Nailing Your On-Campus Interview

Congratulations! You have been invited to an on campus interview for the job of your dreams. Here are some tips for making sure you present yourself most positively.

Preparation

Arrive the day before and get onto the campus and talk to students and staff! See my previous post on this idea.

Research. In addition to Googling the heck out of the institution and anyone in the unit where the job is located, use your networks to find people who have worked at the institution or in the unit. Get as broad and complex a view of the job as possible. Look them up on Linked In. See what their tagline is because it should reflect their passion, as opposed to their job title. You can also see the organizations they belong to and who they follow. You may find areas of common interest that you can bring to the conversation. Also comb the organization’s website and use a critical eye to see what is shared and what is not. Use this research to prepare thoughtful questions to use throughout the day. Mention the strengths you find online about the organization, particularly about the department you want to work in, and also ask about the areas you would expect but aren’t mentioned.

Get mentally prepared for things to go wrong. Something will likely go wrong. It might be that there is no one there to meet you when you arrive. It might be that you are left alone at some point during the day without knowing where to go next. It might be that no students show up to their interview with you. Ask 10 people in the field and more than half of them will have a story of some interview day disaster. The important thing is that when something does go wrong remain calm, positive, and roll with the situation. Remember that the people organizing and implementing your visit are not experts in such things. They are doing this in addition to their jobs. Be generous of spirit and you will be repaid mightily.

Special Disaster Category: Technology – The thing that goes wrong might be an issue with technology, so have multiple forms of your presentation (if giving one) as it would be the ultimate thing that can throw you off your game. Put it on your Google Drive, have it on a thumb drive, email it to yourself. Make sure you have your content accessible in case technology goes awry.

The Day

Most student affairs interview experiences will be an all day affair. You will have a number of meetings and interviews with different groups of people (e.g., search committee, staff from the unit in which you will be working, students, institutional community members). You will have meals, and, in many cases, you will be asked to make a presentation.

Be aware of and manage your energy. Even extroverts will be physically and emotional exhausted by the end of the long interview day; we are not often ON for more than eight straight hours. The key is to not let the interviewers know when you have an energy lull. Know yourself and your own energy rhythms. If you know you fade a bit after lunch, realize that, and actively counter it. Feel free to take care of yourself (e.g., having coffee with lunch even when you don’t normally). I keep a bottle of 5 Hour Energy with me in case of such an emergency. What you do not want to do is YAWN in an interview.

Be careful and strategic at meals. You are running on the energy of the food you consumed the day before and for breakfast, so eat modestly (that in itself will help with managing late afternoon energy lulls due to digesting lunch). Also, be careful of dishes and sauces that could splash and stain (Bring a Tide To Go stick with you!). If lunch is a group interview, be prepared to eat very little as people will pepper you with questions and might not realize you have hardly taken a bite. I keep a Snickers bar with me in those cases and after lunch when I use the rest room I consume it there.

Every interview. Be prepared to begin each interview with presenting your “case” as to why you are the right person for the job (whether you are directly asked that question or not). Do not recite your resume (most of them will have read it). Realize that you will be asked the same or similar questions throughout the day. Answer them as if it is the first time you are answering them. Yes, you will feel as though you have already said something; just be at peace with that feeling.

Group interviews. It is a rare interview day that is without a number of group interviews. In each case you want to appropriately “command” the room. Walk around the table/space and shake everyone’s hand. Take business cards from all folks you meet during the interview process. Introduce yourself and have them introduce themselves. I recommend focusing ONLY on first names. There is no need to remember peoples’ last names. If you can manage to remember and use the first names of 5 or 6 of the 8 people around the table—that’s a home run!

Student interviews. While the vast majority of student affairs professionals have not been trained how to interview, students may have never even been in an interview. At best they may have a list of questions they have been told to ask. A key is to try to run the interview like focus group or a meeting (especially if there is no professional in the room)—you are managing the agenda, you are (subtly) directing the action. Speak less and listen more than you might otherwise in an interview. Be aware that many times students will be more forthcoming with their complaints and concerns and will want to know how YOU will be addressing them if you get the job. Listen to their complaints, but do not confirm them or promise anything other than you will take all complaints and concerns seriously.

