Question #1 in an Interview: Don’t Let it be a Stumbling Block

Yes, I have written a blog post about a single question. The reason is simple. We know from research that untrained interviewers make their decision about a candidate in the first several minutes of an interview and spend the rest of the interview seeking evidence to confirm their first impressions. Consider search committees on your own campus; it is likely that the percentage of those who have been formally trained is very close to ZERO. This means that there is even more pressure on providing engaging and interesting answers to the first question in the interview. Blow that, and there may be no recovery. I know this from recent personal experience.

Here’s the very typical first question: “Please tell us about yourself, and why you are interested in this positon.”

So deceptively simple! It isn’t guaranteed to be the first question, but I have been asked a form of this question first in 100% of the interviews I have had this year.

I certainly know how NOT to answer it. I do not recite my resume! They have already read my resume, so they know that information about me. They are looking for something beyond my job history. They are interested in my “story” – what makes me me as a professional.

The versions of my answer to this question early in this job search focused on people’s observations of me. I thought that would be a way of summarizing who I am and what stands out about my practice. So, I started my first interview with “I’ve been told that one of the first things people notice about me is my energy, that I love what I do.” And I went on from there.

This might have been okay, IF I had delivered it with the energy I intended. Unfortunately, nerves at the start of the interview dampened my affect, so the committee got a very mixed message – I was describing myself as energetic in an unenergetic way. I was dead in the water before I started. This was an in-person screening interview. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t make the next round. A member of the search firm was in the room during the interview. She has known me most of my career and as she said, “I could tell you the exact sentence when you finally ‘showed up,’ but by then it was too late.”

It didn’t matter how my experiences and accomplishments compared to other candidates. All of that got me into the interview in the first place. Now, it was up to me to tell them “Who I am” and I failed to accomplish that task.

I got better as I proceeded through the search and even made it to a couple of campus interviews. But the direction I went in for the answer to the first question was a bit more abstract, theoretical, and complicated. I was trying to let committees know that I was a complex thinker and a person with many sides. So, I described myself as a “both/and” person (as opposed to an either/or person).

“I am a both/and type of person. As a leader, I focus both on systems and processes, and on people and culture. I am comfortable in a suit, but also in khakis and a golf shirt. I can both lead and follow….”

As I said, I made it past the screening interview in a couple of cases, but in more I didn’t. Another search firm person was surprised by the results of one interview (where she and I thought I had done particularly well) and followed up with the committee for feedback. The response from the search chair (the Provost) was, “Oh, he lost me on the answer to the first question. It was too complex. I couldn’t figure out where he was going.” [Note: Even the Provost couldn’t get beyond a bad answer to the first question. Apparently, it didn’t matter what else I said, because he had probably stopped listening.] The search firm person strongly suggested that I strip it down, drop the complexity, and tell the committee who I am, where I come from, and what drives me.

So, in the next interview, when asked question #1, I responded:

“I was a first-generation college student from a small Irish family of 5 kids [Successful laugh line!] from New York. My dad was a construction worker and my mother was a homemaker and they emphasized education and service, so it is no surprise that the five of us ended up in education or health care or both.

Obviously, I went into higher education and there are three chapters to my career. The first where in residence life I was introduced to and fell in love with student affairs and making a difference in student lives. The second was after my Ph.D. program where I became a professor and strove to make a difference through my research, writing, and teaching. And finally, chapter three, when I returned to administration where I realized I could amplify my impact on students….”

The laughs, smiles, and head nods told me I was connecting with everyone around the table.

So, the lessons from these experiences that you can take into your own interviews are:

  • Keep the answer simple and “briefish.” They can always ask a follow up question if they want more information.
  • Keep it positive.
  • Tell a story about yourself that evokes images and can connect with the people around the room.
  • Keep the images basic – I finally got away from complex and complicated and went with family, parents, siblings, career focuses, etc.

What lessons have you learned about first questions in your interview experiences?


Please follow me at @pglove33


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