Interviewing New College Grads

© 2005 Johanna Rothman.

They may not have a traditional work history, but college grads do have experiences. Learn how to glean what they do know.

It’s spring, and college seniors are starting to look for jobs. I’m assuming you’ve done a job analysis, to determine the essential personal qualities, preferences, and skills that your open position requires. With new college grads, I’ve most often looked for their adaptability, ability to learn, independence, responsibility, and how well a candidate might fit into the current team. When it’s possible to learn functional skills in college, I’ve looked for those too.

If you’re hoping to snag some of these talented, but inexperienced people, try these interviewing tips.

It’s rare that anyone proceeds through high school and college without any work experience. You can mine that experience to see what the candidate found satisfying or challenging, how the candidate has learned techniques required by the position, adapted to a job, and how the candidate has shown responsibility and initiative.

“What’s been the most satisfying or challenging for you?”

One candidate for a software development job had been a teaching assistant for an introductory class. I asked that candidate what she had learned by being a teaching assistant. Her answer was illuminating, “I really like helping people figure out what they have to do. Half the time, they were trying to write programs that were way too complex, and weren’t particularly organized well. I liked helping people see what they had to do.” When I asked he what she found frustrating, she said, “When they don’t listen to me. Not everyone listens to the people who have the knowledge.” I asked her how she dealt with that frustration -because it’s a common frustration among developers. She said, “Well, I’ve learned a little about what not to do. I don’t tell them they’re wrong, and I don’t tell them what to do. I walk them through the consequences of their decisions.” She continued with her answer, showing remarkable maturity in her answers.

“What have you learned?”

When I ask about learning on the job, I first select some kind of work experience on the candidate’s resume- the more recent, the better. Then I ask a closed question to establish the boundaries on the question: “For this job, what did you have to learn to perform the job well?” I wait for the answer. Then I ask, “How did you learn it?” I listen for specific examples of learning. While interviewing a new grad for a technical support position, he explained that his only paying job in school had been as a short order cook. I asked him what he learned from that job. He replied, “First, cooking on a grill in a restaurant is really different from cooking at home. Nothing was too difficult to cook, but the hardest thing was keeping the orders straight in my head during the lunch rush. I could start six lunch orders, but I needed to keep them straight in order to finish each one when it was done -and not overdone. And, I needed to look calm and keep smiling.

Either one of those-the cooking or the smiling-was easy, but it took me a while to learn how to do both together.” I asked him how he learned to be effective at his job and how he kept his cool, and he answered with a couple of great stories.

“How have you had to adapt?”

Since every job is different, I tend to look for people who can take their experience and adapt it to the current situation. If a candidate has some work experience, I’ll ask how the candidate has adapted to that job. Sometimes I ask, “How was this job different from what you expected?” Sometimes, people answer with a discussion of what they expected to do and what they actually did. One candidate for a tester position explained her work testing a product a professor was building, “I expected to have to test manually, but when I started, they asked me what I needed. I explained that if they built in these hooks, I could test by writing code. Not only could I test by writing code, I was able to try a number of different testing techniques, something I hadn’t anticipated.”

“Tell me about a time you saw a problem at work. What did you do?”

I tend to work at organizations that require independent thought and initiative, so this question works well for me, whether I’m interviewing a new college grad or a seasoned veteran. When I ask about times the candidate has seen problems at work, and their actions (or lack of action) to solve a problem, I can understand if that candidate will fit in with the organization.

Ask about coursework. Whether a candidate has had any job before now, all candidates have taken classes. You can learn a little about a candidate’s technical and teamwork skills when you ask about coursework.

“Tell me about your most fun classes.” … “Tell me about your most challenging classes.”

When I want to discover what a candidate has actually learned from his or her classes, I ask about what was fun and what was challenging. Candidates who found some classes fun may have a particular sense of satisfaction with that coursework. I’ll contrast that kind of coursework with the open position. Many years ago, I interviewed a developer for work on a real-time embedded system. When he answered this question, he said, “Device drivers. I just loved doing device drivers.” I followed up with, “Tell me why you liked the device drivers.” He answered, the different problems and how he’d solved them. I was able to ask more follow-up questions about how he’d designed the software in the first place, what he learned, how he debugged the problems. I was able to determine that his coursework and how he’d approached and solved the problems was relevant to the open position.

When I ask about the most challenging classes, I sometimes hear unexpected answers. One candidate said, “Italian. That was my most challenging class.” I asked why. She answered with a discussion of how a natural language, such as Italian was consistent and inconsistent in places, contrasting Italian with a computer language. Another candidate said. “Automata theory. I couldn’t imagine what I would do with that once I graduated.” Any kind of answer provides you with a starting point to ask more questions.

“What did you learn from projects that required working in teams?”

Next, I ask some closed questions to establish what a candidate has done in classes. “Did you take any classes that required you to work in teams?” If a candidate says no, I ask, “Tell me more about the projects you finished in these classes,” as I ask pointed questions about specific classes.

Once I know about the classes that require teams, I can ask questions about the team itself. “How did the team work?” If that’s too open-ended, I ask more questions, “Was there a team lead?” “How did you each keep each other informed of your progress?” “When did the team work together and when did people work separately?” With questions like these, I can understand a candidate’s already-existing team experiences and contrast that with the types of teams at this organization.

Interviewing new college grads is more difficult than interviewing someone with experience in the field, but you have the opportunity to snap up some great people and help them become outstanding contributors. That’s worth it.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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