Spring is time for admissions exercises for our PhD, MPhil, and MA programs. I have long known that there are interesting discussions on the web where mainland students exchange information on our teachers and our interviews. Some kind souls post a detailed description of their interview to help others prepare. What is astonishing is how much of the information is simply wrong. Also fascinating is how many students misunderstand what is going on. I did a search on one of the main bulletin boards for these kinds of discussions in China and found a candidate that we interviewed in the past few years who posted her side of the interview. I have my notes of the interview and they are quite different from her view. I will go through her description to identify the ways our perceptions (and positions, of course) were very different.
The interview was conducted on skype, with video. She begins, as many posts do, by commenting that we started late. It is true that we sometimes run as much as 20 minutes late, but I'm surprised that students expect such precision in the interviews. Then the student admits that she did not catch the name of my "assistant"--actually my colleague! (Note to me for future interviews: speak more slowly in the introduction and repeat the name in Chinese to be sure students are clear who is there). The student then comments, as others do, that we did not allow her to introduce herself. This is interesting because, given that we have read the file (including personal statement, transcripts, letters of recommendation, writing sample), a self-introduction seems rather superfluous. (A student has explained that they are told, in training for interviews with foreign enterprises in China, that normally an interview begins with a self-introduction.) In fact, we always try to start with a relatively easy question to calm the student down. But she did not view it like that, saying that when we "directly asked her why she wanted to study anthropology," she panicked, and gave a foolish answer about theory and practice. Then she says we asked her about her long-term plans. She says she choked: "I started to talk nonsense, the most horribly, I did not know what to think, ... "a classic case of brain freeze."
"Then they started on some academic questions." She describes how we picked The Interpretation of Cultures, one of the books mentioned in her statement of purpose, and asked her what the book was about and why it was important. (Wow, we did that? That's a pretty good question!) She says that she had prepared an answer to this question beforehand, "but I don't know why but after my answer, he turned with an inscrutable face to his assistant. Is it possible I got the wrong book??? It made me suddenly lose all confidence." Actually, my turning to my colleague was my nonverbal way of saying, "Your turn."
She continues, "Then it was the woman's turn to ask questions" (thereby proving my point). The student was put out because we asked her questions about her term paper, which was about moral tales and sayings, so she did not know how to talk about that in English, she said. She comments, "..continue falling apart." At this point in reading her description, I feel bad that the student is under so much pressure, and find it hard to believe. She has viewed everything we do to minimize pressure as causing more stress. She tries to deflect the question by commenting on how difficult it is to get English books in Chinese libraries. Interestingly, despite the fact that we are on skype, she detects that my colleague and I give an understanding smile, but she does not know why, and says she is speechless. In fact, we are probably smirking because we know (and surely she also knows), that many books are available in China for free online in high quality PDF copies. These are not scanned versions, but the real original PDFs. Applicants regularly complain that they can't get English books in China, and we may have smiled because we can't very well tell them to download books illegally, but we know that interested students can obtain all the books they need or want. But we did not press her on this because she was doing well overall.
The student then notes that at the end, we asked her if she had any questions, and that she asked about fieldtrips. We told her there is a fieldtrip at the end of the year for MA students but it is self-paying, and she took that to be another sign of the discrimination against MA students. But this is not true. We usually do not take the research program students on field trips, and in any case, all such trips are self-paying (and they just cover the cost--we do not "make money" on these trips). Indeed, we go to a lot of trouble to try to avoid making our MA students second-class citizens, as they often are in major US universities. But it is easy to misunderstand the situation while applying. Our exit surveys show students are generally satisfied.
What is surprising is that despite the agony and angst expressed by this candidate, my notes show that her English was very good, and that her answers were not bad. She was a good candidate. In answer to a question about Geertz, she said "culture is like a net" (well, he said "web," but that is close enough for admission to the MA program, since it is designed for people interested in anthropology who have not studied it previously). She was a good candidate and we certainly did not intend to make her life miserable. One person I discussed this with suggested her tone was perhaps exaggerated since, as a female and in Chinese culture, she could not very well say the interview went well. There is probably nothing that can be done to make interviews less stressful. At least most messages have me as the "good cop."
The use of these websites to share information is interesting because it reflects a Chinese tendency to go through connections rather than public information. I remember in the mid 1980s showing my friends in Taipei how to use the Yellow Pages. They did not know what that was, and once they saw it, they said they would never use such a book; they would ask their friends for a recommendation instead. One of our students from China has mentioned that friends will ask her for information on applying to other departments at CUHK. Even though all the information is posted on the web, they ask her for help, assuming that there might be some secrets or tricks that she can impart. The websites are also interesting because they require altruism; those who post do not get anything in return, except messages of thanks from later applicants. From a strictly competitive point of view, they might even think that helping others to have a better interview might make their interview performance look worse by comparison. It is a good sign of a developing civil society (or at least civility) that students share this kind of information. I just wish it were more accurate. For accuracy, however, they should really go to our department website.