Sunday, February 11, 2024

How smart do you need to sound?

How smart do you need to sound to get what you want?

Almost 15 years ago, I was invited by Bethany College, one of my alma maters, to give a talk in Bethany, West Virginia, to high school students who were finalists for a leadership scholarship. The handful of students had been invited to campus for interviews with faculty to determine who among them would get one of the sizable boosts to their financial aid package.

As the talk was winding down, students asked various questions, most of which were smart but polite. I then asked them if they wanted to know the answers to the questions they would be asked in their interviews. The students and their parents laughed and there was a collective, “yes” and “that would be great” in response. I went on to advise them that in my experience faculty liked to hear themselves talk, so they should do their best to get the faculty talking as much as possible during the interview. The end result if they could get the faculty talking, I told them, was that the faculty would come away thinking the student was very smart because the only thing they heard was themselves talking.

In spite of shifting to emeritus status this past July at the university where I taught for the past 12 years, I still occasionally teach there and elsewhere. At some point in each course, I find the need to reassure students that they do not need to prove to me or anyone else in the course that they are smart by trying to say smart things that may or may not have to do directly with whatever we happen to be covering in class. “Just do good work,” I regularly cajole them. That’s all the proof I or others need about their ability and dedication.

I bring this all up now as some high school students are in the throes of hearing from colleges to which they’ve applied or going through similar interviews that those prospective Bethany College students experienced 15 years ago. Worrying about what acceptance or rejection says about you and your abilities can be harrowing. But these things do not define someone nor their abilities or intelligence.

While it would be nice to believe college acceptances or scholarship decisions were an exact science, they are not. Sure, they are based on academic performance, extracurricular activities, leadership potential and determination of whether a prospective student would be a good fit for what the college offers. But often such decisions come down to how competitive the field of applications is in any given year since there are a limited number of seats available. Trying to sound smarter than you are to get in or get an award rarely is as good an idea as simply presenting yourself and your work as best you can.

Ultimately, the right thing is to just do good work. If a college admissions or a scholarship committee recognizes that, that’s great. If they don’t, it’s as much a reflection on them as it is on the applicant who can then go on to try to do good work someplace else.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

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Follow him on Twitter @jseglin



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