02/19/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

How to Handle Open-Ended Interview Questions

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So, you put on your best professional outfit, drive to the job interview, fretting the whole way about what you’ll say. You’ve studied the job description, examined the school’s website carefully. You’ve run through your list of strengths and why you think you’ll be a good fit for the school. Still, you are nervous. Job interviews often feel like interrogations. And at some point, you’ll be asked a question you didn’t see coming. Or worse, you’ll be asked one of those open-ended questions — e.g., “So, tell me about yourself?” — that should be easy to answer but never are.

Is there any way to quiet the nerves? Is there a good way to deal with the open-ended questions?

As it turns out, the answer is yes to both questions.

In truth, you should be slightly nervous for job interviews. It means you care about the job and that you hope the school representatives will see you as a viable candidate — ideally the best candidate. As with any other performance you may engage in — teaching a class, public speaking, running a high-level meeting, writing for public readership, etc. — nervousness simply means you care. Nevertheless, you need to deal with your nerves. It does no good to come across as a highly anxious person.

What can you do? First, start by reminding yourself that if you are invited to an interview, the school is already interested in you. It not only believes you have the qualifications, but that you’ll be a good fit for the position and the school. Too many of us suffer from the imposter syndrome, believing we’re not as good as our résumés suggest. But, in truth, we are. Trust your skills and experiences. All of us know more than we think we know.

After that short self-lecture, experts tell us, a good way to reduce anxiety is to actually prepare for open-ended questions — assume that you will be asked some variation on, “Can you tell me more about yourself?”

In answering, you should focus primarily on your professional life — especially your skills and strengths and what motivates you in the workplace. This is an opportunity to fill in information that is not clear from your résumé or to expound on parts of your résumé that you think create a more complete sense of your professional life. While it’s fine to include some personal information, remember you are being asked this question in job interview; the interviewer wants a clearer sense of how you will perform on the job — as a teacher, a member of a department, and a member of the broader school community. Whatever you can say that will shed light on how you function and thrive as a professional should get top billing.

What do you love about your current work with students? Why did you want to be a teacher in the first place? What is it about the teaching life that has happily surprised you? What is it about your subject that you love most? Are there stories you can tell that demonstrate your collaborative work with colleagues?

You can also talk about your students and what you’ve observed about their development and growth in your classes. You can talk about what you like about being part of an educational community. You can focus on your own professional growth — say, what you are doing differently this year than in years past, or highlight a session at a conference that changed the way your approach your subject.

You can try telling people you are thoughtful and curious, but it’s better to offer examples of what you’ve learned and discovered and studied along they way.

It’s certainly fine to include personal information, especially if you’ve done something outstanding — say, you’ve run 10 marathons in one year or published a novel or had an internship with NASA or a led a service trip to Botswana or that you play guitar in a longstanding blues group. It can even be something more central to your life, like the fact that you work on your family’s organic farm in summer. You want the interviewer to know you are human and have a wide range of interests. But experts say its best to return the focus quickly to your working life work or make the connection between your personal and professional life. They are trying to envision you as a colleague.

The another popular open-ended question you may be asked is: “Do you have any questions for me?” The answer should always be yes. Even if you feel you have all the information you need about the school, it’s best to say yes — to, in essence, turn the interview around. It’s not only an opportunity to learn more about the school, but also to learn more about the interviewer, who, if all goes well, will end up as your colleague.

You can ask, for instance, what the interviewer loves about the school, or ask him or her to describe the faculty or administrative team dynamics. If you are being interviewed for a department position, you could ask about the department — its history and where it’s going, the department’s curricular interests, etc. If you’ve been engaged in diversity work at your current school, you can ask about this school’s commitment to social justice. By fully listening to the interviewer’s responses, you will likely find you are able to relax more. You may also find that the feeling of a formal interview transforms more into an engaging conversation among like-minded professionals. In the process, you’ll learn more about the school and the interviewer will learn more about you — the real you, not the paper you. Perhaps more important, your willingness to engage in a genuine conversation shows that you are a thoughtful, curious person — the type this school definitely needs to hire.

So the next time you're preparing for a phone or on-campus interview, remember these easy tips to ensure you don't get stumped by open-ended questions.

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