FAQ: How to crush the interview

It's not THAT bad.

Every Monday afternoon, I’ll put together an entry inspired by actual questions from aspiring applicants.  Last week, I wrote about how to “crush the application.”  Well, this week I’m taking on how to “crush the interview.”

Before we get started, here are a couple of things to consider:

  • Every site has the same desired outcome:  select a diverse, talented class of predominantly homegrown, aspiring public sector leaders.  However, each site varies on how the tactics on how to achieve that outcome.  In the spirit of brevity and fairness, I’m not going to run-down on how each site does their interview, but rather speak from the vantage point of the general interviewing process.
  • My personal credentials:  I’ve been on the staff of a local Public Allies site from ’99-’03 (participated in at least 150 Ally individual/group interviews), as well as managed the selection process for the inaugural Turning The Tide Fellowship in ’08 (where I conducted over 70 individual phone-interviews).  I’m confident in that I have a handle on what we’re generally looking for.

With that squared away, let’s get down to brass tacks…

First Things First, Get your Interview Fundamentals Right.

If you google “interview prep”, you’ll find tons of lists, resources and what have you.  One of my favorites is idealist.org’s Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First Time Job Seekers.  You can download the PDF there for free, and there’s lots of just goodies (like the “Night Before” checklist) you should nail down.  If I had to summarize my own favorite “basic” tips:

Get there 15 minutes ahead of time.  In the case you will be late, do call ahead and provide notification and see if it’s still possible to conduct the interview with you arriving late, and if not, if it’s possible to reschedule.  While you think being 15 minutes late might be “no big deal”, the reality is that the local site has probably scheduled 3x as many interviews as Ally positions, (30 Ally openings, probably 100 interviews) within a very tight timeframe, so that means that even losing 15 minutes can throw off the remainder of the interview schedule significantly.

Appearances matter.  I’m not looking for people to wear Armani, but I am looking for individuals who can appear to work in the professional world.  Allies represent the program in multiple settings and for multiple audiences (particularly industry influencers, donors and other electeds), and I expect that if you intend on being an Ally, you’ll care to make a strong first impression.

Have fun. I understand that it can be an intimidating experience, especially for first-time job seekers.  However, those that can handle being under pressure with grace and a smile got significant traction in the “selection room.”

Follow-up. Send a handwritten thank-you note (or at least an e-mail) within a week after your interview.  Ideally in the note, you share not only gratitude, but also what you learned or discovered about yourself during the interview.  That demonstrates humility and appreciation, but also your ability to model continuous learning, one of the core values of Public Allies.  Again, it’s 10 minutes and a 42 cent stamp, but you’d be surprised how much traction that little gesture could generate for your candidacy.

Ok, now that we’ve got the basics, here are some Public Allies-specific nuances to be prepared for…

Get your stories straight.

In the interview, you will be asked a series of questions.  Most likely, those questions will require you to tell a story about your own work, volunteer or other leadership experiences.  Be ready to “present evidence” on why you’d be a terrific Ally, and main vehicle to do so is through the stories that you will share.  When you’re going to tell a story, make sure that it’s short, specific, and relevant.  “Short” means that you’re not rambling and getting to the key point of the story.  “Specific” refers to your ability to refer to actual experiences, as opposed to glittering generalities. “Relevant” means that it hit the question clearly.  Here are two other sub-tips:

Odds are the questions are going to revolve around these key themes:  1) Your ability to perform the Apprenticeship; 2)Your intentions for choosing the Apprenticeship and 3) Your unique skill-set, experience or world-view that you will be bringing to the Ally class.  It might be obvious, but here are actual “less than stellar” answers I’ve heard in interviews

to point #1.  “Well, I can do the Apprenticeship because I’ve led my volunteer group in college.”  My take:  While I like it’s brevity, the candidate needed to cite a specific “leadership experience” with that group that illustrates why she is able to do the Apprenticeship, and she her answer wasn’t inherently relevant to the question.  She should’ve been able to detail the Ally Apprenticeship components, and how her volunteer leadership experience demonstrated that she could thrive.

