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Personal Storytelling: A Tool for Admission Interviews and Long-Term Leadership

Whether for secondary school or college, interviews with admissions officers are an important—and sometimes stressful—component of the application process. Blair Academy,  a boarding school in Blairstown, New Jersey, uses the framework of storytelling to help students learn how to talk about themselves and their values. Their graduates report that these skills have helped them find success in almost every life arena, and the Blair admissions office presents workshops on this topic at middle schools whose students frequently consider boarding schools. As our candidates head into a busy season for interviews, we are pleased to feature a guest interview on this topic.

Peter Curran
Associate Head of School and Dean of Admission
Blair Academy

How does storytelling relate to leadership?

At its core, leadership is an ongoing expression of a person’s values through words and actions. Storytelling is about effective communication. So, storytelling can help leaders articulate their values in ways that resonate with others. Storytelling is also a way of crafting our own narratives to build confidence and reinforce a sense of our own possibilities and purpose.

How does Blair Academy incorporate storytelling and leadership into its program?

The Blair Leadership Stories Project gives students tools to articulate personal strengths in confident and compelling ways. As freshmen, and then again as seniors, Blair students develop stories that reveal their values, which are recorded and posted on our website. This initiative is part of our four-year Blair LEADS curriculum, which emphasizes leadership communications, global engagement, self-awareness, ethical decision-making, and service.

How did this work begin at Blair Academy?

It was launched by head of school Chris Fortunato, who brought these ideas from his previous experience at The Harvard Kennedy School. Timothy Patrick McCarthy, an award-winning professor at The Harvard Kennedy School, has become a scholar-in-residence at Blair to build faculty and student capacity for this work.

Where does storytelling fit into the admissions process?

When I interview candidates applying to Blair, my goal is to get to know who they are. Candidates who tell effective stories about themselves stand out as being authentic. What I learn from the stories helps me assess how they might fit into our school community.

What makes an effective personal story?

Sometimes applicants think admissions officers want to hear specific things. What I really want is to discover something genuine about each student. Values shine through in the choices we make during moments of challenge. The stories do not have to be life-changing; values can be illustrated in everyday moments like helping a sibling or preparing for a track meet. The best stories showcase authenticity as well as vulnerability.

How can students develop their stories?

In workshops we show sample stories from Blair students. Then we ask participants to review a list of thirty values to hone in on five, and then one, that is particularly important to them and for which they have a story. Some students respond well to prompts or putting their story down first in writing. It is important, however, not to memorize a speech, which would feel too rehearsed. The goal is for students to realize the power of self-reflection so that they can share their values in an authentic way.