It’s Friday night and I have so much work to do but I just can’t bring myself to do any of it because, well, Friday night has this connotation of like ~fun~ and whatever… so here I am instead. This week, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my (limited) experience with job-seeking in an American college because I’ve heard so much about the process since I was a freshman and now I’m finally starting to understand how emotionally turbulent it is.
At Penn, and I think a lot of other colleges in the U.S., we have this thing called OCR which stands for on-campus recruiting. Companies come to campus, give talks about their open positions, host events for students to interact with their employees and then we write cover letters and polish our resumes, apply online and wait anxiously to hear back. It sounds straight-forward-ish and I absolutely love how efficient this process is. Except, I don’t know, it seems like the whole thing is turning into a long dragged out game.
I say game because the process comes with so many rules, many of which are unwritten and unverified. People say go to the info sessions, sign in and try to make an impression on the representatives so they’ll remember you. Sign up for coffee chats for companies you’re applying to to learn more about the company. This is the book you should use to help you prepare. This is how you write a cover letter. Your resume should look like this. Email the company representatives you’ve met to thank them for your time and keep in touch with them throughout the process. Practice for the interview before you even start applying…
Just under a couple of years ago, I was at my friend Amanda’s for thanksgiving dinner. She was a senior looking for jobs at the time and I saw a post-it note in her kitchen that said “OCR is like Tinder” and I laughed, but her friend Iris (who I think wrote it) immediately exclaimed, “IT’S TRUE!” and I totally get that now. Like the dating game, it’s this idea that there are all these rules and subtle calculated advances you have to make, and it’s like you’re dating all these employers trying to court them to marry you into their company. And then you’re stressed and jumpy as you wait around impatiently for a call or an email or a resounding silence. I guess I just feel a little nostalgic for a job process I never experienced: you send your resume, and I don’t know, fill up a form, go for an interview and just get the job or not get the job. When did it all get so complicated? I mean, it’s just so overwhelming these days.
I hate going to info sessions because I tend to go alone and no one tells me whether I should or shouldn’t bother bringing a resume. Is a blazer too much, will anyone even care if I’m not wearing one? Are these flats too casual? I put on a shirt and pants and heels and just carry my blazer on my arm. I sit among a sea of people and look around realising they’re all interested in the same small number of available positions. Afterwards, I leave the room, sure to pile on as many crab cakes and cheese bites as possible on my plate while avoiding looks as everyone else crowds around the company representatives and then I just quietly slip out of the venue. If I bump into someone, I get the impulse to justify leaving so quickly (should I say I have a lot of work to get done? Or go with the vague “it’s been a long day”?) but the truth is I leave because I just don’t like fighting for a chance to speak to someone just for the sake of it and I don’t see the point! I almost don’t want to believe in the process. I want them to pick me because they like me from my interview, skills and accomplishments. I want them to pick me because they actually think I’m good. Because I really deserve it more than anyone else. Not because they remembered how charming I was at one of these events. Not because I knew someone who knew someone. Not because I knew how to play the game. So I just don’t try to participate. But then I wonder, maybe that is what it takes to deserve it? Maybe it takes pointlessly jumping through hoops just to show how badly you want it.
Part of me also just doesn’t want to do it because everyone else is already doing it, and they’re doing it so intensely that I almost volunteer to back off, to make more space where there is so little, to not fight so I can never say I lost. Part of me doesn’t want to show anyone how much I want it. And yes, that’s partly because I don’t want to seem just like everyone else but I think that’s also because I don’t want to be pitied and felt sorry for if everyone knew I tried my hardest for something I really wanted and then didn’t get it. I hate getting the “aww, it’s okay, everything happens for a reason” text. I’m always tempted to go like, “yeah, I KNOW, okay?” This is why I don’t tell people things. Everyone gets very mushy and it sounds like mosquitos at my ear telling me things I already know.
I don’t know, I wish I had the time to sit down and parse through these feelings and then start applying but unfortunately I don’t always set my own deadlines and whether I’ve figured it all out or not, I have to get ready to play this game.
