How to Correctly Answer the Most Important Interview Question

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR


In nearly every interview, candidates are asked one of two questions that are intended to ascertain the same information. The first version of the question is, “Tell us a little bit about you.” The second version is, “Why do you want this particular job?” Both questions try to uncover the reasons why this particular job makes sense for you at this time. Understand that the underlying question is a test to ensure that you really want to work at the institution, given who you are as a person and professional. When evaluating your response, interviewers are most likely looking for any cracks in your veneer. It is a quality assurance check designed to find out if there are any ties that might bind you to them.

If you are well qualified, but have no apparent connections to the organization, its mission, location, curriculum, students, etc., it will become obvious when you respond. The absence of such similarities might undermine your candidacy. If the interview panel cannot find intersections between you and them, they might question why you would want to join them. If you do not appear excited about the job or institution, your candidacy might be derailed. Likewise, if you describe yourself as a person who prefers to be slow, sure, and steady, yet they are interested in innovation, change, and risk-taking, they probably will not hire you.

Why do you want this job? How does this job fit into your career aspirations? What about this job attracts you the most? These queries are three different ways of finding out if you really want to do the work that they have available, to what degree, and why. The interviewers ask this truth-teller question because they presume the person who is most excited about the work is likely the best candidate for the job. Again, they are looking for a reason to believe that you actually like them and their organization. If there is mutual admiration or affection, then you are a great candidate.

A shorthand way of thinking about the two versions of the most important question is, we want to hire someone who likes a) us, b) the work we have to do, c) the way we work, and d) the place where this work is performed (eg institution, location, kind of school — community college, research university, etc.). The search committee is looking for common ground, shared interests, and similar perspectives.

I have adopted the wisdom of a former colleague named Jerry as a litmus test for hiring. He said that when people apply to new jobs, they are either running to something or running from something. Anyone would want to leave a bad boss, quit a low-paying job, or find a position that does not require long hours. However, those indicators mean that one is running from something, which says nothing about why you would like this position or even if you care about anything related to this organization. This is not very endearing. It says they are a safe haven for you — not that you really want to be there working hard, together, at some higher purpose.

The only way to answer these questions is to tell the interviewer(s) what is special, different, unique, appealing, or attractive to you about this opportunity. Complaining about one’s current or former employer is a turn off. Bragging about one’s accomplishments is unavoidable, but it does not build rapport with one’s host. Providing an autobiography or sharing one’s dreams and aspirations with the search committee can either be invaluable or just trivia. The inflection point here is critical. If my experience and background validate my interest in the opportunity at hand, bravo! If my plans, desires, and goals intersect with the needs and requirements of the position, great! If one displays interest and passion for the organization’s students or mission, it will resonate well.

It is not that search committees are uninterested in us as people. It is just that the interview process requires them to test all candidates and then act in their own selfish best interest. It really does not matter if one is from the Midwest unless the host institution is located there. It might signal that you are moving back home towards family, and that you might be happier and stay. Think retention. Sure you have had a record of success in increasingly responsible positions and are ready to take on a larger leadership role as a dean. Well go ahead, you will be a great candidate somewhere else. Tell them that your promotional experiences prepared you uniquely for the job that they have available here today. This inflection point is exactly the point.

Remember that the interview is a test. Interview panels are looking for reasons to hire you and not to hire you. So, answer correctly. If the interviewers have performed their responsibilities correctly, everyone invited for an interview can do the job. The real purpose of the interview is to determine which candidate they want to do the job here and now. Good candidates give the interviewers good reasons to select them.

Good candidates are prepared to answer either version of the most important interview question the right way. They tell the interviewer unequivocally that they want to work with them, on the work that is available, and are willing and able to work in a way that is consistent with the organization’s culture. Smart candidates strategically prepare for interviews by thinking through the presentation of their credentials and presenting them in a way that complements their host’s needs, goals, and sense of self. It is a human attribute that we like people who like us.

The wrong way to answer the seemingly mandatory question of ‘Why do you want this job?’ is to say that I have been looking for something different, that I have grown professionally and this is the logical next step, or that I am seeking more responsibility or money. These are good, but not great responses, because they do not validate the interests of one’s hosts. Tell the host that you are excited about working with them, not just with anyone or anywhere.

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