The Coyote Don Guide to Interviewing for Classes

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What are professors looking for, and how you can get on their good list. 

When I first began teaching at Sarah Lawrence, I didn’t understand the interview process well. And the very first student who came to interview for one of my classes happened to be a first-year going to his first interview. He found me to be intimidating, and I found him to be intimidating–he had very large lapels. As it turned out, not only did he take the class, but he eventually became an assistant to me for several years.

How Much Does the Interview Matter?

The interview is mainly for you, the student, to decide if you want to try to register for the class. In that sense, it matters a lot. But it has a secondary purpose of allowing us to decide whether we want you in the class. Our control over that, though, is far from absolute. Here’s how it breaks down by class type:

Lectures: For lectures, we have no control, as long as you interview. You could show up to the group interview, spill coffee on our laptop, insult our favorite author, and interrupt us in the middle of telling our favorite joke, and still not hurt your chances of getting in to the class. Of course, once you got in to the class, you might have some fences to mend!

Open classes: For open classes with no requirements, we get to pick six students from those who are trying to register for the class, and put them down in ranked order–this is called “submitting priorities.” It is very likely that the registrar will place all of these “high priority” students in to the class. We’re also allowed to list students beyond the six, but the registrar usually has more important things to worry about than who is on the rest of the list, such as trying to make sure that everyone gets in to at least two of their three first-choice classes. As long as they interview, we are not allowed to block students from open classes (unless it says “open with permission”).

Intermediate, Advanced, and Open with Permission: For these classes, we still get to pick six students to be “high priority.” But we also can list students as “not qualified,” and then they won’t be allowed in.

Alternate Registration: Alternate registration works pretty much the same way, but with a twist: we know if you listed our class before we submit priorities, but we don’t know whether you listed it first, second, or third. So that makes things a bit more complicated for us–should we “waste” a high priority slot on someone who might end up in another class anyway?

What Are We Looking For?

Often, the answer is nothing in particular. Many faculty choose not to turn in priority lists for many classes, or don’t use the full six slots. But when we are filing priorities, what do we look for?

The Right Mix: Most often, we’re trying to get a class that will “gel.” Depending on the course, Sarah Lawrence classes involve a lot of discussion around the round table, and when a class isn’t working out, that can get very tedious! Personally, I’m often looking for balance: if almost everyone signing up for a class is first-years, I might priority list a junior. If they’re mostly students who are concentrating in my discipline, I might take someone focussed in a totally different area.

Special Skills or Background: This is similar to “mix,” but has more to do with something really cool the student can bring to the class. Sometimes it’s because they have academic expertise I lack–maybe they know more about the history or philosophy of the  course topic than I do. Or maybe they had some unusual personal experience that would help inform the class discussions.

Need: Sometimes, there are students who actually need this specific class, and they need it now. Maybe it feeds directly in to their graduate school plans, for example.

High-level students: Personally, I don’t priority list students because I think they’re “strong.” But I know faculty who do, because they think it raises the level of the whole class, particularly given our emphasis on class discussion.

Interview Tips

Be on time: We often run behind on our interview schedule, but you shouldn’t–we’re interviewing maybe 30 students in a day, and you’re not interviewing that many faculty, so you should do your best to help us out. Don’t schedule interviews so close together that you’re likely to be late, or that you’ll have to leave early if we’re running late. And whatever you do, don’t stand us up! If you’re going to miss an interview you signed up for, either cross your name off, call us, or email. If you stand me up, and then realize you need to see me during alternate registration, you’ve already got a big strike against you.

Don’t be overenthusiastic: Here’s a common situation: a student interviews with me during alternate registration. They say something like “As soon as I read the course description in the catalog, I knew I just had to take this class! It looks amazing!” That raises the obvious question: if the class looked so amazing to you, why didn’t you interview during the first round? It’s OK to express legitimate excitement about a class, but don’t do it just for the sake of getting in–I don’t know any faculty who use enthusiasm as a reason for prioritizing a student.

