Tips on interviewing job applicants


If you’re a manager, your staff is one of your most valuable assets. You should screen applicants for each new opening on your staff to find the best applicant as carefully as panners sift through silt to find gold. A key component of your screening process is the interview stage, and here are some tips to help find the shine:

  • Consider designing each interview as a more conversational, free-flowing exchange than a traditionally stilted interview. After all, the more relaxed an applicant is during an interview, the more forthcoming he will probably be. What’s more, canned questions are likely to only generate canned, rehearsed answers. You can’t, for example, realistically expect that standard “What are your weaknesses?” question to yield honest answers like, “I’m difficult to work with and have below-average intelligence.”
  • Immediately before an interview, take a few minutes to decompress from your stress, reread the applicant’s application, and get a bottle of water to offer the applicant when he arrives.
  • Open the interview by helping the applicant loosen up and de-jitter by engaging him in chitchat about something in common you have with him. You might also compliment the applicant by saying something like, “I invited you here because I was so impressed about your background in X. And the articles you submitted as writing samples were excellent.”
  • Describe to the applicant the structure of the interview by saying something like, “This is just an opportunity for us to discuss our job opening for an X and learn a little more about each other; there are no gotcha trick questions here. We’ll discuss the opening and the team you would be working on and your background, and we’ll leave time for your questions — but feel free to ask questions at any time.”
  • Describe the job opening and the types of day-to-day projects demanded by it in clear, specific and accurate terms. Favor conversational and specific words over vague and generic bureaucratic words that could apply to countless other federal jobs that have the same job title. Also, explain why the opening is unique and appealing. For example, if your team uses cutting-edge tools/strategies, addresses fascinating, controversial subjects, or has strong camaraderie, say so.

In addition, tactfully explain the challenges or difficulties of the opening. Why? Because your candor during interviews may inspire worthy applicants to better explain how they would conquer such challenges as well as ultimately compel unsuitable applicants to self-select themselves out of the competition altogether.

  • Aim your questions to help you determine if the demands of the job opening align with the applicant’s credentials, which are probably described in his application in only general terms.
  • Artfully weave into the conversation open-ended questions, instead of firing off questions in an interrogation-like style. For example, after your describe some of the typical projects, ask the applicant about his experience completing those types of projects. Listen carefully to his answers. Then, ask follow-up questions designed to reveal your applicant’s logic about choices he made to complete projects; how he related to colleagues, resolved disagreements and met deadlines; what types of feedback were generated by his results; how he determined whether he had achieved project goals; what were lessons learned; and how his approaches have evolved over time.

At the end of the interview, ask the applicant if there is anything else about his background he would like you to know that you haven’t covered.


About Author

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Ask your career questions by email to or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.

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