Things you shouldn’t tell me when I interview you for an Ivy League University

Hello Blog-world. I was about to title this post “This girl shouldn’t be allowed to have a blog especially since she’s abandoned it forever”, but then I thought I could be done with apologizing for my absence and make my presence known again.

Lately, as a part of my extracurricular activities, I’ve been involved in the Admissions Committee interviewing process. I started this task hoping that I would meet many great, interesting, versatile, eager and nervous candidates. I was not disappointed. Out of the minimum 10, I had to interview, I managed 9. So let me start with that kid.

0. What not to say before your interview:

Self: *finally calls up the candidate’s listed phone number after having been ignored in his inbox for two weeks* “Hi, this is the Admissions Committee from Columbia University, we would like to offer you the opportunity to interview.”

Kid: “Nah, I got into Oxford. Bye”

Self: *staring at hung-up phone*

Now that you have a preview of what is to follow, let me begin by posting the questions that I asked during the interviews and the range of fabulous responses I received.

1. Why have you selected your particular choice of academic interests?

Most candidates indicate their top three academic preferences before the interview begins and that’s where the first question begins. Basically, the point is to gauge how genuine they are in what they say they’re interested in. If they list Computer Science and Engineering (which is my major, I ask them a few follow-up questions).

-> Biomedical Engineering (which is one of our hardest engineering majors, mind you): “I like bio-related things”

“Bio-related things” could be anything from watching House to interning with a surgeon. Full points for specificity.

-> Philosophy: “I want to know more about why people give me advice on how to live life“.

Maybe people want to give you advice because you’re choosing an undergraduate major which doesn’t exactly offer too many promising employment opportunities and college education is not exactly cheap. Please respect it as a discipline that you want to make your life or don’t apply to it.

-> Statistics: “I’m good at math”

Statistics is more about working with probabilities, models and distributions than it is with number-crunching. Less Calculus and more things named after people like Bayes, Gauss, Bernoulli, Poisson, etc. Why can’t you apply to our Math department?

-> Mathematics: “I’m good at statistics”

Somewhat similar to the one above. More things like algebra, geometry, vector calculus, etc. What I’m trying to say is, “THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING”. Why can’t you apply to our Statistics department?

-> Computer Science: “I like video-games”/ “I believe in the potential of technology”/ “I was one of those children who could click before I could speak”

Please be aware that a lot many more people play computer games than the ones who can write code. Everyone knows technology is important, I’m asking why it’s important to you. Your clicking abilities as a child should not determine your career choices as an almost-adult.

-> Electrical Engineering: “I like Physics”

Electromagnetic physics and circuit theories meet at only one small/tangential intersection. See response to Math vs. Stats.

-> Physics: “I was born to do Physics”

Okay, kid. If you end up changing your major once you arrive here (which you can before before your sophomore year), then I will assume that you have not been born.

I may do another post on this later on Bad reasons to select any major.

2. Why did you apply to Columbia? Where does Columbia fit into your grand scheme of life?

Usually, the common responses are because it’s Ivy League, it’s in New York City and because we have a strong liberal arts component to even our most technical majors.

-> “I selected Columbia because it appeared in the drop-down list on CommonApp”

For those of you who don’t know, CommonApp is an online portfolio system that saves your transcripts, certificates, essays and sends them as a packet to the many Universities who are listed on it.  It was designed as a tool to prevent too much paperwork. And apparently, one can stumble upon prestigious colleges while uploading documents and casually decide that’s where they were going to apply.

-> ” I selected Columbia because I like New York weather”

Lies. Nobody likes New York weather, not even the locals. Google the following: Hurricane Sandy, Snowstorm Juno, The Polar Vortex and New York Summer.

-> “I want to gain knowledge

Admirably specific. Don’t we all? Why else do you think we need to have an application process if we could let everyone who wanted to gain knowledge study here?

-> “I want to be successful. I want to be successful. I want to be successful.

Quote presented verbatim. We want to see you successful too. I’m not sure how repeating it thrice explains how Columbia University in particular satisfies those “wants”.

3. What do you do for fun?

This question is to get an idea of who the candidate is as a person. “Oh, the kinds of people you’ll meet” comes to mind here.

