Interview Topics Every Young Candidate Should Be Prepared to Answer 

I have been very active recently with interviewing candidates for a number of positions, from board members to faculty positions to student organizations, including the student consulting group I lead at Coastal Carolina University.

Over the years, I have found that a well prepared applicant can typically ace a standard interview, speaking about his or her achievements, experience and general skills. For this reason, I have a few go-to questions I like to use to understand the real character of a candidate.

These questions are nothing proprietary, but rather questions simple meant to get the candidate out of a comfort zone. Ultimately, what I (and most organizations) look for is the candidate’s ability to take responsibility, solve problems, and add value.

For positions that require more responsibility and experience, I also like to assess the initiative, ambition and passion of the candidate. 

In most interviews, my questions are not scripted, but instead derive from the situation and flow of the conversation. With that said, here are a few topics to which candidates — especially young candidates — should really prepare to respond.

Initiative

One of the best ways to disqualify yourself is to answer questions in a way that hints at laziness. It may sound obvious, but I am shocked at how often a candidate strikes a tone that hints, “just how much work is involved here?” No manager likes to hear, “That’s not my job,” so make sure you have examples of when you took initiative to get a job done.  

Problem Solving

There is no shortage of problem finders (complainers) in the workplace. What managers need most are people who solve problems. In your personal anecdotes, demonstrate your ability to identify and then resolve an issue. And when you were not able to resolve it, explain how you sought out the answer before taking it to someone else. 

Leadership

All candidates should be prepared to answer a question about leadership qualities. Often, however, I hear stories of how someone managed or organized a situation rather than actually lead. Understand the key differences between managing and leading and be able to clearly explain how you stepped up and were able to lead a situation to its end.

Failure

Like leadership, most candidates are prepared for the question, “Tell me about a time that you failed.” On queue, they launch into a story about failing to make a team, hit a deadline, or get a job, then reflect on what they learned. These are satisfactory at best. Real, honest and humbling failure, however, the type that leaves the candidate vulnerable, are the failures that demonstrate true grit and character.

Fun

I always like to end an interview with one or two personal questions. I’ll ask about their favorite action movie or cartoon character, their favorite ice cream flavor, or whether they prefer Elvis or The Beatles — just to name a few. This question serves two purposes. First, it gives a small peak into the personal side of the candidate. Second, the line of questioning often throws a candidate off, which then demonstrates their ability to handle uncomfortable and unknown situations.

So as you reflect on these topics, think about times when you were in situations that challenged you in these ways. Be able to articulate clearly the situation, your actions, the outcome and lessons learned. 

If you find yourself deficient in these experiences, then go make some stories.

And, if you are keeping track, the right answer is: The Beatles.

What do you think? What other questions have you had or given to really test a candidate? Please share your thoughts with others in the comments.

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