The Art of the Interview: The Candidate Perspective

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After submitting your credentials, responding to requests for additional information, engaging in various levels of preliminary interviews, and generally being kept on tenterhooks for three months, you have been invited to meet with a representative of the organization you hope to make your next career home. Until this point, your credentials and experience have been the objects of assessment. Now it’s just you being weighed and measured — your personality; your ability to converse; your appearance, whether you want to admit it or not; and the intangible “chemistry” that contributes to the impressions we all make on one another.

In today’s employment climate — where there are often multiple viable candidates for most positions — the interview process has moved toward an increased emphasis on who is the best fit and who, out of six or seven viable candidates, would be most likely to quickly and effectively engage with the organizational culture. The kinds of questions you will be asked are going to focus on whether your professional persona — let’s call it your “style” — is going to work best to the employer’s advantage.

By the time you interview, the search committee or employer knows a lot about you. The questions they are likely to ask aren’t going to be about information they already have, but about you as an individual — how you communicate, how you think, and what you value. They are likely to ask you how you function rather than what you have done. For example, an employer may ask if you have ever had to fire someone, and will likely follow that up with “how” questions: How did you manage the situation? How did you deal with the colleagues of the individual you fired? If issues arose from the firing, how did you handle them?

These are known in the parlance of recruiting as “behavioral questions,” and the Internet is full of examples. Take a look at them. They are all intended to give you an opportunity to express your individuality and set yourself apart. So, how do you prepare for such an interview?

First, learn all you can about the employer. This research can give you insight into the kinds of questions they might ask you. For example, if the institution has been cited in the media as having had a budget shortfall, you might anticipate a question on the order of: “How would you handle telling team members that requests for expenditures have been denied?” Consider the job responsibilities and activities you would likely be involved in. Many questions will address those areas. Similarly, understanding the philosophy, mission, and history of the organization can clue you in on what is important to them. If, for instance, an institution prides itself on the diversity of its workforce, anticipate questions focusing on your own attitudes toward diversity.

Second, spend time thinking about yourself. It may sound odd, but often we don’t know what we think is valuable or effective about the way in which we function until we deliberately consider those factors. So do it. Outline for yourself what you think are the most important traits you bring to the employer’s company or organization and how you use them in performing your job. Are you a collaborator who wants most decisions to be made by the team, a convener who wants to get facts and opinions from the team and then make the decision, or an authority who conveys decisions to the team for development of an action plan? All are viable approaches, and each will work for specific organizations. The key here is to understand how you behave as an employee and how that can work in circumstances the employer is likely to encounter.

Third, plan to be dead honest. Don’t try to figure out what you think the “right” answer may be — whether they are looking for a convener or a collaborator — but instead, just be truthful. The recruiting world is full of dreadful tales of people who faked responses, who were hired to be something they really weren’t and to do something they really couldn’t. It never turns out well, and the disaster it may cause can follow you until you retire.

If you are truly interested in the position, consider two or three key things you want to know about the employer and/or the position, and use the interview to ask those questions. Most employers will leave room in the process for this step, but if they don’t, work your questions into your responses. For example, if you are asked about how to handle a budget shortfall, it is perfectly acceptable to request clarification before responding: “What instructions has the administration given to department heads about the overall approach to dealing with fiscal problems?” If your questions are well thought-out, taking a proactive approach to engaging with employer specifics in this way can provide strong support for your candidacy.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: An interview is a first date. It could lead to spending a long time together. While you want to appear at your best, you don’t want to create a false impression you are then going to have to maintain for the next decade. Be your best self, and if you get the job, you will know you were the most viable candidate for the position.●

Vicky Ayers is the senior director for executive recruitment at RPA Inc. Vicky is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. If you have a question, email Vicky at