4 Things Employers Want From Job Candidates

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Have you ever wondered how hiring authorities go about the process of figuring out who to interview and what to ask when they meet candidates face to face? Leslie Gurka and Joel Brodsky can tell you. They have spent their professional careers as educational leaders in the New York Public School System. Now, they consult schools systems around the U.S. on a variety of issues, including how to effectively hire the best teachers and administrators, as part of the Executive Leadership Institute team.

While their focus is on the educational system, their concerns, methodology and insights apply broadly to almost any hiring situation. In order to whittle down a large group into a manageable pool of candidates, they initially screen out résumés missing key ingredients, like licensing credentials. They regularly eliminate candidates whose writing reveals poor grammar or punctuation, and they critically assess the overall look and format of one's résumé and cover letter or writing sample.

Gurka and Brodsky recently discussed the whole hiring process with me. Below, they describe how they go about figuring out what to ask during interviews and how they ferret out winning from losing candidates:

1. Specifics. After you've been interviewing for any period of time, you can easily spot someone who is out of their depth by their vagueness. Gurka eschews people who are too general in their interviews, and she always wants to know why a candidate is interested in a specific job at a specific time.

She cites a general and unimpressive statement as something like: "This is a wonderful school, and I want to work here to help students." Instead, she looks for what she calls a "business-specific" answer. For example: "I want to work at this school, because it services underprivileged students, it services a wide diversity of students, and it has a focus in the arts."

Tip: Do your research, and be prepared to show that you know something about the employer and to relate that to your abilities and interests in a compelling fashion. Show why you belong in that environment.

2. Team acknowledgement. You might think of a teacher as independent in his or her classroom, just as with so many other roles in America's workplaces. Yet, Gurka is careful to pay attention to the ways people project themselves into the roles they seek. For example, if someone continually says things like "I'm going to do this or that" or "in my last role I did A, B and C," it shows the person is focused more on her own accomplishments than on how she fits into an overall team effort.

Gurka looks for people who give at least a nod to others. You might say: "as part of the faculty, I did ...", "along with my colleagues, I did ..." or "If hired for this job, I'd look forward to contributing to the overall effort by doing ..."

Tip: Of course, you need to identify your strengths, contributions and value. However, you should take pains not to take sole credit for shared accomplishments or for the role you have played in relationship to others.

3. Demonstrated value. "I'm looking for creativity," Brodsky says. "I'm looking for someone who really loves kids and is excited about the job. And lastly, I'm looking for someone who is willing to learn."

He continues: "But, if someone came in and said: 'I love kids, I'm excited about this opportunity, and I'm willing to learn, I would assume its a prepared answer and I would not be impressed." He prefers more creative responses that show the candidate's value, he says, "by bringing up stories that really illustrated how they have these qualities and desires."

Moreover, Gurka isn't about to let someone off the hook by claiming he or she has a passion for something. She follows up by asking: "Tell me something about your past that illustrates the passion you are talking about."

Tip: Spend some time thinking about the role you seek to fill, the values a successful candidate will need to demonstrate and how your past actions have shown you to be that kind of person. Put simply: Show, don't just tell!

4. Unique contributions. "We know that every serious candidate has all the qualifications, so the question that often comes up is: Why should I select you for this particular position compared to the many other candidates?" Gurka says. "I've always asked candidates that question point blank."

She continues: "People who knock that question out of the park are the ones who speak directly to accomplishments and experiences that they've had in the past."

Tip: To be taken seriously, be prepared to authentically speak from your experience. Think about stories to share that demonstrate the value you bring to your next employer. And, most importantly, don't hesitate to share why you want to make a contribution to the team you seek to join.

Arnie Fertig, MPA, is passionate about helping his Jobhuntercoach clients advance their careers by transforming frantic "I'll apply to anything" searches into focused hunts for "great fit" opportunities. He brings to each client the extensive knowledge he gained when working in HR staffing and managing his boutique recruiting firm.

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