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“Let’s go around the circle and say our name, our major, and why we chose this school. As if we didn’t fill out exactly that information on our application to get here in the first place. Who wants to go first?”
As you’ve probably heard, the unique pressures of Orientation Week require you to put out a very specific kind of resume—part social, part academic, part personal. It can actually be really hard to judge and navigate these turbulent waters, but in a way that prepares you well for challenges you’ll face all your life.
This is why your Orientation Week “talking points” —you know, that set of fun facts and personal information you have ready for every group activity and most instances of hand-shaking— don’t just have to be a second resume; they don’t have to feel like you’re applying for acceptance all over again, this time from your peers at college rather than the college itself.
It turns out that the cultivation of self esteem and wellbeing has a lot of the same requirements as the cultivation of a personal brand and a set of networking skills. They both involve the manifestation of a more fleshed-out sense of self.
Both of these things have a huge bearing on your future, as scary as that may seem. Your wellbeing and self esteem will impact your job performance and relationships with colleagues and employers, while your personal brand and networking skills will be the conduit through which your self esteem allows you to flourish.
They also both depend on how you view yourself and on how you present yourself, which are two sides of the same coin. What you need to be careful of is allowing the knowledge that your presentation will affect others to affect that presentation and thus your self-perception. Basically, don’t get psyched out by the fact that you’re putting yourself out there.
My biggest problem during orientation week (and any similar self-introduction, icebreaker-type situations) was that I got really psyched out at the notion of presenting myself to others and the need to control the effect I had on them. It was a nightmare.
I waffled for so long and remained so fearful of what would happen if I made an undesirable impression that when it came time to say my name, my major, and why I chose Cornell, I stumbled through the first two—which should have been easy— and when I got to the third one, suddenly went silent for a few seconds before sputtering, “Nature’s great.”
And it wasn’t just the first meeting that this happened, either. My orientation group met three times over the course of the week, and each time we reintroduced ourselves because most of us had (blissfully) forgotten each other. And each time I said something that was, for one thing, embarrassingly stupid, and for another, not genuine to who I was or what I really wanted to say.
Why’d you choose Cornell? “Uh, waterfalls, ya know?” An attempt at humor, although I didn’t know what I was really making a joke about. What’s your major? “Well I was thinking psychology but I might do PMA which is weird because I didn’t know what that was and probably should have researched everything more first but, oops, didn’t get into Cornell by thinking ahead!”
I mean, I’m a huge fan of using self-deprecating humor to break the tension, but what if I was creating tension to break that wasn’t even there? What if my sense of identity was too fragile to sustain my venture into the social world, so I had to hide behind semi-intentional awkwardness?
I pity my freshman self for how typically freshman-like I was. But I also respect her for the steps she took to overcome her shyness and inhibition, and to create a “social resume” that’s easy to share with others and gets consistently positive results.
Because there are more “Orientation Weeks,” just in case you think you failed the first one. There’s the first week you start your college job, the first week of classes, the first day of rush for Greek life, the first night of practice for a sport or musical ensemble. The formula is the same everywhere, and you’re implicitly expected to show up with values to plug into the variables.
People want to know who you are. What they mean when they ask for [name, major, fun fact] is, “Show me who you are.” Which sounds a little intense, and that’s because it is. Asking for [name, major, fun fact] is an almost explicit acknowledgment that first impressions are being made.
First impressions are powerful, and that’s why we have those little shortcuts. You should still answer the question directly if you feel that it’s necessary, but don’t be afraid to add a little bit of your own character to it.
For example, looking back now, my comment about waterfalls was actually a very genuine comment and, to be honest, kind of funny. The ubiquity of waterfalls is kind of an affectionate running gag in Ithaca, and fellow Cornell students probably appreciated me poking fun at it.
But I was also being totally honest; the breathtaking beauty of the waterfalls was actually a huge factor in my decision. I wanted to be in an atmosphere where I felt nurtured by nature, and on Cornell’s campus I found that I felt truly inspired.
You don’t have to add humor. The fun fact is an element that everyone approaches differently. Some people say something like, “I have a brother,” and others humble-brag by saying something along the lines of, “I spent last summer teaching kite-surfing in the Caribbean.”
You can pretty much say anything you want and call it a fun fact, and this is almost an incomprehensible amount of power as far as first impressions are concerned. It proves topheavy for some, and they stagger and thud into the middle of the cross-legged circle with something no one is sure how to respond to, like, “I’m a bit of a narcissist, but I deserve to be.”
These are all basic representations of real things I’ve heard during introductions. No, none of them are unsurvivable social gaffes, but they also aren’t making the best use of the opportunity that lies in the staged first impression.
So you can add a personal element, whether it’s a joke or a well-placed piece of personal trivia or an attempt at social connection with the others in the group. (Commenting on or relating to something someone else has already said is always a good strategy. And what other people say can give you ideas for what you want to say as well, because sometimes your mind just goes blank.)
And it’s important to remember that you aren’t applying for college again. You got in already. You don’t have to prove to anyone that you deserve to be here. Everyone at the circle is probably looking at you and feeling terribly intimidated by you just because you’re there. Your presence does a lot of the talking for you—so don’t be redundant and tell them you were the co-salutatorian.
What is left to say in those first few seconds these people will know you? Didn’t your college application encompass just about your whole personality – isn’t that the point? Well, that line of questioning is exactly what will reveal to you what you should say.
Think of something that’s not on your application but is still important to you. Think about why it isn’t on your application. Was it superfluous? Was it too personal? Was it too unprofessional? Did it not fit into the category of accomplishment?
If it doesn’t fit into the category of accomplishment, it might be something you should say. People don’t need to hear about your accomplishments and feed their inferiority complexes. There will be enough competition later. Orientation Week is for camaraderie, for allies. So tell them something real.
People want to get to know you. They want to find their place just as much as you find yours, and the place you find will be the one you create with other people. Through that place you will find opportunities for networking, for social advancement, for personal wellbeing. But you need to create the place first by reaching your feelers out into the world.
College is a power struggle; I’d never deny that. But that’s why you need to set up a long con. Find out where your strengths lie before trying to impose your strength on those around you without understanding the dynamic of the situation.
Say something that people can work with. Don’t say something that just serves your own self-image; say something that can become a talking point for future conversations. Set something in motion for yourself that you can capitalize on down the road.
Because a college application has a definite expiration date. Once you’re accepted, it ceases to matter. But your personality has unlimited utility. It continues to open doors for you even as you grow and evolve. Your “personal resume” is much more important than your paper resume.
So introducing yourself during Orientation Week shouldn’t feel like applying to college all over again. You aren’t going to be rejected by your dream school; you’re already there. There’s value in the fact that you made it there, but not value that you need to say out loud. Find something inside you that you feel the need to say out loud. This is your greatest credential.
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