The Dreaded Fit Question Comes First!

by Kellee Weinhold, TPII Interview Intervention Master

I’m inundated with Interview Interventions right now, doing 4 a day, every day this month.  Let’s just say, I’ve worked with a LOT of interview candidates. By this point in the year, one advantage of the volume is that I have the ability to see patterns both in the mistakes the clients make, and in the current questions that clients get asked. Many report their experiences back to me, and so I get an amazing snapshot of interview trends across the country.

It was one of those reports that prompted this post.

This came from a client this week: “Thanks for a fantastic intervention. As you had suggested, the ‘why did you apply to this job/what caught your eye about this job’ question was the FIRST question they asked.”

The client went on: “I’m so glad we practiced the four-point, ‘you do…I do…’ approach; pre-intervention it wasn’t a question I’d focused on particularly thoughtfully and it would have totally thrown me as the first question.”

Sadly the client is not alone in failing to prepare for the question of why s/he applied for the job. There is a certain logic to that lack of preparation. S/he applied for the job the same reason 200 other people did: it’s one of three listed in the field and they are desperate for a job. The problem is that the search committee does not make its hiring decision based on your desperation for a job. They hire you because you are a good fit.

And that’s what they’re trying to get at with the question. “Why do you apply for this job?” is the oblique way of asking “Why do you think belong here?” Which is basically demanding, “Prove to us that you fit the hole we are trying to fill and that you’re just like us.” Because that’s really what anyone who is looking for in a colleague: someone who solves the problem that they have and also won’t freak them out.

As the client wisely notes, your preparedness for this question is even more important given that a significant percentage of our clients report that this is the FIRST question of the interview. If you are not prepared for the fit question and you’re already nervous because you got yourself worked up and believing that this exact interview is a make or break moment in your life (I’m here to assure you that it’s not) then you are setting yourself for up for a rocky time.

If you are paying attention, at this point you should be wondering, “Well, how AM I supposed to answer that question?”

First let me follow a long-standing TPII tradition and tell you how you’re NOT supposed to answer:

  • You have a great library and archives in my area that I need in my research.
  • My friends and family and a bunch of people I know live in the area so I want to be there.
  • Dude, it’s Harvard. Why wouldn’t I apply?
  • I’m attracted to the intimate environment of a small liberal arts college. I really like small classes. I love undergraduates. blah blah, liberal arts mush.

That’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but they are answers I hear all of the time. They are all facepalm fails.

So, how do you answer?

Here is the four-point, “you do…I do… approach” that I use with my interview intervention clients:

Address the question of fit in four areas 1) the department 2) the faculty 3) programs, initiatives and institutes in the department and on campus 4) the classroom.

Think of each area as a bucket that you are filling with information and are prepared to pour out no matter which way the question comes.

Structure the answer for each as a comparison between the department and you and your contribution. In other words, “You (department) do this and I do this.”

Here’s an example, which I assume you know by now not to use word for word or run the risk of being TPII cookie-cutter material.

1)I am particularly interested in this department because of its commitment to examining media communications from a global perspective, challenging the western media normative model, which I’m doing my own work by examining media portrayals of race and class in the coverage of labor unions in the US and Chile.

You will note, I did not say that I fit. I did not say that I would be a good addition. I simply said you do this and I do this. You want to follow the same pattern with each of the other buckets.

2) I see interesting intersections with my work and [Margaret Smith] (not Professor Smith! first name-last name) and her work on gender normativity and social media.

3) I would look forward being involved with your Institute for Racial Justice, which is examining many of the same issues that I have in my work with  XXX

4) I look forward to teaching your courses in X and Y and bringing my expertise in Z to the XXX classroom.

Got it? Four buckets: you do this…I do this….

One more thing:

There is no faking this answer. You have to decide why this is a good university for you. You do that by digging in and learning about the department. It’s that knowledge and thoughtfulness that show the search committee why you should be their colleague.

Want more guidance? Get on my calendar for a live Skype Interview Intervention, Job Talk Intervention, or Campus Visit Intervention!

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The Dreaded Fit Question Comes First! — 7 Comments

  1. I have to say that I disagree with this statement: “Prove to us that you fit the hole we are trying to fill and that you’re just like us.” I don’t think that when my department does a faculty search, we’re looking for someone just like us, but rather we’re looking for someone who will contribute a new perspective without being an island. We’ve had a few left-field hires and they end up being very isolated and not particularly happy or successful–which serves neither their careers nor our interests.

    I think the “fit” question is a very fair one, and it deserves to be the first question that’s asked of a candidate. If a candidate is a complete mismatch for the job or the department, why would they invest further in the candidate? I mostly agree with the content of this piece, but the undertone is that this is a question that’s supremely annoying but must be answered. I can’t think of a job where this question WOULDN’T be asked in an interview, academic or not.

  2. This could not come a moment too soon for this religious studies scholar. Thanks so much to you and Karen for all the insight you provide. Fingers crossed!

  3. From a past interview intervention client AND an owner of the new (successful!!!) book: wow. Just wow. Your “you do,” “I do” was *exactly* the tool needed for the upcoming interview season. I had been thinking about fit, expecting the question, but THIS is a super useful frame. Thank you.

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