College Bound

So it’s that time of the year when I interview high school students for admission to my alma mater, Middlebury College. After doing this for about 10 years as a general alumni interviewer, I somehow agreed to be the Washington State committee chairperson. Meaning I get the list of a couple of hundred high school seniors applying to Midd from Washington, and I find an alumna/alumnae in their area to interview them. I also invariably get a pile of interview candidates myself, especially in the final week when I get all the kids whose interviewers bailed out at the last minute.

I love interviewing. It is so damn entertaining. It also helps keep your eye on the ball as a parent. Not because the goal is to have your kid get into a great college (which would be nice) but to have a kid who is a FUNCTIONING YOUNG ADULT. Who cares if they get an A in English/Biology/Astrophysics? Can they shake hands? Make eye contact? Hold up one end of a conversation? Do they have an interest? Any interest is fine. Now, can they articulate this interest clearly and intelligently? Kid, if you can, you’re in. I can’t guarantee college, but you’re going to do fine in life.

One thing that I’ve found disappointing in our new economy is the lack of jobs for teens. When I started interviewing, back in the early 1990s, every kid had at least a summer job. I worked at the Gap for minimum wage one summer, and worked at a local ski shop during the winter. Now that seems to be a rarity. All those retail jobs have been snapped up by college grads or adults with families. High school students have jammed schedules during the school year, and their summers seem to be filled with vacations and all sorts of prepackaged enriching trips and experiences. Kudos to those who do a full time volunteer gig at a summer camp or service organization. But few have a crummy job, which I think is fantastic experience and matures kids in a hurry. A job where a teen has to interact with the public is invaluable. A jerky boss, boorish customers, bratty kids – these all bring about frustrating situations that have to be handled on the fly. Even the most laudable summer programs- building houses in Ecudor with a church group, wilderness mountaineering with NOLS, marine biology studies on a research vessel – shield kids from these realities. The students who have been lifeguards at the kiddie pool, waited tables, worked on a landscaping crew – they’ve got some new social skills. I recently interviewed a young woman who taught beginning skiing at our local mountain. First day, she was presented with a bunch of crying 4-year-olds, one of whom cried and shied away from her the whole time. The parents dropped them off for their lesson and left. Think of the situation: she had taken the training of how to teach the kids to ski, but no experience in childcare and parent management. She couldn’t call on her own parents to bail her out, as one can in a purchased program experience – she had to deal with all the kids, then have a discussion with the parent of the cryer at the end of the lesson. Then see them the following week. And the week after that. At the end of 8 weeks of lessons, all those kids were skiing happily down the bunny hill, but the instructor probably learned more. It was 8 weeks of being an adult.

My friends love hearing my stories about the duds. These are the kids whose parents I want to call after the interview, and say, “Um, what the hell have you been doing for the last 17 years? It isn’t working.” Some kids are just immature and have zero awareness of how to conduct themselves in an interview. (Q: “So have you visited the college?” A: “Yeah, I did one of those stay-with-a-student things in the dorms. I got SO drunk.”) Then there are the multiple candidates I’ve had who have some fantastic item/club/volunteer project on their resume, and when asked about it, say, “Oh I just did that for my college application. I really have no idea what the organization/club/project does.” If your parents have paid for a great educational experience, use it. Have something to say about it. I had one kid who went to France on a school-sponsored program. The only thing he could say about the whole trip was that he ate a really good crepe and it was windy at the train station. Really? That was money well spent. Another did a home stay  in Spain, living there for two weeks with a Spanish family. She deemed the experience, “Amazing.” I asked her to explain more. Answer? “I can’t really. It was just…just…amazing.” Surely you can tell me just one thing that struck you, that was interesting, challenging, exciting, fun, difficult? “Not really. Just the whole thing was amazing.” FAIL.

I can’t believe I’m going to sound like an old person, but some of the old classic advice our parents gave us is still invaluable. Show up on time. Don’t dress like you’ve been camping for the last six months or living in a tent city unless you have been. Send a goddamn thank you note – even email will do. Have some questions that will indicate you’ve at least read the brochure on the college. Yes, I know you’re applying to 35 colleges, but when you ask “Where, again, is Middlebury? New Hampshire?” it just doesn’t reflect well on you. Have at least one decently challenging book you’ve read that you enjoyed and can talk about – and all props to J.K. Rowling, please don’t say it’s Harry Potter. Great series – just not what I’m looking for in a high school senior’s reading material. (I’ve had at least 3 students bring this up when I ask about books).

I hope my own kids can carry a conversation at age 17. I hope they don’t answer their cellphones during a college interview. I hope they thank the interviewer for taking the time to meet with them at a coffee shop and for buying them a hot chocolate. Most of all, I hope they have enough interest or passion for something – sports, books, a class, a trip, a person – and that they can express that interest. Holy cats, I hope they are not the sort of people that make ethnic/homophobic/other minority group slurs during an interview. Or ever. (Yes, this has happened.) I hope they are interesting and mature young adults.

If you’ve come to this blog because I’m interviewing you, and you Googled my name, congrats. You should always do that for an interview. Know that I’ve looked you up as well – might be time to rethink that Facebook profile pic of you with that beer bong, know what I’m saying? When you meet me, look me in the eye, shake my hand and say, “I read your blog.” You’re already ahead of the game.

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