Over the course of my ten years in Higher Education, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of professionals for a variety of jobs. These range from Student Assistant to Dean, in departments including but not limited to: Residence Life, Student Activities, Counseling Services, Admissions, College Chaplain, Alumni Relations, various diversity offices and auxiliary support services, and a great many within my own specialty: Career Services. I’ve personally chaired over a dozen searches, served as a staff representative on faculty hiring committees, and have helped countless colleagues organize their own searches, so as to improve their chances of sourcing and vetting the best potential candidate.
As a Career Services professional who teaches interviewing to hundreds of students annually vying for some the most competitive opportunities in the country, I geek out every time I get the chance to apply my knowledge in a “real interview”. However, like many professionals who interview tons of people, I often feel disappointed to learn the person hasn’t adequately prepared.
So how do you best prepare to absolutely crush your Higher Ed interview? I’m so glad you asked…
Before The Interview
Learn Everything You Can About Your Target Institution, Office, and Interviewers
I often find that candidates don’t know much about the institution to which they’re applying. At the very least, I suggest you know the following about a potential institution:
- basic information about the institution’s student demographic
- most common majors and academic programs
- peer institutions
- office mission
- recent news stories
- what the institution’s best known for (e.g., elite liberal arts education, research in STEM fields, Co-Op school, Jesuit education, etc.).
It’s obviously not possible nor practical to learn everything possible about your target institution. But 1-2 hours of research should provide you enough knowledge to understand basic institutional priorities. You should also know as much as possible about the specific office you’re interviewing with, including, but not limited to:
- office mission
- flagship programming
- website content
- staffing roles and responsibilities
Just as important, be sure to research the specific people with whom you’ll be interviewing. Spend extra time and attention learning anything you can about individuals you’ll be spending significant amounts of time with (e.g., work history, press coverage, social media presence, etc.). The more intel you can get, the more insight you’ll have into who the person is that’s interviewing you and the better chance you have of identifying areas in which to build rapport. This can provide rich context for better targeting your answers and having more meaningful conversations.
Craft A Compelling (But True) Reason For Why You Want the Job
In almost every interview I’ve participated in, “Why (College Name or Position Title)”, “What Interested You in This Position” or some kind of permutation therein is the first question asked. “Tell Me About Yourself” is actually also assessing your interest in the opportunity/position as well, despite the phrasing.
The trick for answering these types of questions is to be specific, targeted, genuine, and, ideally memorable. Think through what, specifically, about this opportunity is unique? Why do you want to join this community? What 2-3 experiences or character traits do you offer that makes YOU uniquely qualified?
For instance: “There are so many things that I like about this job but, of everything, I’d say the opportunity to help manage the Outdoor Leadership Program and oversee the College Council are my favorite. I helped organize a lot of leadership training in my previous role, and really appreciate the thoughtful engagement model you’ve built. Additionally, I absolutely fell in love with the city of Charlotte as a graduate student and would love the opportunity to come back”.
Targeted research can also come in handy. Prior to your interview, try to speak with at least one person connected to the institution to learn more about the organization’s culture and extrapolate potential talking points of interest. If that’s not possible, focus on one or two specific aspects of the opportunity that are genuinely appealing and connect them to your work history and/or personal interests.
The people sitting across the table from you want someone who’s not going to just be competent, but interested in doing the work. Enthusiasm and warmth go a long way towards selling yourself for this question and establishing rapport with your interviewers, while providing you with positive momentum for the questions that follow.
Prepare 6-8 Compelling Examples of Past Successes
Behavioral Interviewing is when you’re asked to cite specific examples of your past experiences. It is widely practiced within academia as past experiences are generally the best indicators of future behavior.
I suggest identifying a number of past successes and/or challenges you resolved that you’re particularly proud of. I find that 6-8 examples are usually easy enough to remember and can cover a lot of potential questions. The same answer you give to “Provide an example of a time where you launched a new program”, could very well apply to “Provide an example of a time you worked through a significant obstacle”.
For each example, write out the context of the presenting issue, specific actions that you took, and the positive end result. Think of the acronym CAR as a shortcut:
I had just started interning within Alumni Relations. A really upset donor stopped into the office to vent their frustration over the administration’s response following the Presidential Election. The alum was frustrated that the college hadn’t yet declared themselves as a sanctuary campus. She started walking me through all the reasons the college should do so.
I let the person walk me through each of her arguments related to her stance. I told her she made some really interesting points, apologized that she wasn’t able to see the Director (who was at a meeting), and agreed to pass along her thoughts to the Director. The entire time she spoke, I only interjected to ask clarifying questions indicating I was paying attention.
After venting her frustration and walking me through her argument for nearly 10 minutes, I could tell she felt a lot better. She thanked me for listening and apologized for being so enthusiastic, as the issue was near and dear to her heart. Our Director followed-up days later, and received thanks for doing so, as well.
Like anything, the more you practice interviewing, the better you become.
If you’re able to, schedule a Mock Interview with your College/alma-mater’s Career Center. Be sure to send them the specific job description and resume beforehand so they can prepare sample questions. It might also be worth considering hiring a Career/Interview coach. A good coach will run you a few hundred dollars. Though, it will be well worth it if you secure the job.
Be sure to check out ” How to absolutely crush your student affairs interview: part II”
> BONUS <
Podcast With Kyle James on Student Leadership Careers