Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Research and Internship Explanations that Get Noticed

This article first appeared in on November 26, 2014.

I spend time in January as an application reader for a highly selective college, and many students have done research at a university or internships with a company. That’s terrific and impressive!
Unfortunately, these great experiences are often poorly explained in the application.
I want to know what you researched and what your role was. For example, I might see an entry that says “Intern, Dr. Ko’s neuroscience lab at UCLA.” I am interested, but I don’t know how to consider this without more information. Is Dr. Ko your uncle? Does he have 20 high school interns, or are you the only one amidst seven undergrads and three grad students? Did you find this internship on your own or was it an advertised opportunity, and did you compete for a spot through an application and interview process? What is Dr. Ko’s lab researching? (Sure, I can look that up on the internet, but if I only have 20–30 minutes to spend on your application, do you want me to use some of my time on internet research?) What was your specific task? Did you review hundreds of journal articles and decide which ones his research group actually needed to read? Did you code recorded life narratives that were compared with MRI brain activity? Did you learn to use some specialized equipment or software?
I realize that there is a character limit on your Common Application or school-specific activities list. Use the “additional information” space to write a few sentences that help me understand how you spent your research/internship time. Leaving the reader confused or wondering doesn’t work in your favor.
Here are the basic facts the reader wants to know:
  • Name of lab or company and where it is 
  • What the lab or company does 
  • What you did there 
  • How much time you spent
  • Contact info for your supervisor

Here is what that might look like:
Research Example
Oregon Health & Science University
Lab Assistant at the Brain Institute
May 2014–present
Five hours per week in school year; 20 hours per week in summer
Contact: Dr. X at Y email address
  • Examined the impact of drug and alcohol abuse on the adolescent brain through brain imaging and clinical trials
  • Examined the impact of music therapy on subjects with brain-based disorders 
  • Developed curriculum for school-based brain awareness campaign (
  • Implemented brain awareness campaign at Riverdale High School; working to spread campaign to Portland Public Schools 

Internship Example
Oregon Museum of Science & Industry
Exhibit Intern for “Access Algebra” project (exhibit named “Design Zone”)
Summer 2008, 30 hours per week
Contact: Ms. A at B email address
  • OMSI had a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a touring exhibit of hands-on math activities
  • I read over 300 academic papers about hands-on math research and noted what had proven effective
  • I prepared, led, and documented hands-on math activities for an exhibit test group of 10–14-year-olds at the localBoys & Girls Club
  • Based on test group results, I drew potential exhibit components for consideration

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ten Tips for Acing Your College Interview

This article first appeared in on November 12, 2014.

You probably don’t have to take part in an interview to get into college. Most schools don’t require it, but many schools make it optional. If you are an extrovert, normally an interview will work to your advantage if you have prepared well. If you are an introvert or get extremely nervous, it is possible that your written application might not be enhanced by an interview. If you are not sure whether an interview is a good idea, ask the opinion of an adult you trust.
If you have decided that admissions or alumni interviews will work to your advantage, here are ten tips for putting your best self forward.

1. Do Deep Research

Colleges want to spend their time on serious applicants. In a prior column, I explained how to do school-specific research. A college interview is not intended to be your fact-finding mission. You should have learned the basics and more before the interview and should use your time with an admissions rep or alum to dig into what you cannot learn elsewhere. I encourage you to show up at your interview with your own notes about the school. This proves that you spent the time and energy to do some unassigned homework.

2. Practice

Here’s advice from one of my favorite bloggers, Michelle Kretzschmar: “Sit down with another person and have them ask you questions, and you practice answering them. You think this feels stupid; you’ll just jot down some ideas and go over them in your head before the interview? Anyone who is a professional at something practices it—you know, people like actors. Even baseball players take batting practice before every game.”
If your interview is via Skype, then your practice also includes the technology. Here’s advice from interview expert Paul Nicholas: “With technology you should do at least two trial runs.  Whether you have a Mac or a PC, you will need to activate your webcam and see what your interviewer will be seeing. You will give them your Skype address in advance and confirm them as a connection. Your photo/avatar for Skype should be professional. Would you show that photo to your grandma? Do not position yourself with a window behind you. Consider what will be in your ‘frame’ and take care not to have anything distracting in the background. Prepare yourself in a room where there will be no distractions. Leave your cell phone elsewhere. Close the door. No pets.”

