• September 3, 2015

How to Stand Out in Your Interview

Interviewing Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Last fall, at the beginning of the hiring cycle, I wrote a column on "How to Make Your Application Stand Out" (The Chronicle, November 27, 2009). If you were successful in that, you are probably preparing for an interview at a community college this spring.

Now comes the real challenge: continuing to stand out among a group of candidates whose applications were all impressive to the committee.

I've participated in scores of job interviews, as a candidate and as a member of at least 15 search committees that I can recall (some of my committee experiences I've repressed, no doubt). Since I've been an administrator, I've also worked behind the scenes, scheduling interviews, developing questions, and reviewing committee recommendations. So I have a pretty fair idea of what it takes to stand out in an interview at two-year colleges.

Timing. The date and time of your interview are more important than you might think. The timing is, in any case, the first decision you'll have to make about the interview, assuming you have a choice.

You won't always. Some committees will give you a "take it or leave it" date and time. Others might simply get to you last as they're phoning candidates, so that you have to take whatever time slot is left. You shouldn't read too much into that; it probably has to do with the order the folders were in when they were handed to whoever made the calls. Interview scheduling is, at best, an inexact science.

But if you do get to choose a time for your interview, my advice is to select the earliest slot available, if the interviews are being conducted in a single day or on consecutive days. (You can ask the person who calls how the schedule is set up.) If the interview dates are separated by a week or more, choose the earliest slot on the last day. To follow my reasoning, you have to understand that most two-year colleges conduct what I call "cattle call" interviews, scheduling five, six, or more one-hour slots in a single day. Often we try to interview all the candidates on that one day, or over a two-day period. That means that, by the end of the day—not to mention the second day—we're pretty bushed, and all the interviews start to run together. You stand a better chance of making a good impression if you get to us while we're still relatively fresh.

On the other hand (speaking as a serial committee member), if I've had a week to recover, I find that I'm more likely to remember the people we interviewed on the last day—as long as they didn't come too late in the day.

The last thing I'll say about timing is this: Show up at least 30 minutes early. An hour is better. If you find that you're too early, you can spend the time profitably wandering around the campus, which may help you get a better feel for the job. (Just don't get lost.) No one will think badly of you for being early, unless maybe you show up the night before and camp on the lawn.

Appearance. It's important, when interviewing for a faculty position, is to appear professional without looking too corporate—although women can pull off businesslike better than men. A woman in a dark suit looks professional. A man in a dark suit looks like an accountant, or maybe an undertaker.

For men, then, I recommend a sport coat, dress slacks, and tie: perhaps something classic, like a navy blazer over a blue oxford shirt and gray flannels, or something professorial, like a brown tweed jacket with tan slacks. Shirts should be white or light blue only, while ties should be understated in pattern and color. Also, wear dress shoes that go with your slacks—brown with tan, black with gray or navy—and that have been polished in recent memory.

For women, a dark suit is always appropriate, although it should probably be offset by a colorful blouse. (Women can get away with a lot more color than men.) Or you can go with the feminine equivalent of the classic or professorial looks described above. Slacks are generally better than skirts, and dresses are usually a bad idea. Shoes should be conservative in style and height.

Pay attention to your personal grooming, too. These days, a man's hair can be any length, but it should be well kept. The same goes for facial hair. Women should avoid extremes in hair styles, makeup, and jewelry.

Dress appropriately, and when you walk into the interview room, you will send the message that you are someone to be taken seriously.

Performance. The single most important factor, of course, is how well you actually perform during the interview. You need to display the right balance of confidence and humility—confidence in your abilities and preparation, but deference to the interviewers who certainly know more about the institution than you do and probably have more years in the profession.

One way to gain confidence is to learn everything you can, before the interview, about the institution and about community colleges. That way, you can give an intelligent answer to a question like "How would you teach such-and-such in a developmental-studies course?" If your answer is "A developmental-studies course?" followed by a blank look, the interview isn't going well.

As you answer questions, focus on your teaching experience, as opposed to your research, as much as possible. (An obvious point, you say? Not judging by the number of candidates who come to a community-college interview and talk far too much about their scholarship.)

If you wrote a dissertation and earned a Ph.D., the committee members are probably impressed; it may even be one of the reasons they invited you for an interview. But they don't necessarily want to hear about a research agenda that likely has little to do with what you'll actually be doing on the job every day. Instead, they'd like to hear as much as possible about your teaching.

