Feature image from wikipedia.org
When I purged all the Ivies from my college list, somehow UPenn had been spared. To this day, I really don’t know why — my rationalization to myself, way back when, was VIPER. I was marginally interested in energy and sustainability, and I guess their website was pretty enough, so why the heck not?
(Sidebar: Now that I officially study design, Penn’s VIPER website no longer looks all that impressive.)
At first I freaked out; did this mean that they had already reviewed my application and thought I had a shot? A little bit of Internet digging dashed my hopes; two-thirds of all aspiring Quakers are interviewed.
Needless to say, this entire process suddenly became all the more foreboding. It’s a bit of a long story, so please bear with me.
Who. The. Heck. Is. Allison?
The email I received was from an Allison Berger — of course, I’m not using her real name — and asked me if I’d be free for a Skype interview sometime within the week. Suspiciously enough, her email signature didn’t reveal anything about who she was. A LinkedIn search returned nothing relevant; a Facebook search gave me more Allison Bergers than I could ever want to meet in a lifetime.
As someone who has an overactive imagination, this did not help things. My mind generated a million-and-one possibilities to match the name; she was likely a female, likely Caucasian. Not Hispanic, not Asian, maybe African-American. Mixed was also a possibility I couldn’t cross out. Allison sounded like a hip millennial name, but Berger reeked of mid-twentieth century old money; was she an alumna? An admissions officer? A professor?
They say that visualizing yourself overcoming a challenge is a good strategy for success. But each time I visualized things, the more stressed I seemed to get; there was a roulette wheel of Allison Bergers in my head and I had no idea which one I’d come across at any given moment. Sometimes she was a sorority blonde, other times she was a stay-at-home mom; sometimes she was Type A and didn’t have time for me, other times she was showing up in a bathrobe and curlers.
As the day of the interview drew nearer, the roulette wheel decided to eventually stop on a less rotund and more angular version of Dolores Umbridge. In hindsight, I probably would have chosen a less intimidating visualization, but to my credit, Allison never did give me too much to work off of and hey — I was nervous and overthought myself into a downward spiral.
That was my first mistake. If I was thinking while nervous, it was probably better not to have thought at all.
I don’t do improv.
My approach to interviews back in high school had been pretty cavalier. I would be myself, basically, and if they liked me — they liked me. If they didn’t, well that sucks, and what else could I do? Up until a certain point it worked pretty well; I’d gotten myself a few leadership positions like this.
Look, it wasn’t as if I didn’t try to prepare. I had searched for resources online, I had asked seniors before me for suggestions, I had practiced questions in a mirror. So at the very least, I did try. The catch here is that I didn’t prepare enough.
You know that feeling you get when you’ve been studying for a whole night and you’re just done? At that point, it feels like you’ve been so saturated with knowledge that looking at your notes any more is just not going to help. Sleep suddenly seems like a viable option once again.
Yeah — that’s what I felt, after hours of scrolling through sample questions.
Did I know why I wanted to apply to UPenn? Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be applying. Did I know what I foresaw for myself on campus? Yes — I’d take classes and vaguely change the world for the better (probably); variations on a familiar theme. Three words to describe myself? Depends on what I’m feeling that day. Here’s your word bank — pick your favorites: creative, visionary, determined, adventurous, honest, open-minded, disruptive, easy-going, independent.
You see why this later came to bite me in the butt; I had big-picture directions for where I wanted to go, which was fine and dandy. But an interview is about talking. And talking is something very specific and very concrete. I had to arrange words together in a coherent way that expressed my big ideas, ideally in a way that made me sound competent.
Kudos to you if you’re one of those quick-witted people who can spew out eloquent paragraphs on a dime, but that was in no way me. I should have fleshed out each one of my answers and planned them meticulously, but I didn’t.
That’s the second nail in my coffin.
Sleep is important.
For context, this story happened mid-January. I had just sent away some of my applications but was still wading through the last few — and this was on top of all of my extracurriculars and schoolwork. On a good day I’d get home at around five, only to have to dive headfirst into a physics problem set followed by calculus.
I was perpetually tired. School started at seven for me, and I often worked late into the early A.M. Friday nights were blessings during this time not because I’d get to go out and lose my mind somewhere, but because it was often the only day of the week where I wouldn’t have to wake up to an alarm.
It just so happened that the only day that Allison and I could settle on was a Thursday.
Naturally, high school didn’t stop just because I had an interview. I had to make a decision between getting my problem sets in on time and getting a proper night’s rest.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized that this was an either-or decision and thought I could do both. I realized I couldn’t when my mother woke me up at 6:45 the day of the interview, wondering why I still wasn’t up yet.
Even after caffeinating, I still looked like death incarnate, and I was just barely functional for all of that day. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem; my friends are used to my sloppiness. But this was the day that I’d present myself to the University of Pennsylvania for their appraisal — I should’ve at least looked the part. My dark circles were beyond any concealer’s help.
If I had better time management skills, maybe this wouldn’t have been a problem. But I didn’t, so I should’ve made my Sophie’s choices (and I didn’t). I really should have.
I set myself up in the living room that afternoon with my laptop. I made sure the background was against a solid-colored wall, made sure that the lighting was okay. I dressed up my top half because, really — what was the point of wearing proper pants if they weren’t going to show up in the webcam anyway?
At around t-minus five minutes, I accepted her contact request on Skype. Before I knew it, I had gotten a call from Allison Berger. I accepted, with video.
“Hi, is this Jeanette?”
She sounded a lot…younger than I had been expecting.
“Yeah, it is!” I replied.
“Haha, great! Actually, could you give me a minute? My webcam…doesn’t seem to be working.”
I tried to keep my eyes on my small window so that I could control my expression. I tried not to squirm.
