This past Saturday I spend a couple of hours at my daughter’s high school in London conducting mock interviews for senior students applying to university. They call them “Oxbridge” interviews since many of the students are applying to either Cambridge or Oxford University, as well as other top tier UK universities, such as Imperial College and London School of Economics.
I am not an Oxbridge graduate, having gone to Harvard instead, but I do remember, vaguely, the entrance process during my time (closer to the Middle Ages) so I was anxious to meet this young generation of scholars and help in any way I could. I must confess that my wife volunteered me for this duty, but it turned out to be both interesting and enlightening.
I interviewed two senior students, one from the British Section and one from the French Section (our school is the French Lycee in London, in which up to high school all courses are taught in French according to the French national curriculum, but at high school level they have a choice of remaining in the French system or converting to the British high school system). Both were extremely bright, hard working “A” students in all their subjects, and having ample extracurricular activities as well. On paper, the perfect Oxbridge candidates.
While I am not qualified to delve deeply into the subjects these two students were focusing on for their college education (Neurosciences and Statistical Analysis), I have conducted hundreds of interviews over the course of my business career and I believe I understand what college admission officers are looking for in terms of capabilities and character.
I am certain that both these young people will be accepted into a top university, but I found an interesting, and I believe important, difference in the way they approached their education.
The first candidate was extremely serious, studious and very well read on the subject of neuroscience as it relates to how the brain understands and processes music (if you don’t know anything about this subject, like me, then a great TED talk by Dr. Charles Limb will fascinate and educate you).
However, as I started probing into why she was interested in this subject and what she saw herself doing in the future after graduating, the responses seemed very superficial. During the entire 40 minute interview I kept looking for the critical thinking that usually goes behind the reading and learning of a scholar. Not just reciting facts and studies, but a critical assessment of the reading. What does it mean? Where might there be inconsistencies in the current knowledge of the subject? How might you use this information? If I were an Oxbridge interviewer, I would be more concerned with the candidates ability to challenge and question the current knowledge than just be able to recite it back.
The other candidate was perhaps less well read on the chosen field, but I was impressed with the depth of questioning and critical assessment of the material. And what impressed me even more was the ability to then experiment with that knowledge in order to better understand it. For example, she told a story of having read about the power of verbal communication to sway opinion and instead of taking it for face value, she did an experiment in the school Debate class to try and sway the opinions of the audience from a very popular position to a very unpopular position. The goal of this experiment was to use various channels of communication (verbal, emotional, visual, factual) to influence a highly negative audience towards her subject.
To me, this curiosity and willingness to experiment with knowledge learned from reading signals the type of intellectual agility and curiosity that today’s universities are looking for. In a world where everyone applying has A’s and A-star grades, curiosity and willingness to question and experiment is a differentiator.
The advice I gave both candidates at the end of the interview revolved around the importance of continuously asking “Why” and not being willing to settle with the first response. One of the key fundamental principles of lean thinking and process improvement in business is the 5-Why technique. Asking Why five times in order to get to a deeper level of understanding and to uncover the real issues.
When I explained this concept to one of the students, she got it right away. “Oh, that works with relationship as well, doesn’t it? When someone is angry, it’s usually not the first reply that is the real issue, but by asking Why several times it is easier to help the person see the real source of their anger.” Bingo!
Tight Lines . . .
John R Childress