I know that future student affairs professionals are getting ready to apply for graduate school all around the country. Many of them are hoping to secure an assistantship to help them fund their studies. Ultimately, the interview for graduate assistant positions is what frightened me the most. These usually happen after the Winter Break, but they require preparation. In other words, interview strategies matter!
I have read several books, blog posts, webpages and spoke with colleagues and friends to come up with interview strategies that would work for me. Often times, what I read in books didn’t feel right or genuine. This is of course not an exhaustive step-by-step preparation guide (although you can find those online). It’s simply a few key points that I have found helpful over time and that I think can be helpful to prospective graduate students that want to stand out.
The obvious interview strategies
There is no point in getting a position based on a fake persona. It won’t be a good match; hence pointless and the interview will feel very uncomfortable (#TrueStory).
Know about the department you’re applying for, as well as the organization, especially when it comes to organizational culture.
Read about what they have been doing. Even if you don’t know all the details, awareness of their projects will go a long way. You can also reach out to people in your network that may have insider’s information (LinkedIn is a great tool for that).
Smile and make sure to make eye-contact.
Try not to cross your arms or legs. Don’t be afraid to ask them to clarify. Wearing the organization’s colors or mimicking their dress code and/or posture (discretely) is probably not a bad idea.
Practice your elevator pitch.
I would say that this is the one time where you can be a little bit more vulnerable. Don’t sell yourself short, but be genuine.
Send a handwritten thank you note/card.
I personally like to give a postcard of my hometown when I interview out-of-town. People tend to hold on to them as decoration for their offices. I know I do!
What most people forget about
Do practice interviews and informational interviews.
These are difficult to get, but I find that it is very helpful to explain your motivation behind seeking this interview (as opposed to simply asking for one). Using people in your network to interview you or connect you with key people is also a great strategy.
Don’t be boring.
Try to find a couple of funny/interesting stories that you can use in your interviews. You’ll stand out and they’ll remember you. For example, my friend’s elevator pitch starts with something like “The moment I realized this is what I wanted to do, I was in prison” (he was working there). Catch your interviewer off-guard.
Just be a rock star.
There is no one else better qualified than you… or that’s how you should act.
What most don’t know about (the not so obvious interview strategies)
Make sure you have the perfect Leil Lowndes handshake (page 32: trick #8).
Don’t talk about past supervisors or team members in a bad way.
It just makes sense. You want to talk about your past experiences and relationships with your prior supervisors in a positive way. If you feel like you absolutely need to address some issues, pay attention to the next bullet point.
My secret weapon from my kindergarten teacher friend (thanks Sandra!): The sandwich method.
If you have to talk about something negatively, start with a positive thing, negative and finish with positive. That’s what they’ll remember. For instance: “ Although I have a track record of doing so and so, I sometimes struggle when it comes to getting back to people on time because of all the projects I am managing. However, in the past year, I have changed how I use Outlook to manage my priorities and have made tremendous progress…”
When I interviewed at the University of Vermont, one of the managers gave me a one-pager.
It was about her leadership style. That really made an impression on me. Later, I built my own on paper and ultimately online.
Try to engage in an unusual way with your interviewer.
Sometimes, I draw the project management triangle to explain what I would do in a situation where multiple deadlines need to be met. I think me bringing a little bit of theory and engaging with them by drawing it and explaining it increases my self-confidence and makes me stand out.
When you are speaking remember the three truths: Product truth, Customer truth and Cultural truth.
You want to make sure you address the organization’s problem from three perspectives. What can you bring to the table (product), what are THEY looking for (customer) and what is the industry like (cultural)?