3. Schedule Early, Schedule Smart

Admissions representatives often have grueling fall travel schedules. If they are in your city for just a few days, they probably are short on sleep and juggling a schedule filled with school visits and interviews. There may only be a few interview slots available. Don’t panic if you have missed out on snagging one of those spots. Politely check if there is a Skype option or an alumni interview option available instead. 
If you have a face-to-face interview scheduled and you and the interviewer agree upon a location, plan on being there ten minutes early. Exchange cell phone numbers so that you can text in case either of you is running late. 
If you have some control over your interview schedule, do your interview with a less selective school first. You will get better with each interview you do, so having your lower-stakes interview first is a good strategy. 

4. Make a Positive First Impression

“First impressions are lasting impressions.” The majority of the first impression you make is non-verbal. Factors like your clothing, posture, handshake, smile, and eye contact all contribute to the aura of confidence you give off and how you are perceived. Here are more suggestions from Paul: 
“Dress: If you were to meet your grandparents for an event, what would you wear? That is how you should dress for an admissions interview. Not so dressy that you feel uncomfortable, but not so shabby that your grandparents would wonder. Smart casual. 
Handshake: Follow the lead of your interviewer when it comes to shaking hands. It sounds strange, but some people don’t want to shake hands. Don’t obligate your interviewer to shake your hand by offering yours. If they go for the shake, give them a firm reply. If not, it’s OK!
Eye contact: When you are at a face-to-face interview, look directly into the interviewer’s eyes as you introduce yourself. Eye contact in Skype interviews is different. Be aware of where the camera is and direct your eye contact directly into the camera. It will feel strange at first to speak with your eyes into the camera, but this ensures that the other person gets your full eye contact. When you speak, it’s into the camera. When they speak, you watch them naturally.”

5. Find a Connection

Admissions officers and alumni interviewers are just people, and it is human nature for them to root for applicants they like. Finding some point of connection with your interviewer is ideal. The easiest way to do that is to be genuinely interested in them. Search for something in common—whether it’s a love of dogs or scary movies or the truffle fries atLittle Big Burger.
Help the interviewer by being prepared to answer any permutation of the basic opener—tell me about yourself. Decide in advance on three specific things that you want the interviewer to know about you. These might include an academic accomplishment, an extra-curricular activity, and anything that demonstrates what is personally important to you. You should be prepared to list them off with ease.
It’s a conversation. Follow the lead from the interviewer, and let the interview progress organically. If you get a question that stumps you, it is fine to say, “Wow, that’s a tough question. Please give me a minute to think about that.”
The interview is for you—first and foremost. The interviewer is there to help you gain a deeper understanding of the college/university and answer any questions you might have that you could not find the answer to online. Lean in and engage.

6. Take Notes

You won’t remember everything you hear (especially if you are nervous). Notes will come in handy when you write those “Why this college?” essays and will also be helpful when you have a handful of acceptance letters and are trying to narrow your options.

7. Answer Honestly

Trying to “psych out” colleges and give answers they want to hear is a complete waste of your energy. You are a teenager. Be your polite self and don’t try to figure out “right answers” to the questions you are asked. If your true passion is video games and you did ten hours of community service because your mom made you, then don’t talk about community service when you are asked your favorite extra-curricular activity. Authenticity is always best.

8. Ask Great Questions

Nearly every interviewer saves time at the end of the meeting for you to ask questions. Ask questions appropriate to the person. If it is an alumna who graduated 25 years ago, she will not know about the latest new major offered on campus; however, an admissions officers would. Open-ended questions are great, and there is a list of suggestions in my column last week. 