After I submitted my application, I thought about how similar this is to Masterchef and Top Model and Amazing Race and all those other reality TV shows we guiltily love. A lot of people in those shows are really good and talented, they really want to win and they usually have a great reason for wanting to win. But in those shows, only one person gets the prize. And when anyone gets eliminated, they cry and we cry and they tell us how frustrating it is because they had so much more left to give to the game, and how their journey won’t stop there and how much they’ve learned from the competition. And we feel sorry for them. But then we all collectively move on. I thought about how nothing so bad can happen to you for showing how much you want something even if you don’t get it in the end. Like, literally, so what? A lot of times we love the contestants who get eliminated just as much as the winner or the finalists, but we accept that’s just how the game works. Everyone moves on eventually.
That’s not to say that I’m now totally over the stress of the process… I go through this whole thing tangled in shame and anxiety still. I still feel like I’m really bad at interviews. I practised case interviews with my friend May May several times last week and I struggled and part of me genuinely worried May May wouldn’t be friends with me after she saw how bad I was at thinking through these practice problems. I resisted practising with her because I didn’t feel ready. But she looked me in the eye and said “you won’t be ready until you get ready” and God bless that girl, there’s a special place in my journal now where that quote deserves to be written in gold ink. We painfully pushed through a case and she’s still friends with me. I will never forget how she sat down with me last Sunday and was just like “ok, let’s think about how we can help you think faster” and I quietly realised how amazing that is. I was like wow, why does she still believe in me enough to help me? Why do people who love you believe in you when they seriously have no reason to? It’s honestly perplexing, but I’m so indescribably grateful to all my friends who have been so supportive throughout the whole process so far.
I’m so thankful for May May, Zohair and Michelle for “casing” me, Shahirah for listening to all my rants and even kinda offered to iron my shirt for me, Busra for getting desserts with me when I was about to fall off a cliff, Cristina for emotional support, Hui Jie wishing me luck from across the Pacific, Charis for giving me advice, Joanna for checking up on me, my new friend Yousra who has kept me company on multiple occasions at awkward networking events, Adriel who has offered encouragement consistently. Agh. Love them all so so so much and sincerely hope I can justly repay them for everything. (I think my point here is to not do things that are difficult for you alone, but you probably already knew that.)
The morning of my interview, I made a (salmon and cheese!) omelette, got dressed, did a little dance to psych myself up and walked over to the hotel with crumpled paper of interview notes in hand. I think it went okay although to be fair I don’t quite remember now how I felt as soon as I stepped out of the meeting room doors that morning because at this point I’ve had over 2 days to ruminate over everything: I paused too long at some points, looked too confused, misjudged some numbers… I hope I seemed interested. I hope I seemed organised. I hope I didn’t say something stupid without realising. I know there’s nothing I can do about it now, but the thoughts find ways to creep into my mind anyway. I cringe.
In the beginning of my first interview, my interviewer said “it’s always nice to be on campus speaking to all these smart people” and I heard it as “small people” so I said “haha, I’m happy to admit I’m a small person” and he was immediately like “Oh my god, no! Smart! Not small! Did I say small? I’m so sorry, I’m glad you didn’t walk out of here thinking I said small!” and then of course I was like oh crap I misheard something he said, oh my god. And in the second interview, I let the interviewer pour me a glass of water when the jug was right in front of me, you guys!!!! Oh goodness. It’s so irksome to think about now, haha. But in all honesty, I think I was confident and calm throughout the interview and maintained a genuine smile and at the very least I’m proud of myself for that.
The night before the interview, I naturally had a little trouble sleeping. But I said a prayer and gradually became really overcome by the thought that I had nothing to fear but God. Nothing. And I think walking into the interview room with an unshakeable faith really propped up my previously wavering confidence. It was less of a I-will-crush-this confidence, more like feeling truly at peace with the fact that everything will happen as it is meant to. And it always feels better when you genuinely feel it as opposed to hearing it from someone else.
Ultimately, interviewing has been a very hands-on lesson in forcing myself to believe in myself and to deal with everything as it comes. It honestly is very difficult for me to walk up to a person, look them in the eye and say, look, this is why I’m good, this is why I believe I am a good investment for you. But I also know how it feels like to come out of an interview feeling like I didn’t give it my all, like I played it too safe, like I sold myself short in the name of being “true to myself” and then regretting it in the long term. It straight up sucks. So I’m proud of myself for pulling all the stops time and rising to the occasion.