to point #2.  “Well, I’m not ready for grad school, so I’m hoping this experience would be a good in-between experience.”  My take:  Going to grad school is a reasonably fine aspiration. However, this answer suggested a lack of maturity/self-knowledge about future goals.  It also suggests to the reviewer that this Applicant is looking to “kill time” before grad school, or perhaps trying to “bolster” their resume in order to get into a “better grad school.”  Again, I get that intention — but as a Public Allies staffer, we’re more interested in crafting future leaders, not excellent grad school candidates.

to point #3.  “Uhh…[insert vague generality about wanting to help people]”  Again, I know part of doing a program like Public Allies is so that you can generate self-awareness and have an opportunity for self-discovery, but come on, you gotta get our attention.  Use this analogy — if Public Allies is a “potluck dinner” what are you proverbially bringing to the table?  And to further kill the analogy, we’re not looking for more chips and soda.  I believe that a majority of those that apply are able to do the Apprenticeship.  But, we’re looking for individuals who are able to “contribute” to the experience and bring a passion and consistency that’s going to sustain them to be a lifelong leader in the sector.

Be ready to interact in a group experience

In addition to the traditional “interview question and answer” format, there will likely be some sort of group exercise or activity, as the staff will want to see how you perform in a team setting, as well as discover how you handle conflict.   I’d recommend NOT trying to figure out ahead of time what exercise or game will be played, as the reality is that knowing ahead how to play a certain game or exercise, won’t necessarily give you an advantage because the staff is looking to see how you deal with the unforseen.  Finally, there is no “ideal way” to handle conflict, as the staff looks for a “diverse” range of approaches to bolster the diversity of the class. Ironic, right?  You’re reading this to prepare for this interview, and what I’m telling you is to not overprepare. The only way to “win” in this section is to be as authentic as possible, and yep — “have fun” while you are doing the activity.

Interview early and often

Applicants at a PA Chicago '09 Prospie Day

Wait a minute, there is more than one interview at Public Allies?  Not necessarily.  However, most sites conduct “Prospie Days”, Service Days, or open up their Training Days in the weeks leading up to the interview.  If you attend those events, then you have a chance to learn more about Public Allies, and just as important — Public Allies will have a chance to learn more about you.  Even in the Virtual Intro Sessions, I’ve conducted this year — I’ve kept track of who has participated in them, and have even passed on quick notes to local site staff around individuals who were engaging in that session.  (On the flip side, I’ve also kept track of people who have RSVP’d and didn’t show up.)   In sum, I’d recommend not waiting until the interview to “interview” with Public Allies.

Again, there are a lot of factors that go into selection of the Ally class.  While I can’t guarantee that following this advice will make you a “lock”, I’ve found that applicants who did the above steps, were more likely to make it to Matching Fair than those who didn’t.  Good luck!


51 Responses to “FAQ: How to crush the interview”

  1. Ashlee Says:

    Than you for the advice.

  2. Veronica Says:

    I found the advice you provided very helpful. Thanks.

  3. macarthura Says:

    Right on! Thanks for stopping by! If you’ve got more questions, feel free to let me know, and I’ll write about ’em.

  4. laura Thien Says:

    thanks for the advice looking forward to my upcoming interview and this should help a bit

  5. Renee Says:

    Thanks! This was really helpful!

  6. Travis Says:

    Thanks for the advice! If I get that far into the selection process this will really help my calmness. I’m a person who signed-up for the “Virtual Propsi Day” but was not able to attend due to my fiancee falling ill. I was wondering if there was a way for me to find out who to contact in order to apologize because my confirmation seems to have come from an automatic system?

  7. paige Says:

    thanks for the advice! wish i would have known about the virtual intro sessions before!!

  8. Jessica Cruz Says:

    Thank you for all the information. I feel it was a healthy reminder of balancing our need to prepare and being in the moment for the interview.