-> “I like reading and watching movies. My favorite book is Fifty Shades of Grey and my favorite movie is The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m so sad that Fifty Shades of Grey is releasing during my exams”

This response is the only time I have visibly cringed during an interview. My opinion on Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is terrible and awful and honestly, if you want to read it just to know how bad it is, you’d be better off reading Jenny Armintrout’s summary, which I daresay is much better written and a lot more intellectually expansive than E.L. James’ work.  The Wolf of Wall Street is her favorite movie because she “admires Leonardo DiCaprio’s character”.

I asked her why she liked it, hoping that there would be some sort of sarcastic response/diatribe against the work, or she’d take it back or provide an intellectual feminism-domestic-violence-sexual-identity commentary. What happened brought her closer to the edge of insanity.

-> “I like Fifty Shades of Grey because I think it is a good romantic novel

I have just heard/witnessed the single handed-murder of the entire genre of romance. Also, you’re a seventeen year old kid. What do you even know about romance? You don’t even represent the demographic of popular readers of Fifty Shades of Grey.

-> (Same candidate as above) “My second most favorite book is a Thousand Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

No. Just no. How this is book second? Also, the book is titled “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, not a thousand. I could understand if you made this mistake while translating from Spanish, but your linguistic capabilities rest at English, let alone attempt to take on Spanish. I actually called up my father after this distressing interview wondering in what possible way could I redeem this candidate while writing her report and my father gently suggested “Maybe she read the book ten times”. That’s a lot of solitude.

-> “My interests are in music and photography. I like listening to music and sometimes, when the lyrics of a song leave me with a thought, I look through my old photographs, find something that connects with the thought and then write a verse on it.”

That’s a lot of feelings, bro. But I think it’s cute how the candidate was earnest about his efforts. He even submits those verses to people/journals he thinks will “enjoy an intellectual discussion on it“. If you couldn’t guess, this is also the candidate interested in Philosophy. Could be viewed as somewhat pretentious, but rendered cute with earnestness I suppose.

-> “I like reading really violent manga and playing Pokemon.”

This is one of the prospective Computer Science majors. He is 18. You are an adult now, surely you are aware of what is within the bounds of appropriate discussion in an interview. *silent/not-so-silent judgement*

4. What do you think you will add to the Columbia community?

-> “I bring myself to the Columbia Community”/ “I offer myself to Columbia Community. I know that’s a really vague response but I’m sure you understand human beings cannot truly be defined until they die”

Signed, sealed and delivered by the prospective Philosophy major. He brings himself. I, for one, am really glad to know that he is going to accept the admission offer (if he receives one) on his behalf. I’m also not sure what to make of that very half-baked chain of thought which followed it. What do you mean by vague? Which school of philosophy do you subscribe to? What are you, an amorphous blob?

-> “I definitely know that I will be an asset to the community. I will add to classes. I will definitely be a valid addition to the community”

Substantiate, don’t state. At this point, I’m just embodying the “I can’t even” syndrome.

Interviewees forget how difficult it is for interviewers, particularly those who are students and are aware of how stressful the process is, to mark a candidate down. Because really, we want you to succeed as much as you do, but you’re not making it easy for us.

I should also include a shout-out to the candidates who did brilliantly well in their interview, making me feel like I did nothing when I was their age or that I have accomplished nothing yet. One candidate is (at the age of 17/18) lead Greenpeace activist in the area, founder of his own catering start-up, chef at his own start-up, intern at Schneider Electric product management and mixed martial arts enthusiast. Another candidate has grown up in four different countries, raised almost $10,000 on her own to support an NGO which provides vocational training to marginalized women and has interned at three different hospitals. I don’t mean to mock anyone’s efforts here, but you have to understand that interviewing is just as difficult (as we are officially people reading) as preparing for one.

Ah, I must end this to be in time for my morning class which is densely populated with graduate students again. I promise to be more regular. If you or anyone you know is applying to colleges and have interviews, know that you should not be saying any of the things I mentioned up there. Cheers and best!


A Pilot’s Refusal

“What do we live for, if not for conversations like these?” – Akram Zatari

I’m going to talk about an experience which has affected me very deeply.

Image credits: nyblogs

Image credits: nyblogs


Not two hours ago, I attended a seminar in which Seth Anziska, a PhD candidate at Columbia University,  talked to us about his thesis. As a historian, his research thesis comprised of studying about the First Intifada in 1982. He spent the first thirty minutes talking about his history with Israel and how he had a personal attachment to the place. He had lived for a year in Israel, and he claimed that instead of clarifying his questions about life, religion and spirituality, the experience made him rethink them some more. During his undergraduate tenure at Columbia, he received news that one of his friends in Israel had died in a suicide bombing and this made him choose Middle Eastern History as a way of dealing with his internal conflict. He went on to tell one of the most amazing true stories I’ve ever heard and I feel compelled to share that now.

