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College interviewing tips

For several years I’ve been volunteering as an alumni interviewer for my alma mater. It’s enjoyable to spend a bit of time interacting with a younger generation and exploring their interests; my optimism is buoyed by their potential.

At my university, the process is managed through a web portal. At the beginning of each application season I set my availability and geographic area. At set times for each application period, I am offered interviews which I can accept or decline (for example, if I personally know the student, which would be a conflict of interest). The only information I am given is name, phone number, email, high school, and major if they’ve declared one. I know nothing about the student’s academic qualifications or background.

I then reach out and schedule an interview. For the past few years meetings have been virtual, though I am hoping that in-person interviews can resume soon; I personally dislike virtual meetings for a number of reasons (see: Zoom fatigue). In-person interviews are required to be in a public space, like a coffee shop or library. I prepare some basic questions to gauge the student’s interests and personality, and mostly allow the “interview” to proceed as a natural conversation as much as possible. After the interview, I return to the online platform and write three brief paragraphs of my impression of the student in response to prompts given to me. Overall, it’s a low-pressure situation that gives the admissions committee an additional perspective on the student from someone who knows the university’s offerings and culture.

I recently offered a mock interview to a high school student to help them practice and I realized I had a lot of advice to help students with the process. I searched online to see what advice was already out there and was pretty disappointed, so I decided to compile my own list:

Advice for college alumni interviews

  1. Don’t stress—the interview is the least important part of the college application. Also, it’s as much about giving you the opportunity to engage with an alum and get excited about the school as it is them evaluating you.
  2. It’s more important to be likeable than impressive. Remember, the interviewer has an emotional connection to their alma mater—they want to see passionate, thoughtful candidates who will value their time at the school and contribute to the school’s ongoing success, not someone who chooses a school because of a reputation.
  3. Send a resume in advance. Very few students do this for college interviews and it is by no means required. I appreciate it because it allows me to get a sense for your interests without you having to rattle them off, and then to ask you about things where we might have a mutual interest, increasing connection and likeability.
    • Unlike a professional resume, activities and hobbies are highly recommended.
    • Include links to other resources when appropriate, for example if you have a portfolio, been featured in a news story, or created something worth sharing.
    • Get feedback from others, both substantive and proofreading.
  4. Prepare answers for common questions.
    • Don’t prepare word-for-word, but look up common interviewing questions and know how you’ll respond. Most interviewers start with “tell me about yourself”1, so prepare your “elevators speech” that is brief and engaging.
    • Stories and anecdotes are the best way to connect; listing things is the best way to bore your interviewer. So think of the stories you’ll use to illustrate each question. Look up the STAR method for tips on how to best organize your responses.
    • Find a balance between your personal experiences (past) and goals (future). How have your past experiences prepared you college and how will you leverage your college experience to achieve your goals?2
    • Be mindful of the length of your responses. Too short is unengaging, rambling on becomes boring. This is a hard one to balance but you’ll get the hang of it with practice.
  5. “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.” —Robert McNamara
    • This also requires balance; you should answer the question they asked and then use that as a jumping off point to provide additional valuable information without going off on a tangent.
    • Example: “What extracurricular activities do you do?” “I play hockey and volunteer at the library. But what I’m really passionate about is art. I like to take the things I see in the world and interpret them through the medium of stained glass, which gives me a greater appreciation for the natural beauty in the world. I’m currently working on a piece that shows a rover on Mars to highlight both human achievement and the wonders of the universe.” Far better than just rattling off a list, you answered the question while showing your passion for your interests.
  6. Every interviewer is going to ask “Why did you choose [school]?”—this question is the most important and you need a thoughtful reason that connects your own experience to the college’s offerings.
    • DO NOT SAY clubs or outstanding faculty or size or location—those all may be your criteria, but they’re not unique to the school; they don’t make the interviewer feel that their alma mater is special or that you care about it particularly.
    • You may already have a great answer about a previous college visit, experience with high school programs offered, family who attended, etc. If so, use that. Just make sure to connect it with your own experiences and goals. For example: “I learned about Duke from the TIP program and every year I did a residential summer studies course. I really connected with the faculty and loved my time on campus, so it was easily my top choice. Right now I am thinking of pursuing a career in clinical psychology and Duke has an excellent psychology department.”
    • If not, you need to find a specific thing at the school that appeals to you. A particularly well-regarded department, a specific faculty member, an undergraduate lab you want to work in, etc. Foe example: “I do Model UN and frequently in my research I’d use papers from the Fletcher School, which is very well-regarded school for global affairs. That’s how I came to learn about Tufts. Even though Fletcher is a graduate school, the fact that it’s on the Tufts campus is a huge draw because they offer public talks and events which I plan to attend. I’m interested in joining the Peace Corps after college and this would be a great way to explore challenges and opportunities around the world.”
  7. Have good questions—Near the end, the interviewer will ask if you have any questions for them. This may be the most important part of the interview because it shapes final impressions and gives them a chance to share. Your questions should both engage the interviewer and demonstrate a thoughtfulness about the college experience.
    • Some good questions: “If you were able to go back in time, what would you do differently at [school]?”, “What about your [school] experience shaped your thinking about the world?”, “What about your [school] experience changed your path in life?”, “Are there any unique experience or tradition at [school] that I shouldn’t miss?”, “Do you have any advice for someone preparing to matriculate at [school]?”, “What DIDN’T [school] do well?”, “In your opinion, what are the character traits of successful [school] students?”
    • Do not ask about specific professors, dorms, clubs, financial aid, etc., unless it connects to something your interviewer has shared with you. Your interviewer won’t know the answer and it doesn’t fulfill your objective in the discussion, which is to make a good impression.
    • People like to hear themselves talk, so give your interviewer that room. You don’t have to add anything to their answer beyond “that’s great advice” or “sounds really interesting” at the end.
    • Ask at least one great question even if you go over the scheduled interview time. If you still have time you can ask a second question or even a third question, but don’t keep asking once you’re past the scheduled time and never ask more than three.

