How to excel at the undergraduate interview

With the undergraduate interview season upon us, thousands of high school students dress in their best business casual, put on their game faces, and troop confidently, albeit nervously, to admission, scholarship, and alumni interviews. I’m lucky that my alma mater allows me to participate in the latter: a few times a week, I meet with hopeful students who are eager to begin the next chapter in this wild play we call life.

Over the past month, I have met almost a dozen students. All are from a predominately rural area of the Southeast, and a few from the area’s larger towns. Some have been afforded the opportunities you would expect high school students to have: several AP classes, guidance councilors with ample experience, and a strong support network for those students who seek an Ivy League, a Southern Ivy, or a top 25-school education. As I expected, only the few students from the larger city schools had opportunities to enroll in AP classes. Those same students were given more guidance from their administration. And, not surprisingly, those students were also the ones applying to the best schools in the country.

I am by no means saying that a student from a small, rural school system is doomed. Those students usually have more drive to achieve their dreams and actively seek out every possible opportunity. Though they might not be afforded the AP classes or the experienced guidance councilors, these students are self-starting, independent thinkers who make huge, life altering decision on their own. I know this situation personally; I was one of those students.

On paper, the students from the private and larger schools were more impressive. The point of these alumni interviews, however, it to get to know the students on a personal level and understand if he or she is a good fit for the school. During the interviews, I met some very impressive applicants: students deeply involved in community service and their marching band. Some students were already conducting university-level research and thinking about how their career could impact their community and world. Others were engaging and intuitive. Overall, I have been impressed, especially when I compare my 18-year-old-self to them. However, I am also a little weary.

Students consistently had the same, shall we call them “habits” during these interviews. I’m not expecting students to have a clear idea of what they want to do 10 years from now, but having an idea shows that they have at least thought about it. Similarly, when asked to explain a time when they failed at an endeavor, students weren’t likely to manipulate the question to demonstrate how the overcame a challenged. Instead, they were likely to tell me that they didn’t like a class, and that’s it. Nothing more. They did not speak about personal growth nor how they cope with failure.

To all potential undergraduate students: do you want to get into the school or your dreams? Receive those coveted scholarships? And impressed the sense out of an interviewer? Here’s how.

1. Want to be successful? Dress the part. 

I am a little bothered to say that most students did not even bother to put on a nice top and pants for my interviews. Granted, I held most my interviews in casual places, like coffee shops and outside at some tables during a particular nice day. That does not mean that I, and future interviewers, will not take a look at your clothing and wonder if you forgot about the interview, remembered last minute, and threw on the only clean clothing you had. I am not pleased to report that one female even more leggings to the interview. Here are a few basic rules:

-If you don’t have dress pants, then dark jeans or black pants are acceptable alternatives. Tight on money? For girls, a decent pair of black pants (which are in season) can be found everywhere…I found a great pair at H&M for $13. For guys? Khakis never go out of style.
-As for tops, anything simple is great; anything in the ski vest or tee-shirt department is a huge NO.
-Shoes? Girls, please please please don’t show up in huge, clunky boots with tons of buckles and bells or whatever are on boots these days. If you are your interviewer are sitting it chairs with no table, your shoes are super distracting. Boots are great, and necessary in the winter, but if you don’t have a plain pair, then stick a pair of flats in your car, and change before coming in for the interview. As for guys: wear dress shoes, or at least a nice pair of loafers. Sneakers are a huge, resounding NO.
-Best rule to live by: Overdress, overdress overdress. Better to be safe than sorry. Plus, if you walk in looking very nice, it makes me think that you were just at another interview, and you have more control over our interview. It becomes my job to impress YOU.

2. Work on your handshake

This is a person pet-peeve of mine. Many people I met had TERRIBLE handshakes, you know the kind, those limp handed I’m-afraid-to-even-grasp-your-hand sort of handshake. Calling it a handshake is almost an exaggeration; it’s more like a clammy handhold. Now on the more extreme, I’ve seen handshakes that look like the person is trying to rip off your arm. My advice? PRACTICE. Don’t be afraid to grasp someone’s hand. Three confident pumps will do, and then you can let go. Practice with your friends, teachers, someone who knows what a handshake should be. I am disappointed to say that some of the more impressive applicants had the worst handshakes, and though I didn’t mention that in my recommendations, others won’t be so forgiving.

3. Don’t have an answer? Take a few seconds to think

Every interview is different, so to prepare for every question someone can possibly asked if impossible. Some interviewers ask straightforward questions, others are likely to throw some mind-benders your way. What all interviewers have in common is an appreciation for the interviewee to take a few seconds to collect themselves and organize their answer. 10 seconds is plenty of time to organize your thoughts, and I know you won’t be penalized. What will work against your favor is one of the following statements…
“Oh, I don’t know!”
“Can we come back to that question?”
“I’m not sure, I’m sorry!”
Never answer with one of these statements. I beg you. And that last statement is particularly bad because…

4. Girls, stop apologizing! 

This needs to be stated twice…GIRLS, STOP APOLOGIZING! I understand that Southern politeness is engrained in your personality; I understand that you want to be considerate and get me to like you, but STOP APOLOGIZING! Most of the time, they apologize for no reason, and it makes me wonder if they are doing something that merits an apology…like, did you just steal my wallet? Spill coffee on me without me noticing? Girls, you are not inconveniencing me by speaking with me, you are not annoying me by telling me about your career goals, and you do not need to apologize for voicing your opinion! 
I’ll say it one last time, girls, STOP APOLOGIZING!

