Friday, January 7, 2011

Disappearance from CollegeConfidential

Some of you may have noticed I've disappeared from CollegeConfidential. It's unfortunate, and it wasn't my choice. Apparently, they have a policy of blocking any user who lists a personal blog as a resource in answer to a question.

It's particularly unfortunate because it seems my advice has been helpful and filling a need. When I started this blog, I never expected to get a lot of traffic out of it. Then suddenly, I was inundated with messages asking for the link, and my visitors swelled - from 14 visitors per day, to 50, to 320. I received message after message from students and parents telling me that the information I was sharing was valuable, and not something they'd succeeded at finding elsewhere.

But now, all the links to this blog on CollegeConfidential are gone.

If you try to google for this blog, it's highly unlikely you'll find it. That's because it's new and not optimized in the search results. So, I'll work on that.

In the meantime, if you've bookmarked it, or saved it in your history and are visiting again, feel free to share the link with anyone who would find it helpful. If you'd like to repost some of this content in a school newsletter or on a website please feel free to do so as long as you provide proper attribution.

And if you need to contact me directly, please email mss9902 AT gmail DOT com.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Interviews for the Introvert

What do you do if you are painfully shy? Or not even so painfully, but shy enough to feel uncomfortable talking about yourself?

Are interviews purposefully weighted towards the kid starring in the high school musical, not the one building Da Vinci-esque sets behind the curtains?

These questions were posed to me by a curious parent on CollegeConfidential, finishing with, "I just wonder what you might say about this, and is it the case that Harvard's student body is made up primarily of extroverts?"

This is actually a fascinating question. Here's why. When I was a high school senior, I looked at the college interview as a close-ended event. You do your interview, hopefully you get in, and then you're done - you never have to do it again. Much like the SAT. A one-time hoop you jump through and forget about.

But of course, I was eventually disabused of that notion because it's not true. The interview is more like a gateway. Because adulthood is filled with lots of interviews. Some of them are formal, like job interviews. Others are more casual (a meeting with the company president, an elevator pitch to an investor, an research presentation). And at the end of the day, what you are always selling is yourself.

In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he spends some time referencing successful scientists and dissecting the elements of their success. He focuses on Oppenheimer's ability to be convincing and persuasive. And his conclusion is that Oppenheimer succeeded where others could have failed not because he was brilliant, but because he knew how to communicate well.

So, is Harvard filled with extroverts?

In some ways, that's the wrong question to ask.

Are extroverts more successful than introverts?

The answer is, I don't know. My classes certainly were not filled with the types of extroverts who always want to be center stage, tap dancing the lead in every show, whether metaphorical or otherwise. But those who were introverted also understood the importance of being able to present well, whether in an interview or otherwise, and they worked on it. Because it's a skillset that isn't single-use.

And by the way - I would also offer this for thought: just being extroverted and confident is rarely enough to have a good interview. Being able to communicate well is a skill that goes well beyond that. I've interviewed confident, extroverted candidates who gave terrible interviews. They weren't prepared, they weren't thoughtful about their answers, and they expected to sail by on pure bravado and likeability. And guess what - it didn't work.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dream School versus reality

I like to skim College Confidential to see if there are any interview questions people have that I'm not answering.

But today, I saw a post that I wanted to address because it is so indicative both of our economic climate, and the lengths parents are willing to go to for their kids.

It came from a parent whose daughter had been admitted to her top choice school, but the financials just weren't working out. The choice was between letting a hard-fought-for acceptance letter go to waste, or selling a home.

I have two thoughts here -

First, the parents should NEVER bear the brunt of this sacrifice - if the daughter is determined to pursue a specific (and expensive) school, she should also make an adult decision about taking on the financial burden that goes with it. As implied in this NYT piece, that burden is not always worth it.

Second, the thinking that there is only one "Dream School" is narrow and dangerous. The sooner parents can help their kids get off that track, the better.

College lasts for four years, and then it's over. And what comes next? "Dream" jobs, "dream" grad schools, "dream" fellowships? There are so many dreams out there that hinging end-all-be-all unrealistic expectations on a four year chunk of your child's life is damaging.

Here's a story: A friend of mine wanted to go to Harvard so badly that she transferred from another Ivy League school her sophomore year. She didn't like it. Her junior year, she left Harvard and transferred back.

I know other students who were very unhappy at Harvard. Natalie Portman has been quoted in interviews as describing her time there as a really tough four years of her life.

Then, of course, there are a great many of us who loved it - who felt stimulated, nurtured and treasured every moment there. Who became more confident, more mature and more capable as a result of the unique experiences Harvard had to offer.

