Interview with Rachel Calder on the Application Process

A previous Systems Education Experiences (SEE) student participant, Hannah Jiang, did an interview with Rachel Calder, the Education Coordinator of SEE, for her senior project back in April, 2021*. This interview went in detail of how the application process for ISB’s Formal High School Summer Research Internship works. Hannah’s questions are bolded in black and indicated by the letter H, while Rachel’s responses are in navy and indicated by the letter R. Feel free to read the transcript to gain more insight and better your chances at being a high school intern in the next cohort cycle! *Please keep in mind some information from this interview is subjected to the time it was conducted.

H: Can you tell me about what you’re planning to do this summer? What will people be doing? Skills they will be gaining? People they will be working with? How many of them will there be?

R: We have a new initiative where anyone with a complete application is invited to join our System Thinkers in STEM Ambassador Program. We will offer different short courses on topics such as systems medicine, computational modeling, biofuel algae, and more. Students will also have the opportunity to work with scientists on projects. In addition to this, this year we’re anticipating having 4 high school interns. Those are likely all going to have a computational piece because we cannot offer in-person research this year. 

H: How can students apply?

R: We have, on our student intern website, a link that is available from January to March, so we make sure students have at least 2 full months to submit their application materials. Of course, students might not have 2 months because they might learn about the opportunity later on. This year, we received over 600 applicants, and we’re always trying to accommodate as many students as we can.

H: What’s the process you go through to choose an applicant? Do they do interviews, written applications?

R: For the ambassadors program, we want to make it very fair, so if they have a complete and thorough application, we will invite them. For reviewing high school intern applications, the first thing we check is completeness: is everything submitted that we are looking for? And then we put a lot of weight on the cover letter, or we basically call it a cover letter because it’s asking about your specific interests, your interest in ISB, and sharing about yourself. So we definitely look at this first because it lets us get to know the student. Specifically, we’re looking for students who need an opportunity and are excited about science.

H: How do you narrow down the applicant field?

R: It’s difficult to say specifically what a student should have because each year, we do a big ask around ISB and see who can have an intern. We usually see what personality types mentors would work best with or what skills they want in an intern, so it can vary from year to year. Since we’re virtual, we might be looking at more computational projects, but next year if a student is interested in lab experiences, that might work out. My advice is to be honest about what you want to do and learn in an internship. Know that the team works hard to match you to a project and mentor that will be a good fit. The more you can tell us on your application that highlights your goals and interests, the better.

H: What makes an applicant stand out in their written application?

R: We don’t necessarily have that much time to review applications, so sometimes, students will take a lot of time to write a long hook instead of saying “this is who I am, this is what I’m interested in”. While we want to know you personally, it takes us longer to figure out how ISB can help you specifically. Definitely show us who you are, but also be concise. A student can be explicit by mentioning their interest in the program and state what we can do for them. I think that’s a really good structure and one that’s been very helpful. Part of the reason it takes so long and so many months to process applications is because some students write very long cover letters and responses.

H: When you say a cover letter, is that like a personal essay?

R: Yes! This year, we have a bunch of questions and ask students to answer them in a cover letter. A student, in a page or two, is writing about their interests, their connection to STEM and their interests in Systems Education Experiences. That’s one thing that students don’t mention: they talk about their interests in science but there’s many pieces to the internship and I think it’s important to address all of those and why they interest you.

H: What else goes into the application?

R: Complete applications have a resume, cover letter, transcript, and a letter of recommendation. Some students are selected to complete an interview. During the initial review, we look at the cover letter first because that’s how the student is portraying themself, then we look at the resume. The resume shows us the student’s skills and activities. In terms of the transcript, we’re not necessarily asking for it because we want to see your grades, we really want to see what courses you have taken so we can align you with a mentor and project. We look at what science and math courses you have taken and pay particular attention to your electives. For instance, if you’ve taken a video editing course, perhaps we’ll match you with a mentor who has a project that could benefit from a few informational videos. We also use the transcript to make sure you are in fact a high school student and to confirm that you’re the right age. Something I noticed with this year is that students seemed a little hesitant to send their full transcript. It’s ok, please send us your official transcript because we just need to confirm that you are who you say you are, and we want to learn more about you through the courses you have taken. We have accepted people with Ds and other low grades on their transcript before.

H: You mentioned a resume, I was wondering if you have any specific advice on that, or anything you’re looking for on there?

R: Having your school information and your activities on the resume is important, and so are your skills. Students might think of a resume as a list of everything they’ve participated in, but we also want to know your skills because if we have a mentor looking for certain skills, it’s less time on our end to find those skills in your resume rather than guessing your skills through your transcript. That’s also another thing we use the transcript for, if a student doesn’t share a skill they have we can look back and see if they took that class and might have some exposure. This is a little tricky though, because if a student doesn’t have that skill, it’s not like they’re automatically out of the running. A willingness to learn is also important.

H: What should applicants take note of before applying? Last year, you guys mentioned web presence checks? 

R: Whether or not we check for positive web presence depends on the reviewer. Most reviewers do. If I go onto someone’s page and they’re posting something racist, questionable, or just rude then I know that no matter how they’ve portrayed themselves in their application or the professional world, they’re not going to work well in the ISB Community, where we focus on being collaborative and supportive. That’s happened before: I’ve reviewed an applicant’s social media page and it’s shined light on certain questionable activities and/or views, so that’s when I say, “okay, this person may not be my top choice anymore.”

H: What are you looking for in an interview? What can an applicant do to stand out or do well on the interview? What are questions you typically ask? How should an applicant prepare?

R: I think the student should remember that we already have most of their information through their application materials. So for the interview I think they should make sure that their personality is showing. I would definitely recommend that a student practices with people they are familiar with, and of course, if someone is super nervous we can tell, but we get nervous too so that’s not that big of a deal. When you get to the interview phase, we already think that you’d be good for this year’s internship. We start off with hundreds of applicants and end up with maybe 20 interviewees, so at that stage, what we’re really looking for is very close matches with a potential mentor and an intern partner. That’s why personality and sharing your honest interests are important, because we hire interns as pairs. It’s important to show that you are a good communicator and a team player.

H: Is there anything else to add? What are some mistakes interns make a lot? Any general advice?

R: One more thing! We do like it when students email us and ask us good questions, but one thing that is not great is when students ask us questions that are on our website, or if they are impolite in their correspondence with us. And then the other thing I would caution students against: it’s great if your parents are excited that you’re applying, but if they are the one driving your correspondence with us, it might not be as easy to see that it’s the student that’s interested in the opportunity. We really encourage students to be the ones to reach out. We want to make sure that it’s you that’s interested and you’re being genuine.