9. Prepare a “Leave-Behind”

Have a copy of your academic resume ready to give to the interviewer at the end of the meeting. If you hand it out at the beginning, the person might spend time looking at it rather than connecting with you. If you do not have an academic resume, it is fun to make a “calling card” on the computer. It should include your name, email, high school, year of graduation and city. If you want to add a cute graphic (my daughter had a robot on hers because she was interested in engineering), have fun with it.

10. Send a Thank-You Note

Handwritten. Not email. You need to get the person’s business card so you know where to mail it. Thank the interviewer for making time for you and for providing useful information. If you had a great point of connection, you can mention that in your note. Write it the same day that you have your interview and take it to the post office to mail so the person gets it promptly. If you cannot get an address from an alum, a same-day email thank you will suffice.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Typical College Interview Questions

This article first appeared in on November 5, 2014.

Interviews may or may not be part of your college admission process. Some schools (especially large public universities) do not offer interviews. Some colleges offer optional interviews. These might be evaluative (they count as one factor in the admission decision) or informational (they do not count towards admission and are a way for you to learn more about the school). Some schools offer interviews on or off campus with admissions representatives. Some schools only offer alumni interviews. Some schools will let you interview during junior or senior year and other schools only grant interviews once your application has been submitted. Some schools offer a phone or Skype interview. Some schools have mandatory interviews. 
As you can tell, colleges have different philosophies about interviews. Once you have a list of colleges that interest you, go directly to the colleges’ websites to determine whether or not interviews are an option. If you decide that an interview will be advantageous, follow the school’s instructions about how to arrange it.
Here is a list of fairly typical questions you might be asked by a college admissions representative or an alumni interviewer:
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Tell me about your family.
  • What are your strengths and talents? What are your weaknesses?
  • Are there accomplishments you are particularly proud of, and why?
  • In what areas would you like to improve?
  • What do you like best and the least about high school?
  • Which courses have challenged you the most and why?
  • How do you respond to academic demands and pressure?
  • What has been your most stimulating intellectual experience?
  • What teacher has had the biggest influence on you?
  • What has been your most challenging leadership experience?
  • What has been your biggest disappointment in high school?
  • What is your favorite activity outside of school?
  • What activities do you plan to continue in college and why?
  • Which authors, books or articles have had a profound impact on you?
  • What issues concern you?
  • What do you want out of college?
  • Why are you interested in this college? (Tip: Use the school-specific research (link to my column from the week of 10/27) you did to answer this question.)
  • What do you plan to major in and why? (Tip: It is fine to say you are multi-interested and want to explore at college before committing to a major if you are unsure about your course of study.)
  • What do you want out of life?
  • If you could take a year off, what would you do and why?
  • Tell me about your work experience and community service experience.
  • How would your friends describe you?
  • What are you doing this (or did you do last) summer?
  • What other colleges are you considering?
  • What person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you discuss?
  • Describe the most difficult situation you’ve been in. How did you handle it?
  • How do you spend a typical day after school?
  • Have you ever thought about not going to college? What would you do instead?
  • On a day without any obligations, what would you do?
  • What’s the biggest ethical dilemma you have faced? How did you resolve it?
  • If you had a million dollars and wanted to donate it to our school, what would you earmark it for?
  • What questions do you have for me? (Tip: Have questions prepared in advance.)

When it is your turn to ask questions of the interviewer, be prepared. Don’t ask questions that you could easily find the answer to on the school website. You want to let your interviewer know you have been a diligent researcher and are thoughtful about why X college is a good match for you. Here are some questions that tend to work well:
  • What did you like best about your college experience at X school?
  • What’s the “don’t miss” class/professor/event/tradition at X school?
  • If you could change one thing about X school, what would it be?
  • How would you describe the students that seem to thrive at X school?
  • What’s one piece of college advice you want to share with me?

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Similarity Between Online Dating Profiles and ‘Why This College?’ Essays

This article first appeared in on November 3, 2014.