  9. Craig Butler Says:

    Thank you very much for your valuable insight. Having fun, but staying professional, is a good piece of advice because I believe it allows you to really cater to the person you really are. Interviewing is definitely an art.

  10. Echo Says:

    Thank You for reminding us that the interview is about more than just answering questions. I’m excited to give the interviewers a reason to really want to hire me as a benefit to my community!

  11. Atlantis Says:

    Thank you for the valuable information regarding your interview process. I am quite sure it will be very useful.

  12. Jalyssa Says:

    This was quite helpful, thank you for the advice.

  13. Marian espada Says:

    Thany you very much for the advice. I am the type of person that is very timid at first but when getting the feel for the atmosphere am able to demonstrate my skills. this should definately help me feel more comfertable.

  14. ashley polachowski Says:

    Thank you so much for the information this looks like a great place to work and learn!

  15. Tiffany Montgomery Says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to aid us newbies in the interview process. I am now more excited about the opportunity and looking forward to meeting new people and having fun at the interview!

  16. Thomas LaClair Says:

    Thanks for this helpful information! I am looking forward to my interview with PA Chicago 🙂

  17. Veronica Bates Says:

    Thanks alot for all these helpful tips. Never have I had someone give tips before an interview and I believe this will be very beneficial. I look forward to my interview and believe this can be a life changing experience!

    • macarthura Says:

      Right on! Thanks for reading. One of our aspirations for this experience is that applying to Public Allies is a leadership development experience itself. We’re glad that you found this post useful. Now go get ’em!

  18. Nina Says:

    This posting definitely calmed my nerves, thank you for that! I do have a specific question about the selection process. I am currently applying to an Allies program that half way across the country in a city that I’d like to live and establish myself in. Will this count against me, as I am not a resident there? Theres also already a public allies in the city I currently live in, so I really hope it won’t count against me for not applying in that city. Thanks again for this wonderful post!

    • macarthura Says:

      Nina —

      Good question! I’d recommend that you make the case for why you want to work in that city — are there specific issues that you want to work on? Do you have any other affinity or connection to that new city? Is that where you want to make your career happen after you’re an Ally?

      Sites will use “affinity” as a criteria in selecting their Allies for several reasons. Mainly because we’re about developing homegrown, indigenous leadership. But, also for practical reasons: if you’re from, or if you have a strong connection to the community, you’re more likely to have a strong support network to sustain you through the rigorous Ally year; you’re also more likely to stick around after completing the term, and becoming an active alumnus member at the site. Of course, PA Sites will welcome out-of-towners to serve at their site, but they’re not looking for “fly-by-night” folks, either. Local staff (who make selections), will want to know what compels you to come to this community, and why your skill set is relevant.

      Hope this helps, and thanks for your interest in Public Allies!

  19. Lucy Says:


    I also have a quick question. I’m applying for PA New York, and I’m still a little confused between the difference between the Matching Fair and the “interview with partner organizations.” Are they the same thing?

    I’m asking because I too am applying from half way across the country and am trying to figure out the logistics of flying to NYC to interview with the non-profits if I’m selected as a finalist. Is it just a one day affair or should I anticipate staying in NYC for this interview for a week?

    • macarthura Says:

      Hi Lucy!

      Hmm…there’s a slight difference. Think of “Matching Fair” like a big “speed dating” event, where all of the partner organizations are there along with the Ally Finalists. Now some sites will match right after Matching Fair, while some sites will allow a window of time for Finalists to actually interview at the different Partner Organizations.

      PA NY gets many folks applying from out of area, so I’d direct you to contact them to see if they have any tips in regards logistics to their process. Thanks for your question!

  20. Dee Ford Says:

    my only question is…who and where do i send my recommendations to?…i’ve completed my application and the last part i have to complete is the recommendations. can u help me?

    • macarthura Says:

      Hi Dee! It’s hard to answer that question without any context: if you’ve completed the application online, all you have to do is put the e-mail addresses of your recommendations, and they’ll complete the recommendations. In case they don’t have internet access, they can complete a paper version of the recommendation and send it (mail, fax, e-mail) to the PA Site to which you’re applying. Hope that helps!

