by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
Congratulations! Your amazing résumé and cover letter worked. You got the interview!
Now the pressure is on for you to stand out from your fellow candidates and show the employer you are the right fit for the job. The interview is not just about letting the employer know you are qualified for the job, but also about the importance of making a connection, so the interviewer feels comfortable with you and wants to hire you.
Organizational culture is important, and the individuals interviewing you want to work with someone they get along with, trust professionally, and plan on spending many hours a week with. Most people are at their jobs eight hours a day or more. Don’t you want to work with people you respect and can get along with?
First impressions are critical. I am usually nervous in an interview (who isn’t?!), but I found when I did my research, prepared, and practiced my responses, I felt more at ease and could concentrate more on connecting with the interviewer, which is essential. Here are some tips that will help you ace your social work interview.
Everyone knows they should research the company and position they are getting ready to interview for. Don’t wait until the night before your interview to start preparing. Every organization has a different culture. Try to find out all you can before you walk in the door. Learn everything there is to know about the organization and the position. Try to talk to people who work there. Study the organization’s website, annual report, staff list/structure, and most importantly, the job description. Follow the organization on social media and familiarize yourself with other aspects of the company, so you can mention in the interview that you know they just had their annual fundraiser and hope it went well!
Research questions to answer:
- What does the organization do?
- What clients does it serve?
- Who works there?
- Who might be interviewing you?
- What skills are needed for the position?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to prepare for each and every interview. To excel in your interview, do your internal research and homework before you walk in the door:
a. Know Yourself. Inventory your skills, experience, strengths and weaknesses. Review the job description, your résumé, and cover letter. Remind yourself of your professional history and how it relates to the job you are seeking. This will help you if the interviewer throws you a curve-ball question about your past work history.
b. 60-Second Presentation Statement. Similar to your networking elevator speech and résumé professional summary, the presentation statement will be the basis for answering the standard opening request: “Tell me a little about yourself.” This is your chance to tell the interviewer about your background and experience. Think of this presentation as a 60-second “sound bite”—a brief description of your career objectives and the strengths you can offer a potential employer. It is a verbal version of your well-thought out résumé. I can’t stress enough how important it is to practice this and keep it to 60 seconds or so. I once interviewed an individual who talked for 20 minutes after being asked this question. I know the applicant was nervous, but we didn’t get to any of the interview questions.
c. PAR Stories. Stories are more memorable than generalities. Most of the questions you will be asked, especially behavioral questions, can be answered using the PAR stories formula. In a PAR story, you will describe:
- Problem that existed
- Actions you took to address the problem
- Results you achieved solving the problem
Have a variety of PAR stories ready. I promise you this will make it easier to answer a number of questions.
d. Anticipate questions and script responses. The National Association of Social Workers has a list of great questions employers may ask during a social work interview (see http://careers.socialworkers.org/findajob/interviewQs.asp). “Tell me some of your weaknesses” is a favorite question to ask during an interview. Be prepared to answer all of these questions, and try to anticipate additional questions the interviewer may ask you that are specific to the job. You can’t predict every question, but being proactive in your preparation will only help you. Actually writing down your answers to review will help you remember and come up with honest answers quickly.
Be prepared for behavioral interview questions. The rationale for this type of question is that knowing how you performed in the past will help give the employer a sense of how you might do in the future. Some examples of behavioral interview questions are:
- “Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure.” This is a big one for social workers, because many of us work in crisis situations. Employers want to make sure you can handle stressful situations and take the time for self-care. They don’t want to hire someone who will burn out quickly.
- “Have you ever made a mistake?” Yes, we all make mistakes. Give a great PAR story about a mistake you made and how you successfully solved and learned from the problem.
- “Give an example of a goal you reached.” Employers want to know you are motivated and will be a productive employee.
- “How do you handle conflict/difficult situations?” Everyone has had a difficult situation with co-workers or clients. Communicate how you effectively diffused the situation.
- “Tell me about a time you went above and beyond the call of duty.” Social workers go the extra mile all the time, but be sure to craft a good response so the interviewer knows you are willing to make the extra effort but won’t be taken advantage of.
You can answer all of these questions using a PAR story!
e. It’s not all about you. “Tell me about a time when you worked on a team.” Most social workers work in a team environment. Make sure to give credit to your team and how you successfully worked together. Stay far away from talking politics or religion, and don’t share opinions unrelated to the position. Don’t ever bad-mouth a former boss or co-worker. This is an automatic “no” in my book. Answer these questions before the interview:
Think of concrete examples of your involvement in teamwork. What did you do to contribute to the work, and what did you do to maintain team cohesion?
Think about how you acknowledge and act upon the opinions and ideas of others.
Come up with examples of the ways in which you’ve helped colleagues to overcome work obstacles.
Think about difficult situations in teams. How have you handled these? Were you a contributor of difficult behavior sometimes, and if so, what have you learned from that?
f. Ask great questions. You should have a list of questions to ask during or at the end of the interview. If you come up with thoughtful questions about the position or organization, the interviewer will know you did your research and are genuinely interested in the position. Interviewers expect you to ask questions, so be prepared. Even if they have successfully answered all your questions by the end of the interview, you should still ask them something relevant. Example questions you could ask:
- “Who held this position previously? Why is he/she leaving the role?” This will give you some insight into whether they have high turnover and whether you really want to work for this company.
- “What do you like most about working for this company?” If the person interviewing you can’t answer this, consider that a red flag.
- “Can you walk me through the typical day of someone in this role?” This is important to ask. Even though most social workers don’t have a “typical day,” you want to know what you might be doing every day at your job, don’t you?
- “What is the typical caseload for this position?” If they offer you a position with a caseload of 100+ but pay you next to nothing, you do not want this job. You are a social worker, and employers should respect your degree, experience, and expertise. You have earned it!
If you aren’t given the opportunity to ask questions, this is another red flag, as it may be an indication that the employer does not consider employees’ questions and concerns to be significant.
3. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Rehearse your 60-second presentation statement, PARs, and answers to any questions you think they may ask. Do this out loud with someone, if you can. This can help with nerves, confidence, and timing of your responses. You want to tell as much about your skills and experience as possible, but spending 10 minutes answering one question in a 30-minute interview does not bode well. Clean and concise answers are great, and the less rambling you can do, the better. You don’t want to sound contrived or rehearsed, but you do want to feel prepared to answer questions with confidence.
4. Focus on leaving a positive, lasting impression.
“Anything else you would like to say?” If you felt the interview went well or if you stumbled a bit, always be prepared to have a closing statement to communicate to the interviewer that you can do the job and would be a great fit for the organization. Of course, send a handwritten thank you note to everyone who interviewed you as soon as possible.
5. You are also interviewing them.
Take note of how the organization treats you during the interview and answers your questions. If something feels off or uncomfortable during the interview, you may not want to work there. Use your keen social work instincts! I have been in a situation where the interviewer was rude and disrespectful, and I learned quickly that I did not want to work there. If you are unemployed, turning down a job is very hard, but it is important to find the right fit for you instead of having to leave a horrible situation in six months.
If you don’t get the job, it won’t hurt you to ask the hiring manager for feedback. It could be that you just weren’t a right fit for the organization or the position. Don’t ever burn any bridges if you weren’t chosen for the job. They may have another opening you would be perfect for in the future, and you hope they remember you from your interview, connection, and thank-you note!
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.