Personally, I loved it. But it was expensive. After scholarship and financial aid, it still cost my parents $100k out of pocket over the course of four years. To immigrants who were once terrified to go into debt to buy a house, it was a dizzying sum. But they scrimped and made the payments each month anyway, and four years later they got to hang a Harvard diploma on the wall of their house.

When I graduated, I went to work in finance. The Harvard degree made it easier to land a series of plum jobs, and by the time I was twenty-five I had (easily) saved the $100k necessary to repay my parents, though it had never been their intention to offer the money as a loan.

What's the moral?

There's no such thing as a free ride. Somebody has to pay for it at some point - if your child wants to go to a "dream" school badly enough, then she should also understand the debt that comes with it may require her to do something other than writing a novel or going on archeological digs in Egypt after college. If she's not ready to sacrifice her ideal career path, then she needs to do it at a different school.

This may seem unfair, even tough. But remember, life after college is chock-full of these kinds of choices, and the sooner a young adult is faced with them, and learns to tackle them head-on, the stronger she will be as a person and the better able to navigate through life.

An interview is a conversation, not a monologue

Many candidates think of the interview as a performance. If you do, you're missing out.

I once interviewed a candidate who was superb. Poised, articulate, thoughtful. But she missed the chance to connect with me. She mentioned she taught courses in a foreign language. I jumped in to say that I had studied it post college, and found it challenging. She smiled, nodded, then moved on to the next thing... about herself.

This wasn't a huge red flag for me, but it made it clear that she was not really interested in building a relationship with me - she was interested in impressing me so I would write her a great letter.

And you know what? I did. I wrote a very nice letter for her, and was enthusiastic about the qualities that would make her an excellent candidate.

So it was an A- interview. Which was fine.

But if she had treated the interview not as a performance, but an opportunity to build a relationship with someone who could potentially be a mentor, she would have gotten more out of it. It's possible she could have gotten a stronger rec letter, but beyond that, she could have kept in touch with me beyond the interview. Whether or not she got admitted, she could have asked me for career advice, suggestions about internships, scholarships, and summer opportunities. I could have introduced her to other people in her field of interest who could have been helpful. She had the opportunity to build a stronger, deeper relationship with me, and she dropped it.

Good mentors are hard to find. Not every Harvard interviewer will want to be a mentor. Not every interviewer will be a good fit for you. But one of the most powerful things you can do during your interview is find a way to connect with your interviewer as an individual.

Here are a few ways to do it:
1. Be genuinely interested in your interviewer. If, during the course of the conversation, they say something that you find fascinating, that you've always wanted to do, that impresses you, say so.
2. Do some research. Google your interviewer. Has your interviewer written a book? Worked at a non profit? Won a scholarship you want to apply for? Let them know you know something about them, and are excited to meet with them.
3. Try to ask a few questions about them - before they tell you to. Almost all interviewers will finish up by saying, "Are there any questions you have for me?" It's fine to save the bulk of your questions for this time. But if you slip in a few beforehand, it makes it clear that you truly want to know what they think - you aren't filling in a compulsory bullet.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A brand new year

I've been receiving emails from the Harvard Interviewing Committee telling me that they are changing the system.

Fewer interviews will be given this year, which means less pressure on interviewers, who in previous years were stretched pretty thin. That's a good thing, in general.

That's also a good thing for you, because it means if you get an interview, you're really special and your interviewer will be 100% focused on getting to know *you*, not blurring you together with the kid who plays cello or the girl who rescues abandoned kittens.

So, it's another year. Last year, applications were at a record high. Out of the students I interviewed, one girl truly stood out for me. I wrote her a very strong letter... and was frankly surprised to learn that she did not get accepted.

That can be frustrating, as an interviewer. You wonder if you could have written a stronger recommendation... if you were too stingy with the marks.

When I was applying ten years ago, the process was stressful and competitive. There were tears, mini nervous breakdowns, trips to Coldstones to make me feel better. I can't imagine it's gotten any better, given that numbers of applicants keep climbing.

As you start the process, whether you're a senior getting your acceptances, or a junior looking forward, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. This is not a life or death event. It doesn't decide your future.
2. There are still many many wonderful opportunities ahead of you.
3. YOU determine how successful you are, not what college you go to.
4. Read biographies of famous people you admire - some of them went to Ivy League schools. But a great many didn't, and didn't consider themselves handicapped because of it.

That said, you owe it to yourself to give it your best shot. Be prepared. Ask me questions - I'll make an effort to answer them as they come up. Treat this seriously, and think about your interview prep not as time that ends up being "wasted" if you don't get in to your top college, but as an investment. During the course of your life, you will have a great many interviews, and the sooner you learn to present yourself in the best possible light, the better for you.