A key element of the job interview at most two-year colleges is the teaching demonstration. I covered that topic last January in a column titled "Demonstration or Demolition?" (The Chronicle, January 30, 2009), and for the sake of space I won't recap it all here. Suffice it to say, the committee is hoping for a demonstration of your teaching ability, not a conference presentation on some discipline-related topic. They want to see you teach, not hear about how you would teach. So choose a 15- to 20-minute segment of a lecture you're comfortable giving and approach it just like you would if you were in a classroom.

Finally, if you have the chance at the conclusion of the interview, ask sharp questions. It is OK to ask about things like the salary range and benefits, if those haven't already been discussed (and they should have been).

You can also ask about the possibility of summer teaching assignments, requirements for tenure and promotion, and even workload. Just try not to blanch when someone says you'll be teaching five courses each semester.

Remember, even though we're in a recession and the job market basically stinks, community-college enrollments are still growing, and we continue to need new faculty members. Use your interview to show us you're an outstanding teacher, and you stand a good chance of being hired.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College.


1. 11244074 - February 15, 2010 at 09:09 am

Excellent advice, but it doesn't support the conclusion: :you stand a good chance of being hired". Community colleges receive hundreds of applications for a single position; we on search committees hear from dozens of people who would make fine colleagues. Then factor in geography, diversity, experience within in the niche we are filling, not to mention the fact that adjuncts are teaching most of our sections anyway--and do the math. Despite the "cattle call" interview, it's easy to see that almost everyone will NOT be offered a job.

2. 11244074 - February 15, 2010 at 09:10 am

Excellent advice, but it doesn't support the conclusion: "you stand a good chance of being hired". Community colleges receive hundreds of applications for a single position; we on search committees recognize dozens of people who would make fine colleagues. Then factor in geography, diversity, experience within in the niche we are filling, not to mention the fact that adjuncts are teaching most of our sections anyway--and do the math. Despite the "cattle call" interview, it's easy to see that almost everyone will NOT be offered a job.

3. robjenkins - February 15, 2010 at 09:41 am

I disagree, 11244074. Not that most people won't be hired--that's obvious. But if there's a job open, someone will be hired. And if you've got an interview, your chances of being hired have already improved from, say, 150 to 1 to maybe 10 to 1. If you then "stand out" in your interview, meaning you separate yourself from the other candidates (in a good way, of course), you do indeed "stand a good chance of being hired."


4. vicden1 - February 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

I think it may be a 'better chance of being hired'.
One of the big mistakes I have seen from applicants is going on at length how you would change existing programs based on the idea that they must not be working. The program may be a total disaster, but rarely does a committee look kindly on an outsider pointing that out.

5. danibds - February 15, 2010 at 11:48 am

Great column! But I wonder whether the candidate shouldn't ask the "sharpe questions" after s/he receives an offer, rather than at the conclusion of the interview?

6. robjenkins - February 15, 2010 at 01:07 pm

Thanks for the kind words, danibds. And maybe you're right about holding onto the tough questions. It's just that one of my pet peeves (as you'll see if you go back and read my column "Cattle Call") is when schools don't tell people up front what they'll be making. In cases like that, I think the candidates have every right to ask.

Mostly, though, you want to use your questions to show how much knowledge you already have about the school and to let the committee know that you're not desperate (even if you are), that you're considering their institution even as they're considering you. That can give the impression that you have choices and therefore make you more desirable, as long as you don't overdo it. Something like this might be appropriate: "I see you have a 5/5 teaching load. Can you tell me what courses I might be expected to teach and how they would be assigned?"

On the other hand, I was recently part of a committee that interviewed people for a non-academic job, a department secretary position. When one of the candidates began asking about vacation accrual, sick leave, comp time, and flexibility in the work schedule, we all started to roll our eyes at each other, as if to say "Yeah, we know what she wants, to work as little as possible." Fair or not, that's the impression she gave.

So I would say carefully formulate your questions beforehand. Don't be afraid to ask about things you don't know, and by all means use your questions to show what you do know. Just be careful with the type and tone of your questions.


7. drj50 - February 15, 2010 at 01:20 pm


I agree with danibds.

People who work in job placement consistently tell people NOT to ask about salary, vacation, benefits, etc. until there is an offer. And for just the reason that you mention. It is just bad form. (Like those brown shoes with the black pants.)

Ask thoughtful questions about the institution and job expectations. My favorite question (that I learned from a recruiter) is "Do you have any concerns about my ability to do the job or fit with the institution?" That gives you a chance to address directly any concerns you may have left unanswered.

Once there is an offer, the power differential has shifted. They are now courting you and it's their turn to field tough questions.

