"In the world of interviewing students, I highly doubt I’ve seen it all...but, I’m pretty confident I’ve seen a bunch."
Since 2008, I have been the coordinator of an undergraduate fellowship program. Students are applying to be paired with researchers in various science fields in order to gain valuable hands-on experience. There is a whole application process, which starts with the students submitting a resume with a cover letter, an unofficial transcript, and a letter of recommendation. The screening interviews with me come next. I do my best to discern, based on the applications and the approximately 15 minutes I speak with a student I have most likely never met before, for which projects these students might be best suited. There are times, throughout the whole recruitment process, that prove to be downright comedic.
My first year, a student emailed me her resume because she was having printer issues. It was created in Excel. Then, almost like a counterbalance, a different student showed up for his interview in a three-piece suit. The suit was made even more comical when he was hired for a fellowship that required him to spend the majority of his summer in a wet suit.
Over the years I have experienced it all - hand written cover letters, students dressed inappropriately for a professional interview, and too often, little to no preparation with some students having no idea how to answer the most basic questions about their skills. At the end of a long day of interviews all I can do is shake my head and wonder, where is the disconnect happening?
But I'm not alone. There are many people who sit on a similar side of the interview table. It's very rare for an office on a college campus to run without student help. This means that every year, numerous faculty and staff interview all types of university students. Many of these students have never written a resume. Even less have written a cover letter. Then you reach the interview level and almost all of the students become fish out of water.
There's No One-Size-Fits-All Approach
I certainly do not have a silver bullet for changing a student’s level of preparedness. I can however offer up some commiseration based on what I have experienced and throw out some tips.
I have to admit; I was actually surprised to find out just how many students have no idea what a cover letter is. I was giving my typical in-class recruitment speech and when I ended I asked if anyone had any questions. A hand shot up in the back. She asked, “What is a cover letter?” I couldn't even believe it, in a time when there is increased competitiveness for every opportunity, there are students who have never heard of a cover letter. So, I adjusted my speech. Now when I list out the application requirements for the program, after stating a cover letter is required, I ask for a show of hands. “Who doesn’t know what that is?” In each class at least one student typically raises his or her hand. Now think about this – if there was one student willing to raise a hand, how many were too nervous to be honest?
I adjusted my program’s application requirements about three years ago; students had to provide a cover letter with their resume as opposed to a personal statement. I made the change because the quality and thoughtfulness of the personal statements were, in my opinion, lacking. I had hoped that a cover letter would provide a better idea of what the students considered their accomplishments to be and what they hoped to contribute to and gain from the program. I needed better written application submissions to help in the selection process. I thought by simply adjusting the requirement a higher quality application packet would result. Considering how often I had to explain what a cover letter is, I'm no longer surprised that did not happen.
"Now, why am I making such a big deal out of resumes and cover letters?"
Especially when this is a post on interviews? Because it is all related. A three page resume, written in 10 point font, with triple spacing, and one and half inch margins has me shaking my head. That same applicant then writes me a one paragraph “cover letter” with no salutation or signature. Not surprisingly, I begin to question whether or not this student is taking this process seriously.
I still interview all the students that submit a completed application packet, however it is getting to the point where I will very soon have to make cuts before people have a chance to speak with me. That means what is on paper counts. In most real-world situations, what is on paper counts. If a student is already stacking the deck against themselves with a poorly prepared resume and cover letter, I already have low expectations for the interview, and that is not a good thing.
The Art of Interviewing
The interview is a rather unique scenario. It’s a highly contrived situation where the interviewee has no option other than to practice careful narcissism. The interviewee needs to make himself or herself sound like the best possible candidate without completely overdoing it. But most students have no idea how to be a good interviewee. We have to teach them. When we meet with our students, when we discuss their plans for summer or post-graduation, we should encourage trips to the career office. A student who makes an appointment with a career advisor for the purpose of interview preparation will become a well-rehearsed candidate. They will be that unicorn candidate who comes armed to an interview with questions and also takes notes based on your responses.
This year I did 109 interviews for my fellowship program. Less than half came with questions and that includes the students who thought to ask me what comes next in the application process or when they would hear back from me. Only one student wrote down my responses – I know this to be true because I actually wrote in my interview notes “she wrote down my responses.” Unicorn.
However, the situation is not one sided. Interviewing is an art all its own. Over the years I am still amazed at the influence I have as the interviewer in how the meeting goes. If I just sit and be silent – they just keep going. Or, if I constantly take notes and look down at a note pad, they just stop. The interviewee responds to my encouragement, or lack thereof.
As the interviewer, you control the pace of the interview. Don’t forget that. The fidgety student with the constantly moving leg is not going to calm down if you are overly animated. If the high energy student comes in with a 7-cup coffee buzz, you can’t let yourself get sucked in, remain calm and slow your speech. If a student comes in looking particularly nervous, make sure to smile and take on a more comforting tone. Do your best to diffuse their nerves with a calm and encouraging demeanor.
Of course, once it’s all over, that’s when the hard part begins. Who do you actually pick?
The student whose resume barely filled half a page turned out to have a lot of really good answers and the student with the near perfect background looked everywhere but at you. Before offering up the coveted employment opportunity, take a good look around your office. Who are the people the student will be working with? How do they interact with each other? What type of personality will actually excel in that environment?
One thing I have learned over the years is that certain skills can be taught. If you need a student who has an understanding of water quality issues and likes talking to people you cannot hire the student who spent last summer in a water quality testing lab but hates doing outreach. The student who is social and enjoys educating his peers can learn about local water quality issues if you give him a couple of days to catch up on the literature.
Interviewing students can be a rather interesting process. It’s important to remember that they are students. They are still learning who they are in the professional world. While the interview process is likely to go less smoothly than you, as the interviewer, would probably like. Take it all with a good sense of humor and you might just be willing to do it all over again.
About the Author: Brianne Neptin graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a B.S. in Environmental Economics and Management and from the University of Connecticut with an M.S. in Agricultural Economics. After spending 2 years in Eastern Europe volunteering with the Peace Corps, she was hired as URI’s Coordinator for the Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program. That position helped her realize her true passion was working in higher education and chose to enter into the College Student Personnel program for Master's degree round two. She enjoys spending her free time cooking, writing about cooking, and getting crafty. Feel free to connect with her @brianep.