Eight questions for Rob Garris, Global Director of Admissions

August 17, 2016


1. What are you looking for as you review applications for Schwarzman Scholars?
We are looking for leadership, both prior experience with leadership and signals of potential for high-level leadership in the future. The application includes many different elements that can help us identify these candidates: academic records, recommendation letters, resume, video, but they all serve the purpose of signaling to the selection committee whether an applicant has the intellectual agility, people skills, hands-on experience, grit and determination necessary to lead.

Many of our applicants are relatively young, either in their last year of university or recently graduated, so their personal leadership experience is often from campus or with community organizations. What we are looking for is the quality of the experience and what the candidates have learned about themselves in these moments of leadership. We are choosing people who are likely to play leadership roles in the future so that they can, from positions of influence, help serve as intermediaries between their countries and organizations and counterparts in China. (Or if they are Chinese, between their home country and the rest of the world). We also look for people who have the interpersonal skills necessary to work through complex problems with people of different points of view.

2. How have applicants differentiated themselves, whether in their essays, video or interviews?
The candidates who stand out are those who are intensely dedicated to success in their leadership efforts and who have the self-awareness to know how and why they succeed. The essays, videos, and interviews that give us the strongest insights into a candidate’s individuality, personality, and character are the ones who stand out. Applications and interviews that come across as overly practiced, rehearsed, and polished tend not to resonate with the committee.

3. From start to finish, walk us through what happens after applicants hit the “submit” button.
Once applications are submitted, they’re bundled by region and country and sent out to readers who know that country or part of the world well. We value that these readers bring their cultural, political and social insights to bear on helping us understand which applicants have the greatest potential for leadership in their parts of the world.

Based on the scores and feedback that readers provide, the admissions committee then chooses candidates for interviews. This year we’ll select approximately 400 candidates for interviews in four cities: Bangkok, Beijing, London and New York. Candidates invited for interviews will spend 25 minutes, individually, with a panel of five leaders from the business, political and academic worlds.

Those interviews — really more of a conversation than an interview — build on what candidates have written about themselves and their leadership experience in their applications. At another point in the day, candidates engage in a group problem-solving exercise that gives us a sense of how well they work in teams. We then discuss with our panels to identify the final selection for the next class of Scholars.

4. Leadership seems to be an essential part of the program. In what ways have applicants demonstrated their leadership skills?
We look to put together a class of Scholars who have very diverse experiences and approaches to leadership. Some have been leaders in student organizations on campus, in some cases as presidents of the student body, in others leading organizations focused on specific issues like sexual assault or sustainability. Other Schwarzman Scholars stepped into their leadership roles in the professional world, for example, turning around a rural health program by demonstrating culturally sensitive leadership skills for an international team. And in some cases the Scholars applied their leadership skills in an entrepreneurial context, founding and nurturing successful startups. This mix of different skills and goals will make for a dynamic learning environment at Schwarzman College and a professionally diverse and strong network of alumni over time.

5.There are many ways to exhibit leadership. Did your definition of leadership change after reviewing the first year of applicants?
Our definition of leadership didn’t change and remains focused on identifying people with the intellectual agility, people skills, determination, and character to lead. But we did realize that we needed to help applicants better understand what we are and aren’t looking for. So, you’ll see in our application instructions this year a number of examples of what not to focus on in the leadership essay. Activities that are admirable, but don’t necessarily help us assess leadership as we define it are: examples of a task well-done in the work place; or solving problems of cultural miscommunication in a group; or simply winning an elected office (as opposed to creating change while in office).

6. If you could apply, what would be the topic of your essay on demonstrating leadership?
I would write about my experience in graduate school working on gay/lesbian issues in Chapel Hill and around North Carolina. My initial steps into leadership roles on these issues came when I organized dialogues among religious groups on campus.

My undergraduate university had a hostile, anti-gay climate, and when early in my time in Chapel Hill, similar anti-gay rhetoric emerged in various campus settings, I decided I had to act. My own church had always been very supportive of me and other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered parishioners, and I recognized that much of the anti-gay rhetoric on campus was informed by conservative interpretations of Christianity. Through inter-faith dialogues, I worked to incrementally move discussions of sexuality into more tolerant and accepting perspectives and to make the point that devout faith did not have to go hand-in-hand with anti-gay bias. We never anticipated a 180 degree turn around, but over a period of years did establish mutual respect of different religions’ viewpoints on gay & lesbian issues, and that interfaith dialogue survived my departure and leadership transitions.

Playing a leadership role in those campus conversations eventually led in other directions. For a number of years as co-president of the gay/lesbian group for the Episcopalian Diocese of the State of North Carolina, I worked successfully to help Church leadership and numerous local priests understand our perspectives on marriage equality and ordination of gay/lesbian priests. Although policy change at the national level was still years away, at the local and state level we expanded trust, awareness, and openness, laying the grassroots foundation of national change. In elected office on campus, I successfully fought to preserve funding for the campus gay/lesbian group, working through individual conversations with other elected officers to build coalitions.

Through all of these efforts I learned that my own approach to leadership was based in careful consensus building, resolving conflicts through quiet personal conversations, and being patient but persistent and determined when change had to come slowly and incrementally.

7. What’s your favorite piece of advice to give potential applicants?
Be yourself; you can’t fake it.

8. What is the number one question you are asked by potential applicants?
“What should I write about in the leadership essay?” is the most common, closely followed by questions about who should write reference letters. We’ve already talked a lot in this interview about the leadership essay.

On that second subject, the answer is always that it should be someone who knows you well enough to comment on you from direct experience. And that the letter writers as a group should be a mix of people who can write about your intellectual agility and about your leadership skills. Any one recommender might focus on one or the other, but as a group you want the letters to cover both aspects of your candidacy.