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The Unique Chinese Student I‘m very lucky to live in a pretty nice apartment block located on a housing community just across the road from my school in Beijing. It’s a fascinating place. What strikes many newcomers when they cross my community, is not the wonderful manicured gardens with their magnificent magnolia trees or the groups of Chinese women practicing their plaza dancing en masse or  even the sight of the odd elderly person confidently running backwards.  No, it’s the sporadic sounds of violins, pianos and flutes emanating from pretty much every apartment block most evenings. Even more fascinating is that, if one stands in the right spot with the wind in the right direction these sounds will occasionally ‘meet up’, giving a sense of an impromptu orchestral performance, albeit chaotic. The whole experience can be rather beautiful but haunting at the same time. Of course, behind every one of these instruments is a Chinese child looking to shine like no other, flanked by parents whose heavy expectations can be felt through every vibrato. These school children will practice endlessly at all hours and they will think nothing about cracking out a less than polished version of a Chopin waltz in B minor at 3.00am, believe me I know. Yawn. Walking through the community as I do every day, it’s possible to chart the relative progress of each young musician as they clamour through their scales and offer up their renditions of whatever sonata it takes to attain Grade 8 Music. I’ve become very accustomed to the sounds over the years and the instruments have been fairly regular, but last Saturday it all sounded very different indeed. Mid-lunch, walking through the community gardens I nearly dropped my banana when I heard a very unusual sound. Of all things, a trombone! Its delightful glissando tones made me stop in my tracks. Its up and down ‘brrrrring’ sliced through the ‘orchestration’ and in an instant, the usual resident instrumentalists fell silent.  And, as the piano lids slammed down and the violin strings snapped, a collective realisation immediately dawned across the community – this ‘new kid on the block’ had something special, something very very different from the crowd;  a trombone! Chinese students who aspire to study overseas in an increasingly competitive University application market, know that they have to find their edge. Being good at Maths and great at Physics is clearly not enough because it’s not so much about rising to the top of the pile (because that’s where everyone else is) it’s more about creating a different pile. Trombone trumping piano and violin is perhaps an exaggeration of the point, but establishing uniqueness is crucial.   Subject choice is a great place to start. Students who select subjects which might seem rather less traditional for Chinese students to study could be a deal breaker when it comes to securing that top university place.  A Level subjects such as English Literature, Psychology, Environmental Management, Global Perspectives and Computer Science are becoming more popular amongst students. These subjects allow students to demonstrate broader skills whilst at the same time allow them to benefit from an implied understanding that these subjects require a higher level of English. When making comparisons between applications, admissions officers like to see that a student has trod a different academic path in a zone that doesn’t have the comforts of a mathematical formula.     Then there’s the extra-curricular dimension. Teacher: What will you do this holiday? Student: My friends and I have set up a charity called ‘Happy Sunshine Children’ and we plan to visit a poor school in the poor countryside to give extra tuition to the poor children who have poor books.  Teacher:  How many friends will be doing this with you? Students: Just my class.  This seemingly altruistic approach to extracurricular activity is not uncommon and parents have cottoned on to the fact that this could make a difference. The problem is that if everyone else is doing it we now have students that are good at maths, great at physics and good at caring about others who are less fortunate than us. To make matters worse educational agents have well and truly put fuel in this bandwagon and  set up all kinds of schemes for parents who are looking to keep their son/daughter gainfully occupied over the summer months.   Whilst this type of activity has some value, Chinese students are recognising that extra-curricular activity related specifically to academic study is the way to go. More and more students are looking to create opportunities where they can become involved in an internship over the summer months in a vocational field akin to their personal career aspirations. I have seen an increasing number of students create links with Chinese University Professors who have mentored them through a mini project and also offered to contribute a line or two to their University letter of recommendation.    Educational Agents have a role to play and most are first rate and wholly professional in terms of how they go about turning a ‘remarkable’ student into a ‘truly remarkable’ student. The worry, of course, is when ‘average’ becomes ‘truly remarkable’ overnight allowing parental expectations to be well and truly remarkably cashed in! For some, where money is no object, parents can pay for one to one intensive SAT/TOEFL training from ‘celebrity’ trainers complemented by coaching interview sessions from ex-Ivy League university admissions officers.  For the equivalent price of a top of the range family car, parents can forgo that leather interior and cruise control for the best line of turbo charged promises money can buy.   Top grades don’t really count for much when everyone else has them and creating ‘space’ between you and all the other students is not formulaic, despite what Chinese parents might think. In an education system based on batch processing it is often difficult for Chinese students to find themselves and to also have the confidence needed to express their individualism.  Personally, I’d love to meet that trombone player so I could ask him or her – How did you do it?