8. wernerdj - February 15, 2010 at 01:36 pm

Thanks for a great column. I've served on dozens of search committees at a community college and I want to highlight AGAIN something you've noted above: "But they don't necessarily want to hear about a research agenda that likely has little to do with what you'll actually be doing on the job every day." We're involved in a search right now and while we certainly prefer to hire a PhD (and have several to choose from), I can already tell you we probably won't even interview the ones who go on and on (and on) about their research project (multiple paragraphs/pages in their cover letters). The very fact that the applicant spent so much time on this topic highlights that s/he has no idea about what life is like here. YES - tell us about your project (one paragraph or so), then move on. Then let's talk about what's really important to us: teaching. We want to see that you are as passionate about that (as you are about your dissertation topic).

9. robjenkins - February 15, 2010 at 02:12 pm

Thanks, wernerdj. I completely agree.

drj50, I suppose I must bow to the consensus here. I too was taught growing up that asking about money is bad form, and frankly I'm a little reluctant to do so myself. On the other hand, how can we realistically expect people to move their families cross-country if they don't even know how much money they're going to make--at least ballpark--once they get there?

Perhaps I should modify my advice to reflect what I've actually done in this situation: first, do your research and see if you can find a salary for the position, or at least a range, on the school's Website. Usually, you can. If not, see if you can find out by some other means, such as asking an acquaintance who teaches there or at another school in the same system. (If it's a state system, by the way, you can also try the system Website.) As a last resort, if it means the difference between your taking the job and not taking it, ask about the salary--even before you get to the interview, if you have the opportunity.

A few years ago I applied for a dean's job that seemed perfect for me, in a place I've always dreamed of living. I was invited for an interview and was all set to go, but I couldn't find out any information about the salary for the position. It wasn't anywhere online. (Or, at least, it eluded my meager Web searching skills.) Finally, I called the VP who had invited me and asked point blank. Turns out the salary was less than my current institution pays department chairs.

Yes, the question was a little awkward, but asking saved time and money--my time, the search committee's time, and the school's money. I wasn't going to fly out and interview at a place where, given the pay, there was no chance I would accept the job (even if it was in paradise).

Thanks for the stimulating comments.


10. vicden1 - February 15, 2010 at 05:30 pm

I too have called and asked about salary ranges before even applying just to make sure I wouldn't be in a situation that Rob mentions.
I think Community Colleges are a mixed bag. I think it's hard to say whether or not salary is a touchy subject, though I agree starting in on leave time, etc. is probably not a good idea.

11. bioclocks - February 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I am curious about the article's statements discouraging women from wearing skirts and dresses. I have always felt I must wear one or the other on interviews. It has been over 10 years since I was "on the market," but I have twice been hired by colleges (one state college and one community college where I now am a tenured full professor) in the author's system, USG. Perhaps the problem is that a wide array of perhaps-unsuitable dresses exist, and the the candidates fall victim to the selection.

12. robjenkins - February 16, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I think you nailed it, bioclocks. I'm sure there are some dresses that would be perfectly appropriate for an interview but, given today's fashions, most probably aren't. Skirts are fine, although most women seem to me to be more comfortable in slacks, and a more comfortable candidate is more likely to perform well in the interview. That's why I say slacks are better.

I guess the real message, to women like you who have always believed they have to wear a skirt or dress, is "not so much anymore." Slacks are definitely the norm these days and are perfectly acceptable if not preferrable.


13. psyguy - February 17, 2010 at 10:03 am

"It's important, when interviewing for a faculty position, is to appear professional without looking too corporate.... A man in a dark suit looks like an accountant, or maybe an undertaker."

Really? First time I heard anything of the sort.

Okay, I follow the need to tone down the cuff links and tie bars, but I've seen many a job candidate with the navy suits, white/ blue oxfords and conservative ties.

14. robjenkins - February 17, 2010 at 02:16 pm

I suppose it depends on the discipline, psyguy. Maybe a dark suit works for a candidate in accounting or finance or marketing. . . or mortuary science. In the humanities, I'd say not so much. Perhaps that's just a personal bias of mine--not being a dark-suit kind of guy myself--but I do think that, with all the ongoing attempts to corporatize community colleges, there is a definite anti-corporate sentiment among humanities faculty that could derail anyone who is perceived as looking too much like a business person and not enough like an academic.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter, for what they're worth. I appreciate your comment.


15. melba_frilkins - February 17, 2010 at 04:33 pm

Being on search committees, I would find it odd if the applicant asked about salary during the interview. What difference does it make at that point? The applicant should ask about salary before attending the interview or wait until getting an offer. As a search committee we can only interview a limited number of applicants. It would rub me the wrong way to think that we may have wasted an interview slot on someone who didn't bother to check if the job meets their minimum requirements. (And, yes, our salary table is posted online, so it's no secret).

