Don’t #9: In spite of what you may have heard, during your college interview, don’t be boastful

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

Title: Merely wants to know / F. Opper. Creator(s): Opper, Frederick Burr, 1857-1937, artist Date Created/Published: N.Y. : Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1895 October 9.

True or false: during an admission interview you’re supposed take every chance you get to brag about your accomplishments, accolades, and all-around awesomeness.

If you haven’t already, I sincerely hope you abandon the notion that the purpose of a college application is to regale the admission officers with tales of how fantastic you are. To be blunt, then, as you can see, the answer to the pop quiz above is: False, emphatically False.

Bear with me for a moment while I share an anecdote from personal experience. In my travels around the world, I’ve noticed that when it comes to the question of whether to indulge in self-advertisement, the English are at one end of the spectrum, while the Chinese are at the other. The English take a dim view of any utterance that smacks of self-aggrandizement. They push modesty to an almost pathological extreme. The Chinese, on the other hand, tend to believe that you impress people by showing off.

Americans are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. And the further up the socio-economic ladder Americans climb, the more they tend toward the English, rather than the Chinese.

If you’re talking about yourself to an educated middle-class American—like the interviewer who sits across from you—your best bet is to master the fine art of the humblebrag.

That’s a brag that comes off as modest. It does so by directing attention away from you and your positive qualities, and towards the circumstances in which you accomplished something that benefited others.

In effect, you show, rather than tell. “I played a key role in something great” sounds a lot better than “I’m great.” In the case of the former, the listener is at liberty to come to her own conclusions about your character. Since she’ll have ownership of this assessment, it’ll tend to stick.

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