Friday, January 14, 2011

What do you mean, practice?

It's easy to say, practice for your interview. But what in the world are you really practicing? And how can you tell you're getting better?

At first practice seems like a paradox here because the best interviews are the ones that are honest and genuine. But at the same time, it's hard to be honest and genuine unless you practice. Why is this?

I remember when I started interviewing for jobs out of college, I was terrible. I hadn't practiced, assuming that I was an intelligent, confident young woman and I'd do just fine. I didn't. I had no specific story to tell. When talking about myself my answers were disorganized and rambling. I eventually learned to interview mainly through trial and error, which meant going on a lot of interviews and not getting the job. Eventually, though, I got better... not in the least due to the help of a roommate who made me sit on her bed at 2 a.m. in the morning and mock interview until she was satisfied with my answers.

It's better not to go about using my trial-and-error method for your college interviews. For starters, you don't have twenty college interviews to waste. So, if you're smart, you'll do it beforehand.


Step 1. Figure out your story. What is a story, exactly? It's the narrative you have chosen to present about your life. Try reading an article about any famous person - and you'll see how the journalist does it. Focus your story around your greatest accomplishments and your areas of personal relevance. Try telling different stories, and ask someone (a parent, a teacher, a friend) to listen to you talk and decide which one sounds best.

For instance: Your uncle bought an overpriced house. As the market crashed, the bank foreclosed on his property. His financial problems inspired you to research predatory lending. You helped him with his personal situation, and then you wrote a paper about it. You won a regional competition, and then enrolled in an advanced economics course at your community college. Now you think you may want to become an economist.

Step 2. Refine your story. Go over your resume with a fine-tooth comb and try to pull out anything else relevant. Maybe you won a debate tournament by giving a speech about the financial rights and responsibilities of citizens. Perhaps you had a summer internship with a real estate agent. Make a list of anything else relevant that you can work in to bolster your story.

Step 3. Pick some sub-stories to include. Your resume will be long and impressive, and you won't want to talk about everything, unless you're asked. Focus on things that are more impressive and more involved. Are you chair of your high school Cancer Society? Did you organize your team's entry into the Science Olympiad? Be prepared to talk about those experiences in a meaningful way. What did you learn from them? Why were they so valuable to you?

Step 4. Practice telling your story even if it's not asked directly. For a good list of interview questions, skim this site. Try to answer every question by incorporating some bit of your story... if the question is about your biggest obstacle, talk how devastated you felt when you heard your uncle was losing his house... and then describe what you did about it. If you're asked what recent current event has impacted your studies - you can talk about exactly the same thing. See? If you are prepared with a set of talking points you want to get across, it almost doesn't matter what the question is, because you have an answer ready for it.

If all of this feels forced and artificial, practice more. You will know when you are happy with your story, because it will feel genuine and you will be excited to tell it.

I love interviews because they help you get to know yourself better. And that's something we could all use more of.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Top ten mistakes students make

It's easy to write about what you *should* do... but what about things you shouldn't? Is there a short list of faux-pas that will instantly flag you as not being Harvard material?

The simple (and hopefully comforting) answer is no. There's no single thing you can do that would make an interviewer write you off. BUT there are lots of little things that may not add up in your favor.

(Most) interviewers are not trying to trap you. In the instructions we are given, we are in fact asked to think of ourselves as advocates for the students, and to take a personal and vested interest in them. So, you shouldn't get someone asking you complicated math questions or testing you on current events.

But you will be evaluated not just on the content of what you say, but your general maturity - how you present yourself, how well you interact with others, and how professionally you behave during the interview. These are places where you don't want to lose points.

So, without further ado, top ten mistakes.

1. Don't make it hard for the interviewer to schedule with you. Your Harvard interviewer is a volunteer. (And as far as I know, interviewers for most other colleges are generally volunteers too.) This is NOT their job. They often have jobs and families... what they don't have is a lot of time. When your interviewer calls or emails, respond promptly and make yourself available. A school club meeting, dance lesson, or tutoring session is not a good reason to reschedule an interview.

2. Don't ask your interviewer if he can meet you in another location. Even if you have a long drive. If you really want to attend College X, you'll find a way to make the trip.

3. Don't be late. Better yet be early. 10-15 minutes ahead of schedule is perfect. [You would think this would be obvious, but you'd be surprised...]

