I remember I would get side whacked by this interview question, “So why did you choose Harvard?” By golly, why did I choose Harvard? I’d fumble and talk about something or other involving academics, nothing particularly compelling.
As I’ve gotten older and perhaps slightly wiser, I realized what they were really asking was, “What is your story?” Stories are funny. If you’ve ever read The Things They Carried, you learned that half of a story are the narrative choices. Other times, you need to fudge things in order to keep the story “real” to its meaning.
No, I’m not telling you to lie.
But, when someone wants to open up your skull and swim around and then make a judgment on your person, a good story about how you got where you are and where you’re going is the key to making a lasting impression and forming a connection.
1) This is how you got into Harvard
The bits and pieces of your application — essays, recommendations, interview etc. — were somehow stitched together by a sympathetic admissions officer to form a narrative that he or she pitched to the rest of the admissions officer to try to convince “the powers that be” why you should be at Harvard.
This is the girl who worked on her family’s dairy farm in southern Illinois since she could walk, who witnessed the financial strains of the agricultural life in her family and her family friends, who coupled with her eager attitude and natural aptitude (in a school that did not nearly challenge her) has found a way to give time back to this small community, and hopes to one day maybe make an impact on farming subsidies in America.
See, now that’s a story. Background, personal motivation, where she’s going, where she wants to go. There’s a thread of consistency and coherence. It provides the context to understand the decisions she’s made, such as taking that earth physics class.
2) Stories are home grown
It only makes sense on any level if you are the one who comes up with it. If you’re entering a transitional phase in your life (e.g. entering college), it is difficult to figure out how your new life jives with what you’ve done in the past — which is fine.
But once you’ve “settled down” so to speak, think back, reflect. Ponder away. What are the consistent threads in your life? What are the motivations behind the numerous decisions you’ve made? And if there were some decisions you regret, why did you make those decisions in the first place? and why do you regret them now?
This is the hard part, mulling over, reflecting.
3) Emerson on decisions:
I’m not particularly well read by any means, but this has stayed with me:
There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now. Greatness appeals to the future. If I can be firm enough to-day to do right, and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances, and you always may. The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days of virtue work their health into this.
– Emerson, Self-Reliance
4) What are your natural tendencies?
Do you always find a way to take the more analytical route? Do you try to always read biographies? Are you more inclined to always be with competitive people?
It’s easy to “conform,” especially at Harvard where people have this surprising ability to appear? to have herd mentality. Half of the student body seems to want to do “business” after graduation, everyone and their mother is pre-med or pre-research or always-confused.
It’s easy to get caught with the tide and make the choices that everyone else is making because it’s simply easier. At the same time, you’ll probably find that once you get comfortable or “settled,” you’ll make your damn choices as you please, because you’re too old to waste your time being a sheep and baahing in the grassy fields.
5) You need to set yourself apart
It’s easy for people to blur together, especially if they’ve all done the same things. Take the pre-business group. A large chunk are economics concentrators, who take classes like Capital Markets and Corporate Finance, who minor in Statistics, look for internships in the financial industry, but pine for work in consulting, who are in organizations like Women in Business, who manage finances for their XYZ student organization, and have pursued research with a HBS professor on the side.
While not everyone is like this, a lot of people can certainly claim 3 or 4 of the descriptors. And frankly, commonalities cause people to blur together, for better or worse.
The story is what sets you apart. It adds the drive behind your herd-like movement (if you are following the herd). And if you aren’t following the herd, it justifies why your a classics major looking for work in the advertising industry.
It’s incredibly easy to get lost in the shuffle if you look like all the other cards.
So, figure out what sets YOU apart, and that is YOUR STORY.