From the Blog

5 ways to ace your post-secondary education communications interview

Photo of Kristina BrownWritten by Kristina Doyle 

Digital Communications Officer, University of Toronto Scarborough, Communications, Marketing & Public Affairs

Yay! You just got the email—you’re invited to an interview for the post-secondary education communications position you applied for. All you have to do now is show up and confirm that you’re just as awesome as they suspect you might be.

The only complicating factor standing between you and becoming the successful candidate? There’s still a bunch of other people in the running who are, very likely, just as qualified as you are. Maybe even more qualified—gulp.

I’ve had the opportunity to serve on interview panels across the University of Toronto for a range of communications positions. The shortlisted candidates are always incredible (shameless plug: U of T is an amazing place to work) and sometimes, after looking through the resumes, I’m like:


via GIPHY Man shakes his head, conflicted about a decision. 

Let’s be real—pretty much no one enjoys being interviewed. It’s stressful, you’re quite literally being judged and there’s a lot at stake. Preparing yourself as much as possible (and you can maybe skip the power poses) is absolutely crucial to make sure you’re at max confidence.

Here are five ways you can prepare for the post-secondary education communications interview and give yourself the edge:

1. Plug into the strategy

Start with some basic research into the school as well as the specific department or unit you’re applying for. Look up recent news, announcements of new initiatives, and basic stats (how many students are there?) This shows that you’re serious about the position and that you’ll be just as prepared for your job duties.

You can take it to the next level by doing a little bit of detective work. Virtually every public institution will have current strategic plans easily accessible online. Find them and prosper! You don’t need to memorize the whole thing, but a scan through to find the key messages or goals of the institution arms you with knowledge that many candidates won’t have.

It’s unlikely that you’ll face an interview question asking you to name a strategic priority, especially if the job is not for a central communications unit. Understanding the perspectives, previous challenges and direction of the institution can help you shape your answers in a way that displays your preparedness.

When thinking of previous work examples for the interviewing panel, take the strategic priorities into account. Say you’re asked, “tell us about a time you worked well on a team,” because you read the strategic plan, you know that the institution has a specific goal to increase the amount of work-integrated learning opportunities for students. Turn this open-ended question into an opportunity to wow the panel: “I know that Somewhere University is working towards increasing work-integrated learning opportunities, so I’ll tell you about a team I worked effectively with that was doing similar work.” — BOOM!

2. Make friends with your local accessibility standards

Creating accessible communications is no longer a “nice to have” — it’s a legal requirement in most areas, especially for publicly funded institutions. The position you’re in the running for might be more web, graphic design, or social media-based—but many of the basic principles apply across all of them.

Take time to look at all the activities you’ll be responsible for in the new role and how accessibility will come into play. Creating video— how do you caption? Updating the website—what are the best practices for image alt tag? Graphic design—how do you build in accessibility principles to your templates?

Even if you’re already familiar with standards in your area, take the time to refresh your memory with the proper terms and any latest best practices or standards. (The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – WCAG – were updated last June!)

If you’re bringing a portfolio, make sure you can point out what accessible features you considered and built-in, and point them out even if you aren’t specifically asked. Showing the panel that it’s top-of-mind for you and that you won’t have to be prompted on the job is another way of showing that you are the top choice.

3. Be prepared to show off your storytelling skills

A good story can be the difference between ‘meh’ and ‘wow’!

Apply good storytelling principles to your interview by using the STAR (situation, task, action, and result) method to answer competency-based questions like “tell me about a time when you _____.” It’s easy to give an underwhelming answer to these by being vague or by rambling and not directly answering the question. Check out this Guardian Jobs explainer on how to use the STAR technique:

Not only will this method of answering make you more memorable “remember candidate Y, who did that specific thing? That was awesome!” but it also gives you a chance to show off some of your style and personality – all in one neat little answer.

4. Know what platform the website is on—and know how to use it

Often, communications positions in post-secondary education are a catch-all for a pile of responsibilities—and many of them include responsibility for web maintenance and updating.

Often, the job description will reveal what content management system (CMS) the site in question is on. If not, find out. If it’s an off-the-shelf product, you can probably get an answer using WhatCMS.org.

If you’ve used the CMS before, excellent! If not, don’t assume it will look the same—search out some training resources and take a look through. You want to be able to confidently assert your familiarity of the platform and any quirks it may have. If the panel is having trouble deciding between two candidates, having experience with the CMS can be the dealbreaker.

5. Run some social accounts

Many jobs within communications don’t require you to run social media accounts. However, if the position you’re applying for does include social media responsibilities, don’t be that person who nervous laughs and says “well, I have my personal social media?”

Accounts on all the major social media platforms are free and resources to learn are everywhere—this is an area where there isn’t a ton of great excuses to have zero experience.

Even if you don’t run an institutional account, set yourself up a ‘professional’ personal account on Twitter at the minimum. Another good way to snag some experience is to volunteer to run social media for a non-profit in your area that could use the help (there are many!)

Look up the current best practices on all the major platforms (as of publishing this in late 2018, those are generally Facebook, Twitter and Instagram). Read some of the new trends and predictions coming out—one of my favourites is socialmediatoday.com. Think up a couple of ideas of how you could apply them to the area of function you’re applying to.

Bonus…

Many institutions have social media strategy or branding guidelines posted online! This is a great way to learn how they currently handle social media and give you some insight into how they handle complaints or crises.

What’s another way you prepare for post-secondary education communications interviews?

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