5. When I ask you to brag about yourself, brag about yourself! 

This is relevant to both girls and boys. I always ask students to tell me about their greatest accomplishment, how it impacted their lives and the lives of others. I always end the question with, “Take this time to brag about your accomplishments!” Only one student took the question in stride, and her answer was excellent. All the other students looked shell-shocked, like I just asked them to tell me Charlemagne’s impact on Medieval Europe or how many craters are on the moon. They stumbled over their answers, saying that they were in charge of their clubs or did well in a hard class. No one wanted to admit that there were good at something. Here’s some advice, don’t be afraid to sell yourself. Convince me that you are worth hearing, and make me the one who wants to impress you!

6. Prepare questions for your interviewer and at least pretend to care about the answers 

Have at least two questions prepared for you interviewer. Show me that you have thought about your college experience, and career goals. Only a few students bothered to prepare questions for me. It is beneficial to the student to ask question because it allows me, and other interviewers, to learn more about the student. However, one student was obviously only asking questions because she thought that’s what I wanted. She would stare off in the other direction while I spoke, and had zero facial expressions…no engagement or even interest in my answers. Ask you questions, and at least pretend to be interested in the answers.

Applying for Graduate School in the Social Sciences: What on earth possessed me (possibly the spirit of Margaret Mead)

I am just going to admit it: I absolutely love school. I love sitting in classrooms, taking detailed, organized notes, engaging in heated debates over metaphysical ethical dilemmas, and that moment when you’re researching a paper you realize that it’s not a bore it’s, dare a say it, fun. Of course, the non-academic scene is wonderful as well, if not better, than the post-college world (especially since I’ve realized that in the real world Thursday night is not a weekend night, and you are expected to come into work Friday functional and not hung-over). Despite that disappointing setback, I do want to attend graduate school for my Ph.D., even if means I must continue to adhere to that ridiculous “Thursday night isn’t a weekend night” rule.

However, any graduate student, professor, or other academic will quickly inform you that you can’t simply apply graduate school because “you love school.” You must have some sort of grand scientific question that explores a troubling short-coming of a specific field while also contributing to the knowledge of the greater scientific community. If that wasn’t daunting enough, your research must also solve some greater global issue and ultimately improve the quality of education, government, society, and life. You are expected to sell your soul to some faceless institution, engage in wicked little diatribes with your cohorts, and try not to feel too stupid when meeting with your advisor. So you can’t just apply to graduate school, an inordinate amount of confidence is required before you even email the godlike, herculean professor who shares your research interests. No wonder I’ve taken a circumspect approach to this whole graduate school business in an effort to focus on how I must articulate what it is I want to do with life. It is during this journey of self-discovery that I’ve realized you must be not only self-assured, but also considerably unhinged to apply to graduate school.

I am half joking and half serious (probably an early sign of some psychotic, double personality disorder brought on my graduate school applications). If you attend a professional school other than doctoral (i.e. medical, business, law school), your path is clearer, but it is still be a difficult one. From what I’ve experienced, jobs in academia are incredibly difficult to obtain. Some opine that students who major in a liberal arts or social science are simply doomed when it comes to graduate school. Others, like me, would like to point out that doctoral programs aren’t a cake walk for ANYONE.  I have always advocated that you must, no matter what your field may be, gain as much relevant experience as possible. From the moment you step onto your undergraduate campus, you must be actively pursuing your interests and take any opportunity you can.  Today, the Atlantic posted an article called “What College Graduates Regret,” outlining a study investigating what college students regret most from their undergraduate experience. One might expect the most common answer to be “majoring in the liberal arts and not a STEM field.” Though that was a popular answer, the study found that the most common answer was that students wished they had gained more work experience and put “their knowledge to practical use while they’re still in school.” If you want to work for a internet start-up, you better gain some experience doing that in undergrad. If you want to attend graduate school, you should try to tackle a thesis project or submit a paper to your campus’s undergraduate research journal. That is all relevant experience.  So I am optimistic that liberal arts and social science students are not completely doomed. Students in these majors simply have to start gaining field-related experience as soon as possible. If their experience and goals lead them down the dark, ominous path (also known as “academia), no matter if they are in STEM or humanities, the journey will be difficult for all.