16. robjenkins - February 17, 2010 at 08:54 pm

I'm glad your college posts its salary table online, Melba. I wish all colleges did. That would eliminate the need for awkward questions at any point in the process.


17. scottiehr - February 23, 2010 at 09:32 am

As the HR Manager at a community college, I ALWAYS discuss salary with the candidate when I contact them to set up the interview. Along with salary, I discuss benefits and also provide them with a copy of the Master Contract. I want them to know these details prior to them spending the time and money to come to the interview. I do not want to waste their time, or ours, with an interview only to find out later that the salary we are offering is too low. Our salaries are set by the Master Contract and it is pretty simple to determine what one's salary would be based on degree and teaching experience. Having only worked for one community college my entire career (24 years), I'm not sure why some institutions are so secretive about salaries.

18. criminologyphd - February 23, 2010 at 09:42 am

I have a horror story to share... I recently applied for a catholic school faculty position located in a south/central state. I went through the phone interview and was invited to visit the campus for a "dinner with the university president the first night and further interviews". I took four days off of work and flew to the university. The dinner with the president never materialized and the subsequent interviews were the off target and boring. Having spent more than 20 years in law enforcement, I inmediately smelled a set-up. It turned out they were not interested in my candidacy at all but had to justify interviewing someone so they could hire a friend of one of the VPs. I received an email message stating that the position had been offered to another candidate and he had accepted. I received this email before my plane landed on my direct return trip. Applicants be aware, not all interviews are in good faith... some of them are to fulfill diversity and other federal requirements so that friends can be hired!

19. aneat1 - February 23, 2010 at 10:37 am

Nice Article!
What other questions might the interviewee ask to impress the comittee?

20. dthornton9 - February 23, 2010 at 10:42 am

As to the skirt/pants question for women and the full suit for men.....given the horrible way most people dress today - whether in the "Business" world or the academic, I would always advocate for and view a male candidate more highly who was in a regular business suit, and the woman who was in a skirt, with hose/tights in winter - bare legs ok in summer. And men - please polish those shoes! Buy new ones! Most of you look like you just walked through a pig pen!

I teach in a suit/dress as frequently as I teach in a pants suit - it is part of our job to demonstrate a professional image to students.

And the "Fake" interview/advertisement for legal documentation purposes is more common than many people suspect.

21. redweather - February 23, 2010 at 11:12 am

I just interviewed for a teaching position at a community college. One of the questions dealt with how I handled diversity in the classroom, which I was assured was an important consideration at this college. However, the members of the search committee were all white women. It struck me as quite odd, but then the school is in the deep south. Is it too much to ask that a search committee be a little more reepresentative than that?

22. tookt - February 23, 2010 at 11:19 am

I would second dthornton9's point and add this caveat: consider the location of the cc when choosing what to wear. Women may wear pantsuits to interviews in many parts of the country. In the rural or semi-rural Midwest and South, they wear skirts (or a dress with a jacket). Yes, I agree, dresses may be too frilly by themselves (requiring a jacket to be "professional"), but pants signify "too casual" or "too masculine" to many in more conservative areas. Men (or even women) in dark suits--depends. Might seem a bit stuffy at a cc. Tough call, but cc's require a good deal of flexibility in their teachers. Dress that reflects that one is highly professional but still able to really "connect" with students froma wide background is important.

23. tskochanski - February 23, 2010 at 08:42 pm

@Rob, Wow, lot's of comments. I actually interviewed at GPC last week and liked the school very much. I emphasized my teaching background and in my case at least half of my research is on pedagogy so I discussed that as well as my experiences in working with textbook publishers to develop homework management systems, test banks, powerpoints, etc.

You didn't mention in the article whether committees like to hear about campus service experience/goals. at the interview I mentioned my interests in participating/supporting existing campus groups. There seemed to be a number of programs that jumped out at me when I walked on campus, a leadership institute and TRIO program in particular. As a former McNair Scholar and TRIO participant I would love the opportunity to serve as a faculty mentor, tutor, activity sponsor, etc. I remember reading a "service philosophy" statement at one time geared toward faculty with a strong sense of service / administrative interest, that mentioned as new faculty members we should provide participatory support and service to existing programs, as junior faculty we should take on active administrative roles in such programs, and as senior faculty we should begin developing such programs (applying for that TRIO grant for the school, etc.). That philosophy stuck with me and I have always taken an interest in talking with administrators about the successes and difficulties of their particular programs. I think such programs (from K-12 to Universities) provide a sense of community and networking for students on campus and give them great experience as lifelong learners and citizens.

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