Don’t #11: During a college interview, don’t be argumentative

This article is part of a series, 10 Tips for Acing Your College Interviews.

Title: The Political Chess-Board Date Created/Published: 1910 Feb. 5. Medium: 1 print : wood engraving. Summary: Joseph Cannon playing chess with straw man labelled "Congress", using toy men on chessboard with squares labelled "important committee" and "freak committee".

I’m going to beat this over your head one more time: An interview should feel like a chat, not a debate. And certainly not a knockdown, drag-out argument. You’re not trying to one-up your straw-man opponent, prove how smart you are, or, be categorically right.

In this situation—a college interview—getting along is much more important than being right.

If your interviewer happens to make a particularly ridiculous or egregious assertion, just take it in stride. Pause. Acknowledge the other’s point of view. Then deflect the conversation elsewhere, preferably to a topic that’s not so charged, like Middle East peace, abortion, or immigration.

Just kidding. You can always steer the discussion back to the college experience. After all, that’s why you’re there.

Being argumentative is a risk especially for those of you who do a lot of coding. You know who you are. I’m talking about guys—why is it usually guys?—who believe that the purpose of conversation is to regurgitate as many facts as you can muster:

Techie 1: I know this, this, and this fact.

Techie 2: Yeah, but, I know that, that, and that fact.

Techie 1: And I know this fact too.

Maybe this style of anti-conversation has a lot to do with the influence of coding on their thinking. The beauty of code is, in the context of a program, it’s either true or false. Code either works, or it doesn’t. That’s comforting, but certainly not how real conversation works. I digress.

Another lesson from improv acting is worth keeping in mind: When your partner in conversation makes a point, the best way to fan the discussion is not to offer a response prefixed by a “no” or even a “yeah, but.” Rather, answer with a “yes, and.”

Conversationalist 1: I assert a claim about the way the world is.

Conversationalist 2: Yes, and your claim about the world has this interesting implication. What do you think about this implication?

Dr. Sean

Dr. Sean

Co-Founder at Readerly
Dr. Sean has over a decade of teaching experience at universities in the US and Asia. He earned a BA with honors from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of London. You can read more about his teaching and research here.
Dr. Sean