What’s wrong with this success story?
By: Kevin Donahue, MLT VP of Growth
Last week’s episode of This American Life told the stories of a few students who attended University Heights High School, a South Bronx public high school in the poorest congressional district in the country. One individual’s story stood out to me in particular: Raquel Hardy. Raquel is presented as a shining success story, and in many ways she is. But I want to talk about why we should be very worried by Raquel’s story and the many others like her who have similar experiences.
Raquel went to Bard College, a private college that is ranked in the top 50 national liberal arts colleges by US News. Transitioning to college was a challenging adjustment that Raquel had not expected, made worse by the realization that some of her friends were dropping out of their colleges. But Raquel pulled through and she graduated from Bard.
Next came the job search, and Raquel pursued a role at a law firm. Here is what Raquel recalls about the interviewing process:
Raquel doesn’t get a job as a paralegal, but she does accept a teaching position, where she’s working as of this story. So she beat the odds to finish college and get a great job as a teacher. We need a lot more teachers who come from Raquel’s background and are as gifted as Raquel would appear to be. MLT has partnered with Teach For America for many years for this very reason. But there’s also a very big problem with Raquel’s story.
Raquel didn’t get a job at a law firm. And this doesn’t just happen at law firms; we see it all the time at banks, consumer goods companies, and in countless other industries.
She was an A+ student. She did well at a top college. She’s hard working and resourceful (she would have to be to be as successful as she was in high school and college without the support network and advantages that middle- and upper-class students inherently enjoy).
But by her own admission, she didn’t do well interviewing at law firms. She lacked the genuine confidence that she belonged at a law firm and didn’t view herself as good enough to get the offer and succeed. Unlike many of her peers interviewing at law firms, Raquel likely did not understand what law firms need a candidate to demonstrate in order to show that they can do the job, and she couldn’t have known how to tell her story in a way that would convince the firm that she met all of their criteria. She had everything firms are looking for on paper, but hiring managers probably concluded that other candidates were more capable of doing the job based on their performance in the interview. The firms probably would have loved to hire Raquel, but just couldn’t justify offering her a job over candidates with comparable qualifications who did better in the interview.
If Raquel, with all of her qualifications and accomplishments, can’t get a job at a law firm, who from her background can? It’s unlikely that there are many people from University Heights High School who graduated from better colleges and would have done better in an interview. Does this mean that jobs at law firms are not realistic possibilities for those students? What does that mean for the social and economic mobility of those individuals? Is the American Dream out of their reach?
Raquel had all of the indicators that she could have been successful at a top law firm. But she didn’t understand how to demonstrate that in an interview context. If someone had told Raquel what law firms are looking for candidates to demonstrate during an interview and given her confidence that she was capable of hitting their bar, she might have had a different outcome from those interviews.
This is why MLT launched our Career Prep Program. We help scrappy, high-performing students like Raquel understand what it takes to be considered a high performer in the professional world. And it doesn’t stop at the interview. Just like Raquel stumbled when she transitioned to college, we see many first generation and minority students stumble when they transition into the professional world. Unfortunately, mistakes in the professional context can be much harder to recover from than in the academic world. Minority candidates often assume that what made them successful in the classroom will translate directly to success in the professional world. But performance in the professional world is measured by much different standards than in the academic world.
If we can help more young people like Raquel understand what it takes to be considered a high performer in the professional world, help them be prepared to hit the professional bar at top organizations, and give them the true confidence that they can go as far as their talent can take them, then it will open a new world of career opportunities for them. While by all indications Raquel is happy, doing well, and undoubtedly making a difference in the lives of her students, we’ll never close the diversity gap at institutions like major law firms or improve the economic mobility of low income students until we make sure that students like Raquel are set up for success in the professional world.