The Question within the Question: What Interviewers Are Really Asking

By Kevin Currie-Knight

Whether you are interviewing for faculty positions or for grad school, here’s a piece of advice on handling interview questions: every question is a request for you to tell your interviewer more about you. Questions such as, “Tell us a bit about you,” or “Tell us more about your research interests,” obviously fall into this category. Other questions – “How do you relieve stress in your life?” “Who is your favorite researcher in your field?,” or “What is your opinion on [insert discipline-related issue here]?” are less obviously so. And whenever you are asked this latter kind of question, you should answer in a way that tells them something about you.

Here’s what I mean. When asked “What do you do to relieve stress in your life?” many interviewees rat off a few things they do – golf, travel, exercise – and stop there. But most interviewers are not asking the question because they want a list of your hobbies; they are asking because they want to get a more holistic picture of who you are. Okay, so you like to travel; why do you like to travel? Do you like to travel because you are fascinated by cultural or geographical differences? Are there particular kinds of areas you are most attracted to exploring (historically rich places, places that have a particular kind of physical beauty, places where you’ve lived in the past)? Your answer doesn’t have to be profound, but following your “what” with a “why” helps your interviewer get a real sense of who you are, which is most likely what they are looking for with questions like this.

Another indirect “tell me more about yourself” question might be asking you to describe some service activities you’ve done (in the community or academy). Again, describe one or two of these activities… but don’t stop there! Another important and often ignored piece is why you do those activities – what your participation in these activities says about you. Have you done work for Habitat for Humanity or another organization? Have you been involved in your university’s Graduate Student Senate or other group? What motivated you to do these activities? You might even add a very quick and subtle reference to what trait(s) your involvement in these things exemplifies (“My involvement with the Graduate Student Senate has really allowed me to use my communication skills in a way that benefits the graduate student community.”)

Here’s a final example, taken from personal experience. On a recent phone interview for a position in an Education department I was asked what I considered to be the one thing I’d most like to change about public education as it exists today. My answer was along the lines of addressing the culture of standardized testing. There’s nothing wrong with assessment, but it risks standardizing the learning process itself. I was completely unprepared for this question. It just didn’t seem like a question about me (the kind I prepared for), but thinking back on it, the question was an invitation to share about myself. My ideal answer would have given them not only an idea of my stance on the question, but insight into what I regard as important in education, teaching, and learning to more thoroughly represent my core beliefs about my discipline.

So when you are asked these indirect questions, the best thing to do is to assume the question is a subtle way of saying “Tell us more about yourself,” because it most likely is. Give an answer that is both reflective of who you are and with who you want your interviewer to see you as. When asked about things like what you do to decompress, about your service or otherwise, answer in a way that not only gives them the “what” of the answer, but follows with what that “what” says about you. This way, seemingly strange interview questions won’t seem so strange and you can give an interview that provides your interviewer with as clear a picture of who you are as a complete person suited for the job.

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Kevin Currie-Knight is a fourth year PhD student in University of Delaware’s Education department. He works for UD’s Center for Assessment of Teaching and Learning, where one of his roles is to assist graduate students and faculty with developing and maintaining academic e-portfolios. Recently, he has been blogging mostly about technology for us at Kosmos. He can be reached at kevinck@udel.edu or kevincurrieknight@gmail.com.

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