Picture a sweltering day with temperatures hitting 33 degrees Celsius. A group of teenagers are buttoned up in white or pinstripe shirts. Many of the boys wear dark suits and ties, while nearly all of the girls are in fitted black skirt suits and tights.
If they look uncomfortable, it may be because they are overdressed or perhaps, nervous. They are, after all, at a major local university for undergraduate admissions interviews. Soon, they will be corralled into classrooms in small groups to face a panel of interviewers. This may be the first of many such interviews.
This scenario is playing out across Hong Kong as the university admissions season begins, including at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where I teach.
Applicants know that what they say and how they present themselves will affect their chances of being offered a place, so they are well-prepared. I imagine they have taken advice and suggestions from teachers, careers counsellors, parents, maybe older siblings and friends who are already studying at university.
Despite all their preparation, I think they might not understand what interviewers are looking for.
Let’s start with the suits. I don’t know whether students have been advised to wear these outfits to admissions interviews, or whether it was their own idea. I do know that when I face a line of people dressed almost identically, my heart sinks.
I guess the black suit is seen as a smart, safe choice. It is formal, shows the applicant takes the process seriously, that they respect the occasion and the interviewer. The wearer wants to be seen as grown-up, capable and professional.
They may or may not be any or all of these things, but what I see is an anonymising uniform, the kind of attire a bank teller might wear. Certainly journalists do not dress like this for work.
I understand students are probably thinking that if they dress like everyone else, they won’t be at a disadvantage by sticking out. But the fact is they only have a limited number of minutes to make an impression, so they should want to stand out from the rest.
Different interviewers will have different ideas about “appropriate” dress, so I won’t dispense advice on what to wear. Certainly, I’m not suggesting people resort to outrageous outfits to attract attention. However, I’ve spoken to friends who teach at other tertiary institutes and they, like me, want to see applicants who can present themselves as individuals and feel much the same way about the suits.
What we want is to get a sense of an applicant’s personality, and often, we don’t. I expect an applicant to give me a sense of who they are, whether they are suited to the programme, what they can get out of it and what they can bring to it.
Getting a sense of a person includes hearing their opinions and the justifications for those opinions. One colleague from another institution says many applicants seem to have been trained to summarise the different sides of an argument but are unable to draw conclusions.
Like the mass wearing of suits, I believe the reluctance to express an opinion is a symptom of a risk-averse mentality. Another colleague says Hong Kong’s kids have “been trained to be middle managers”.
Where applicants do try to stand out, it can come across as forced and affected, especially when similar methods are used by numerous applicants. This year, some students have been using the letters of their names or colours to describe different aspects of their personality.
For instance, a fictional student called Sue might say: “S is for serious, U is for understanding and E is for ebullient”. I believe someone has taught students to do this or that they have read about it on a tip sheet somewhere.
Let me just say that it does not come over well. Don’t do it. The best interviewees are the ones who are natural, confident but not arrogant. Be yourself. With so much at stake, be the best version of yourself but do not speak in a voice that is not your own.
For those who make it, there are more suit-wearing opportunities ahead. In photos for promotional materials and at events such as the inauguration ceremonies for student societies, students often don their black suits again.
A former student tells me she was so struck by the sight of her suit-clad peers that she wrote a short paper on the phenomenon during her freshman year. She came to the conclusion that, “Hong Kong students have a lower self-esteem, and they need [their outfits] to fill up the gaps in self-confidence, in order to convince the others [of] their capability.”
Yuen Chan is a lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication, the Chinese University of Hong Kong