The interview is the most important part of the hiring process. It is also the part that you, as the applicant, have the most control over. Most managers are taught to allow the interviewee to speak at least three-quarters of the time: this means, with proper preparation, you can control three-quarters of the conversation! A study conducted by the United States Merit Systems Protection Board found that 95% of federal supervisors rely on the information obtained from a interview “a great” or “moderate extent” when making hiring decisions. Not only are interviews used in hiring decisions, but 61% of federal supervisors believe that they predict job performance to “a great extent.” Interviewing is a skill that takes practice and dedication, but the payoff is certainly worth it. It is usually the last step in the hiring process and a good interview will often make the difference between receiving a job offer or not.
As you begin to plan and prepare for your interview, this guide will offer some helpful tips and suggestions including:
Some basic “do’s and don’ts” of interviewing
Descriptions of the types of questions you may be asked: standard, behavioral, situational
Types of interviews: panel, structured, non-traditional
Methods for success in any interview situation, including the STAR method
A brief overview on interviewing for Senior Executive Service positions
Basic Do’s and Don’ts
Since you have already been hired by a federal agency you have a great deal of interviewing experience and expertise. However, it is always helpful to review the basics.
Give yourself ample time to get to the interview and arrive 10-15 minutes early. Some federal agencies may have strict security requirements which will add to your time getting to the interview. Factor this in and ask your interviewer about any necessary IDs or paperwork that you need to bring.
Dress conservatively and overdress if you are unsure how formal the dress code is.
Stay up to date on the agency: any recent headlines, new hires, etc. So much information about federal agencies makes it to the newspapers that you should be well-versed on what is going on.
Know everything on your resume and be prepared to discuss it in detail
Prepare thoughtful questions for the interviewer. This is an easy way to further indicate your interest in the position, show that you’ve done your homework and demonstrate interpersonal skills. Some types of questions you can ask can be about the position itself, the agency that you will be working for or the field as a whole.
Practice, practice, practice!
Send a thank you note to the interviewer within two days of your interview. Most businesses will accept an emailed thank-you letter. Examples of thank you letters can be found here.
Consider any question to be a throwaway. Even simple questions such as “Tell me about yourself...” or “What are some hobbies?” are easy ways to sell yourself and showcase your interpersonal skills. The Harvard Career Center advises that you tailor your response to “So tell me about yourself...” specifically to the job that you are applying to: what past relevant experiences you have had, where your interests lie and why you are applying today.
Lie. Instead, turn a weak point into a learning experience. Honesty is the best policy.
Neglect the importance of knowing your long-term goals and how the job you are interviewing for fits into this trajectory.
Types of Interview Questions and How to Prepare
There are three primary types of interview questions: the standard question, the behavioral question and the situational question. The type of questions you are asked may depend on the level of the job that you applying for. Most managerial and supervisory positions will rely more heavily on behavioral questions, as the interviewer is most interested what you have previously accomplished in these types of positions. For lower level positions, more of the questions may be situational, since the interviewer understands that you do not have the same level of practical experience.
These are the archetypal interview questions that you are probably very familiar with by this point. These questions may include:
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Where do you see yourself in ____ years?
Why are you interested in this position?
Do you consider yourself to be organized?
Do you work well in teams?
Tell me about yourself.
Behavioral interview questions are more in-depth than a traditional interview question and are also known as experience-based interview questions. They cannot be answered by a simple yes or no and are often very vague. The reason that many employers use these kinds of questions is to find out about a candidate’s past behavior in specific situations; after all, past behavior is a reliable indicator of a candidate’s ability to make a good decision. A good way to think of a behavioral interview questions is as less of a question with a direct answer but rather as a prompt for discussion. Oftentimes the interviewer will take notes of the candidate’s responses to these types of questions.
Examples of Behavioral Interview Questions (courtesy of Virginia Tech’s Career Services Office)
Give an example of a time when you had to be quick in coming to a decision.
Give an example of an important goal you had to set and describe your progress in reaching that goal.
Describe a situation when you had deal with an upset supervisor or co-worker.
How to Succeed in Behavioral Interviews: the STAR Method
Now that you have a clear understanding of what the behavioral interview looks like, there are a few specific techniques to learn in order to prepare for it. The pneumonic for behavioral interview responses is: STAR, or Situation, Task, Action, Result. STAR is a way to structure your response to behavioral questions for maximum clarity and effectiveness.
The nature of behavioral interviewing calls upon your ability to recall a past situation and explain what you did in it, all the while showcasing a specific ability that you possess. The most effective answer to a behavioral interview question is a very specific one. A great way to prepare for behavioral interviews in government jobs is to look at the KSAs required for that position and prepare STAR responses that directly relate to the KSAs.
