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.
Interview early and often
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!