If you listen to the lingo of college admissions officers, you will often hear references to finding students who are a “good match” for the college. That sounds a lot like dating language to me, so I find it easiest to explain how to write a great “Why this college?” essay by comparing it to online dating.
Why do schools care about this matchmaking process? They want students who will arrive and thrive. Colleges are under pressure from the government about their student retention rates, and admissions officers want to feel confident that an accepted student will persist and graduate (preferably within four years). Ideally, schools would like to fill their campuses with students for whom that school is a top choice. This leads to an upbeat atmosphere on campus. Part of the way colleges are judged in the rankings is based on their yield rate: the percentage of applicants who are offered a spot in the class that actually choose to come. Unfortunately for many colleges, it gets harder and harder to predict which students are seriously interested because the Common Application has made it easier to apply to more schools. Any given student can only attend one school, so if she is accepted to seven, she will bring down the yield rate at six of those schools. To judge an applicant’s level of interest, many schools ask some version of “Why this college?” as their supplemental question.
To write a great answer, think of this as an online dating exercise. The basic formula is this:
Here’s me.
Here’s you.
Oh my, we are a perfect match!
Here’s me. In the first portion of a “Why this college?” essay, you might tell a short (true) story about yourself. Since college is primarily an academic endeavor, it is great if this story can relate to your areas of academic interest. If you have a specific field or major you are excited about, this is the spot to give an example that proves your interest. If you have no clue what you want to study in college, this is your chance to prove that you are multi-interested and a seasoned explorer of academic ideas. 
Here’s an example:
“As policy intern for Jefferson Smith’s mayoral campaign, I researched and drafted policy papers on covering our reservoirs and water pricing. For almost every topic I researched, every meeting with city officials I attended, and every campaign finance event I attended, I noticed that campaigning and policy seemed to revolve around one thing—money. This sparked my interest in economics. Along with my study of political science, an advanced understanding of mathematics and economics will help me achieve my dream of working in D.C as the Secretary of the Treasury or Chairman of the Federal Reserve.”
This student has set the stage for why he wants major in political science and minor in economics or math, which he can then relate to the offerings at the college.
The good news is that this initial portion will be useful for all of the “Why this college?” essays, since you are the constant part of the answer.
Here’s you. In the second portion of the “Why this college?” essay, you will use the information you gathered in yourSchool-specific Research Sheet. Think of this portion as two paragraphs. 
The first paragraph relates directly to your “Here’s me” section and has an academic focus. You might mention classes you are eager to take, professors with whom you hope to do research, and anything else academic that caught your notice. Be as specific as possible. Every sentence in this section should apply to this school only. For example, if you want to study astronomy, instead of mentioning that you are excited because University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a planetarium, say you are excited about the Morehead Planetarium, where dozens of astronauts studied celestial navigation. Does this take deep research? Yes! That’s the point. You are proving to the admissions office that you really understand this school and know why you want to be there.
In the second “Here’s you” paragraph, you acknowledge that there is more to college life than just academics. This is where you can tell admissions readers about the other aspects of the school that matter to you. You should mention if you have talked to one of the school’s athletic coaches (name him or her and the sport), have a friend who attends and loves it (name him or her), or know a successful alumnus (name him or her). You can mention a specific club you want to join or a school tradition about which you are excited. Once again, be as specific as possible so that this portion of your answer could not be copied and pasted into the “Why this college?” answer for any other school. For example, tell Grinnell College that you are super-excited for mattress sledding or let Willamette University know that you hope to pull together a dorm band to play at Wulapalooza. Don’t waste this space telling a school something it already knows about itself—sunny weather, access to professors, ability to do undergraduate research. While these characteristics may be true, they apply to far more schools than just the one you are writing about.
Oh my, we are a perfect match! This is your short conclusion that reinforces the “fit” between you and the school. The more school specific you make it, the better. Rather than telling Gonzaga University that you can’t wait to be a Bulldog, tell them that you can’t wait to sit in the McCarthey Athletic Center to watch the basketball team play. Or—even better—say that you hope to become a photographer for the campus paper The Gonzaga Bulletin and be on the floor visually documenting those exciting basketball games.