  21. Ari M Says:

    Hello! I have an interview today and I am EXTREMELY NERVOUS. I have participated in several community service projects here in NC but I am applying in AZ for my Public Allies Program. My question is I will have two interviews today (panel and group). Are there differences in the questions that they ask? And how soon will I know whether I have been selected as a finalist? I am doing phone interviewing so if I am a finalist will I still have another interview process?

    • macarthura Says:

      Ari! It’s all good! Take a (virtual) moment with me to take a deep breath. Ok.

      “Differences in the questions they ask?” Hmm…are you talking about from site to site? If so, there may be slight variations from site to site, and that mainly deals with your interest and commitment to local issues. (i.e. The NC site might be focusing on different community issues than AZ). However, the core themes are consistent.

      In terms of different questions from panel to group — it’s likely that the panel will want to know more about you as an individual, while the group interview will reveal how you function in team settings. Again, don’t overthink it.

      Depending on where your interview is in the calendar, sites usually take a week (sometimes two) to shore up their Finalist decisions. If you make it to Finalist, then your next interviews are with the actual Partner Organizations themselves to make sure you have the right fit.

      Thanks again for reading, and you’re going to do great! 🙂

      • Ari M Says:

        Thank you but I’m not sure of how great I did. They had to follow up on a lot of my questions. I’m nervous and sad. I really want this!

  22. Juliet Gutierrez Says:

    Thank you for the advice. I have my interview next weekend in Chicago and feel better about the upcoming experience already.

  23. C Says:

    Hi! I currently applied to the Miami site (I’ve lived there for 4 years) but am currently in Europe, where my family lives… is it possible that I can do a phone interview(s), or is it imperative that I fly into Miami? Thanks for your time!

    • macarthura Says:

      Hey C — in terms of first interviews, most sites are able to do this over phone/skype. However, I’d check in with Miami to see if they’re amenable to that. If you become a “Finalist” (i.e. make it past the interview stage), then it’d be highly recommended you are there in person, as most nonprofits are not comfortable hiring without meeting their candidates in person.

      • C Says:

        thanks for the info! so if I have a phone interview and do become a finalist, when should I be ready to pack my bags and go to Miami? Would it be late July or in August? Thanks again!


      • macarthura Says:

        C — I’d check in with the Miami staff on their specific logistics on their process. Good luck!

  24. Adaku Says:

    This was very good advice. I feel less worried about how I interviewed now.

  25. Angelica Says:

    Thank you for the tips and info! This was awesome and helpful.

  26. Arvind R. Says:

    Nice of you to write this up. It was very helpful, thanks. I am really excited about Public Allies!

  27. Nayely Araiza Says:

    Thank you for the advice. I do have a question:

    I have already submited my application, but I am currently a full-time graduate student. I will be completing my last year of graduate school during the same time I have applied for Public Allies in NY. Along with my masters program I have to complete an internship, and Public Allies is exactly what my focus will be during my second year. I am wondering if it would be possible to make Public Allies my internship, if my University allows it? 

    • macarthura Says:

      Ooh, good question! My first reaction to that: As long as you’re able to perform in the Apprenticeship program satisfactorily (achieve your objectives at your nonprofit placement, be a full participant in the Ally learning community and execute the team service project with your fellow Allies), then go for it.

      Of course, check with Public Allies NY to be sure, but as long as your school accredits the Apprenticeship as a valid internship experience (which in my humble experience, IT IS!), then I can’t see why it shouldn’t work.

  28. Ashley Says:

    Hello! Thank you for the great advice, it has really helped me with the application process. I have recently made it through the matching fair phase and now I am in interviewing with organizations at this point. My one question is while I sent a thank you note after my initial interview with Public Allies, should I send one to each one of the organizations I interview with as well? Or is this step not necessarily needed at this point?