If you’re an interviewer, what advice would you add? If you’re a student, how did your interview go? Do you wish you’d prepared any differently? Share in the comments below!

“Diversity of thought” is the “all lives matter” of corporate inclusion efforts

For at least the last decade, engineering companies have talked a great deal about “diversity and inclusion”. Inevitably, many people1 have the takeaway that this means “diversity of thought”. This is like telling a Black Lives Matter supporter that “all lives matter”; of course all lives matter, but that’s completely missing the point2. Diversity of thought is important to avoid groupthink and promote innovation; but that’s not the point of diversity and inclusion efforts3.

Diversity and inclusion means making sure that teams are actually diverse, across a range of visible and not-visible features. Why does that matter?

The business case

There are a lot of business justifications for fostering diverse teams. The consulting firm McKinsey has published some slick reports with charts and stock photos4 to make the case to business leaders: inclusion = performance = profits. There are also arguments about finding and retaining top talent, regulatory mandates, and employee engagement.

The thing is, who cares? This blog isn’t about corporate profit, it’s about effective engineering practices. In my experience, engineers tend not to care much about profit except as a means to do fun and innovative work5. Getting some business benefits from diversity and inclusion is a nice side effect, and if it helps get corporate buy-in it’s hard to complain too much. But it still doesn’t feel right.

The innovation case

All the talk about business case often neglects to consider the mechanism, why do diverse teams perform better and how do we leverage that to enhance performance? It’s actually fascinating. As Harvard Business Review puts it, “diverse teams feel less comfortable“, which slows down their decision making and causes them to think more critically.

If you’re a fan of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, you may recognize this as engaging the “slow” system. We tend to rush to decisions with fast thinking, which is efficient but not always the most effective. The friction caused by diversity forces us to engage the more creative and thoughtful slow thinking. That’s interesting to understand and is a more compelling argument to the technically-minded, but it still doesn’t feel right.

The human case

When I think about diversity and inclusion, I always end up back at the same rationale: it’s just the right thing to do. We live in a world where some members of society have fewer opportunities because of historical racism, sexism, and homophobia, including the aftereffects of that discrimination that are still present today.

Ideally, we would live in a world that was a true meritocracy where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed based on their fit for the role, regardless of skin color, nationality, physical disability, cognitive disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, age, hairstyle, height, fashion sense, bench press ability, body modification, etc. Though we are getting to that world, we are still far from actually achieving it. A few representative statistics:

  • U.S. patent data show that women are inventing at an all-time high, but still less than a quarter of patents issued each year include a female inventor.
  • The American Bar Association analyzed the demographics of patent attorneys (who require a strong technical and legal background) and found that, despite recent gains, less than 7% are non-white.
  • Black and Hispanic people are underrepresented in STEM fields according to data from Pew Research.

