Question of the Month

January-March 2005



When hiring new staff, what are some examples of interview questions that have been effective in helping you identify great candidates?


Jill Jensen, Connecticut

We used the following questions for our most recent interview process (Summer 2004) for new program review analysts:

Tell us about your background, and the skills and experience you would bring to this [Research/Evaluation Analyst] position.

  1. What aspects of your previous positions have you liked most and which have you liked least?
  2. What are some of the governmental programs, policy or public interest areas in which you have conducted research?
  3. Describe your two most recent research projects, including:
    • your role;
    • research steps you followed in conducting your research;
    • statistical methods you used; and
    • what became of the research results.
      (Follow-up could be a question related to specific research projects noted on candidate’s resume, e.g., who was the project done for, what outcomes, etc.)
  4. What specific computer programs have you worked with and how proficient are you? (Ask specifically about SPSS, SAS, and EXCEL. Ask about use of databases – how large, sources of data, formats, etc.)
  1. What do you consider the greatest challenges and what are the most rewarding aspects of conducting a research project?

Following this group interview, which was conducted by four PRI staff and lasted about 45 minutes, the applicant given an hour to complete the “research exercise” below.

Research/Analysis Exercise (2004)

The program review committee has voted to undertake a study of the state’s system for funding group homes for people with mental retardation.  At present, there are 771 homes operating in Connecticut, ranging in size from one to 10 residents and serving a total of nearly 3,500 individuals.  The client population varies widely in terms of age, mobility, severity of retardation, and medical needs.  All homes are funded with state monies, but most are operated by private providers under contract to the state.  The remainder are run directly by the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR).  Recent fiscal information shows the annual per resident cost averaged about $95,000 for private group homes and $190,000 for DMR homes.

Legislators have heard complaints about perceived inequities in the payment system.  Private operators say they are underpaid, while DMR responds the homes they run care for the most difficult clients.  In addition, all DMR group homes are subject to collective bargaining agreements, while only some private homes are unionized.

The primary focus of the committee study is to assess whether the state’s group home funding system is equitable, and in particular, whether payments are based on client need.  You have been assigned to the group home study team.  Please describe:

  1. the main analytical questions you would seek to answer;
  2. the major data elements you would want to obtain;
  3. the statistics you would use to analyze, describe, and test these data; and
  4. possible conclusions you would expect to result from your analysis.

Trish Bishop, Virginia

In most cases at JLARC, we try to do a lot of listening during an interview.  For example, we try not to give an applicant all of the information.  Instead, we try to see what the applicant knows about us.  This will help us determine an applicant's level of interest.  We also use behavioral-based questions to help us get beyond the list of skills that the applicant has listed on his or her resume.  For example, we will ask about actual examples of past behaviors, rather than developing questions that will only lead to hypothetical responses.  Further, we avoid yes/no questions and questions that will always result in a happy ending.  In addition, we try not to allow the applicant to rely on "we" responses.  Rather, we try to find out what specific role he or she has played in or on a project.  Finally, we try to look beyond an inventory of skills in favor of organizational fit.


Perry Simpson, South Carolina

Would you rather write a report or give a verbal report? Why?
What do you think are the most important characteristics and abilities a person must possess to be successful?  How do you rate yourself in these areas?
Describe a situation where your work or an idea was criticized.
Tell us about a time when you considered whether to voice your opinion in the face of disapproval.  (Actions taken, end results)
What has been your biggest professional mistake?

Byron Brown, Florida

Interviewers pre-select one or more of the research projects listed on the applicant’s supplemental application.  They we ask:

Please tell us about this research project that you have worked on.  Describe for us the purpose of the research, the methods used, the conclusions that you reached, and your role in the research.

This is without a doubt the most important question we ask.  It quickly gives us a sense of whether the candidate has a detail/big picture balance, whether they are capable of mastering the information within a review, and whether they can communicate content effectively.  Most of the time, a good response here wins the job more than a bad response losing the job, although candidates who can't remember even basic information about work they did 6 months earlier is somewhat disconcerting.


Phil Hopkins, Oregon

Below are listed seven (two bonus) questions we commonly use with new hires at the staff auditor entry level position.

1.  Please describe for us what you believe to be your greatest strength and how can you put this strength to use as an auditor?

2.  What steps would you take to familiarize yourself with an agency you are assigned to audit?

3.  What did you do to prepare for this interview?

4.  Give us an example of a school or job experience where you've worked with others that did not get along well with each other.  How did you handle the situation and what was the outcome?

5. Our staff auditors often interact with personnel from other agencies.  You have asked agency staff for some information pertinent to your audit.  The person is not being cooperative.  How would you handle this type of situation in order to obtain the information you need?

6.  What do you consider to be your strongest attribute, and, conversely, what area do you most want to improve?

7.  You are working on an audit assignment and you realize that you will not be able to completed it on time.  What steps would you take to address this situation?

We're always looking for new ideas so we'd be interested in the results of your survey. 


Julie Leung, Texas State Auditor’s Office

I don't know any particular question that will distinguish a bad candidate from a good one. But the following helps:  1.  A post-interview assessment (a test, especially for technical positions).  2.  Ask questions based on the job description (given the job description reflects what you require of the person).  3.  Assess the rapport and the amount of interest the candidate is showing.  Sometimes employers get carried away by a candidate's resume and end up hiring people who don't fit.  The one question to keep in mind:  how does the candidate fit into our team?

In short: don't buy the prettiest thing off the rack. See if it fits.


Joel Alter, Minnesota

Answering questions about the hiring process seem far more hypothetical to our office than they used to.  We’ve had hiring freezes, budget cuts, etc. for the past three years, plus we have low turnover among our permanent staff.  We haven’t hired a new permanent employee in our Program Evaluation Division since 2001, I think.

We’ve found it useful to hear interviewees describe in their words a previous research project, from beginning to end.  For one thing, this helps distinguish candidates who are concise and think in a well-organized way from those who are rambling and long-winded.  But often this discussion provides the interviewers with points of departure for more detailed questions about research methods, preferred work environment, the rewards/challenges/pitfalls of evaluation research, etc.   These probing, project-specific questions are probably harder for interviewees to anticipate in advance than more general interview questions, so these questions often help us see whether the interviewee shows candor, analytical thinking, insight, etc. rather than just carefully prepared responses.