Interviewing Tips for Grad Students and New Professionals

Interviewing Tips for Grad Students and New Professionals

Summer is right around the corner and for graduate students and new professionals that means job searching and interviewing for a new or first professional experience.  Interviewing can be intimidating, but with the right information and preparation it does not have to be. Always remember that the interview is an opportunity not only for the interviewer to see if you are a good fit for the position and the institution, but for you to find a good fit for your skills, interests, and personality.

Interview Preparation

The two best ways to improve your interviewing skills are (1.) to recognize what the hiring department is looking for by knowing the job description and (2.) to practice!  Job descriptions are provided for a reason, and they are your best defense in interview preparation.  The hiring department compiles a lengthy list of qualifications and skills necessary to perform the job and it is up to you to recognize how your experiences through employment, student activities, and coursework fulfill some of those necessary requirements.  Once you understand how your skills and qualifications fit the position you can practice. Stop by your University’s Career Center or visit the Commission for Career Development’s website at for a list of questions.  Actually say the answers out loud. It is helpful to practice saying your answers in front of a mirror so you can focus on your facial expressions. Get your friends and family members to ask you questions and give you feedback on your answers. Better yet, schedule a mock interview with your Career Center. This will give you the opportunity to practice interviewing in as close to a “real-world” situation as possible. Do not let this opportunity pass you by! If you are not currently enrolled in a program, contact the Career Center at your alma mater to schedule an in-person or phone mock interview; many institutions provide Career Center resources to alumni for life.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in an interview is not researching the institution. When you walk into an interview you should know the institution’s size, mission, and something about the student body and culture. You should know if the division or office with whom you are interviewing has a mission or vision statement, and what those statements are. While the interview is an opportunity for you to ask questions and learn more about the employer, you should show the employer that you have done thorough homework. This is a great way to impress the employer during your interview, and will not go unnoticed! Ways to research the employer include reviewing the employer’s website, reviewing hard-copies of materials provided by the employer, reading copies of the school newspaper, searching local news sites to learn about current events involving the institution, and speaking to individuals who work at the institution.


Interviewing Types

Interviewing styles vary from employer to employer and interviewer to interviewer.  To better prepare for an interview, students are encouraged to be familiar with the different types of interviews that may be encountered. Many graduate students and new professionals undergo an initial or screening interview.  This can take the form of conference placement or a phone interview. For applicants, the goal of the screening interview is to get an offer to come to the campus.

The campus interview can last all day. You may be evaluated during meals and travel from/to the airport/bus/train. Remember that although the interviewer may engage in casual conversation during this time, this is still an interview, and you will be evaluated on this meeting. If your interview includes a meal, remember that the point of the meal is to interact, and eating is secondary. The entire campus interview will usually consist of a series of interviews with different individuals or groups throughout the day.  Students and people from other offices may interview you, and you may be asked to make a presentation.  Make sure to get two good nights’ sleep, eat breakfast the morning of the interview, and pace yourself throughout the day to conserve energy.  When you walk into an interview, you want to make a good first impression. Your attire should reflect this desire and should be pressed, simple, professional, and conservative. For more details on dressing for interviews please see the Commission for Career Development’s website or meet with a Career Center representative.


Interviewing Styles

The behavioral interview, the most common interview style, is based on the premise that the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in a similar situation. It focuses on experiences, behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities that are job related. Employers predetermine which skills are necessary for the job for which they are looking and then ask very pointed questions to determine if the candidate possesses those skills. For example, if successful leadership is necessary for a position, you may be asked to talk about an experience in which you were a leader as well as what you think makes a good leader.

Your interview preparation should include identifying recognizing skills and qualifications from the job description and thinking of examples of situations from your experiences where you have demonstrated the behaviors a given institution seeks. During the interview, your responses need to be specific and detailed. Tell them about a particular situation that relates to the question, not a general one. Briefly tell them about the situation, what you did specifically, and the positive result or outcome. Your answer should contain these three steps (Circumstance, Action, Result or “CAR”) for optimum success. The CAR method is useful when answering any type of interview question, not only behavioral interview questions.

It is helpful to frame your answer as a story that you can tell. Typically, the interviewer will pick apart the story to try to get at the specific behavior(s) they seek. They refer to this as “digging a well.” The interviewer will sometimes ask you open ended questions to allow you to choose which examples you wish to use. When a part of your story relates to a skill or experience the interviewer wishes to explore further, the interviewer will then ask you very specific follow-up questions regarding your behavior. These can include “What were you thinking at that point?” or “Tell me more about your meeting with that person ” or “Lead me through your decision process.”

Whenever you can, quantify your results. Numbers illustrate your level of authority and responsibility. For example: “I was a graduate assistant.” could be “As a Graduate Assistant, I trained and evaluated 4 student employees.”  Be prepared to provide examples of when results did not turn out as you planned. What did you do then? What did you learn? Your resume will serve as a good guide when answering these questions. Refresh your memory regarding your achievements in the past couple of years. Demonstration of the desired behaviors may be proven in many ways. Use examples from past internships, classes, activities, team involvements, community service, and work experience.

Another interview style is the case interview.  Although case interviewing is typically thought to be business focused, you may come across case interview questions in your student affairs interview. These questions give you the chance to demonstrate your ability to work through student situations similar to those you might face as a professional. Cases are usually scenario-based activities, and your performance will be determined by how well you demonstrate problem-solving skills and competencies in the interview.


Questions and Follow Up

The interview is also your opportunity to learn more about the position, the school, and the department you are considering.  You are not just looking for the school that will have you, you are looking for a good fit; a program that fits in with your philosophy and will meet your needs.

Most interviews will provide you with an opportunity to ask questions during the interview.  If you do not ask any questions, it may look as if you do not care/have not prepared, or are not discriminate in your job search.  Before heading to an interview, write down a list of some things that you would honestly want to know about the school or position.  Decide which things would be appropriate to ask during an interview and work to phrase your questions carefully.  Some sample questions include: What challenges are currently facing your department/institution?  What kind of training will I receive for this position? In what ways are your department growing?

After the interview it is important to immediately write down the names of the interviewer(s), and any impressions you may have about the interview; send a handwritten interview note to the interviewer(s) using their names A handwritten thank you note is always better than an email. If you know the department is going to make a decision quickly, it is okay to send an email thank you, indicating you will be also be following-up with a handwritten thank you note. Then send your handwritten thank you note ASAP; keep in touch with individuals with wh om you have interviewed. If you have not heard from them by the time they indicated they would make a decision, call them to restate your interest in the position and follow-up; if you are no longer interested in an institution, let them know.

As you prepare for interviews, keep in mind that the keys to success are knowledge and practice.  The combination of these two elements will provide you with the confidence necessary to nail the interview and receive a job offer for a position that is a good fit with your skills, abilities, values and personality.
This article was adapted from the ACPA Commission for Career Development Career Planning Guide

Career Planning Guide authors are:

Betsy Reed, Vanderbilt University
Sonjala Allen, Carnegie Mellon University
Caryn Crane, Quinnipiac University
Aaron Phillips, University of Louisville
Julie Purcel, The College of William and Mary

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