the next generations of the best and brightest Harvardians.

But almost universally, everybody does it because it’s an enjoyable way to step back in time and remember what was, for most of us, a very special and joyful period in our lives. It’s a way for us to see that “the kids are alright” – that despite the influx of bad news about the younger generations, the “Harvard quality” young adults are still out there in spades.

At best, you want your interviewer to leave feeling re-inspired. To say to his wife, “I interviewed a really impressive young man today. He reminded me of what my friends and I were like at that age.” Maybe, because of you, your interviewer will take a risk at work the next day, or join that non profit his friends have been emailing about – because he’ll remember what was important to him when he was eighteen, and he’ll work harder to recapture that youthful optimism.

In order to create this magical effect, you need to focus on one of the most important things you can possibly do in an interview: connect with your interviewer on a personal level. It’s a very important skill to learn now, because you’ll use it time and time again in your life – interviewing for jobs, networking at mixers, interviewing for awards or scholarships… if you can find a way to really connect with your interviewer, you’re set. You can beat out candidates who are more impressive on paper.

So, without further ado, here’s how to nail your interview:

1. Don’t talk all the time. This may seem counterintuitive – how do you tell your interview everything he needs to know to write a great recommendation if you don’t talk? But the key is to let the interview be a conversation, not a monologue.

2. Ask questions. Not just at the end, when your interview gives you an opportunity to ask questions about the college, but pepper a few good questions throughout your interview. Make these relevant, and about your interviewer. For instance, if you talk about being a member of Amnesty International, and your interviewer’s eyes light up, and he says, “Oh, I did that in college too!” – take that opportunity to talk about it. Ask him if he participated in any letter writing campaigns, and what his most memorable one was. Aim for about 80/20 – 80% you talking, 20% you giving your interviewer a chance to chime in.

3. Be genuinely interested. Your interviewer is a person too - and the more valuable and appreciated you make her feel, the more she'll like you. When she'd talking, pay attention. Then, ask a follow up question, or even make a comment to acknowledge that you were interested in what she was talking about it. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve answered a question only to have the student completely ignore my response. When your interviewer speaks, you need to react.

4. Get to know your interviewer. Naturally, the interview is about you. But knowing your interviewer can help you have a better interview. Students often sit down with me, and then get up again, without knowing what I majored in, or what I do for a living. They lose important opportunities here. If they can find overlaps in their background and my own, they could find way to connect with me and leave a more memorable impression.

5. Don’t leave anything out. Before you start, you should have in your mind the top three or four things you want to get across in the interview. These can be general themes, or particular experiences. Maybe your aunt died from lung cancer and that has motivated you to volunteer with the American Cancer Society. Maybe your high school banned Twilight, and that prompted you to learn about book banning and the restrictions placed upon ideas in the United States and abroad. Don’t get up from the table without getting those things out. What if they don’t come up in the interview? Tell your interviewer, “Before we finish, there is one additional experience I wanted to share with you. It’s something that I feel defines me, and I wanted to get a chance to talk about it.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

What (not) to wear

Dress code for interviews is a pretty basic affair. Wear something respectful and formal. Make the interviewer see that you take college admissions seriously.

When I email candidates, I often tell them that dressing casually is fine if it is more convenient. One of the main reasons I say this is that I ask candidates to meet me early on in the day, and if they are coming straight from school, I don't want them to feel obligated to show up to class looking like they're going to a wedding.

Most candidates don't take me up on this, and still arrive decked out in business suits. I appreciate that they are so respectful and take the interview seriously.

What to do if your interview (like me) gives you the option of casual dress? Or if they don't say anything at all?

It doesn't matter where you are meeting - an office, a house, a coffee, or a circus... but if you don't get any guidance, dress like you would to a job interview, a debate tournament or formal affair. For men, this means a suit. For women, slacks and a white shirt or sweater is nice if you have it, if you don't own anything quite that formal then muted colors and conservative attire is fine.

If you do have the option of dressing more casually, try to stay within the more conservative edge of that range. Think about it as something you would wear to church. If in doubt, dress more formally rather than less. It can't lose you any points, and your interviewer will appreciate it, even if she doesn't say so.

Preparing for the interview

An interview may sound deceptively easy: show up, talk about yourself. No preparation needed, right?

Wrong. An interview is an opportunity for you to tell your story, but in order to tell it well, you need to figure out exactly what that story is. You've gotten good grades since you were in the first grade, and you've been an overachiever, president of every single club on campus. Add to that a leading role in your drama club's production and a stint on the cheerleading team. But how does it all tie together? What is unique about you that makes this story interesting, and how will you contribute as a student to the life of the college?

These are not hard questions, but they are pithy ones, and it is worthwhile for you to figure this out before you waltz into the interview and begin to meander your way through answers you weren't prepared to give.

Here are some questions to guide you in your exploration of your specific story.
1. What makes you stand out from the other students at your high school?
2. What have you done differently in your life?
3. Is there some decision that you made that has guided your high school career?
4. What do you think you can bring to the college that none or few of the other students have experienced?
5. What ties all of your accomplishments together? Is it an underlying interest in science? Is it a desire to help others? Is it an insatiable academic curiosity?

You may not know what your story is right away. Or, as with many of us, you may have several stories. You can be the star athlete who quit football to focus on the debate team, or you can be the struggling math student who spent extra time on his studies and through perseverance won the Math Olympiad. It's possible that you are both of these people and many others. Perhaps you learned your perseverance at math on the football field. What you need to do is to flesh out all of the stories you can tell about yourself, and pick the ones that you like best, and then find ways to tie them together.

I often hear applicants tell me about wonderful things they've done, but in such a haphazard way that it is difficult for me to picture their personal story. When I leave the interview, I don't know if the student just got nervous and interviewed badly, or just is not an introspective person who can't tie personal experiences together. When you are with an interviewer, help her to see the big picture.

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.


I quibbled a good bit about what to call this blog. I ended up with the rather boring and conspicuous "Harvard Interviewer" title simply because I wanted people to be able to find it. I do have some considerable internal resistance to using the (very branded) name of my alma matter to attract readers, but in this case I hope I will be forgiven because I am indeed a Harvard Interviewer, and I hope that prospective candidates will read my blog and hopefully use my advice to make their interviews better.

Things tend to look very different from "the other side of the table." Personal quirks, insecurities, and uncertainties that may seem endearving socially detract from the interview. At worst, they can cost you a positive recommendation. I remember, years ago, sitting across the table at a Barnes & Noble from my Harvard interviewer, a attorney who quizzed me about the finer points of 19th century British law. It had come up in the conversation naturally, and it just so happened that I knew the right answer. When I got my acceptance, I assumed that it was this tidbit of knowledge that had somehow won him over.

I realize now, years later, having sat across that same table for a number of students, that it was highly unlikely. A good interview is not, as some high school students may believe, knowing the right answer to an obscure question. A good interview is being able to create a story about who you are, about your life - and to tell it well. To tell it in a convincing, confident way, to get the interviewer interested and excited about who you are, and to convince him that you would fit in well at Harvard.

In this blog, I hope to help you do just that. Questions and comments are always welcome.