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If I Were Interviewing a College Student

Every year I would hire around ten people to work the Christmas season at Toy House. A few of those hires were easy. Former staff members would often come back to pick up some extra money around the holidays. I also picked up some seasonal employees from YMCA Storer Camps. Those were easy because I knew they already shared my core values of fun, helpful, and educational. Each year I also would interview several people to find some new blood.

As I mentioned before, Experience only counts if the experience shows you had the character traits I desired. Often I would interview college and high school-aged students with no work experience whatsoever. Without a track record of work I had to have questions that would help me learn whether these applicants had the traits I desired (helpfulness, problem-solving, friendly.) 

Phil Wrzesinski Hosting JTV

If I were interviewing a college student with no prior work experience, some of my favorite questions were …

What has been your favorite class and why? This question gives me some insight into the student’s interests, plus opens up the conversation about learning types. What gets them excited? How do they like to learn? This is also a “passion” question. Interviewees are nervous by nature. A simple question about something they like usually helps them relax. Relaxed people give you better answers, often more truthful and less rehearsed.

What has been your hardest class and why? Notice that I didn’t say least favorite? Sometimes the answer to both questions is the same class. This tells me the student loves a good challenge and won’t back down. Like the first question, this one is usually easy to answer, helps to relax the student, and gives me insight into where they excel and where they don’t. Remember that you are looking for character traits more than anything else. The follow-up question to this one is, How did you get through the class? You can probably figure out where that question is going.

Tell me about your extra-curricular activities. What are you currently doing? Why? What does it take for you to be successful at it? What have you learned? I want to know several things here. Are they too busy to work? Are they team players (team sports like football and basketball)? Are they able to work on their own (individual sports like swimming, track, and tennis)? What else drives their passion? Do they do it because they want to or because their friend is doing it? What do they get out of doing it? You get a lot more insight from their extra-curricular activities than you do from their academics because they choose these activities, and these activities define them more.

If they don’t have extra-curricular activities I ask the same questions about their hobbies. Some of your best applicants don’t have extra-curriculars because no one is offering something that cranks them up as much as their favorite hobby.

Tell me about a time recently when you received what you would consider to be excellent customer service. The cop-out answer is that they haven’t been out shopping. If they haven’t been a shopper, they might have a hard time relating to your shoppers and the whole shopping experience. The other cop-out is that they can’t really remember anything memorable. It is possible but not likely. The pandering answer is for them to tell you about an experience in your store. That’s okay if it truthful and full of detail. What I really want to learn is what they see as “excellent customer service.” If they start talking about price and discount, you know they have a Transactional bent. If they start talking about knowledge and helpfulness, then you might have a keeper. (Note: the more detail in the story, the more likely it really happened.)

Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond what was expected of you. If they haven’t yet, they likely won’t for your customers, either. People who go above and beyond do that regularly. Others only do what is asked of them. For those that go above and beyond, you will get responses about things they did for friends, for siblings, for their parents, or for their teachers/coaches. You also get some insight into what they consider “above and beyond.” I once had someone tell me they stayed past their shift for “two whole minutes!” waiting for someone to get back from lunch.

What are your dreams? I like this question, but I don’t like to start with it. It is also “passion” question that really gets the student fired up (assuming they have dreams) but not everyone is comfortable sharing their dreams. I like to wait until they become more relaxed. Those that have crystal clear dreams and view the path to get them there are often more driven to learn and more driven to succeed. Those that don’t have dreams have a tendency to never see beyond what they have already been shown. That might be fine in a job with menial tasks, but working with the public requires people who can see possibilities.

These are just a few of my favorite questions and why I like to ask them. What are some of yours?

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I mention college students because most of the high school students I hired were friends of the family. Typical questions in those interviews were, “How’s your mom?” “Do you have reliable transportation to get here?” and “When are you available?” 


  1. Mitch White says:

    Good questions! I also like, “Tell me about an organization who have been involved with, and how it’s better because of your involvement.” Give me the treasurer who automated the club budget over the President that didn’t do much! Look for the emergent leader.

    • Phil Wrzesinski says:

      Good question! I like that.

      My grandfather always asked applicants, “Why do you want to work here?” He didn’t care so much about the response. He just wanted to be able to go to someone who wasn’t doing their job and say to them, “I thought you told me you wanted to ‘work’ here.”

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