“Sure, no problem!”
She hung up, while I peered into my reflection in my monitor to fix my hair one more time.
Now, in hindsight, this was not something I should have gotten worked up about, at all. It wasn’t my problem, it was hers, and it also bought me a few more minutes of practice/meditation/what have you to calm my nerves. And hey — phone interviews are totally a thing if webcam stuff doesn’t work out, so really, what was I worried about? If I were a perfectly rational human being, I’d have enjoyed myself.
Unfortunately, I’m not perfectly rational.
Remember how I overthought things? Remember how I didn’t get enough sleep the night before? That already made me pretty tense going into things, and this webcam mishap only made things worse. I was at least fidgeting in my chair five minutes prior; now I was just catatonic. Suddenly it felt like I had no voice. I’m not even sure what expression I had been making at that moment, but it probably looked very, very scared — not a good look for impressing people, and definitely not a good state to be in if I was planning on improvising most of my answers in the first place.
In the end, Allison never got her webcam to work. We did a phone interview.
My actual screw-up.
Allie (not Allison, as I was told) was a recent grad of the University of Pennsylvania — only two years out. She lived in New York City but was a San Diego native, which was why she volunteered to interview applicants from Southern California. She was a history major and affable with a dash of erudite reserve (which is probably how UPenn wanted to come off as anyway).
We talked for a bit, and she asked her questions. None of her questions particularly surprised me, but none of my answers particularly impressed her. Things went well enough; if I had to describe that part of the interview in one word, it’d have to be lukewarm.
But then, she ran out of questions.
“What about you? Do you have any questions for me?”
I asked a few. One of them being what she liked about Philadelphia. She rattled off a few things — the diversity, the excitement, the different people that she got to interact with, and the history. I knew a little about history.
“Ah, yeah! The revolution, and all that. It’s so cool! I wish there was more history near me,” I quipped. “There’s really nothing around Southern California.”
You could feel the record scratch that was supposed to be there. If we had webcams on, I probably would have seen Allie rolling her eyes at me before straightening her expression.
“Well, there’s a lot of history in California too,” she said, dropping her words tartly, one at a time, like stones. “The missions, and the conquistadores, and the Native Americans…”
“Oh…yeah! I remember those field trips from elementary school,” I replied, attempting a save.
But we both knew that by then it was too late; I had misspoken big-time. Last nail, meet coffin — my fate was sealed.
Recovery and postmortem
The Penn website reassured aspiring applicants that the interview could only help applicants, not hurt them. Which sounded comforting, but I wondered just how many people have screwed up the interview on the same magnitude that I had. The only way that I probably could have screwed it up more was if I had decided to flip Allie off. She had probably been writing some version of “ignorant, churlish philistine” on her evaluation form right that minute.
Surprisingly, it didn’t sting me as much as I thought it would. Mostly because I didn’t have time to let it sink in; I still had essays and applications and schoolwork and band and peer counseling and volunteering to worry about. There was hardly any time to be embarrassed.
But when it did hit me, it hit me pretty badly. It felt like the end of the world — I’d replay that moment for myself over and over in my head. I’d think of how much Allie must hate me and how stupid I must’ve looked. Of course I knew that there was history in Southern California, but not the same type of characteristically patriotic and revolutionary history that Philly had; it had a different vibe, was what I had meant, but the words just came out wrong.
Forgiving myself took some time, but it was more of a gradual acceptance of multiple truths than one cathartic moment of self-realization.
First, I had to accept that not everything was within my control, and that sometimes things don’t go according to plan because, well — that’s just the way it is. It wasn’t my fault that Allie’s webcam didn’t work, and that was okay. We’re all on the third rock from the sun drifting to nobody knows where; when you put it in that perspective, how much can we actually control anyway?
Second, I had to accept that embarrassment happens. Nobody lives their life without making mistakes, and sometimes other people just happen to see us make them. That’s okay. Does Allie remember who I am? Probably not. Does she matter in my life now, three years down the line? Not a bit. In fact, she doesn’t even know what I look like — we couldn’t pick each other out of a lineup, so it’s not like we can even ruin each other’s lives if we wanted to (thanks, webcam).
Third, I had to accept that I got a lot of good things out of this too.
For instance, I’ve learned from my mistakes. I now have my own interview prep strategies that I’ve calibrated to my own personality and preferences based on this failure. I write out my responses to sample questions so I’m not grabbing at straws, and I map out conversation tangents ahead of time so that I can make sure that I don’t pull out something accidentally offensive. Things like that.
I’ve also become a lot less scared of interviews in general, because I know that I’ve already screwed up badly before. It’s almost like a failure safety net; I have nowhere to go but up from here. And hey — I also have a funny story to tell about myself, should I ever need it. Sure, it’s great to talk about your successes, but success stories can sometimes isolate people. Failure stories are what bring people together.
But did you get in?
The University of Pennsylvania ultimately only accepted one person from my high school, and that person was not me.
(It also was not our valedictorian, and you can bet he was a little salty about that. Just a little.)
Was I upset about that? Not really — I think I kind of saw it coming. Was it because of my interview? Hard to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. Colleges write all sorts of pretty things on their websites to try to draw in applicants, and the interview thing may just be one of them. Who knows?
But if you gave me the option to go back and rewrite history so that I didn’t screw up, I’m not sure I would take that option. Because honestly — I learned a lot about myself and interviews from this event, and they’re lessons that I’d rather learn sooner than later. I don’t want to succeed just because of dumb luck during my teenage years and then find out I’ve been doing everything wrong when I’m looking for a job.
It’s like that one quote goes — we only learn how to make good decisions from experience.
And how do we get experience? Bad decisions.
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