Making the Most of the Semi-Finalist Interview: The Don’ts

Wickenden Associates
September 10, 2019

Like it or not, interviews are critically important for candidates, and you will be judged on your performance–no matter how strong your credentials. If you do not present yourself effectively in the interview, you are unlikely to advance to the finalist stage. Having facilitated thousands of semifinalist interviews since 1986, here are a few reminders for what not to do.

DON’T …

Be overly eager to impress. While some candidates handle the interview setting with more aplomb than others, it is also true that the chemistry of these group meetings is entirely unpredictable. Enjoy the interview. You will be given an opportunity to talk about what you know and love.

Come unprepared to respond to common interview and discussion topics. While each search committee interview is unique, certain questions are almost certain to emerge. Do yourself a favor by thinking in advance about your views on these likely topics:

  • What is your leadership style? This is not a softball question, and the search committee will use it to gauge your potential fit with the school community. Be prepared to identify the core principles that underlie your leadership philosophy and provide specific examples that demonstrate how you have translated these principles into practice.
  • How do you manage change? Leaders are responsible for defining a vision and then setting into motion the changes necessary to fulfill that vision. One good place to start is the book Leading Change by John P. Kotter.
  • What are your views on student assessment? Faculty members are often interested in exploring this issue, but bear in mind that your audience will include non‐educators as well, so it is important to avoid jargon while clearly articulating your core beliefs on this complicated subject.
  • What are the issues and trends most likely to affect schools in the next five years? Be prepared to talk about the thought leaders who have influenced your views and your vision. On any given day, current events may also affect the direction of the interview. School violence, the deleterious effects of social media, and even geopolitical forces, for example, might be raised in the context of school leadership.
  • Why are you interested in this particular opportunity? While this may seem basic, you would be amazed to learn how many candidates are unprepared for this question or uninspired in their responses.

Overstep professional boundaries or disrespect confidentiality. You should expect to be asked about difficult situations you have faced, so decide in advance how you can be responsive by discussing real events while observing boundaries and respecting the confidentiality of those at your current school. Don’t be overly critical of either the school you are visiting or the one you are currently serving.

Make common stylistic mistakes. For example, don’t interrupt the interviewer, even if you think you know what he/she is asking. Don’t engage in a debate with an interviewer about a complex or controversial issue. Don’t pontificate—rather, be succinct and on point. Don’t only look at the person who asked the question, and don’t focus on one or two people to the exclusion of others.

Fail to make a lasting impression. Remind yourself that the search committee may be interviewing as many as eight candidates over a marathon weekend. Preparing a strong closing statement can help you to make a lasting impression.

End the interview without asking two or three insightful questions. Ideally, these questions will be qualitative rather than factual—designed to draw from your interviewers their views about particular challenges facing the school, their priorities for the school’s future, etc. By asking thoughtful questions, you demonstrate genuine interest and give search committee members an opportunity to tell you more about the school they love.