'What are your weaknesses?'

When Ashland High School students get out into the "real world" and are interviewing for jobs or college, they aren't likely to get thrown by questions such as "What are your weaknesses?" or "Describe a conflict and how you handled it."

They've been there and done that.

All juniors and seniors at AHS recently went through mock interviews, held over three days this week, to prepare themselves for the next step in life.

High-schoolers have a special blind spot in that they don't like to talk about themselves or appear to be bragging, says Lynn Farber, an AHS volunteer coordinator who set up the mock interviews under the guidance of 80 parents and community members who role-played the interviewers.

But junior Shasta Corsini wasn't fazed.

"I've had four jobs, and I've been through this," Corsini says. "You get nervous at first, but once you start to talk and tell your story, you get used to it, you let the positive attitude come out, you have your backstory to ease your way in, and you smile and be respectful. They need to see charisma in you."

Students get coaching and workshops in a four-year class called the "Advisory Program," so they've had time to think about lots of answers, says Corsini.

On the "What are your weaknesses?" question, she smiles and says, "I take charge too easily. I like to lead instead of be a team player, so I'm working to learn that."

Parents, business people, counselors and adults from many walks of life filled tables in the AHS Commons, says Midge Thierolf, mom of long-graduated students. They put the kids at ease with warmth, smiles and genuine interest, taught them to comfortably share their story for 15 minutes — and then the adults gave them feedback.

What emerges, says Thierolf, is "they think deeply. They've been to other countries, like volunteering to build sewers in Mexico. They think about global warming and community activities. It's very exciting to hear them."

Overseeing the event, AHS Principal Michelle Zundel says students are coached to make eye contact, shake hands firmly, not too hard or soft, to "speak honestly, elaborating on their answers" and avoid the short responses teens often prefer with adults.

"The coach-interviewers are helping them see what they can be," says Zundel. "They're on the verge of becoming independent adults. After the interview, they discuss the feedback they get."

The drill is intended to give students "practical skills to help them get jobs and to gain confidence in talking about themselves. It's real-world skills to step into the next stage of life. Teens can sometimes think they know a lot, but they're babies at this. It's a process of self-clarification," says Farber.

"I'm finding the kids are very outgoing," says volunteer interviewer Carol Case, a retired office manager at a nuclear physics facility. "They're very poised and have firm handshakes. It's very necessary, the preparation for questions on your strengths and weaknesses. It's really hard to assess yourself on the spot."

This is the second year for the mock interviews. They are preceded by an intensive workshop organized by Karen Bolda, Ashland communications consultant.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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