My Two-Favourite Interview Questions

In an opinion piece in the April 17, 2021 edition of the New York Times A-J Aronstein the dean of Barnard College’s Career Center writes I Have Read Thousands of Résumés, and I Have Some Advice. His op-ed focuses on the history of the résumé and concludes with what he describes as “real advice.”

Like Aronstein, I’ve read thousands of résumés as both a recruiter for organizations and as a coach and mentor – and I’ve interviewed hundreds of people with clients and when I worked in a large organization (with 90,000 employees).

I’ve seen many job candidates send fabulous résumés and covering letters but who don’t interview strongly. There can be all kinds of reasons for this but it’s often due to nervousness.

I do some acting from time to time. A friend who’s an actor had to take some time off to recover from surgery and took a job with a casting agency for a few months, helping with auditions. She told me that the big take-away from that experience was realizing that, when an actor comes in for an audition, the people casting SO want that actor to be the one for the part – because that means their search is over. It really boosted her confidence when she returned to auditioning.

I think it’s the same for any recruitment. When you come in for an interview, we really want you to “be the one.”

I have two favourite interview questions.

The first is “What made you decide to choose …. as a [career, profession, trade]?”

As so often happens in life, I came upon this question accidentally. I was interviewing with a client for an accounting position. The person we were interviewing had submitted a strong application but was so nervous, it was painful. Although it wasn’t on our prepared list of interview questions, I asked, “What made you decide to choose accounting as a career?” Right in front of us, he was transformed as he described his journey, literally and figuratively, from a tiny village on the other side of the world to corporate life in Canada – propelled by an early recognition as a boy that he wanted a different life than his father and grandfather. Instantly, we were having a conversation with a person who was telling us how he set personal and professional goals and achieved them – the challenges he faced along the way and his resourcefulness in overcoming them.

Since then, I’ve always asked this question in interviews. The answers I and my clients have heard are unfailingly interesting. People invariably light up. In describing how they chose a particular path – or sometimes how it was chosen for them. They frequently show us the skills and qualities we are seeking in our recruitment such as problem solving, persistence and resourcefulness – and their personality that they’ll bring to the job. Maybe people engage so easily with this question because they know there is no risk of a “wrong” answer. And they really enjoy telling their story.

My second favourite question is “Is there anything else about your background or experience that you haven’t had an opportunity to mention, and would like us to know about because it is relevant to what you would bring to the job?” I use this question to conclude the interview.

Again, answers invariably increase our understanding of what someone will bring to the position. Sometimes people describe volunteer roles involving massive organization and co-ordinating skills or coaching or mentoring – or accomplishments in sports. Other times, it’s a story about a whole different work experience in another occupation or country. Once, I was interviewing with a client to fill a customer service position. When we posed this question to one candidate, she described work with a massive scope and impact that she’d done in another country. It conveyed both her many talents and her values. For sure, she could have filled the customer service position but sharing those other experiences made her a perfect fit for another, more senior position in the company that would soon be opening up. Sometimes people describe their resourcefulness in putting themselves through college or university or changing career paths.

When I conduct recruitments with clients, we work hard to make it a positive experience for people who are interested in working with the organization. If this particular position isn’t the one for them, maybe my client will have another job in the future that they’ll want to apply for because we’ve demonstrated that “this is a good place to work.”

For in-person interviews (on hold now, of course), I make it a practice to bring people into the interview room and walk out with them to the elevator or other exit. Walking out with them gives me an opportunity to thank them for their time in submitting their application and coming for the interview and to confirm the next steps in the recruitment process. I and my clients believe this brings the interview to a nice conclusion. It also avoids the risk of them trying to leave through a closet door or getting lost in a labyrinth of cubicles!

Out of respect for the time that a candidate has spent preparing their application and participating in an interview and reflecting my clients’ organizational values, once a decision is made, I call everyone we’ve interviewed to let them know the results of the competition. People say they appreciate these calls.

If you’re applying for a job, there are tons of resources on résumé writing so here are my three quick tips.

  1. Use your résumé “real estate” to highlight your achievements in measurable ways (e.g., designed and implemented a strategic planning process that resulted in a 20% increase in resources) – NOT detailed lists of your job responsibilities. The more concise and compelling, the better.
  2. In your covering letter and résumé, reflect the key words that are in the job ad to make it easy for a person or an AI program to find them during the application screening process.
  3. Follow the instructions for submitting applications (e.g., PDF or Word format, one PDF or Word file).

And here’s a fourth tip: PROOFREAD! Don’t rely on spellcheck programs.

Thanks for reading.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Take care. Stay safe.


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