“If you were going to an LGBT drag party, who would you dress up as?”
Mazen Elfakhani froze. He wasn’t sure what to say. He knew the type of answer the tutor selection committee was looking for—probably “something to show I’m not too stiff,” he says, recalling the incident. Elfakhani knew that his lifestyle for the next few years would depend on it, but all he could come up with was “Lady Gaga.”
When a different selection committee discovered that Cian J. Power was a tenor in the Dudley Choir, they asked him to prove his credentials. “I’ll sing if you’ll sing with me!” he challenged.
Elfakhani and Power, fourth-year graduate students, second-year resident advisors in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and longtime friends, were in their first round of interviews at Adams and Cabot Houses, respectively, for positions as undergraduate resident tutors.
In the graduate school dining hall after their interviews, the two laughed off the pressure of the bizarre questions with three other close friends. All five had applied to be undergraduate tutors this year.
“The dream was to all be tutors in the same House,” Elfakhani says.
The friends convened informally after each interview to compare notes, share interview questions, and ask for advice. The tutor application process was a puzzle, and they were trying to crack it.
But it wasn’t such an easy task.
With subtle differences among House personalities and expectations for tutors, and no centralized system that bridges the process, House tutor selection is far from straightforward. Each player knows the rules he or she is supposed to follow, but nobody quite understands how the game works—or what makes a winner.
Elfakhani and Power submitted applications and cover letters—one template, varied slightly for each house—to all 12 undergraduate Houses. Elfakhani was invited to interview at Adams, Winthrop, and Dunster; Power interviewed at Winthrop and Cabot.
The process starts out straightforward, but once these applications are submitted, it becomes more complicated. Each House designs its own selection system.
After Houses have narrowed down their applicant pools, they each interview a select group of candidates. According to the House representatives FM spoke to, their Houses delegate their first round of interviews to selection committees. Each selection committee focuses on an academic advising specialty, ranging from pre-med to the humanities, and is composed of a mix of students and tutors who interview candidates applying to be tutors in those fields.
According to selection committee members, the makeup of these committees differs widely from House to House. In Kirkland, for instance, sophomores, juniors, and seniors participate in selection committees. The Adams and Cabot House Masters offer committee membership to any interested students; participation in Kirkland and Winthrop committees are by invitation only.
Some Houses cap selection committees at three to four students and two to three tutors, but interviews for Quincy tutor positions are open to any tutor who wants to attend, according to Quincy House tutor Thomas S. Wooten ’08. “There’s a real culture of going to as many interviews as you can,” he says.
Jillian M. Smith ’13, co-chair of the Cabot House committee, says that Cabot values student involvement in the process; students report their opinions directly to the House Masters. “It’s all about what the students want here,” she says.
Adams House Master Sean Palfrey ’67 also places an emphasis on student input. “If a student had an applicant as a TF, and they were rude or bad, that almost totally nixes the applicant,” he says.
Jennifer A. Sheehy-Skeffington, a Winthrop tutor on the selection committee, explains that students and tutors provide feedback to their House Masters through a number system with different categories and point values representing “definitely,” “maybe,” “depends,” and “no.”
Sheehy-Skeffington says that in her experience, the biggest determinants of success in Winthrop interviews have been the applicants’ charisma. “What surprises you is everybody who applies is brilliant, so everybody has a great CV,” she says. This places more emphasis on the applicants’ personalities, which they convey through their cover letters and interviews.
Sometimes, she says, “they’re being too formal and treating it like a job, but it’s not just a job—it takes over your life.”
One of the major challenges of the interview process, she says, is getting a sense of which applicants are only in it for the free housing. “Some people see it as a cost-benefit thing, but you can pretty much always tell,” Sheehy-Skeffington says. Attendance at non-mandatory House events before offers are extended offers is the best indicator of which candidates care about being part of the Winthrop community, she adds.
Sheehy-Skeffington says that when she was applying for the position herself, she was surprised by how different the selection committees were across the different Houses.
At Adams, she says, “It was a bit like speed dating with a group of five.”
The Dunster process was “very grueling, because you interview with the students, resident dean, and Masters in immediate succession.”
And whereas Eliot students sit down to an informal dinner with candidates before the interviews begin, at Lowell and Winthrop all of the “getting-to-know-you” activities take place after both rounds of interviews, Sheehy-Skeffington says.