We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s hard to argue that these are the outcomes of equitable opportunity. My personal opinion is that there actually is plenty of opportunity for those who know where to look for it, but that students don’t pursue technical fields because they don’t see it as an option for them.

And who can blame them, when the most famous Black inventor lived a century ago, when we celebrate Watson and Crick but not the female scientist whose work was critical to their discovery, when chemistry labs are not built to accommodate scientists with disabilities.

That’s changing too. There are excellent, diverse STEM role models and communicators out there: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Raven the Science Maven, Abigail Harrison, Helen Arney, the late but still extremely influential Stephen Hawking, just to name a few. This is great!

But is it enough? It’s easy to point to the high-profile success stories and say the problem is solved. It will still take a generation for the students currently looking up to these role models to pursue technical degrees, begin working in the field, and become role models themselves. With each successive generation we move closer to parity and equality. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a more active role in bringing about this change as soon as possible.

Consider your role

Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.

Frances Wright

There is a project called “I Am A Scientist” which aims to show students that anyone can be a STEM professional. In a few decades this effort will no longer be necessary; of course anyone can be a scientist or engineer, who would think otherwise? In the meantime, we (as a society, as engineers interested in fostering the next generation, as teachers and leaders) have to make a deliberate choice6 to recognize, affirm, and support the widest possible range of people who may be interested in STEM, including promoting diverse voices so every student can find a role model that appeals to them.

We must think about the way in which we approach diversity. So many efforts are mere tokenism, made obvious by phrases such as “diversity hire7 and by carefully arranging corporate photos to “‘highlight” “diversity”8. If you recognize these types of practices at your company, take a moment to consider if the priority is to foster true inclusion or merely to tick a box.

We have to keep promoting inclusion in our workplaces to serve our peers today and in the future. After all, a diverse crowd of STEM degree holders isn’t helpful if they aren’t actually included in the real work. It’s easy to make fun of “unconscious bias training” and the like. But when you actually speak to people from discriminated categories and ask about their experiences you learn about the small inequities that compound to hold people back from participating and from career success. Countering those inequities can be as simple as making sure that everyone is heard and respected, that everyone has the resources and support to advocate for their career opportunities, and offering mentorship.

Clear data exists and can be collected about diversity in STEM fields and that should be our metric for success. When patents issued, papers published, degrees earned, and other outcome measures reach parity with the demographics of the general population, we can claim success. We should all do our small parts to make that happen.

Are you a “diversity candidate” with an experience to share? Do you have other suggestions for increasing inclusion? Leave your comments below.

Learn from the mistakes of others

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience… i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business…

General James Mattis

The most successful people in any profession learn from the experiences of others. You can learn from their successes, sure. But don’t focus on doing things exactly they way they did, you’ll stifle your own innovation. Instead, understand their successes, extract relevant lessons, and forge your own path.

More importantly, learn from others’ failures and mistakes.

That’s why I publish a Reading / Listening List. As of the publishing of this article, 5 of the 6 recommendations are about poor engineering and design1. I find these stories fascinating, enlightening, and valuable. By avoiding the pitfalls of the past, we improve the likelihood of success in our own projects.

It’s okay to make mistakes, but strive to at least make original mistakes.

Board man gets paid

For years I’ve been advocating for the effective inclusion of human systems integration (HSI) in the systems engineering (SE) process. I had to address a persistent misunderstanding of what HSI is and how it relates to human factors; while that can be frustrating, I recognized that it wasn’t going to change overnight. Instead, I worked diligently to share my message with anyone who would listen.

Recently, my diligence paid off. I was contacted by a group putting together a proposal for a defense contract. The government’s request outlined their expectations for HSI as part of the systems engineering effort in a way that the proposal team hadn’t seen before. Someone on the team had heard me speak before, knew I had the right expertise they needed, and reached out to request my support.

It will be a while before we find out who won the contract, but I am certain that our proposal is much stronger for the inclusion of HSI. The HSI piece of the work is small but essential, and any competitors without the requisite expertise may not have understood its impact or importance to the customer.