10 Tips for a Great Skype Interview Great news, your application has been shortlisted, the Principal has been in touch and the school would like to schedule a Skype interview with you next week! It’s amazing news: you’re excited and perhaps a bit nervous, but there is a large part of you that has already visualised yourself in your new overseas role. The opportunity is so close that you can almost taste it, but wait a minute…you may want to consider these tips first. Make sure that your connection is tip top. It doesn’t make for a great Skype call when every other sentence is the phrase ‘Can you hear me now?’ A dodgy connection can really put you off your stride, but more importantly, might frustrate your interviewer, who may well have a number of interviews scheduled. It’s always good to test your connection and equipment beforehand. You can make use of the ‘Tools’ option in Skype to see how your microphone and video is performing. If you’re not sure how your Skype connection is going to perform, it’s always good to hook up with a colleague or a relative well before your interview to test your connectivity. If you usually use a VPN, it’s best to switch this off. Whilst it might be useful for accessing Facebook or foreign media in some countries, your VPN can actually slow down your Skype connection. If your computer struggles to function with most of operations, don’t risk it! Be nice to a colleague and borrow someone else’s. Find a quiet space. The beauty of a Skype interview over a face-to-face interview is that you get to choose where the conversation takes place, which gives you an element of control. However, holding the interview in the comfort of your own home might give you more confidence and can certainly help put you more at ease. The downside of this is that your personal environment is full of plenty of distractions and lots of potential unanticipated interruptions. So, give some thought beforehand about those everyday occurrences that could get in the way. For example, make sure that your telephone is unplugged, your mobile is switched off, that any pets you might have are in another room and if you have any small children ask your partner to take them out whilst your Skype interview is taking place. Check out that Profile picture. A picture, as is often said, is worth a thousand words. So ensure that your profile picture reflects the person that you want to portray. It’s best to avoid cartoon figures, your holiday snap or an image of you with your friends whilst out on the town. Keep it simple; it doesn’t have to be formal but it’s always best to go for a friendly smile  4. Notes The best candidates are usually the most prepared. With Skype however, you can have your notes with you, by your side, without the interviewer knowing that you are making reference to data and information to enhance your answers. In addition, write down questions in advance that you might want to ask at the end of the interview. Also, have a pen (and a spare one!) handy so that you can write down valuable information during the interview. It’s always best, if you don’t know beforehand, to write down the names and positions of the people who are carrying out the interview so that you can refer back to them and use them during the interview. Your background says a lot about you. You are letting the interviewer into your space and as well as your own personal appearance, the background and surroundings that the interviewer can see can say a lot about you as a person. It’s less of a problem if you choose a work environment to host your interview, but if you elect to use your home, make sure that all visible surroundings are organised and not distracting. It’s always best to go for a plain background so move furniture around temporarily so that your background is a wall. If you want to see some really good examples of how interviewees frame themselves, pay special attention to watching experts or politicians on TV news when they are interviewed in their homes. Interesting, 9 times out of 10 they are sitting in front of a well-stocked bookcase of academic tomes. Make sure that you look at the camera. The angle of the camera is very important and the proximity of your face to the camera is also worth considering. Ideally, you want the camera showing your face, shoulders and upper arms. When you interact with the interviewer you want to make sure that you use all of your brilliant communication skills to the full. That, of course, includes your hands which we all use to make those vital non-verbal communication gestures to enhance what we are saying. Clearly, if all the interviewer can see is your face filling the screen, then that’s a huge chunk of you which is lost. Ideally the camera should be at the same height as your face rather that pointing up at you. The last thing the interviewer wants to see is the inside of your nostrils. If your screen is too low, prop up your device on a pile of books, but do make sure that your temporary stand is stable - you don’t want it collapsing mid-point through the interview.  Get dressed - fully! As with every interview, you should pay particular attention to what you wear. Just because you’re sitting at home, doesn’t mean that you should neglect the formality of the event. It’s always best to be overdressed rather than underdressed. Let’s face it, a well-dressed candidate reflects the seriousness and importance to which that individual is attaching the Skype call. Avoid just dressing up the part of you that can be seen by the camera. Getting dressed for the Skype call will put you in the right zone mentally, and will help give you that focussed frame of mind. And who knows, what if something unexpected happened in the interview which meant you had to stand up only to reveal that you were still wearing your pyjama trousers! How embarrassing! Be patient - send a Skype request If your Skype interview is set for 9.00 am and it is now 9.05 am, don’t panic and think that you have the time wrong or that the interviewer is not going to call you. Be patient, the interviewer might be calling you from a different time zone and you might be the fifth person he is calling for the post. It’s quite common for an interview schedule to move a little as a previous interview might have run over or been delayed. It’s always best to provide the interviewee with a phone number that you can be reached upon if there is a delay or a change in the arrangements. Additionally, when the interview is scheduled, find out the Skype name of the interviewer so that you can send a Skype invitation well in advance. Don’t leave it to the last 5 minutes to login This is linked to the first point. More proficient, confident users of Skype might fall foul of this mistake. The chances are that the one time when you want your computer and software to run perfectly, it won’t! Potential disasters here include… your computer decides to run an auto update, your version of Skype is out of date, your old Skype password isn’t recognised or your Skype has been blocked due to unauthorised access detected on your account. Check, check and check again! Be YOU The best interviewers, whether face-to-face or via Skype, will get the best out of the candidate. If you are stressed, anxious or nervous, you won’t be showing your true personality. Hopefully, by following all the above pointers, you will have the confidence and the preparedness to achieve at the highest level and to get the job of your dreams.
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