When I Skype with my students in Singapore, Beijing or Irvine, California, I get a revealing portrait of who they are and how they live. Behind them I often see an unmade bed, an empty pizza box, stuffed animals, guitars and drum sets.
And they get a look at the inside of my home office, with my dogs Pinki and Rosie sleeping on a chair in the background. They can see my bookcases, which include such unexpected objects as my Jane Austen action figure, with her book and quill pen.
All of these things are calculated to help them on the way to getting into their dream school as we work on college essays and interviews.
Many of my students enter my world with near-perfect grades, superior SAT and ACT scores, impressive volunteer work and little ability to connect with people on a human level. One of the first things we work on is making small talk, something they tend to dismiss at first as a waste of time, but a skill that can make or break an interview with Harvard, Yale or Stanford. The dogs and Jane help to break the ice in a non-threatening way. They are part of a virtual sanctuary in which kids are allowed to make mistakes with no penalty.
I tell my students they have about 240 seconds to win over the person interviewing them. They will be judged on body language and small talk, the ability to connect with another person. And the best way to become a master of small talk is to notice the seemingly inconsequential things, like a pet or an object on a shelf.
The smart ones get it.
“What kind of a name is Pinki?”
“Well, she’s named after a character in a classic 1949 movie called ‘Adam’s Rib.’”
“Why do you have a Jane Austen action figure?”
“Because she’s more powerful than Batman or Wonder Woman. Jane wrote the perfect love letter in the novel Persuasion. It’s a great example of using strong verbs and specific detail in your writing.”
“What does it say?”
“Things like ‘You pierce my soul.’”
At the beginning of every session, I insist that we spend two minutes making small talk.
I find out things about them, sometimes heartbreaking things, like they have no friends because they are too busy trying to get into the Ivy League and have no time. Sometimes we talk about our favorite candy.
Eventually, the small talk comes naturally. The students look forward to news about my granddaughter, my latest sewing project or whether it’s a coyote in my rural backyard that’s making the dogs bark. I look forward to hearing that they reached out to a classmate by baking a homemade cake for a birthday surprise or relaxed with their dad by attending a sporting event.
When they get to the interview stage of the process, many are determined not to sell themselves, but to make the interviewer feel comfortable. They’ve connected with intimidating admissions officers, school alums and other adults on a personal level. It’s memorable and it makes them stand out in a sea of robotic rock-star students.