On a happier note (just kidding, it gets worse), once you do earn your doctorate and land that impossible-to-find job, you are clawing your way up the tenure ladder. You are constantly begging NSF, your department, and local well-to-dos for money. Not to mention you have zero time for an actual social life (and forget long-term, serious relationships, the only one you’re allowed to have is with your research. If you are a professor, the relationship is with some other deranged graduate student who is a shadowy image of you from a decade ago). After years of publications, conference presentations, and maybe a guest appearance on Discovery Channel, you end up teaching some intro class that people take as a requirement for graduation. You invest incredible amounts of time and effort, only to have students skip every class and then ask for paper extensions (whaaa, it was on the syllabus? Bro, can I have, like, one more day?). Of course, one small ray of light remains: you hope that to inspire a bright, ambitious student to use the knowledge you so selflessly gave for some greater good. Or maybe over the years you become disenchanted and you consider it a class well taught when people actually raise their hands to ask question, even if the questions are, “uhhh…is that on the test?” Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

So, my question is this: why do I, and countless others, want to go to graduate school? Is the abysmal job market that encourages us to hide out in an institution until conditions improve? Do we want to justify that pointless degree in Russian Literature and force others to take it seriously? Or do we strive to use academia to achieve some greater good? It is possible that the latter contains some sort of truth to aspiring scholars. Hopefully, all those Ph.Ds will go forth and positively improve and change the world. Or have a complete mental break-down, move back in with your parents, and plan you life around the next happy hour.

The Useless Major: Oh you studied anthropology/art history? I’d like fries with that

You confront another adult, you begin chatting, you ask where the other went to undergrad, and what he/she studied. “I studied management, business, education, engineering, pre-med,” etc. etc. are common responses. When I respond, though, I am proud and a little weary to state, “anthropology and art history.” Immediately, you see a glimpse of amusement in their eyes, forced restraint against smirking, and the ever-so-disparaging, “Oh, that sounds interesting and fun.” Translation? “That sounds easy and useless.” Granted, I am not going to pretend that I had any classes as intense and strenuous as chemistry, calculus, or engineering, but that is a personal view. Others may think 20-page papers and short-answer essay exams are horrible. During college, my roommate, an electrical engineer, and I would be stressed about our assignments. To make ourselves feel better, we’d switch textbooks and read what seemed like another language, and then our relative assignments seemed less daunting. There is nothing that will make you feel better about a 20-page research paper than reading a paragraph about circuits and deciphering a diagram that looked like it was drawn by an autistic pigeon. My roommate’s motivation to complete her assignment would certainly improve after realizing that she didn’t have to drone on about female funerary roles portrayed on amphorae and stelae during the Archaic and Classical period.

My point is that majors in the humanities and social sciences are usually considered less challenging, which is not a fair statement. Math can come easily to some and the thought of analytical writing makes those people faint. It’s a two-way street: not all anthropology majors are brilliant and not all biology majors are motivated. Your education is what you make of it. You can decide to be completely useless at Geology, or you can begin to notice the statues on your campus and guess the type of rock used (yeah, I chose useless). It is possible that you couldn’t care less about Italian cultural history, but when you begin to notices the similarities between Italian and American college students, it becomes interesting and relatable. Not all the brilliant and driven people in the world should become doctors; we need intelligent English majors and museum curators. Follow your passion and become the master of what you love.

I came across a great article in the Chronicle of Higher Education called, What Don’t They Apply What They Learn (Pt. 3), by James Lang, that discussed how students have difficulties transferring what they learned from one context (in class) to another (the real world). For students studying engineering, business, or medicine, those skills are integrated into the classroom and directly relevant to the students’ careers. However, for students who take the social science and humanities path, that obvious applicability is absent.

I agree, especially since I spent my college career studying Durkheim and Spencer, all of whom seemed to be bearded and outdated armchair anthropologist who could not possibly be applicable to our world. But they are if you are willing to make the connections between the theory and the modern-day world. So the article provides a few examples of how professors give students assignments that force them to apply their coursework to the real world. My absolute favorite example is a photography project assigned to students in Esteban Loustaunau’s Latin American studies class. The students read Brazilian director Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, in which a part of the project is, “to give voice to indigenous Quechua speakers in Peru by providing them with cameras and allowing them to tell their own stories through their photographs.” The project helps students see that, “art can bring about social change by empowering marginalized members of the community.”

Let me be candid: that is just the coolest. What better way to elucidate a group’s problems, passions, and visions of daily life, than to see the photographs they take? The photographer sees a medium—a beautiful façade, a dangerous protest, a starving family—and captures that image to fulfill a certain agenda—whether it is to encourage tourists to visit, provide images for a news story, or work towards a humanitarian cause. Or, in the case of the Quechua people, to communicate, via images, what their life is like. The project combines two “humanities”—art and Latin American studies, in a creative and useful way. Now, I’m sure there are people who say that photographs aren’t going to end world hunger or wars, rather, governmental policy and the Red Cross will. But I have a retort; we are a society built on images. Just look at your facebook feed, how many memes and pictures of funny cats do you see? A ton (or maybe I just have weird friends). How many iconic images are there? Millions. Che Guevara, the Unknown Rebel, Migrant Mother, and the list continues. So I’m dying to ask: which classes teach students about the intentions and culture around these images? Art history and anthropology, and I’m willing to guess that these images are relevant in sociology, political science, and Latin American studies courses. But there is nothing more iconic than a simple, powerful photo intentionally taken and accidentally famous.