How Search Committees Can Master the First-Round Candidate Interview

With Ryan Crawford

First-round candidate interviews can be awkward and challenging—with the attention of a large, diverse group of institutional representatives fixed on a single candidate in the proverbial hot seat. In the interview below, WittKieffer principal Ryan Crawford breaks down what a successful interview looks like from the search committee’s perspective, in what is often a somewhat artificial setting.

You’ve seen a lot of search committees interview individual candidates. What are the classic mistakes they make?

Crawford: Asking the right questions in the right way is the first step for committees to get the information they need. I often see many committees lean too much toward philosophical questions instead of behavior-based questions. “What is your leadership style?” tends to be a question that will get trite responses with lots of buzzwords. I encourage committees to ask for examples that will show a candidate’s leadership style: “Describe a time when you led a significant change in your organization.”

I also see committees put too many parts into one question. “Could you please describe your experience with enrollment planning, enhancing student success, and ensuring a diverse and inclusive campus?” These may all be important areas to address and packing them all into one question makes it challenging for a candidate to answer. Committees must identify what topics are most important, prioritize them accordingly and then identify simple, straightforward questions that will get to the information they are looking for.

Some candidates are great at interviewing but may not be the right hire. How does the committee figure this out?

Crawford: It’s important for committees to keep proper perspective on the first-round interview. It is an important part of the search process, but it can lend itself to favoring charisma over substance at times. Committees should take time to review the candidate’s application materials to get a sense of what they have done and allow that to complement what they hear in the interview. First-round interviews can also favor candidates who are well practiced in this setting because they have been interviewing frequently. It’s unlikely that a committee would know which candidates this applies to, but it is important to remember that this can be a factor in a candidate’s performance.

How much stake should the committee put into the first few minutes? How revealing is a first impression?

Crawford: Avoid snap assessments. First, remember a first-round interview with a large group is an unusual and somewhat artificial setting. I’ve seen plenty of great candidates who start off nervous and work into the interview as it moves along. I’ve also seen individuals who feel more comfortable in a conversation than in question and answer and shine whenever they reach the end of the interview where they are able to ask questions and engage in more of a dialog. Finally, remember to focus on substance. There are many candidates who seem shiny at the start of an interview, but lack the depth and breadth in their responses that committees are looking for.

In a large-group interview, how do you make sure everyone’s questions get asked?

Crawford: First, make sure you have the right number of questions. If questions are simple, a good rule of thumb is to give candidates approximately five minutes per response. That should give enough time for candidates to flesh out an example that will provide insights into their experience and approach.

Second, it’s helpful to give candidates a sense of what to expect at the outset of the interview by letting them know how many questions will be asked over how long a period of time. Ultimately, the candidate will often be the one who determines if a committee gets through all their questions. I’ve seen some committees be pretty direct in letting candidates know when their time is up for a response. My preferred approach is a gentle reminder if candidates have fallen behind the pace after the first couple of questions. I think watching how a candidate budgets their time can often be illustrative of what it will be like to work with them if hired.

Should interviews be scripted, so that all candidates essentially get the same questions?

Crawford: Many committee members prefer a free-flowing conversation because that is how they approach interviews in a one-on-one or small group setting. However, committees should not assume that approach will translate well to an interview by a large group. Given the variety of viewpoints among the committee and the number of topics that it will want to cover, it’s better to stick to a script – for the most part. My experience has made me a believer that consistent questioning across candidates leads to a more level playing field, but that there may be instances where follow-ups about a particular response or a clarifying question about a candidate’s background are necessary. I encourage committees to ask those burning questions – I never want them to leave an interview with an essential question unanswered – but be judicious about doing so.

Once an interview is completed, what’s the best way to collect the committee’s input on a given candidate and come to a consensus?

Crawford: I think it’s helpful for committees to discuss candidates in bunches of two to three as they work through the interview process. This will help ensure every candidate is assessed fairly no matter where they fall in the process and it will also help the group start to coalesce around the experiences and characteristics that are most important for the position. I see committees want to jump past the assessment of each individual candidate as they near the end of these interviews. Resist this urge. I think it’s important for the group to talk about each candidate so committee members have a chance to share their viewpoints. This tends to make the identification of finalists easier once all the interviews are complete.

What, ultimately, is the committee’s goal with first-round interviews? Is it just to determine “yes or no” for the candidates involved?

Crawford: Committees should be focused on identifying who they want to learn more about. Few perfect candidates exist – every candidate will have strengths and weaknesses. First-round interviews provide an opportunity for committees to prioritize what is most important, as well as identify the areas in a candidate’s background where they need to learn more. Keep in mind, the first-round committee interview is an important step in the process, but it’s just one step and it’s a unique environment.

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