How to Stand Out in Your Interview

Brian Taylor

February 15, 2010

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.