4. Don't forget that pre-interview contact is part of the interview. It is the first impression your interviewer will have of you. Respond to emails promptly. Use punctuation and write in complete sentences. Be on "interview behavior" even if you're just on the phone scheduling a time.

5. Don't forget any materials the interviewer has asked you to bring. Usually, this shouldn't be much more than a resume.

6. Don't forget to use your resources to help you prepare. Many students have parents who are professionals, who in their careers have interviewed dozens of people for all sorts of positions. They've also gone to dozens of interviews themselves. College interviews and job interviews have a lot in common. Have your parents do mock interviews for you. Ask them to give you their best interview advice.

7. Don't hold back. Pretend you're talking to a friend. Be enthusiastic, be excited. And of course be yourself. I've had interviews (not many, thankfully) that have been like pulling teeth. The student looks fabulous on paper but is very shy and clams up during the interview. Your interviewer is looking for a reason to be on your side... give it to her.

8. Don't put yourself down. Ever. You won't sound conceited, I promise. Remember, your job is to tell the best story possible with the data that you have. Do you know why you shouldn't put yourself down? Because there's a chance that your interviewer might believe you.

9. Don't forget to be interested in the interviewer. I wrote a much longer post on this earlier, but it's worth mentioning again here. Have a conversation with your interviewer.

10. Don't forget to follow up. Say thank you - then stay in touch afterwards too. Whether you get accepted or not, your interviewer is a valuable resource. Don't waste the opportunity.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Disabilities and academic performance

[Note: I use the term “disability” here to refer to a range of conditions ranging from stuttering and dyslexia to autism. I don’t really like “disability” because it implies a lack of ability, which is not true: students with these conditions tend to have more ability that they’ve worked harder to develop. If you have a better catch-all, please leave a comment and tell me!]

A question came in from a parent whose son was diagnosed with autism. He wants to know: should his son mention this in the interview, especially since it has affected his English scores and his social development?

Absolutely. Interviewers do not receive a copy of the application, so they go in cold. The only thing we know about a student’s background is what you tell us. The best way to bring up a disability is in the context of telling the interviewer about yourself: what has made you person you are today. Focus on what you’ve been able to accomplish, not on how it has held you back. Here are some good places to bring that up:

- Talk about your disability in the context of your family. Your parents have imbued you with strength by always believing that you could accomplish anything, and were willing to put in the extra work to help you do it.

- Talk about your disability in the context of what makes you a good candidate. Describe ways you were able to use what you learned with respect to your disability in other areas of your life. Maybe you were able to persevere where your classmates gave up because you have more experience working through obstacles.

- Talk about your disability in the context of your greatest accomplishment. Maybe your proudest moment was not taking first place in the regional Math competition, but finally mastering the concept of synonyms.

For instance, in this case if this student’s English scores are not high relative to Harvard averages, but have improved significantly through his hard work, this is what he should be talking about, not apologizing or trying to make excuses. If a disability has given you any unique insights into the world around you, talk about that. Have you met people with other disabilities through your experiences? Gotten involved with nonprofits that work with the disabled in developing countries? Acquired a depth of character that many people your age lack?

I talk a lot on this blog about the value of perseverance and fortitude. Talking about how you’ve overcome disabilities is a great way to showcase that. Done correctly, it can actually make your application stronger.

So, some parting thoughts:

1. Practice, practice, practice! If you’re shy or hesitant in bringing up your disability, rehearse so that it sounds natural and confident. Try to bring it up early rather than later on in the interview.

2. Don’t apologize. Don’t present it as an excuse. You’re sitting at the same table (metaphorically) with Harvard applicants all over the country who’ve been selected from a very competitive pool. The admissions committee already thinks you’re qualified. But unlike everyone else, you’ve had to work much harder to be here. Be proud of it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The art of being appreciative

Your interview is over, you think you've nailed it. Now what?

Thank you notes are an important part of the process and an extra opportunity to shine. Here's how to do it well:

1. Send the note quickly. Not the minute you leave the interview, but preferably that same day. If you must, send the next day, but don't wait any longer.

