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How to wow a college recruiter

The interview is over. There's still one thing left to do.

Elliot Weinbaum
Elliot WeinbaumRead more

By Elliot Weinbaum

Tis the season. No, not that season. It's the season for college applications and interviews.

For many colleges, applications are due by the end of the year and are quickly followed by in-person interviews. It's that marvelous time of year when teenagers lie in bed at night and try to think of how they can make themselves sound interesting but not pretentious, well-rounded but not overprivileged, gracious but not obsequious, independent and driven but still collegial, focused but still exploring, academically superior but still humble. Some applicants will attempt these rhetorical feats in front of members of the admissions staffs and others will have an audience with alumni like me.

I interview candidates for admission to Yale. I've done it for a couple of years and really enjoy meeting high school students who are interested in attending my alma mater. They've accomplished marvelous things in their relatively short lives. There was one who has an impressive musical resume and cannot wait to join a singing group. There was another who reads the classics in the original Latin or Greek and is thrilled at the prospect of pursuing further study of Virgil or Plato. I met with one young man who had never been to elementary or high school (un-schooled since childhood under his parents' guidance) but had recently enrolled and excelled in calculus classes at a local college.

All of the young people that I get to meet are clearly special: nurtured and pushed by a parent or teacher or mentor, articulate and impressive in their own ways. But I will tell you what would really separate the stupendous from the merely smart, the brilliant from the merely bright, and the memorable from the merely mannerly. Consider this free college advising, a bit of advice from someone who sends his thoughts about applicants directly to the admissions office.

What is that elusive thing that would make them shine in my mind? A thank-you note. Yup, that's it, a simple thank-you note.

Maybe you're picturing embossed stationery, fine handwriting and a lined envelope. That would be wonderful. But I'm a realist; I know students are busy, overscheduled with activities and work and obligations. I know that people in their teens are barely acquainted with the concept of a postage stamp and a real, rather than a virtual, mailbox. I would settle for a simple e-mail.

How many of the candidates that I've interviewed have managed to demonstrate their superiority at this level? How many have taken a moment out of their impressively packed days to send a note thanking me for taking 45 or 60 minutes out of my packed day to get to know them? Not a single one. That's right. I have not gotten one piece of follow-up correspondence from an interviewee.

I understand that the interview may not be the most pleasurable experience they've ever had. I'm not looking for effusive praise of me, fond recollections of our special time together, or even clever comments about my office decor. I simply want some acknowledgement that it happened. Perhaps mention that I was friendly, or patient, or had thoughtful questions, or had clearly reviewed their candidate questionnaire. That it was slightly less painful than a root canal. Say something.

I do not place all of the blame at the foot of the candidates. Someone needs to tell them to write these notes. A parent, a teacher, a counselor, a mentor, a stranger, anyone.

Those of us who may not have had parents who demanded to see rough drafts of thank-you notes for every gift and kindness that was bestowed upon us may not feel the need to send a thank-you note as if it were a reflex. So do a student a favor. If you know students who are applying for college, or find yourself sitting next to one on the subway, give them a clue about how to really make an impression. They've done all of the hard work in the 17 years before the interview; a moment of thoughtfulness afterward would make it all that much more impressive.