Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New versus old?

A question from a student getting prep'd for her Harvard interview. She writes:

During the interview, should I discuss "new" information (things that weren't covered in-depth on my application) or reinforce what's already on the application?

Here's what I mean. My interviewer has said that they (the interviewers) do not see my Harvard application. So during the interview, should I go over things that were on my app (the topics I wrote my essays on, things I really stressed, etc.) or should I use the interview as a chance to give Harvard MORE information about myself that I couldn't fit on the app?

For example, on my Harvard application, I really stressed my volunteer work, my eBay business, and my future dreams (to create a successful charity--this sort of ties in with my volunteer work). I didn't really mention my passion for statistics and academics in general. I only briefly mentioned ballet, which I've been doing for 12 years and counting. So in my interview, should I repeat my stories about my volunteer work/eBay/future dreams or should I discuss my passion for ballet/statistics/etc?

The interview is a way for Harvard to get to know the applicant even better. So I thought perhaps it would be better for me to talk about ballet etc. because Harvard doesn't really know that part of me. If I were to talk about my eBay business in the interview, the interviewer would write that into their recommendation. However, Harvard would already know about eBay and it might become redundant.

But at the same time, I thought that maybe it would be better to reinforce my volunteer work/eBay/future dreams in the interview, since those are really what make me unique and those are the ones that have the best "stories" behind them. After all, those topics were "meaty" enough that I could write essays about them, whereas I don't think I have enough to say about ballet that I could write an essay about it.

And if you recommend a balance of both, should I talk about 50/50 old information & new information, or 70/30, etc.

This is a problem that is nice to have! This student obviously has a few different narratives about her life that she has successfully developed into what I imagine is a strong application. Rather than getting distracted by dozens of extracurriculars, she has chosen to focus on a few activities where she has excelled. This is smart. But now her problem is she has other narratives that she wasn't able to fit in. What to do?

The answer is easy, but will probably frustrate you. I recommend forgetting any sort of ratios, but instead focusing on connecting with your interviewer. You may hope that your interviewer is taking copious notes and will provide Harvard with an exact transcript of your conversation, but this is not the case. We have the option of talking about specifics:

"Jennifer shows exceptional perseverance by continuing with a demanding ballet schedule even as she excels in her academics. She has performed in half a dozens acclaimed shows and has been invited to travel to NYC to audition for a number of companies upon graduation."

But we are just as likely to write:

"Jennifer is bright and talented. She shows great commitment to activities she is passionate about, and perseveres even when it is not easy or immediately gratifying. She would be a terrific fit at Harvard. This is the kind of person I would have liked to be friends with when I was a student there. I think she can be both a leader and an inspiration to others in the student body."

See? No mention of ballet at all. But still a great recommendation. So, if you're counting on your interview to fill in the missing gaps on your application, don't. That's (kind of) the bad news. The good news, however, is that this is not the point of the interview. The point of the interview is for Harvard to get to know you as a person. So do that as best you can. Come into your interview with a few set "stories" about yourself - the Ebay business is a great one - but be flexible enough to shift gears if you need to.

Let's say your interviewer is a former ballerina herself. You really connect with her on that front - by all means, mention ballet. But do it for the right reasons - to connect with your interviewer, not because you want her to put a check mark somewhere. Also, you kind of answer your question yourself - you say there is not enough in ballet for you to write an essay about. If that's truly how you feel, then a brief secondary mention is all it deserves. Personally, I think if you've been engaged in something for twelve years, there is probaby a story there. Remember, not all stories have to be about you being successful. It sounds from your email like your "tangible" accomplishments in ballet (winning awards, being cast in shows, performing in professional troupes, are limited). So are you a ballerina despite the fact that you're not as good at it as you are at other things (like statistics?) That's a story, and frankly says something very good about you. I'll let you draw the conclusion.

You throw in "passion for academics" - honestly, this is a given. Everyone applying is passionate about academics. If there is something that sets you apart, talk about it. Otherwise, leave it alone. There was a girl years ago who was homeless while she was in high school, but was passionate enough about her academics to maintain her grades even while she slept in homeless shelters and train stations. That's a rare instance of where you may want to talk about it. You mention statistics - is there a story behind this? Have you done some work in the field that sets you apart? Are you using statistics to improve your Ebay business? (If you can combine two narratives, even better!) Dig deep inside yourself and find the reason why you love it and how that makes you different.

There is one exception to everything I've said here - if something has changed significantly between the time you applied and your interview. Have you won a Novel Prize? Did the non-profit you founded just raise ten million dollars to build schools in Afghanistan? Did you sell a script to Disney? These are over the top examples, but you get the idea. If this is the case - do find a way to talk about it. Explicitly tell your interviewer that you did not write about it on your app because it hadn't happened yet. Oh, and if it *is* something seriously huge, it may be worthwhile calling the admissions office to let them know.