Around the summer of 2010, Anziska started on his research thesis by going to Tel-Aviv. He visited libraries and cultural centers, looking for data, interviews and content. In one of these libraries, he struck up a conversation with the librarian, who took an interest in his project and said that her husband, Hagai Tamir, would be a great resource for him. Hagai Tamir, an architect, was commissioned to be a pilot during the First Intifada. His orders were to bomb a target that was not far from the Ain El-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon. We listened to a clip of the interview between Anziska and Tamir. He told the story of how the structure, a big mansion on top of the hill, had many roads leading to and from it. Tamir was convinced that it was either a hospital or a school. He expressed some hesitation, but he still didn’t think he had it in him to openly defy orders. As Anziska and the rest of the clip filled in the story, the brave man made a last minute decision in the cockpit to veer off the edge of the cliff and drop the bombs into the Mediterranean Sea instead.

The target, as it turned out, was a secondary school for boys. Despite Tamir’s incredible effort, the next raid ensured that the entire region was bombed anyway. But as it was, the gesture of kindness was not forgotten by the people who lived in the region of Ain El-Helweh. Unknown to Tamir, his story had evolved into an urban legend, with every detail enhanced by each narrative. Anziska would discover this as he traveled to Lebanon in the continuing quest for answers.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari had grown up in the region of Saida, Lebanon and he had heard several versions of the story as an adult. Zaatari’s work specialized in exploring the gaps between histories, and he was particularly taken by the story of the pilot who refused. As it was, he and his brothers attended the school in Ain El-Helweh, and his father was the principal there. He wrote several works about the story, one of which was published as a series of conversations with an Israeli documentary maker. Anziska browsing upon this copy in a library in Beirut was startled to find a paragraph where he talked about the legend of the pilot who refused to bomb Ain El-Helweh. Anziska asked for his contact details and managed to set an appointment with Zaatari.

At first, Anziska went on to tell us about how difficult it was to broach such a topic that was so sensitive. Relations between Lebanon and Israel were such that it was difficult for him to mention that he had just arrived from a stay in Tel-Aviv. Yet, here was a golden opportunity to reconcile history.

Anziska went on to tell Zataari about Hagai Tamir, the identity of the mysterious pilot who had disobeyed orders and who was still alive and flourishing in Tel-Aviv. Amazed by the story, Zataari asked Anziska to carry the book with him when he went back and somehow mail it to Tel-Aviv, so that Tamir would know the reputation that preceded him. Afterwards, during his departure, Anziska sent an email to both of them, introducing and connecting them to each other. Hagai Tamir was astounded. He asked Zataari if it would be possible for him to meet him elsewhere in Europe. Zataari agreed.

Obviously there was trepidation on both sides, from both a legal and political vantage. But eventually, Anziska co-ordinated their meeting in Rome and it was truly surreal. It was awkward, to say the least, in order to get two men from such different histories together and hear their versions of the same event. There was laughter, joy and trepidation on both sides. But most importantly, they had their stories to share.

Anziska didn’t share much of the actual conversation between the two gentlemen, partly because he himself was simply an observer in watching two opposing sides meet. For Akram Zataari to grow up in a culture that had painted Hagai Tamir’s kind as antagonists and then to come across the rare person who did not antagonize him, it would have been quite a moving experience. “I have so many questions to ask you,” quoted Anziska from Zataari’s view of when they first met.

Hagai Tamir had brought with him all of his history. Documents which showed his family’s exile from Germany, accounts and descriptions of his life in Israel and so on. Akram Zataari showed him pictures of tanks that he had taken as a teenager, when the First Intifada was still happening. It seemed all the more poignant that such an event was happening at a time when Israel had just attacked the Gaza Strip again. One of the most memorable extracts that Anziska remembered from the interaction was when he asked Zataari if he was comfortable with the rendezvous. “What do we live for, if not for conversations like these?”

I was very moved by the story. It may have been small, there may have been way too many factors about luck and chance in order to defy the odds, but it still happened. This encounter between two people changed their lives and their world view.

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