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College interviews awkward for all

Celeste NahasIn the past month I’ve been to enough college interviews that I’d like to say I’ve mastered the process. I’ve learned how to articulate my passions, how to compartmentalize my goals, how to speak of things that haven’t happened yet. I’ve met medical students, forensic lawyers and company managers. I’ve talked with mothers and fathers, and then a few alums just barely older than I am. I’ve bought enough mochas to keep me on a yearlong energy buzz. And I’m becoming a local at Chuck’s Coffee. I’ve regretted applying to so many schools, and then regretted not applying to certain schools I stumbled upon after their deadlines. I’ve worried about my grades and then become ambivalent toward my grades. I’ve felt very old and mature and then — suddenly — very young and ignorant.

At my worst, I fell into the trap of banal platitudes:

Interviewer: Do you have any questions about the school for me?

Me: Did you like it?

Interviewer: No, not at all. That’s why I’m sitting here in a Starbucks at 7:45 at night when I could be home eating dinner with my family.

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At my best, I debated literature and philosophy with a chemical engineer for an hour.

With every conversation I have realized that I have hundreds of stories to tell. And usually, the alum sitting across the table from me has just as many. College interviews have taught me that humans thrive off our common gestures and memories.

Each night before a scheduled interview, I poke around on the college website or reread my application. The following morning I am reminded that the questions themselves are neither difficult nor important. Rather, the tenuous art of conversation presents a challenge. College interviews are ripe with friendly awkwardness. They begin with — but are not limited to:

1) A rigorous handshake

2) An awkward double offer to pay for each others’ coffee

3) The screeching of chairs against floorboards as alum and student attempt to sit down in a casual yet formal manner

With the greeting out of the way, the interview can begin. Conversation starts slowly. Rule Of Thumb: Interviews never go as planned.

One admissions representative asked me what types of books I liked to read. Attempting to hit an intellectual vein, I replied that I had been reading about race and class in America (read: Howard Zinn). He then picked up his bike helmet from his desk and said to me, “Describe this blue bicycle helmet in terms of race and class in America.”

Or there was the time when I was asked to name not only Oregon’s congressional representatives, but Washington and California’s. “Wyden...Merkely... and umm ... Hank?” Picture furrowed eyebrows and a lot of mumbling into lukewarm coffee.

There was also the time when I tried to adjust my chair and practically fell out of it, splashing the interviewer with a glass of water, which slid off the table as I tried to steady myself. Apparently I’m clumsy when nervous. And of course there was the interview that took a total of nine emails to schedule — and when a coffee shop was finally decided on I discovered it had closed down.

The college application process is daunting and at times hapless. Certain phrases students should expect to hear (so often as to make their eardrums ring) include, but are not limited to:

1) “When I was your age the competition wasn’t so cutthroat.”

2) “I only applied to two schools: Princeton and Pizza Hut.”

3) “An A minus can’t hurt you, but it certainly won’t help you.”

4) “Don’t sweat the small stuff, kid.”

5) “Most weekends I ... actually ... to tell the truth I was probably wasted.”

6) And finally, the kicker: “This interview has no actual bearing on your application.”

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Of course, when I try to hide my obsessive proclivities, or to emphasize how earnest I am — the admissions officers see right through me. I told one representative I was happy with my application and looking forward to a stress-free second semester. I tried to convince her I wouldn’t worry about the April results. “Bull,” she replied, “I know you’ll be worried about this from here until judgment day.” I guess a lot can be learned about someone from 40 minutes over coffee. And so it’s best not to try to fool anyone. Be yourself, as they say.

College interviews shouldn’t be daunting. After all, they are a mere stepping-stone into a world where face-to-face interactions hold increasing gravity as they are limited and replaced by screens. If anything, high school students should practice talking to adults more. Adults are usually funny.

They say things like “If you were a punctuation mark, what would you be and why?” Or better yet: “So you’re an overachiever. Go eat some ice cream and stop worrying.”

I have learned through these endless meetings that the art of arranging and speaking words transforms their very meaning. My stories no longer belong solely to me. Each sentence contains a chaos and an honesty. Whether true or invented — what I say creates a bridge to the other person.

One alum I spoke with confessed that they had dropped out of the very college we were discussing. “The only activity I could seem to do was set slices of pepperoni on dough at a Santa Monica mall pizzeria, and I wasn’t sure what to do with my life,” she told me. We both smiled, perhaps because we shared in the archaic sentiment, the unanswerable question: What poet Mary Oliver framed as, “What is it you will do with this one wild and precious life?”

Celeste Nahas is a senior at Lakeridge High School and writes a monthly column for The Review. To contact her email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .




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