Putting the Student Affairs Job Interview to Work for You

Tammy J. Lenski and Mary Beth W. Barritt

The student affairs job interview is a prime opportunity for candidates to get the "inside scoop" about the position and institution to which they've applied. Unfortunately, too often this opportunity is lost by entry-level candidates who view the interview as a one-way street. This article will provideaction-oriented strategies and questions which help the candidate effectively assess the job, including straightforward ways to determine the financial health of the institution, resources available to the person hired, and staff dynamics.

The student affairs job interview is a two-way opportunity: the employer assesses the candidate and, ideally, the candidate assesses the institution, department and position. The purpose of this article is to suggest ways that candidates can better assess job suitability through discerning questions. This is not a "how to interview" article; rather, it proposes a legitimate and forthright method for obtaining "insider" information that can situate the candidate to make the best career decision.

The Interviewee as Interviewer

Effectively prepared interview questions elicit information that may not surface otherwise. Preparation demonstrates a knowledge base and initiative, moves the interview out of a rigidly structured format, and generally makes the interview more interactive and enjoyable for all parties (Bloomberg & Holden, 1991; Figler, 1988).

Job candidates who prepare discerning questions improve the quality of the interview. Such questions force the interviewee to think critically about the position and serve as a reminder that the institution must measure up to the candidate's standards. Preparation also improves the flow of the interview by generating active dialogue; the candidate, therefore, is less likely to become a passive interviewee (Figler, 1988).

Discerning Interview Questions

The following questions feature information that could be overlooked in a student affairs job interview. They help the applicant appraise the financial health, management style, reputation and philosophy of an institution or department. They are purposefully open-ended to solicit answers that are both and broad and comprehensive.

Institutional Philosophy

Candidates should detetermine whether institutional or departmental philosophy is consistent with their own. By doing so, they improve the likelihood that the position will be a good fit and engage their interest. Good questions to elicit such information are:

1. How would you describe the department's mission and philosophy?

2. Do you subscribe to a particular student development approach (Hanson, 1985) ?

3. How do you use student development theory as a basis when designing interventions?

4. In instances of student discipline or illness, do you share information with the parents of traditional-aged students? If so, at what point?

5. Can you tell me about the educational and experiential background of others in the office?


The way in which others on campus view the student affairs division influences the nature of interactions and has an impact on how effective the new employee feels on the job. For example, if students perceive an office to be inaccessible, a professional in that office will have greater difficulty engaging students in its activities. Candidates may wish to ask:

1. How would students/faculty/administrative staff describe the reputation of student affairs offices on your campus?

2. Have student affairs staff or faculty here conducted any notable research (Hanson, 1985)?

3. How would you describe the activity level in the department/office? For example, how would you characterize the amount of student traffic or the number of projects taking place at any given time?

4. In what ways does your department work with academic departments?


Candidates should make every attempt to visit with students before accepting a job offer. These conversations provide a clearer picture of the type of student who has chosen the institution. Is this the type of student who will energize the candidate? Are student affairs administrators able to describe students accurately, indicating a good relationship? Possible inquiries of students or staff include:

1. How would you characterize the student body here (Hanson, 1985)?

2. How would you describe the student-administration relationship?

3. What are some of the important issues on campus this year (Hanson, 1985)?

4. Will I have an opportunity to talk with students today?

5. How do your retention rates compare to those of similar institutions?

Financial Health

No candidate wants to board a sinking ship. The underlying concern here is whether or not the institution is in sound fiscal condition. Additionally, the value an institution places on its student affairs division may be reflected in budget allocations. Candidates should be well informed about these issues before making decisions and can ask the following to glean helpful information:

1. How would you characterize the financial health of the institution?

2. What percent of the total budget is allocated to student affairs?

3. What are budget priorities for the division/department and institution?

4. May I review the budget for the department I will work in?

5. What campus facilities have most recently been upgraded?

6. What is the funding basis for the position (is it supported by a grant)?


Institutions and departments are managed in a variety of styles. Additionally, some colleges more actively plan for the future than others. Candidates should ask interviewers to describe management style and articulate planning priorities before accepting a position.

1. Does the institution/department use strategic planning?

2. What are departmental priorities over the next few years and the next decade?

3. Would you describe the reporting structure within the office and the institution?

4. How does the organizational structure here help or inhibit employee

effectiveness (Borgman Associates, 1991)?

5. Are there certain management techniques (e.g., Total Quality Management) to which the department subscribes?

6. How is staff performance measured (Bloomberg & Holden, 1991)?

7. What type of staff development opportunities do you support? Do you encourage involvement in professional associations (Hanson, 1985)?


Working effectively on a day-to-day basis requires a good working relationship with one's supervisor. To find out how the supervisor positions and develops staff for success, ask:

1. What type of training or orientation do you offer new staff members?

2. What is your approach to making decisions and solving problems?

3. How do you typically respond when you hear of a problem in your area (Borgman Associates, 1991)?

4. How do you gather information before making decisions (Borgman Associates, 1991)?

5. How and when do you bring others into the decision-making process (Borgman Associates, 1991)?

Legal Matters

If the position involves judicial matters, policy making or speaking regularly to the public, it is ideal if the institution provides support to the staff member. Ask the following to determine what types of support are available:

1. Does the college have its own legal counsel or is there an established relationship with counsel off campus?

2. Do you have an indemnification policy (which provides liability protection for employees' performance in their professional capacity)?

3. How are calls from the press handled by departments? Is there a college press officer?


The well-prepared interviewer should not consider the above questions threatening, particularly when they are phrased positively. Rather, effective interviewers will appreciate the chance to engage in an open dialogue. The result is a dynamic, energized interview which both parties will remember vividly. The candidate will be recognized as well-prepared, genuinely interested and in tune with both practical matters and important issues. The interview is often the only occasion to gather critical information for an important career decision. Candidates should seize this opportunity by actively delving into the nature of the position to determine if the fit is right. Equipped with the information such questions produce, student affairs professionals are more fully prepared to select positions, offices and institutions which match their career goals, philosophies and work styles.


Bloomberg, G.M., & Holden, M.D. (1991). The women's job search handbook. Charlotte, VT: Williamson Publishing.

Borgman Associates. (1991). 333 Interviewing Questions. (Available from Borgman Associates, Walnut Creek, CA, 415-944-9444).

Figler, H. (1988). The complete job search handbook: All the skills you need to get any job and have a good time doing it. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Hanson, G.S. (1985). Interviewing tips. Unpublished manuscript.

Tammy J. Lenski earned her master's and her doctorate degrees from the University of Vermont. Presently she is the Dean of Students at Trinity College of Vermont. Areas of interest and research are leadership education and development as well as women's leadership development.

Mary Beth W. Barritt is the Director of Career Development at Trinity College of Vermont. She serves the HESA program as a Practicum Supervisor for Master's level students.