2. Say something both complimentary and sincere. Hopefully this won't be hard. "I really enjoyed hearing about your research on migration patterns of swallows. Could you please send me the link to your recent paper?" It’s not necessary to ask for something in your follow up. It can be as simple as referencing something you talked. Maybe you mentioned a book your interviewer hadn’t read but found interesting. Send a link.

3. Continuing the interview over email. A parent has asked me, is it appropriate to throw additional information into the follow-up note? For instance, what if your child left something out? It’s a tough question to answer, and not every interviewer will agree with me here. My personal preference would be to leave any additional information out of it. You’ve had an hour or so with your interviewer, she’s gotten a good sense for who you are as a person. Any additional details are unlikely to make a significant difference. This is especially true if you felt the interview went well. Let’s say you feel the interview went poorly. Is it possible to salvage it in a follow-up? Honestly, probably not. But in the second case, you have less to lose, so it may at least be worth a try.

4. Handwritten notes. I would caution against a handwritten note for one simple reason: it may not arrive by the time the interviewer is filling out his feedback forms. And if it doesn’t, then it kind of looks like you haven’t sent one. Will an interviewer hold it against you? He shouldn’t. But we’re all human. And little impressions do add up. Now, all of that said, let’s say your interviewer is older – maybe in his sixties or seventies. Is it possible that he will be charmed by a handwritten note? Of course. So, weigh the risks and make your own decision on this.

5. Staying in touch. This is the optional bonus point level. Did you meet someone incredible? Is she a screenwriter, something you dream about becoming someday? Did she mention that her production company has internships every summer? You don’t lose anything by staying in touch with your interviewer, even if you don’t get in. Drop a line to let her know which college you decided to attend. Send a note congratulating her on a new movie coming out. Try to build a relationship. If it works, you may have found yourself an incredible mentor. And if it doesn’t work? Don’t sweat it and try again. There will be plenty of interviews in your life, whether for summer jobs, fellowships, or other colleges.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chinese Parents

In Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, Amy Chua presents her case for strict, goal-oriented parenting and claims it produces superior children: ones who are successful, self-disciplined and accomplished.

Furthermore, she argues that left to their own devices, children would never do anything hard because things only become fun once you are good at them. Before you get to some level of competence, it just feels like hard work, which children don't like, so they give up.

Throughout the admissions process, we see many students who are talented academically. Straight A's, excellent test scores, rank first or second at their schools, lush extracurricular resumes. That's what's known as a "qualified applicant" - someone who can handle the workload and rigor. Of course, not all qualified applicants get in, because there just isn't enough space.

The applicants that do get in stand out. They stand out as risk-takers, humanitarians, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs. They have something beyond impeccable academics - they are able to show initiative, create opportunities, and think outside the box. Ideally.

A college would love nothing more than to be affiliated with alumni who change the world in some way. Or with students who, while in school, organize Amnesty International campaigns, start businesses, produce films, identify new species. A student who simply performs academically is fine, but by the time students are in college academics have become broader and wider. Many disciplines require not just the ability to fulfill a requirement, but creativity and free-thinking and self-motivation.

I worry that Chua's system of child-rearing would fail at this. It could produce children who have grown so used to being measured and graded and fulfilling explicit expectatations that they don't know how to operate without metrics... or without a parent hovering and directing them. That's a risk. However, there is something she writes that resonates with me as well:

"But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."

Tenacity is a wonderful tool. It's something colleges respect. It's something that matters in life too. I'm often asked questions about how to best talk about "failures" -- the isolated bad grades, poor test scores, failed attempts at one thing or another. My answer is usually the same - it's not a failure if you can create a narrative of growth and perseverance around it.

Chua gives the example of the Chinese parent reacting to a B. A Chinese mother, she explains, would assembles dozens of practice tests and make the child plod through them until an A was secured. If you can create this narrative around all your failures, you've won. That's more impressive than never having stumbled, because you demonstrate being able to overcome obstacles. And no one is able to go through life without any obstacles, so the sooner you learn to deal with them well, the further ahead you will be.

So, Chinese parenting. Honestly, we could all use some. Every adult wishes there was someone in their corner, forcing them through the tough spots, believing in them and pushing them at the same time.

But does Chinese parenting create kids who can be their own Chinese parents? Or does it instead encourage them to be constantly on the lookout for metrics that validate their performance, because they can't do it themselves?