This experience reminded me of basketball star Kawhi Leonard’s most popular catchphrase: “The board man gets paid.” See, Leonard is known for his skill at grabbing his team’s rebounds1. This is a key differentiator on the basketball court. The team has done all that work to get the ball up the court, yet failed to score. Grabbing the rebound before the opponent does gives the team another chance. Most of the time, the defensive team is in a better position to grab the rebound; Kawhi Leonard has made a career of getting to those balls first.

Leonard identified an underexploited opportunity and worked hard to develop the skill to take advantage of it. Throughout high school and college, he called himself “The Board Man”. He shaped his career around this unique skill and has been extraordinarily successful because of it.

That’s not to say you have to find a niche to be successful. Obviously there are superstars in every field. But, it’s a heck of a lot easier if you can identify those opportunities nobody else is taking advantage of2.

Bonus read: The top 5%. Share your own tips, inspiration, and niche in the comments below.

Thoughts on “A Message to Garcia”

“A Message to Garcia” is a brief essay on the value of initiative and hard work written by Elbert Hubbard in 1898. It is often assigned in leadership courses, particularly in the military. Less often assigned but providing essential context is Col. Andrew Rowan’s first-person account of the mission, “How I Carried the Message to Garcia”.

There are also a number of opinion pieces archived in newspapers and posted on the internet both heralding and decrying the essay. There are a number of interpretations and potential lessons to be extracted from this story. It’s important that developing leaders find the valuable ideas.

Work ethic

Hubbard’s original essay is something of a rant on the perceived scarcity of work ethic and initiative in the ranks of employees. He holds Rowan up as an example of the rare person who is dedicated to achieving his task unquestioningly and no matter the cost.

Of course, this complaint is not unique to Hubbard1 nor is it shared universally. Your view on this theme probably depends on whether you are a manager or worker and your views on the value of work2. Nevertheless, Hubbard’s point is clear: Strong work ethic is valuable and will be rewarded.

No questions asked

If that were the extent of the message, it would be an interesting read but not particularly compelling. One reason the essay gained so much traction is Hubbard’s waxing about how Rowan supposedly carried out his task: with little information, significant ingenuity, and no questions asked. This message appeals to a certain type of ‘leader’ who doesn’t think highly of their subordinates.

It’s also totally bogus.

Lt. Rowan was a well-trained Army intelligence officer and he was sufficiently briefed on the mission. Relying on his intelligence background, he understood the political climate and implications. Additionally, preparations were made for allied forces to transport him to Garcia. He did not have to find his own way and blindly search Cuba to accomplish his objective.

I don’t intend to minimize Rowan’s significant effort and achievement, only to point out Hubbard’s misguided message. Hubbard would have us believe that Rowan succeeded through sheer determination, when the truth is that critical thinking and understanding were his means.

There may be a time and place for blind execution, but the majority of modern work calls for specialized skills and critical thinking. Hubbard seems to conflate any question with a stupid question, which is misguided. We should encourage intelligent questions and clarifications to ensure that people can carry out their tasks effectively. After all, if Rowan didn’t have the resources to reach Garcia he may still be wandering Cuba and Spain may still be an empire.

The commander who dismisses all questions breeds distrust and dissatisfaction. Worse, they send their troops out underprepared.


On the topic of work ethic, Hubbard is preaching to the choir. Those with work ethic already have it while those with is won’t be swayed by the message. Of course, managers always desire employees who demonstrate work ethic.

“A Message to Garcia” would be more effectively viewed as a treatise on leadership. After all, Army leadership effectively identified, developed, and utilized Rowan’s potential.

Perhaps the most important lesson, understated in the essay, is choosing the right person for the job. Rowan had the right combination of determination, brains, and knowledge to get the job done. In another situation, he may have been the worst person. How did Col. Wagner know about Rowan and decide he was the right person for the job? How do we optimize personnel allocation in our own organizations?

That’s my two pesetas, now you chime in below. What lessons do you take from Hubbard’s essay? Feel free to link to an interpretation, criticism, or praise which resonates with you.

Why you should use a writing coach (even if you’re already a good writer)

My first grad school paper was a pretty straightforward assignment with a three-page limit. There was so much to the topic1 that I wrote five pages without even thinking about it. I thought it would be easy to pare down but, try as I might, I could not get it below the limit without removing key points. I was a decent writer and had even worked professionally as a technical author, but I was really struggling.

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