Sharon P. Carlson ’14, co-chair of the Eliot House committee, who has interviewed tutor applicants for the past two years, says she thinks the applicants are not the only ones under pressure. Just as the committees scrutinize tutor hopefuls, the applicants too evaluate the committees for hints of House character. “You’re also being interviewed, because they’re trying to choose their Houses,” Carlson says. “You have your favorite tutor candidates, so it’s fun to see if they choose your House.”
Couples like Karen J. Kieser and Daniel Green, now tutors in Eliot, interviewed together. They recall that last year when they interviewed at Winthrop, Cabot, Lowell, and Eliot, some questions caught them off guard.
“I remember being asked, ‘How will this influence your relationship?’” Green says. “But we had never even talked about that.”
Some candidates with special affiliations skip the first round of interviews altogether. Wooten says he had missed the application deadline by the time he called up his friends at Quincy, the House that he had called home as an undergraduate, to ask for a job. He was bumped ahead to round two: the interview with the House Masters.
This year, when Elfakhani’s friends told him they had received emails asking them back for a second round of interviews at Adams and Winthrop, he realized that he had been eliminated from the applicant pool.
Since Dunster, unlike the other two Houses, completes three rounds of interviews in one sitting—a marathon of sessions with students, the resident dean, and then the House Masters—Elfakhani had no way to gauge whether he was still in the running for a position there.
Meanwhile, Power returned to Cabot for an interview with the House Masters and the resident dean—the way the process continues in most Houses.
In this next phase, House Masters’ professionalism replaces the informality of student- and tutor-led interviews.
“We say it not as a joke that we have the best tutor staff,” says Stephanie Robinson, Winthrop House Master along with Harvard Law School Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., her husband. They sit under a portrait of John Winthrop in Winthrop’s Senior Common Room, where they interview applicants. They are interviewing for today alone, and the refreshment table at the wall behind them is unnerving despite the hospitality: chocolate chip cookies arranged on a platter, silver carafes of sparkling water, coffee, and tea.
“The folks we have been fortunate enough to have here care about each other and think about this not as a job,” she says, “but as a community, if not a family.”
Sullivan says the two consider tutor selection one of their most important duties as House Masters. Tutor selection isn’t just a popularity contest; it’s a way for House Masters to determine the direction of their Houses’ development.
Palfrey, House Master of Adams, agrees. He says the 35 applicants Adams House asks back are an overqualified group. “It’s a very complicated puzzle because once we’re at 35, we want them all,” he says. “Our decisions come down to where they fit in the complex puzzle of academic expertise, interest in community diversity and house activity, and other interests—music, LGBT, etc.”
He says that Adams hires tutors to kickstart House programs, and that over time this has shifted the focus to tutors of different interests and skill sets.
“When we first came here, we wanted to start a public service group, so we hired tutors specifically for that purpose,” Palfrey says. Later, Adams was interested in hiring tutors from the Graduate School of Education to encourage students to consider going into teaching, and now the House is on the lookout for tutors who can promote global citizenship.
“We can’t choose the students, so the way we set the tone and feel of the house is by choosing tutors,” he says. “We’re making sure this group is stimulating, fun, responsible, supportive—and this month-and-a-half is when it all comes down the line.”
Kieser and Green, the couple tutoring in Eliot, also say they think that the process allows House Masters to identify tutors who share their values.
“It’s surprising, given that the students are randomly selected,” Kieser says. Green finishes her sentence: “But the Houses have very different cultures.”
And Houses woo their favorite candidates by showing off their distinct personalities.
Sheehy-Skeffington, who chose to tutor at Winthrop over Lowell and Eliot last year, says her choice came down to atmosphere. “I really like the vibe here,” she says of Winthrop. “It’s down to earth, horizontal—not hierarchical. Students and tutors are on a par.”
Green and Kieser chose Eliot over Cabot, Winthrop, and Lowell because of what Green describes as a “warm, mature community attitude.”
Moment of Truth
This year on March 8, the Houses extended job offers to tutor applicants, who then had three days to decide which House to select.
Of Elfakhani’s and Power’s original group of friends, Power was the lucky winner. He plans to accept his offer from Cabot and will tutor there next year.
Elfakhani, on the other hand, was informally waitlisted at Dunster House. “We all felt like we had something to offer, thought we’d get more offers than we did,” he says. “I thought I would get more than I did—I really feel that everyone in the group would have been really good tutor.”
Elfakhani is not sure about whether he’ll apply again next year; maybe he’ll throw his hat in the ring.