Suppose you are prompted by your interviewer with this statement: “Describe a time when you were forced to make an unpopular decision.” How could you use the STAR method to respond to this? First, describe the situation in which you had to make the unpopular decision. Give enough background information so that the interviewer understands why this decision needed to be made. The situation could be from a past job, volunteer experience or other leadership position. Then, describe the task at hand. Perhaps the task was what required this unpopular decision to be made. Then, detail the action that you took. For this question, the action is listed in the prompt itself: making the unpopular decision. You may also include the different policies and processes required by this action, focusing on those that you spearheaded. Finally, describe the result of the action that you took. It is very important that you choose a situation that had positive results. You want to portray yourself in the best light possible. Keep in mind that you are telling a story and as such, it should have a clear beginning, middle and end.
Here is a more detailed example of how to use the STAR method in an interview, using the same prompt. Let’s imagine that you are tasked with changing an office process that has become outdated and inefficient, however, the office staff is very resistant to change. First, describe the situation that the office was facing (why the process needed to be changed) and also the current office environment that created an issue for implementation. Then, discuss what you were tasked with doing: perhaps your supervisor demanded that the current office process be changed within a certain amount of time in order to meet a specific productivity goal. Elaborate on what actions you undertook in order to fulfill your task. Be specific: what programs did you implement, what meetings did you hold, etc. In this situation, ensure that you cover what you did to encourage the office’s adoption of the new practice despite their misgivings. Make sure to emphasize the actions that you specifically oversaw. Finally, discuss the positive results of your actions. Perhaps you held an extremely effective training session for your entire staff which led to a 100% participation rate in the new office process and, that, in addition, the staff reported increased efficiency, fulfilling the task that your supervisor had mandated.
Situational Interview Questions:
Most often, situational interview questions are described as the hypothetical version of behavioral interview questions. So, instead of asking you to recall a past occurrence using the STAR method, the interviewer wants to know what you would do in a particular situation. Often the questions are similar in content to behavioral questions. Some sources consider situational and behavioral interview questions to be the same.
Examples of Situational Interview Questions
Your supervisor is very upset with you and your co-worker for a project both of you worked on. However, the mistake that your supervisor is very upset about is in the portion that your co-worker produced. What would you do?
Please give us an idea of what you will do during your first three months if you are selected for this position. For example, how will you get up to speed on the organizations you support? How will you deal with your new employees and the upper management? What will be your approach to managing this transition?
How would you handle a situation when someone asks you to do something that goes against this agency’s policy or regulation?
Types of Interviews: The Structured Interview, the Panel Interview, the Non-Traditional Interview
These types of interviews are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Most panel interviews will be structured and non-traditional interviews may also be structured. You are most likely to have a panel interview if you are applying for a higher-level position (in the federal government, above a GS-9).
The Structured Interview
According to research performed by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, structured interviews have high levels of reliability (defined as consistency among interviewers) and validity (defined by how well the interview measures what it is supposed to measure). Structured interviews are also less vulnerable to bias or other unfairness. Every candidate will have the same interview experience and are usually evaluated on a pre-set numerical scale. As such, the Office of Personnel Management recommends the use of the structured interview when making hiring decisions and has published specific guidelines to help supervisors create these interviews. We are able to examine these guidelines and infer ways to best prepare for the structured interview.
Components of a Structured Interview
A structured interview is designed around the competencies that a specific job requires. It may include standard, behavioral and situational interview questions. These questions are all specifically written to uncover whether the candidate possesses the necessary competencies for the position. Typically, the interview assesses four to six primary competencies.
Competencies may be listed as KSAs or in the “qualifications required” section of the USAJOBS announcement. The designer of the interview will refer to these when creating the questions for the interview. Let’s say that the job announcement lists, among other things, interpersonal skills as a necessary competency.OPM defines interpersonal skills embodied by someone who “shows understanding…tact…and politeness to others, relates well to people from varied backgrounds [and] is sensitive to cultural diversity.” So, to determine a candidate’s interpersonal skills, the interviewer could ask one of these questions:
(standard) Are you comfortable interacting with people of different backgrounds than yourself?
(behavioral) Tell us about a time that you had to work in a team with people different from yourself to accomplish a project. What kinds of issues arose?
(situational) If you had to work in a group with people different from yourself, how would you handle the situation?
How to Prepare for the Structured Interview
To prepare for a structured interview, it is extremely important that you are familiar with the competencies required of you for the job, beyond specific educational or experience requirements. This is similar to the first step of preparation for behavioral interview questions; after all, structured interviews will usually include behavioral questions. If “communication skills”, “organizational ability,” and “research experience” are three primary competencies for the position that you are applying for, ensure that you have STAR answers for questions about all three of them. Because the structured interview is scored by a preset scale, it is important that your answers are as clear and relevant as possible so as to achieve the maximum possible score. It is also unlikely that there will be much small talk in a structure interview scenario since one of its guiding aims is a lack of bias.
