Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Divulge, But Trust! Teens reveal in college admission essays what nobody should answer in an employment interview

University of Texas at Austin asks undergraduate applicants to write 500 words about this:
What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.

Princeton gets at the same question through this bloviating, self-congratulatory paragraph:
Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that
Tell us all about yourself...
helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approached the world ...“Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.” Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University.

For those of us with teens in the thick of college applications, this kind of wind-bag-couched request for comprehensive self-description is commonplace. Teens are nervous and seeking to please and still have a naive relationship with privacy. And a whole consulting industry has sprung up around advising what personality traits and gender characteristics to flaunt, which ethnic and racial stereotypes to jettison, what kind of family-upbringing and income characteristics to be proud of, which dialects are endearing and which sound stupid. Armies of Chicos-clad admission officers are pouring over this minutia for our own good, we tell ourselves. And our teen, who has already felt a hundred eyes examining her, plays along.

It hardly crosses our minds how far this veers from the core of what our teen is trying to do: to get (publicly subsidized) access to (many state-funded) educational institutions.
Alia Wong wrote in October Atlantic Monthly
about a Korean-American girl whose college application
coach and tutors advised her not to sound
"too Asian" in her application, and to omit details
 about her love of mathematics or violin-playing. 
And because our teens live in a divulging culture, it doesn’t seem inappropriate to them to reveal so much personal information that is irrelevant, prone to subjective judgement-making, and unverifiable.

But try to think of the most awkward job interviews where you’ve either been the candidate or sat alongside someone who was totally out of line:
So I hear you have a really big family, huh? How many kids again? Wow!
I was so sorry to hear about your illness. You are such a trooper!
So you’ve just got married! Congratulations! I wonder if you’re thinking about children?
I didn’t realize Scott is your partner! He’s such a nice guy.
Was that YOU I saw at mass last Sunday? I didn’t realize we go to the same church!
What an interesting last name. Now is that Persian?

Unless you fell off the potato-wagon yesterday, you know that whether you’re hiring, or promoting, or managing a team, or vetting a procurement, or screening rental applicants or health insurance claimants, or providing or receiving just about any kind of state service, that these kinds of questions or revelations are completely inappropriate.
Are applicants too young to understand the
inappropriateness of the kind of information
they are asked to divulge? Or too eager?
Or too trusting?
That also goes for ethnic background, spiritual beliefs, sexual habits and orientation, family background, relatives and their incomes, and any kind of subjective narrative about race.

And yet somehow nosy undergraduate admissions officers wormed their way out. They don’t just get away with such questions. They flaunt them. The celebration of culture, race, background, class-status, and identity oozes out of every line in the application form. It seems impossible to fill the demanded word-count without divulging a great deal of private and utterly irrelevant information.

And divulge we do. For the most competitive schools, we craft and second-guess and massage the message. Counselors help our teens put exactly the right face on themselves. (Georgetown University isn’t the only school to ask for a face-photo attached to the application itself.)

Why do we prompt our teens to divulge so much irrelevant personal information, when we ourselves would recoil and protest if any interviewer leaned across the table, and with a knowing wink asked, “Are you mixed race?” or “Do you come from a good home?” We sanction and assist the divulging, because we tell ourselves that these admissions processes are good, that their intentions are right, that their subjective reading of our personal situations is for society’s benefit.

Unfortunately, the divulge-but-trust-me culture is empowered by social progressivism, that stridently and self-righteously promises to engineer a better society by over-stepping personal privacy. I remember coming home from work incensed on the day that World Bank Human Resources promulgated a policy requesting all staff to annotate our HR profiles with sexual orientation and indicate if we are transgender. Why should I answer? How would you verify this? What is the purpose of this question?? I was enraged, but a cheerful HR officer with a helpful face and a hurt expression in her eyes said, “Colleen, this isn’t going to hurt you. This is so that we can maintain our diversity scorecard.” The explanation feels as meaningless and baffling now as is did then. I carried my anger alone, until my husband got a similar survey from the U.S. State Department.

We don’t need to look far back in history, or far from our doorsteps, to see the risks of divulge-but-trust-me. Excessive information creates a cover to disguise racial, religious, gender and other kinds of bias in selections. It sits on servers. It gets passed around. The profile data that seemed well-targeted to one audience turns out to be off-key to another. And so on. It’s why sensible adults don’t bring up these things at job interviews.

And that’s what we should be telling our teens, even if they will leave these questions blank.

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