Let's revisit one of the most humiliating (and expensive) moments of my life. It happened a decade ago and even today I cringe and seethe when I think about it.
I was one of 25 finalists for a $20,000 scholarship in my junior year of college. The last step was an hour long interview with three faculty members. I wrote down a list of every single question I thought they would ask - why do you want this scholarship, why you, etc - and rehearsed answers, recording myself, for a week straight. The interview came and went and I thought I did pretty well!
Fast forward a week and I got an email that I was not going to be offered a scholarship. Only two other students out of 25 were rejected. I was dumbfounded. There was no way I should have failed this test. I started thinking back to the interview. Some answers stand out as opportunities to improve - I could still tell you exactly what they are. There's one answer that I really wish I could get back.
At the end of the interview they asked "do you have any questions for us?" By this point I'd done so much research into the scholarship that I couldn't think of anything, and said "No." The interview ended.
But think about it from their perspective. I'd just spent an hour talking about myself; what does it show when I refuse to ask any questions? Not only am I denying them an opportunity for them to talk, I appear very incurious about the program itself. They didn't know that I had been quizzing myself on every aspect of the program for a week. I should have asked about anything — literally anything — and given them a chance to talk.
The funny thing was I had actually asked some of the people who had gone through the interview what they had been asked about. "Ask a question at the end" was both so obvious to them - pretty much every successful candidate had done finance interviews, where cultural signals are more important; I hadn't - and so oblivious to me that it hadn't even come up to people who wanted to help me succeed.
From that point on I made a point to always ask a question when someone asks if I have any questions. Ask anything. Even asking "what did you have for lunch" is better than asking nothing; the interviewer might start talking about whether the company pays for lunch, whether it's any good. My standby question is "what did you do yesterday" - it has a unique answer for each interviewer and reveals how people spend their time (vs. how they say they spend their time).
Finally, "person fails interview because interviewer expects to see cultural signal and interviewee does not broadcast cultural signal" is a common failure mode. Think about someone who wears a suit to a tech interview. Some organizations only want to hire people who can utter the secret words, and that's their choice.
But if your goal is to cast a wide net - I am looking at you, tech companies that put up billboards championing your commitment to diversity - and you have a candidate without a traditional background, maybe make a list of every reason you've used to reject a nontraditional candidate in the past and then email that to the candidate in advance of the interview - "wear a dress shirt and jeans," for example.1 You won't get everything, but it's a good start. (You can try to get your interviewers to discard the cultural signals but that's difficult and it might show up in their feedback without them realizing it.) Note that career services departments at good schools are already doing this for their students; what you are doing is leveling the playing field.
1 This is not a new critique by any means, people have made it about the SAT for some time - if the tests quiz applicants on vocabulary and grammar that are more commonly used in white households than nonwhite households, than identical students with identical aptitudes will score differently, which seems unfair.
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