Panel interviews are recommended whenever possible, so don’t be taken aback if you have more than one interviewer! For higher level positions, you should assume that you will have a panel interview and prepare yourself for such. Panel interviews allow for more opinions on your interview which results in less bias risk as well as a more conclusive view of your abilities. If you are nervous about speaking to multiple people at once, you can politely ask your point of contact at the department where you are interviewing whether or not you should be expecting a panel interview or not so that you can prepare accordingly. Don’t be intimidated by a panel interview as they tend to actually be more effective than a one-person interview. Perhaps one person didn’t understand the point you were trying to make but the other two did: this keeps you in the running for the position.
On the whole, you should prepare for a structured panel interview as you would for any other interview, making sure that your answers are clear enough for several people to understand. Make sure you properly introduce yourself to each member on the panel and make sure that you remember their names. As in any interview situation, social graces and maintaining proper eye contact are very important in the panel interview. Always focus your attention on the person who is speaking to you. If it is a short question, you can maintain eye contact with them for the entirety of the response. If it is a longer question, however, make sure you scan the panel and engage proper eye contact with each of the interviewers. Pay equal amounts of attention to each interviewer and, as always, be polite and amiable.
While phone interviews have long been the norm and sometimes serve as the first step in the interview process, Skype and other videoconferencing systems have become popular for interviews. While the content of these types of interviews will be the same as a standard face-to-face interview, there are certain additional things you should do to prepare for them.
Make sure your Internet connection is reliable. If it’s not working properly, go somewhere with a stronger connection so as to avoid any technical difficulties.
Dress up as you would for an in-person interview. Just because the interview may be taking place at your home does not mean that you should wear lounge clothes.
Conduct the interview in a place as private as possible so as to avoid any distractions or interruptions.
If you are being interviewed in your home, be mindful of anything you have hanging on the walls or anything else that is visible in the background.
Choose a flattering camera angle and make sure that the area you are sitting in is well lit.
When you are speaking, look into the camera and not at the screen. Looking at the screen will come across as if you are avoiding eye contact, even though you are not trying to do so.
If you have a username on whichever videoconferencing system you are using, make sure that it is professional and appropriate.
The Senior Executive Service
After an SES candidate has passed the Rating Panel stage of the application process, they will face an interview, which is typically a panel interview and is always structured, as all SES candidates must be asked the same questions to ensure maximum fairness. The interviewer or interviewers will be at the SES level as well. There are two primary possibilities for SES interviews: it can be a single supervisor who interviews all the candidates or a panel that then refers the top candidates to the supervisor.
Since any SES position ties back to the 5 Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ’s), you must be intimately familiar with the ECQ statements you wrote when applying for the job. Much of the interview will focus around these qualifications. You will be assessed on each ECQ throughout the hiring process, so expect them to come up in the interview as well. You must also be able to talk about your leadership capabilities concisely and effectively, as you are applying for a leadership position. The Navy has published a very helpful guide on how to prepare for the SES application process, including the interview, found here.
Conclusion and Helpful Sources
Hopefully this advice has helped you in understanding and preparing for the interview process. However, should you have further questions, the Internet has a breadth of resources that may be of further assistance and I have listed some here for you to explore:
Army Corps of Engineers Fact Sheet on Situational Interview Questions
Denham Resources’ YouTube Channel features many possible interview questions and their respective good answers, bad answers and ugly answers.
Department of Veterans Affairs Information on Performance Based Interviewing
Dominican College’s Fact Sheet on Different Types of Interview Questions
Drexel Fact Sheet on the STAR Technique
Georgetown University Alumni Career Services’ Video on: “7 Tips for Nailing Your Next Interview” (Via YouTube)
Georgetown University Alumni Career Services’ Video on: “Interview like a Talk Show Host- Land the Job” (Via YouTube)
Georgetown University Alumni Career Services’ Video on: “Interviewing Skills: How to Land That Job” (Via YouTube)
Georgetown University Alumni Career Services’ Video on: “Resumes and Interviewing for Advanced Professionals” (Via YouTube)
Harvard Career Center Webinar
Harvard Extension School's Module on Interviewing (includes information on the private sector)
Martineau Recruiting Sample Behavioral Interview Questions and Explanation of STAR Technique
Monster’s Portal of Interview Advice Articles (almost 200 articles!)
Monster’s Master List of 100 Potential Interview Questions
NASA’s List of Interview Questions for Supervisory Positions
Northeastern University’s Guide to Thank You Letter Etiquette
OPM’s Practical Guide to the Structured Interview
TSA’s Article on “Preparing for a Competency-Based Interview”
TSA’s Article on “Navigating the Competency-Based Interview”
U.S. Navy’s Guide on “How to Prepare for the Senior Executive Service”
VA’s Publication on Interviewing Technique Guides (written specifically for veterans, but others may find this useful)
Virginia Tech Career Services Fact Sheet on Behavioral Interviewing
YouTube Video on How to Answer “Tell Me about Yourself”
YouTube Video on “Interview Do’s and Don’ts”
YouTube Video on “Interview Questions That You Might Be Asked”
YouTube Video on “Interview Tips”
YouTube Video on “Interview Tips—Body Language”
YouTube Video on “Pre-Interview Preparation”
YouTube Video on “The Worst Interview Ever”