Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Student interviews

A few days ago I participated in interviewing students who were applying to go on exchange programs overseas. I was afraid that interviewing 32 students for 5 minutes each would be horrible, but it was not as bad as I thought. I of course used it as an opportunity to learn more about the students and Hong Kong. I again was shocked to see some students with family incomes of HK$11,000, $13,000, and $14,000 per month. I don’t know how many people live in the family, but even if there are only 2-3 people, at these incomes, I’m amazed the students came to the interview well dressed and apparently well fed.

I found out from one student with very high secondary school grades, but a low grade in “Religious studies”, that some schools require all students to take Bible classes. This student, being nonreligious, found the class (and teacher) dreadful, so did not do well. That was a good excuse/explanation, which contradicts the “Do Your Best Anyway” rule I’ve always told my children, i.e. that you do not get the chance to add an asterisk to your transcript to explain “The teacher for this course was not good so I did not do well in this course.” He was able to add the asterisk in our interview, because I asked about the course.

I was amused at how the business school students were almost all extremely instrumental in their reasons for going abroad and for choosing various schools. They have apparently been given training in their school for how to do interviews. They are all smooth, but I would not exactly say polished, because it comes across as something prepared and not very genuine. (Maybe they should take an acting class. Oh, but that is in the arts, and not “practical.”) It was jarring to hear 18-19 year olds talking about wanting to go to a certain university in the UK or Sweden because it would look good on their CV, or would make it easier for them to get a good job in an international company when they got back. It was a relief when a social science student said she wanted to go to Sweden to learn about their egalitarian gender roles, or when another said that after learning so much about Britain, they wanted to go and experience it herself.

This difference also extended to dress. The business students came in their black suits. Two males had either outgrown theirs (as happens quickly with 18 year olds) or had borrowed it from a smaller friend; they were bursting out of the jacket (one had to unbutton it to sit down). Two students who had seen some of the other students in the waiting room were dressed apologized to us for not dressing properly, even though they were fine. After all, they are students, attending an interview to go study abroad—why would they wear a suit to that? You wear suits to job interviews because that is what you will wear at work; you want to look the part. But no one in the US, Europe, Taiwan, Japan or China wears a suit to class. In any case, it was chilly (by Hong Kong standards; it was about 16 C or 61 F) so many students were bundled up in coats and we could not really see what they were wearing.

In the interviews. when asked to introduce themselves, many students recited a brief memorized spiel about their personality. That, to me, is a waste of time. It is awkward to describe ones own personality. No words a student can say (or write) will convince me she/he is “outgoing and friendly” unless I can already see that they are so from the way they talk and use their eyes. But all students had some personality trait to label themselves with: outgoing, adventurous, risk-takers, curious, hard working. None of it was convincing, so I just discounted the words. I was paying attention to the tone and style of the speech, thinking, “Is this the type of student who will be able to make friends in a foreign country.” I’m neither a psychologist nor a diviner or cold reader, but I did my best to guess.

I was also surprised to note that at least in these admittedly very short interviews, it was not a good idea, when asked at the end of the interview if the student had any questions, to actually ask questions. Several students revealed deep worries that made me wonder whether they were suitable for an exchange (e.g. asking about what students get from exchanges, or how to handle racial discrimination). Others asked questions that are impossible to answer (e.g. what characteristics we were looking for, or how they could improve their performance). Worst of all were several who needed a long time to think about what questions they had. The couple of questions that I thought were good were very specific questions about their case, but I felt they could have gotten the information in other ways, not at the interview. Obviously, some students have heard, or been told, that they should have a question, but that is not always the case.

I was also surprised to see that some students had prepared, and in answer to questions about their intended host country, could rattle off figures on population, GNP per capita, etc. Most students were well prepared. Ninety percent of the students would do fine, and in fact, many of the shy ones would benefit the most. But there are few slots available. Potential donors out there: scholarships for exchange programs can make a huge difference in a student’s life. Consider endowing an exchange program!

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