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High school admissions interviews perpetuate inequality, but they don't have to

Last November, I met with a student who had just returned from an interview at a prestigious public high school in Manhattan. Kiera’s test scores and grades placed her at the top of her class at Explore Charter School in Flatbush, where I work as a high school placement coordinator. Yet she left the group interview slouched and deflated, convinced that she had ruined all chances at her top choice for high school.

During the interview, Kiera said, the other students discussed fencing with middle-school teams and traveling across country with dance groups. Kiera, whose name I changed to protect her privacy, sat silently, intimidated by the language other applicants used to answer questions and the way they talked about their favorite books. “I just didn’t know what to say when it was my turn,” she told me afterward.

Kiera knew that the stakes were high. The quality of high schools in the city varies widely, and rather than assigning students to high schools based on where they live, New York City has a system of choice, in which students rank their top choices and are matched to a single school.

For that complicated system to work fairly, middle schools need to do everything possible to help students like Kiera, who come from low-income backgrounds, prepare for interviews, knowing they’ll be competing against students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds who have often been coached since childhood on how to apply to schools and enrichment programs.

To Kiera and many of her classmates who decided to apply to schools that require interviews (about a third of the class), the idea of explaining to a school during an interview why they should be admitted was completely foreign.

Explore doesn’t have a high school, so it’s my job to help students get into high-quality public high schools throughout the city. My position, which not all schools are able to have, allows me to work with eighth-graders and their families to navigate the high school application process.

During a series of workshops I run about interviews, we discuss the importance of body language and appropriate dress. We practice writing thank-you notes. Then students participate in a mock interview day, when they dress professionally and practice interviewing with a member of the school staff. For many of them, this process was one of the first times they practiced talking about their experience in a formal setting.

Many of them are used to simply enrolling in their neighborhood school, and have been at Explore since kindergarten. They had to apply to attend Explore, which is a charter school, but it was a lottery, not a test or interview, that determined who got in.

If you’ve never done it before–and even if you have–presenting yourself to strangers and explaining your experiences in interesting in relevant ways can be intimidating. Even adults find job interviews stressful, and the eighth-graders I work with are 13.

The concept of selling myself to schools was also foreign to me when I was in middle-school. I “interviewed” for a prestigious private school in the Bronx at the age of four. Although I was accepted, the tuition would have been a financial burden for my family, so I went to my neighborhood public school. Later, I took the specialized high school exam with no formal test prep and didn’t pass. My parents helped me prepare for an interview at a small Catholic school in Westchester, and I got in.

All too often, students in under-resourced middle schools receive little guidance when it comes to selecting high schools and navigating the unfamiliar and often competitive process. I know middle schools are stretched thin, but teachers, administrators, and counselors need to do whatever they can to make sure that students know what to expect during interviews and, ideally, have a chance to learn new techniques and practice interviewing before the real thing.

High school administrators who interview prospective students also need to be aware that some students have more experience presenting themselves than others. They need to do whatever they can to create comfortable and welcoming environments during interviews, which can ease some students’ tension and anxiety.

Interviewers need to ask specific, thoughtful questions that draw more descriptive answers out of students. During mock interviews, my students often arrived at creative, unique answers to questions but needed a little extra time and digging to help express them.

Kiera didn’t get into the school she most wanted to attend–the one where she was convinced she bombed the interview. Interestingly, she was accepted to one of the city’s specialized high schools, which still admit students on the basis of a single test, after receiving free test prep through our school.

Kiera’s admission to a specialized high school is by no means representative of the majority of my students. But her experience with the interview process is. All too often, I’ve seen students like Kiera finish the high school application process with less confidence than they had going in, and without the high school placement they deserve.

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