On a recent blog entry, I got a question from a student I thought was interesting:
hey matt i've got a question. right now i've got a nose ring and bright black and pink hair. i'm applying EA to MIT and i was just wondering. for the interview...is that too unprofessional? the nose ring i could always take out but my hair?
That's a good question! Here are some of my thoughts.
We want you to be yourself throughout this process, and want to learn about the important things that make you you. As an admissions committee, we desire diversity of all sorts, we don't want everyone to be the same -- part of what makes MIT exciting is meeting and learning from all sorts of different people. And certainly, if you walk around our campus, you'll see plenty of people with dyed hair, piercings of all sorts, bare feet, tattoos...
We tell both the interviewers and the application readers to be careful not to fall into trap of having a single characteristic override everything else. It's an easy trap to fall into, but we try hard not to let prejudices take over.
Do recognize that you may not connect with everyone, but even if you don't connect still do your best to talk about yourself and your interests. That way, the important information will be conveyed in the interview report, and we'll be able to understand that even though you didn't connect that we can still learn a lot from the interview. And you should be ready to talk about those things that make you different -- such as, perhaps, a nose ring. (Or, for my friend Alvar '98 PhD '05, a lot more than just a nose ring)
This question was so intruiging to me that I put the question out to some of our ECs (Educational Counselors, our alumni interviewers). With the help of Kim, the EC Director, we sent it out to a diverse group of active of ECs, representing different generations and different parts of the country. Despite the diversity of the group, I was interested to see the similarity of answers across the group.
Below, I have posted all of the responses I received (none left out) without any editing. Check it out:
John '03, MA:
"I actually received the very same question in person from an applicant when I was working as an EC in the San Diego region. This applicant had multiple piercings (nose and ear) and spiky hair (think Johnny Rotten of the British punk group, The Sex Pistols). I think that applicant sought me out because I was the youngest member of the San Diego EC group. My response to his question was to stress the importance of being himself. I urged him not to change who he was just to feel like he had to impress his interviewer. In fact, I told him that in many ways MIT is trying to 'weed' out those applicants who try to act in a false way during their interview. Additionally, to appear in this manner, the applicant must have had strong feelings. More importantly, I told him that he should be able to articulate why his appearance is different. My last advice to this applicant was to be prepared to be judged should he receive an interviewer that either wasn't familiar with his type of appearance or already had a bias against his type of appearance. Further, I added that as is often the case with one generation trying to understand another generation, outward appearance could heavily weigh on the interviewer's impression of the applicant."
Art '68, MI:
"First, I recognize there is a major difference between people I would want to hire and those I think would succeed at MIT. The two sets are different, albeit with a non-empty intersection, and there are many who fit in one set but not the other. I wouldn’t want to hire some of the best MIT applicants, since I wouldn’t want to be burdened with continually finding exciting and challenging work for them (there’s hardly enough of that for me!).
"I would be more likely to notice someone acting very far out of character – for example, if this applicant were to show up wearing a jacket and tie which were obviously very different from his usual attire – and consider whether this was a pose intended to mislead me. Some applicants wear jackets and ties just as they regularly do going to church, and I respect that (and feel flattered that they consider the interview that important). Others wear t-shirts and sweats, and I respect that (and feel flattered that they think that I, as a representative of a school they presumably really really really want to go to, would see past the clothing to the person inside). I’m trying to detect curiosity, intellectual drive, collaboration, innovation – does hair color add to or detract from that?
"If the applicant felt comfortable about telling me, I would like to know why he has pink and black hair, since that tells me something that probably is important to him. And if he weren’t comfortable about telling me, I would wonder why he was happy to identify himself to his peers that way, but reluctant to explain it to me as a representative of MIT."
Lisa '80, CA:
"That is an interesting question.
"First, I believe in managing expectations. I tell the applicants before they show up that the interview is casual and a t-shirt and jeans are fine. That might open up an opportunity for an applicant to warn me, 'ok, you'll recognize me by my pink hair.'