    • macarthura Says:


      Congrats on making it to the partner organization interviews. Here’s my take: Just because you’re interviewing through Public Allies doesn’t mean you’re not doing a “real job interview” with your partner orgs. So, treat it as such! Send each of them a thank-you card. As one who has done many interviews to hire candidates, I’m pleased when I get a follow up correspondence thanking me for my time, as well as learning what the candidate discovered about us or themselves during the interview. Demonstrates that you’re on the ball, and that you are thoughtful of other people’s time. Good luck!

  29. Billy E. Stevenson III Says:

    This is an awesome breakdown of the Public Allies Interview process. I appreciate the advice and guidance. I’m looking forward to interviewing with PA Chicago! Thanks again!

  30. K Says:

    Do you know how long it takes for finalists to find out if they were chosen after the matching fair? The chapter that I interviewed with told me to expect a response within a certain range of time, but it has come and gone without any news. If I have not heard back from them within the specified amount of time does that mean that I will not hear back from them at all? Do Public Allies chapters send out emails notifying candidates who were not accepted?

    • macarthura Says:

      K —

      If you’re at the finalist phase, you should expect to have notification if you’ve matched or did not match. In the case that you did not match, you may be invited to interview again — it depends on whether or not there are any spots remaining. Depending on the site, there can be over 40 young adults that are exploring matches with nearly 40 sites — in short, there’s a ton of moving pieces in this process.

      I’m sorry that you haven’t heard within their recommended period of time. I know that all of our site are trying very hard to confirm their matches, as it’s in their best interest to have their classes confirmed as soon as possible. I would invite you to send an email to the site that you’re in process with to check-in. Thanks again for your interest in working with us this coming year. I hope it works out!

  31. Kathryn Dullinger Says:

    Hello there! I noticed in your blog entry “How to Crush the Interview” that said there are “virtual propsi days” service days, and extra training days, and I couldn’t find a link anywhere or information about that, could you point me in the right direction? Also I just sent in my application today, which I’ve been working on for months and I picked three communities (Miami, Chicago, and Arizona) that were not from the state I have grown up in (Minnesota). Will this hurt me in the selection process? I have very specific reasons for why I chose these states, and hope to have a further impact on the community after I finish the Ally program, however I only had 1,500 characters to explain to Florida why I wanted to be there. And not enough space to explain to Chicago or Arizona! 🙂 Anyway your comments would be most helpful! Thanks!

  32. Britney Says:

    Great insight. Will definitely review this leading up to the interviews, if I make it that far.

  33. Amy B Says:

    This post was really helpful! I’m glad I saw it. I didn’t, however, know about “prospie days” or other Public Allies events prior to reading it. I’m still a little bit confused about all of these events that Public Allies holds. I applied to Public Allies Chicago–How do I find out more about these? And what they are? And when and where they are for that matter? I don’t want my ignorance of these events to make it appear as though I am not interested in the apprenticeship!

  34. Laquandra Lane Says:

    I would like to thank you for your informative blog and for also considering my application. I look forward to participating in the “Prospie Days” before my upcoming interview. See you soon.

  35. crystal Wiley Says:

    Hi, I kind of choked on the phone interview. I was nervous although there were only 3 questions. Do you have any advice? I’m scared I won’t get a call back.

    • StephenABauer Says:

      Crystal, First take a breath. I am sure that you did better than you think you did. Your concern about doing well is already an indicator that you care about being an Ally. One thing I learned is that there are three speeches or presentations that a person gives: 1. the presentation you prepare ahead of time, 2. the presentation you give in the moment, and 3. the presentation you wish you would have given afterwards. One thing you can reflect on is how aligned these three presentations are in your mind and how you would approach this type of process next time. While all selection decisions are made by the local site staff, the question is now, what would be the best way to go about continuing to position yourself to be the best candidate you can be?

      • crystal Wiley Says:

        Thanks! I feel a lot better!… hopefully I’ll here from them soon. I also attended the forum and it was great. I got a chance to really hear what public allies is about.

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