Thursday, January 27, 2011

Inappropriate interviews... and how to handle them

I've spent a lot of time talking about how enthusiastic most interviewers are, and what a pleasure it is to meet with high-achieving high school seniors.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Though few and far between, there are interviewers out there who use interviews in inappropriate ways. Honestly, it's sad. It's not how I'd like to represent Harvard, and I'm sure it's not how Harvard (or other colleges) want to be represented.

How do you know your interviewer is behaving inappropriately? Here are things an interviewer should not be:
- Aggressive
- Judgemental
- Confrontational
- Dismissive
- Demeaning

Where do these behaviors come from? I wish I knew. Occasionally, there are corporate interviewers who like to do "bad cop" interviews to test the candidate and see how the candidate reacts. Most of the time these are for high-pressure positions. I could debate the value of those types of interviews as well - personally, I'm not a fan - but one could argue they have their place.

But that place is NOT in college admissions.

Here are examples of things an interviewer should never do:
- attempt to critique or test a student's religious faith
- accuse the candidate of sexism, racism, classism
- question the candidate's honesty

If you have an interviewer who starts to go down this path, try to get off it right away. Stand your ground, and if you need to, walk away from the interview. I'm a personal believer in valuing your personal integrity, and I don't think it's worth compromising that even for a college interview.

What if the interviewer is just having a bad day and has said the wrong thing? Try to diffuse it as much as possible. For example, if you've gotten onto the subject of religion and your interviewer is busy questioning the Mormon church, of which you are a proud member, you can throw in a neutral statement like, "We all have our beliefs. That's one of the things I really enjoy about Harvard - that there is such a vibrant and diverse religious community on campus." Then move on to another topic - about how you value diversity, or other things you like about your school of choice.

What if this doesn't work? Make a judgement call. If your interviewer is making you feel uncomfortable, just end the interview. Trust me. Learning to stand up for yourself is a skill that will serve you well in life and it is worth learning early.

What about the aftermath? Discuss the interview with someone objective, like a teacher or guidance counselor. If you felt like the interviewer was just unfriendly or minimally engaged that's one thing - if you felt personally discriminated against, put down, or otherwise treated inappropriately, deal with it right away. Don't wait until you find out your application status. Contact the admissions office or have someone do it on your behalf, and share (politely) what it was that concerned you about the interview.

The admissions office will appreciate this, because especially with alumni interviewers, there is little oversight, minimal (if any) training, and no real feedback on performance. It would be nice if there were a survey that candidates could fill out. At the end of the day, the admissions folks don't want you to be uncomfortable, intimidated or unhappy any more than you do.

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