Posts Tagged With: Claremont McKenna

If someone asks if you have any questions, ask a question

Let's revisit one of the most humiliating (and expensive) moments of my life. It happened a decade ago and even today I cringe and seethe when I think about it.

I was one of 25 finalists for a $20,000 scholarship in my junior year of college. The last step was an hour long interview with three faculty members. I wrote down a list of every single question I thought they would ask - why do you want this scholarship, why you, etc - and rehearsed answers, recording myself, for a week straight. The interview came and went and I thought I did pretty well!

Fast forward a week and I got an email that I was not going to be offered a scholarship. Only two other students out of 25 were rejected. I was dumbfounded. There was no way I should have failed this test. I started thinking back to the interview. Some answers stand out as opportunities to improve - I could still tell you exactly what they are. There's one answer that I really wish I could get back.

At the end of the interview they asked "do you have any questions for us?" By this point I'd done so much research into the scholarship that I couldn't think of anything, and said "No." The interview ended.

But think about it from their perspective. I'd just spent an hour talking about myself; what does it show when I refuse to ask any questions? Not only am I denying them an opportunity for them to talk, I appear very incurious about the program itself. They didn't know that I had been quizzing myself on every aspect of the program for a week. I should have asked about anything — literally anything — and given them a chance to talk.

The funny thing was I had actually asked some of the people who had gone through the interview what they had been asked about. "Ask a question at the end" was both so obvious to them - pretty much every successful candidate had done finance interviews, where cultural signals are more important; I hadn't - and so oblivious to me that it hadn't even come up to people who wanted to help me succeed.

From that point on I made a point to always ask a question when someone asks if I have any questions. Ask anything. Even asking "what did you have for lunch" is better than asking nothing; the interviewer might start talking about whether the company pays for lunch, whether it's any good. My standby question is "what did you do yesterday" - it has a unique answer for each interviewer and reveals how people spend their time (vs. how they say they spend their time).

Finally, "person fails interview because interviewer expects to see cultural signal and interviewee does not broadcast cultural signal" is a common failure mode. Think about someone who wears a suit to a tech interview. Some organizations only want to hire people who can utter the secret words, and that's their choice.

But if your goal is to cast a wide net - I am looking at you, tech companies that put up billboards championing your commitment to diversity - and you have a candidate without a traditional background, maybe make a list of every reason you've used to reject a nontraditional candidate in the past and then email that to the candidate in advance of the interview - "wear a dress shirt and jeans," for example.1 You won't get everything, but it's a good start. (You can try to get your interviewers to discard the cultural signals but that's difficult and it might show up in their feedback without them realizing it.) Note that career services departments at good schools are already doing this for their students; what you are doing is leveling the playing field.

1 This is not a new critique by any means, people have made it about the SAT for some time - if the tests quiz applicants on vocabulary and grammar that are more commonly used in white households than nonwhite households, than identical students with identical aptitudes will score differently, which seems unfair.

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The Robert Day School is hurting CMC’s leadership efforts

Note: I wrote this last year a few days after I was rejected from the Robert Day Scholars Program. This year’s Scholars were just announced, and I thought it was worth reposting.

Let’s say you had $360,000 to give away every year to undergraduates and you wanted to encourage future leaders, or increase the net amount of business success enjoyed by undergraduates at your school. What would be the best way to spend the money?

Observation #1: It’s difficult to predict who is going to be successful and who isn’t. Arguably, 2 of the top 3 earners that CMC has produced were C students when they were here. Robin Williams went to CMC and dropped out; so did Ben Casnocha. I have heard that Robert Day himself, and Henry Kravis, were C students; George Roberts would bet on horses at Santa Anita every day after class. Clearly, the Robert Day program wants to maximize the number of future Kravises and Robert Days, but Kravis and Day probably would not have had the grades to get into the program.

We can observe which students have taken leadership roles, and which students have high status, and we can give a work sample assessment, but these are merely rough indicators – the work sample assessment has only a 0.52 correlation with future job success.

One crucial factor is luck; people have to be at the right place at the right time, and it’s hard to predict which fields are going to be huge, or which person will start the right company or strike up the right conversation at a bar, or join the right startup. Maybe we can assign a percentage chance of wild success to every student, but I would guess that the difference between students in the top GPA decile and students in the bottom GPA decile is maybe 0.4.

Observation #2: If you want students to succeed, instead of telling students they are smart, tell them they are not working hard enough. There’s a reason successful coaches don’t tell their players, “You guys are so athletic and so good. You deserve your #1 ranking and you are all surefire lottery picks. Let me buy you some pizza.” Complacency is not a good leadership trait, and successful students/athletes hear “You’re so smart” more than enough as it is. It’s not clear that, even if you could identify successful students, that giving them a large chunk of cash is ideal, if it could make them complacent. While we give scholarship money to athletes, this is largely a prize so that they want to choose our program, and we take it away if they are unmotivated, or unsuccessful.

Indeed, the students who are rejected from the cash/status giveaway program might develop a chip on their shoulder and become more motivated than the students accepted to the program. I am reminded of Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high school JV team, or CMC trustee Augie Nieto, who was told by his thesis adviser that his plan to develop a series of exercise machines would not work, and he went on to turn the thesis into the multimillion dollar LifeFitness company. There is a selection bias at play here, but it would be good to study if the Robert Day program had a measurable effect, and if so, what that effect was.

Observation #3: Leadership skills, as well as skill at becoming exceptional, can be taught. Some high status students are natural leaders and others have the decision-making skills to become leaders but maybe not the body language, or ability to inspire others. Where should we focus our attention: on making the potential stars into superstars or on sharpening the diamonds in the rough? Given the luck-based nature of success, I would be tempted to focus at the margin but it depends on your estimates of the your ability to make a difference, as well as the goal of your program.

Recommendation: The key is to design your program to send different messages to different groups. To the group of super-bright, super-driven, super-body language, super-ability to inspire students, you want to send a message that says, Don’t get complacent, no one’s looking out for you, if you want to get anywhere you need to work harder. These students are probably going to out-earn their peers, and everyone knows it; if you gave this group money, you would probably get the least bang for your buck, as well as cause resentment among other students and professors.

To the group of marginal students, who maybe aren’t as driven as the top group, you want to send an encouraging message, and spend more attention, in the hopes of boosting their leadership skills and giving them confidence and a better chance of success in the workplace. In theory, you could achieve this by setting up a status and cash-conferring scholarship for a select group of students and then deliberately choosing the candidates you think are second-best.

Either way, you’re not touching the C students who might turn out to be brilliant, or lucky, businessmen. I’d probably want to arrange lectures for everyone on how they can increase their impressiveness, and on the importance of body language. I would purchase cameras for every teacher and instruct them to film students any time they present something, and also randomly during class discussion, and then give the tape to students so that they can see the effects themselves. Given that the group who will attend lectures will self-select to be the group that needs it least, I’d want to consistently emphasize the importance of these qualities, maybe give out a cash prize for attendance or include them in the core curriculum.

Conclusion: If I’m in a position to have $360,000 to give away every year, I’m probably interested in showing that I care about future leaders by giving away money, and less interested in actually increasing the number or success of future leaders, e.g. how the program is designed. At the margin, of course.

If I’m so negative about the effects of the Robert Day School on the student body, then why would I bother to apply? It’s usually easier to change organizations from within, and given that the opportunity exists, it would be silly to turn it down. I would like to see more CMC students become future leaders, as they are my peers, and it will make me feel prouder to affiliate with CMC. That said, being a rejected applicant, it will be difficult to suggest and implement any changes to the program, as most of my suggestions will be taken as sour grapes.

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