"I'd be curious to know why the applicant chose to have pink hair, as it might provide insight. If their hair is pink because they are in a theatrical endeavor, I would be impressed with the dedication. If their hair is pink to show team spirit, I would be impressed with their passion. If their hair is pink because they are trying to overcome shyness by causing people to stare at them, I might be impressed with their motivation. If their hair is pink because it is their favorite color, I could understand that too- been there, done that.
"I find it interesting that this applicant is asking the question. This person has acknowledged that pink hair, in general, does not reflect positively on the person. Again, it begs the quesiton, why pink?
"That being said, I'd be less put off by pink hair than I am by those who show up with unbrushed hair or a nerd joke on their t-shirt. We expect individuals who exude independence and individuality to be applying to MIT. What we don't want to see is immaturity or disrespect. (So don't answer the question, why pink, by saying to piss off my parents.)"
John '80, MA:
"I occasionally get interviewees that are unusual in appearance. It does not bother me, but it does draw attention which I suppose is the point. So I would say I am fine with the appearance being whatever, but the more unusual...the more impressions..so the dialog had better be good.
"That said, nose rings kinda creep me out. I guess that is the point as well...
"The most unusual appearing person to interview with me is studying at MIT now ...."
Arthur ’03, CA:
"No matter how fair the interviewer is, first impressions do make a difference. The interviewer can move past this prejudice in the course of the interview, but if you can remove your nose ring easily, you probably should do that and avoid startling your EC. As for changing your hair color just to impress her/him, I would advise against that. The fact that you are asking this question tells me that you want to be respectful of the interviewer and that you want to take the interview (and be taken) seriously. So make sure the EC knows that—and be forthcoming with a coherent explanation as to why you like to present yourself that way. All in all, being yourself is definitely the way to go!"
Arthur '61, NY:
"As you know, there is intense competition in getting into MIT and you should want to put your best foot forward during your interview, since you are, in fact, competing with many other qualified high school students. Thus, you should not want to appear so much out of the mainstream that your interviewer thinks that there is something so unusual about you that it makes a negative impression.
"We have many different interviewers, each with different experiences and it is hard to predict how flexible or concerned any individual interviewer will be.
"That being said, as long as the student to be interviewed is clean and neat, I, personally, do not care if the student is wearing a suit or jeans or how they have cut or colored their hair. You should wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. If a student showed up wearing a nose ring and had wildly colored hair, or was disheveled or punk, I could easily get over it, but would be curious and may consider whether your dress is something that you want me to focus on, as opposed to you. If your intent is to demonstrate how you feel and you want to make a point, then you should be ready to defend your position, if asked. However, I assume that you would rather have the interview focus on who you are, what you are about and your accomplishments."
Tom '75, CA:
"For myself as an interviewer, I might be a bit put off until the interview got underway, but as an interviewer I am focused on substance over form, so if passion and initiative have translated into research or other cool stuff then I am all about that and don't care about form or appearance. But as the interview is about to start there would be a presumption to be overborne, and when applying to an unimaginably competitive school, why would a student want that?
"Bottom line is that the impression issue depends upon the interviewer, and whether to alter one's appearance to mitigate that risk depends upon the interviewee. If it were me as the student I would dye the hair black and lose the nose ring, but that's me."
Kim '86, Director of the Educational Council
"We talk a lot with ECs about how the interview is an effort to get to know the student as an individual and what is truly important to them. Pink hair can be just one reflection of that very thing. Training for ECs is as much about what not to judge as it is to know on what to have an opinion. First impressions are certainly on the list of 'what not to judge.' While an EC might note that the student stood out in a crowd because of the pink hair, they will probably also admit it made the student easier to find in the crowded coffee shop. I don't believe it would have an affect however on their overall opinion of the applicant. We hope each student will be honest about who they are, even when pink hair is part of that story. That said, if the student is not comfortable in his nose ring he should leave it at home. A college interview is not the best place to try out a 'new look.' It's good to take a position on a subject in an interview but it's also important to be prepared to defend that position--even when it's personal style choice."