The Case for Treating All Interaction as an Interview

Recently, I was honored to represent a small, highly-selective, liberal arts college at a College Fair.1 Accompanying me was a young client, who was going to use this opportunity to speak with some representatives of other colleges who would also be present at this fair. Addison2 is a bright, lovely senior with great college applicant credentials. She was dressed neatly, casually, and modestly. She engages in conversation with adults on a number of topics honestly with interest and information. She is polite and polished- a college admission counselor’s dream client. She came to the college fair prepared with resumes and questions for the colleges from which she was seeking information. She shook hands, introduced herself, asked pertinent questions, collected information and moved on. Addison’s behavior at the college fair was exemplary.

Addison was one of 1200 people who attended this college fair of over 80 accredited Colleges and Universities. That’s a lot of students, parents, and teachers wandering from table to table seeking information. I had 3 hours that night to make some observations about college fair behavior, interaction with students, parents, and teachers.

As a representative for a specific college, I only engaged on that topic: why this college might be a good fit for certain students, what programming was offered, what the admissions standards were.

As an Independent Education and Admissions Counselor, I spent the evening silently reinforcing my belief that all college bound students should treat ALL interaction with possible campus communities as an interview. We know you are sizing us up, but many students forget that we are also observing them.

One of my first encounters on that evening was a young man. Painfully shy, he came over and asked me where the college I was representing was located. We had a short conversation about location, programming, and his educational goals. He filled out an interest card and we shook hands. He was quiet, had a hard time making eye contact, but he was well-spoken and polite. You could tell he was not used to being in this situation and was a bit nervous, but he did well. 5 minutes after he walked away, his mother came over to the table, introduced herself to me, and asked to see her son’s interest card. She wanted to make sure he wrote down his email correctly. When I told her the email he used, she grabbed the card out of my hand and started making notes on it “for the admissions office.” Speaking to me about how he had such bad handwriting, he was so shy he couldn’t have a conversation, and how his father and she were worried about him adapting to college. Her manner contradicted his behavior.

RULE #1: Parents: fade into the background.

We don’t want to know what you think about your child. We want to know your child as an individual. Don’t walk with them at college fairs, interviews, and tours. Don’t answer the questions I ask your student. Don’t contradict them in front of me. Don’t tell me their shortcomings. Let me talk to your student. Let your student take the lead.

Being that the college I represented was in a small New England town, I did not expect students to know much about it. This is what college fairs are for- discovering schools with which you are not familiar. Asking questions about location, programming and student life are great ideas. However, ask them correctly. I had, according to my count, 41 students ask me, “Where’s your college at?” I wanted to answer, “It is “at” the corner of ‘grammatically correct and error-free speech.’” Although my reply was left unspoken, it does reinforce that the usage of proper language is not just for the admissions essay. Speaking correctly is a viable life and career skill.

RULE #2: Use your best communications skills.

Ask questions correctly and succinctly. “Where is your college located?” “What programs do you offer?” “Please tell me about the club sports/extracurricular activities/classes/programming which are offered?” Using the colloquial3 is fine when you are conversing with your peers. However, use proper speech when speaking to a representative of a college to which you may apply. All interaction is an interview; treat it as such.

I understand that High School students are busier than ever. Many of these participants came straight from Sports practices, club meetings, or had traveled a long distance to visit this fair. Clothes can get wrinkled, soiled. Students may be thirsty or hungry. Students may see a friend they have not seen in a while. However, appearance and manners matter. It was hard to converse with the young man with a hot dog in his mouth and ketchup on his shirt. It was distracting to watch numerous young women chew gum and blow bubbles while chatting. Harder still is to speak with you when you are joking around with your peers with your back to my table, turning occasionally to ask me a question.

Rule #3: A good first impression is an imperative. Make one.

Dress neatly. Look me in the eye. Shake my hand firmly. Introduce yourself using your WHOLE name. You are not Dre, Shakira, or Madonna. You have at least 2 names- use them. If you are thirsty or hungry, drink or eat before you approach me. Don’t chew gum. Coming from a sports practice? Take time to straighten your uniform and comb your hair. Take off your cap, hat or headband. Engage me in direct conversation; do not get distracted by others. Our conversation should be the priority. This is not the time to joke around with your peers. You are taking time to make connections that could influence the rest of your life. Act as if these things matters, as they do.

Towards the end of the evening, I was approached by a young girl in a tee shirt, ski cap, and lanyard emblazoned with the logo of a large, southern, SEC affiliated university. Her mother was there in coordinating gear. By no means was the school I represented, large, southern, or in the SEC. When I asked her about her interest in attending the school I represented, she said, “I want to go to the University of XXXX, but my teacher is giving an extra point on the next test if we get her college pens.”

Rule #4: Don’t waste my or your own time.

Although you are at the college fair or campus visit to explore your options, it is not fair to approach a school to which you have no intention of applying or attending for a pen, bookmark, chance to win a sweatshirt or key chain. Don’t like snow and cold? Chances are the University of Minnesota is not the place for you. Looking for a mega-stadium full of rabid football fans? A small liberal arts college in New England is never going to answer that call. Decide on a few parameters before you attend a college fair or visit: size, location, program of study, extracurricular activities. Use those to sort through the schools or tables to visit. Know that when you take information from a school to which you have no intention of applying, you are taking information from another student who may be a perfect fit for this school. Not all schools are for all students. I don’t mind you passing by my table. I do mind you wasting my time, and your own.

Tangentially, had this young lady been truly interested in the school I represented, I would have been suspicious about her appearance in other school’s gear. College fairs and college visits are no place to don the colors, names, or logos of any institution- including the one you are visiting. Visiting Chapel Hill in a Duke tee shirt is bad form. Wearing a UNC tee shirt to UNC as an yet-to-be admitted applicant takes a good deal of hubris 3.

Rule #5: A college visit, interview, or college fair is not the time to don the colors or logo of any school.

Finally, those contact cards which you will fill out are processed by a real, live, human being. I cannot even begin to tell you the number of inappropriate emails and bad handwriting I have seen. Take a moment when you begin your college search to set up a professional, easy to understand email address. Firstname.lastname@ Please don’t fill out the form with “iheartjustin@” or “baseballptchr@” for your email address. Give me and the colleges something to remember: your name. Use this as your first public relations or self-advertising campaign. Make it clearly and unequivocally about you; print legibly. Fill out the entire form. (this shows interest!) And as you leave the table, take a moment to shake my hand again, say thank you and smile.

Rule #6: Make a great last and lasting impression.

For many students, this is your first job interview. Follow Addison’s lead: be courteous, intelligent, and well-mannered. College will be your job for the next 4 years, and becoming an accomplished, polished, adult is one of the goals of a college education. Take some time to work on introducing yourself, presenting yourself intelligently, honestly, humbly. Know that we hope to connect to students who bring with them skills and abilities which add to our community. We recognize these traits through interaction with you- in person, online, in writing. Don’t fail to recognize that college will be your job, and that any interaction with any admissions department will be a job interview.

-Kerri Beckert

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