Do say why you’re interested in taking the class: Be honest. It may be a requirement, or it may be a reach that your don suggested, or it may be something that you think will connect with some of your other studies. The more you tell us about why you want to take the class, the more likely you are to trigger something that will cause us to prioritize you. Notice that you don’t know what will do the trick: maybe it’s experience in the subject, but maybe it’s bringing a fresh perspective, for example. Telling us nothing about your reasons, however, makes it very likely you’ll be left off the priority list. Remember: priority lists are more about finding a few people we particularly want, not deciding on people we don’t want. Indicating why you want to take the class also has the side benefit that we might be able to tell you if the class won’t accomplish what you’d hoped!

Don’t use canned, “clever” questions: Occasionally I get a student who has tried to come up with some off-the-wall question that they are going to ask at every interview: for one, it was “pirates or ninjas?” Don’t do that–it’s pretty clearly not about the specific class, so it gives us little reason to prioritize you.

It’s OK to ask us about what we’re looking for: Just don’t push too hard. Many faculty members will be happy to tell you about the kind of student they want for the course. But if someone wants to play it close to the vest, that’s their decision.

Do talk about conference work: Since conference work is the most individualized part of a Sarah Lawrence course, it provides fertile ground for getting you on to a priority list. That doesn’t mean you have to already know what you want to do for conference work–for an open course outside your areas of concentration, that would be presumptuous! But if you spend a few minutes having a conversation about the kind of conference work that is appropriate for the class, and the kinds of things that you might want to do, that has the potential of so exciting the faculty member that they feel they just have to get you in to the class. Oh, and years of teaching at Sarah Lawrence has given us finely-honed BS detectors, so once again be honest–we’ll probably know if you’re trying to snow us.

Find out if you should send a follow-up email: Some faculty get annoyed if you don’t send a follow-up email if you’re planning on registering–particularly for alternate registration, since otherwise they’re not sure how you ranked their class. Other faculty don’t care. There’s no way of knowing which category any given faculty member falls in to, so don’t be afraid to ask!

Add/Drop, Audits, Thirds, Adding Year-Long Courses in Spring, etc.

All of those things are totally up to us–we can say yes or no as we please. So for these things, your approach should change. In these cases you should be deferential, act rapidly, and don’t apply too much pressure. You need to be prepared to make your case, and make it in the manner the faculty member prefers.

For example, to add a class during the add/drop period, email the professor and show up at the first class. Your chances of being allowed to add are greatly increased if you’ve been there from the beginning. If you’re not sure whether you’re going to add or not, say so, but do show up from the first day! The professor may want to interview you as well if that didn’t happen during regular registration, but that’s up to them.

Good Luck!

And yes, luck has something to do with it. Since we’re only placing a maximum of six students on the high priority list for each class, a lot of it comes down to the registrar and making the puzzle pieces of 1200+ schedules fit together. So don’t stress too much–and maybe I’ll see you at an interview in a few weeks!

1 Comment

  • Reply August 10, 2013

    SLC Graduate

    While it is interesting to get an insider perspective on how professors select students for the 6 spaces on their preference list, this article confirmed all the doubts I’ve ever had about how the interview and subsequent selection processes work. The line “personally, I don’t priority list students because I think they’re ‘strong.’ But I know faculty who do, because they think it raises the level of the whole class, particularly given our emphasis on class discussion” especially disturbs me. How do you know if a student is going to be strong based on a brief fifteen minute encounter? On confidence? On eloquence? On reputation? Style? Looks? Gender? Skin color? If intelligence is going to a factor in awarding a student a space in a class, why not, instead of having professors base their decisions on vague assumptions formed during a fleeting fifteen minute meeting, allow students to submit their cumulative GPAs, recommendation letters and IQ scores? Instead of pretending the interview process is for the students’ benefit, it seems more honest to admit that it’s an occasion on which they will be evaluated, judged and possibly rejected based on *perceived* capacity and merit.

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