Presentation. Entire books have been written on how to develop and facilitate an effective presentation. Get one of those books if you have not done much presenting. I will share two basic tips to help: 1) make the presentation highly visual (i.e., avoid Death by PowerPoint text-heavy slides); and, most importantly, 2) rehearse. A lot! Too many presenters come into a high stakes presentation such as this without having rehearsed much at all. All their time was spent preparing the presentation. You are the presentation. The slides are visual aids for what you say. Engage the audience with questions, affirmations and with eye contact.

Last interview. Typically, you will end your day with either the hiring person or the chair of search committee. In any case, again, be aware of your energy level. Be sure to “run through the finish line.” Typically, this experience will seem less like an interview and more like an opportunity to process the entire day. Don’t be fooled—It’s an interview! As you head into the meeting (and, actually, look for these things throughout the day), prepare at least three positive/interesting things you learned throughout the day. It shows the interviewer that you were engaged and serious about competing for this job.

Special note to women

As a man, I have not had to directly deal with the myriad challenges facing professional women in an interview process, and, while we are working to level the playing field for female candidates, we are not there yet. So, I asked a number of my female colleagues for tips and suggestions I could share with female professionals preparing for the on-campus interviews. I received tips from several, but one person’s piece seemed to incorporate them all, so here it is:

Real talk: I think that for women, especially younger women, more conservative dress is important. We have to avoid looking “sexy” while sending a message that we are “professional” and confident. Cleavage needs to be covered – think church or funeral. This is also a time to be sure that we are selecting items that fit us well, mostly because it’s too long of a day to be stuck in an uncomfortable outfit, but also because it can be perceived as sloppy. Clothes should be clean and pressed and shoes should be ones that you have worn before and are comfortable in – this is not the day to wear heals if you do not typically wear them! Personally, I opt for mid-sized, closed-toed heels and either a dress or skirt and jacket. This is not because pants or pantsuits are not ok, but because I find dresses and jackets are less expensive and tend to fit me better without requiring expensive tailoring. Plus, wear hose if you wear a dress. Not fishnets or patterned tights and certainly not those with seams down the back of your leg. However, much of this can all be more difficult depending on a woman’s body type, identities, budget, religion, etc.

Personally, I think it’s important that candidates feel comfortable on an interview, even if it means going outside of the “traditional” black suit/interview attire – I would hire for confidence and skill over outfit any day of the week! That said, not all employers think like me and so I think that candidates have to make informed decisions about what is best for them. Things are especially tricky for women of color, LGB women, and trans or gender non-conforming women.

There are two pieces of advice that I’ve received about this that have stuck with me: 1) It’s always better to be overdressed than to be underdressed or too casual; and  2) You want to be remembered for what you said, not what you wore.

I’d rather be the candidate remembered for my knock out presentation than my knock out necklace. The last thing I will say on this topic, and this is not gender specific, is that school colors can go a long way, especially if you know the campus climate. Wearing the school color to my campus interview was noticed, several people mentioned it to me while I was there.

Besides dress, I think that women need to be aware of their body language and presence. Don’t play with your hair, adjust your outfit, or routinely fix your glasses. If you struggle with keeping your hands still, hold a pen or put your hands together on the desk or table. Minimize how much you talk with your hands. Own your space and your delivery – if you don’t think that you’re the best person for the job, why should the employer?  If you have children, be thoughtful how/if you talk about them.

Last, the best feedback and advice I have ever received have come from women who were trusted mentors. If you don’t have a person like that, reach out to a woman who you admire as a professional, tell her that you admire her and would really value some honest feedback before your next campus interview. Ask about clothes, delivery, executive presence… all the stuff that’s really hard to talk about but really important!

Men – Many of the comment about women can also go for men. Be sure to press your clothes, and make sure they are fitted properly. Not many men look sharp in off-the-rack suits. Consider having such suits tailored to fit you.

All genders – Don’t wear cologne or perfume, but do wash and wear deodorant. Brush teeth and do not smoke before the interview.

Follow up

Most importantly, and this is followed by too few candidates, write thank you notes to every person who interviewed you. Personalize each. Make notes on the back of their business cards of interesting things they said, their energy or passion for the institution, or a kindness they extended to you. It will help with personalizing the thank you note.

 

There you have it—some tips across the board to help you be better prepared for your on campus interview. What other ideas and tips do you have for acing the interview day?

Good luck!!

Follow me at @pglove33

 

 

 

 

 

 

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