As a former hall director at both public and private universities, I have had experience conducting residence life interviews at conferences, over the phone, and on-campus. I’ve also been a candidate myself in all three of those settings. In the years I spent as a residence life professional, I’ve seen stellar interviews, decent interviews, and downright awful interviews – all from people who were otherwise qualified on paper. While most people applying for hall director jobs (including those coming directly out of college) have basic experience as a resident assistant or student leader, not everyone uses their interview to showcase their skills effectively. Whether you are looking for a full-time job or a graduate-level position in residence life, here are ten tips for a successful residence life interview.
First off, congratulations for making it to the interview process. If you’ve applied for residence life jobs and been offered an interview (via phone, at a conference, or on-campus), you’ve done something right already. Now, how do you set yourself apart from other candidates and demonstrate your worthiness?
1. Research the university and the residence life position BEFORE the interview. One way to demonstrate your initiative (and to learn about your potential place of work!) is to do some homework. Visit the school’s website, and learn about their academic offerings, their “brand” of education, their athletics, and of course, their overall student life program. Take note of anything that stands out as special about the student population. Then visit the housing website to get a handle on the philosophy of the residence life department or student affairs division. If there’s a student handbook, peruse it. If there are pictures, check them out. Then, during the interview, you might be able to demonstrate your knowledge of the school by dropping some nuggets. (Just don’t overdo it.)
2. Ask GOOD questions based on your research. Don’t ask about things you can easily look up yourself (i.e. statistics). Ask about challenges specific to the student body. Or future directions of the department. Or the judicial philosophy. Or how the department works with other departments. There are a plethora of potential questions you can ask, so prepare as many as possible, and ask them whenever you can. If you’re not sure who exactly is going to interview you, prepare questions for people at all levels: senior housing officers, day-to-day supervisors of the hall directors, fellow hall directors, and even undergrads RAs. That way, if you have some down time (especially during an on-campus interview), you won’t get caught empty-headed.
3. Residence life folks tend to care about your level of self-awareness and how you challenge yourself to get better at your job. Because it’s a field that values personal growth, be prepared to talk about how you’ve grown in your previous positions. Be specific. Don’t just say, “I’ve grown a lot because of challenges I faced.” Give concrete examples. Talk about difficult situations you’ve handled and what you learned. Maybe a crisis? Maybe a conflict with a peer? A counseling situation? A program that was successful – or unsuccessful. Whatever your experiences, learn how to summarize them succinctly and talk about what you took away from them.
4. Diversity is exceptionally important. Nearly all residence life interviews will involve questions about your philosophy on diversity and your experience in working with diverse populations. Acknowledge that there are different kinds of diversity – both conventional social categories (like race, sexuality, gender, religion, ethnic identity, etc.) as well as diversity in personalities, interests, and work styles. Be able to talk about both kinds of diversity, and give specific examples. Also, think about the ways in which YOU contribute to a diverse team. How are YOU unique? How might you be different from other hall directors?
5. Don’t be afraid to mention your performance reviews and the feedback you’ve gotten – both positive and constructive – from previous supervisors. Be honest about what things your supervisors have said you do well and what things you know you can improve upon. This demonstrates self-awareness and integrity. But beyond being able to discuss your strengths and weaknesses, talk about how you’ve been USING your strengths and how you’ve been WORKING ON your weaknesses. Future supervisors, especially in residence life, like staff members who apply their self-knowledge.
6. If you have a hard copy of anything you’ve done, don’t be afraid to bring it along to your in-person interviews. While you don’t need a 100-page portfolio, a professional folder with some sharp visuals is quite welcome. Bring along a few well-chosen photographs of events you’ve planned. Or posters you’ve designed. Or outlines of presentations you’ve done. Maybe even an award or two you’ve received. For entry-level residence life positions, it’s completely acceptable to showcase these materials. It demonstrates your pride AND your ability to present information to an audience (something you’ll definitely do on the job). If you’re at a loss for ideas, I’ll bet your current supervisor can help you identify some things you can add to a portfolio.
7. Practice out loud. You can’t prepare for a residence life interview entirely in your head. At some point, you need to talk out loud about your qualifications BEFORE the interview – even if it’s in the privacy of your home while looking into a mirror. Try tape recording yourself, or have a friend or supervisor listen and provide feedback. Make sure your answers are thorough but not overly wordy. The ten-second answer is just as bad as the five-minute rambling answer.
8. Know WHY you want to work at XYZ University and why you want to work in residence life. Even if a school is not your top choice, identify the things you like about the school and its residence life program (besides just the compensation). Nearly every interviewer will ask you something about your decision to apply at their particular school.
9. As you probably know, time management and personal wellness are important in residence life. Be prepared to talk about how you stay fresh mentally, how you stay organized, etc. Your prospective supervisor will be wondering how you “fit” with residence life, and part of that is your ability to handle the unique challenge of living and working in a sometimes intense environment. How do you handle stress?
10. Let your interviewers get to know you as a person. Obviously, you don’t want to talk exclusively about things outside the realm of work. That said, your future supervisors, peers, and employees will all want to see what you’re like as a individual. Professionalism and tact are vital, but don’t become so focused on your work credentials that you lose your personality. It’s okay to laugh and let down your guard a little bit. Your hobbies and your background are part of the residence life equation, so mention these things when time allows. This is the joy of student affairs jobs: people actually care about your holistic self (unless you’re at a real oddball school).
In one former position, I helped interview a woman who had great qualifications on paper and who explained herself very well. She was overly stiff, however, and she came across as aloof – to me, to my boss, and to our students. And guess what? We hired someone else because we were just too concerned about her demeanor. Even if you’re a naturally quiet person, you have to display some personality! Success in the field hinges on your ability to interact with people.
Good luck in your search for a residence life position! If you look hard enough, you’ll find a school that’s just right.