A Community College Teaching Career: 3. Secrets of the Interview

How to get an interview

Although the exact sequence of steps in the hiring process differs from college to college, the patterns we describe are common practice. The initial interview committee usually is selected to represent the whole college, not just the discipline, with about 5–12 members including faculty members in the discipline and related fields, employees from other offices of the college, a student, an administrator, and so forth. This committee will screen the applications. If your field is English or Spanish there may be three hundred applications for the fifteen or fewer interviews that will occur. Some colleges use phone interviews as an initial screening device as well. (For specific tips on how to handle phone interviews, see Breznau.) If you are selected for an interview, you will be contacted by a department administrator or the human relations department to arrange an interview time. To enhance your chances of being selected, consider these suggestions:

  • Respond exactly to the questions on the application and those of any assigned essay. Be sure to complete all required forms and submit all required letters and transcripts, if any, on time. Consider developing two versions of your curriculum vitae, one for a community college job search and one for four-year colleges. On the community college CV, emphasize teaching experience and interests, community involvement and volunteer work, and experience on college or university committees. Also, consider creating a job match sheet that lists in one column every qualification identified in the announcement and shows in a second column how you meet or exceed the minimum qualifications of each of these. This makes it very clear to the committee why you should be interviewed. You do not want to make a harried committee member search hard to discover how you meet these qualifications.
  • Many states have minimum qualifications by discipline that guide the hiring of community college instructors. The MA in your field is the typical minimum requirement, although many candidates possess a PhD. Meeting the minimum qualifications does not, of course, guarantee an interview.
  • If you do not meet the posted job requirements, do not apply. It is common for screening committees to eliminate half of all applicants because they do not meet requirements or do not follow directions, a waste of time and energy for everyone involved (Breznau; Kort).
  • Compose your cover letter carefully. This 1–2-page letter should bring the CV to life, not merely restate information on the CV. The letter should highlight your qualifications that meet the requirements of the prospective job, including graduate work that is relevant to teaching, but it may be desirable to either downplay your research interests if they are not relevant to the position or mention how you incorporate your research into your teaching. Keep your audience in mind: the committee will be looking for evidence of your ability to communicate effectively with readers of all kinds. The letter should be clearly written and free from theoretical or technical jargon.
  • If the job notice does not preclude it, include materials in your application that demonstrate evidence of your teaching ability, such as teaching evaluations. Ask those who write your letters of reference to observe your classes and to include comments about your teaching in their letters.

Planning for the Interview

  • Research the college, its campus, and its community beforehand. The college’s website and catalog should provide good basic information. Read the mission statement of the college. Try to read also (online or at the college library) a copy of the college’s last accreditation self-study or the college master plan. These documents often include details about the student population and the population in the area served by the community college and frequently current issues and current directions of your proposed department as well.
  • Become familiar with the history of the community college movement, and spend time reflecting on your pedagogical practices. Community colleges seek candidates who display an unconditional commitment to and regard for students from diverse backgrounds who need faculty members to guide them through the transition from work or high school to college-level study. The idea of weeding students out or tossing them into the pool and exhorting them to “sink or swim” runs counter to the ethos of community college teaching.
  • Arrive early and talk with students on the campus. Pay attention to student demographics but recognize that community colleges have different populations for day and evening or weekend classes. Reference what you have learned about the students during your interview.
  • Plan out how to present yourself to your best advantage in your introductory and concluding comments. What do you want the committee to remember about you? What distinguishes you from the other candidates?
  • Consider how you will respond to common interview questions asked by screening committees.

General Questions

  • Why are you interested in teaching at a community college?
  • What is your understanding of the mission of a community college?
  • What are the greatest challenges for higher education in the next ten years? for community colleges and their missions?
  • What service contributions can you make to this college?
  • What contributions can you make to your profession through your work at this college?
  • Describe your experiences with developmental education or with meeting the needs of students with disabilities.
  • Describe your experiences incorporating technology into your teaching.
  • Explain specifically how you incorporate the concept of diversity into your classes.
  • What are your experiences with distance learning?
  • What have you done in your courses to maximize students’ success in learning?
  • How do you identify students’ needs and how do you meet them in and out of class? Give specific examples.
  • What do you know about our college or student population?
  • What experiences have you had with defining student learning outcomes and assessing them?
  • What’s your greatest teaching success? Why? What’s your greatest teaching failure? How did you handle it? What have you learned from it?
  • How did you prepare for this interview today?

Questions for Foreign Language Positions

  • How do you incorporate learning about the culture of those who speak the language you teach? Give us some specific examples.
  • How do you balance teaching for proficiency with developing grammatical accuracy? What role does error correction play in the above?
  • How and when do you incorporate literature into the beginning, elementary, and intermediate language course?
  • To what extent do “The 5 C’s” and “The ACTFL Guidelines” guide your development of curriculum?
  • Explain how you incorporate workbooks, language lab manuals, CD-ROMs, videos, computer exercises, and so forth into your first- and second-year course.
  • What authors would you include in a second-year language course? What authors would you include in a literature course?
  • What is your approach to teaching mixed-level courses?
  • How do you meet the needs of heritage speakers in your courses? How does your teaching approach differ for this group compared to non-heritage speakers?
  • Explain in the target language how you would teach the present subjunctive (or another difficult grammar topic). [This question is a way to evaluate your language proficiency as well as your answer to the question.]
  • How do you respond to disruptive behavior in the classroom?
  • For example, how would you deal with students who speak in English when you have asked them to speak in the target language?
  • Discuss your experiences teaching a first- or second-year language course in a distance format. What is your opinion of this delivery method?
  • How do you incorporate film into your classes?
  • Describe what you’ve learned about making small-group work successful.

Questions for English Positions

  • Respond to a student writing sample, often from a basic writer. You should be able to identify strengths and weaknesses of the sample and present them as if you were talking directly to the student in a conference. One of the committee members may role-play as the student and ask follow-up questions.
  • How do you approach teaching writing to students who have had only negative experiences with reading and writing?
  • What is your philosophy on and experience with teaching developmental writing, freshman composition, introductory literature classes (especially to students with little interest in literature or experience reading it), critical thinking, and so on?
  • Explain how you can apply what you have learned in graduate classes to teaching at a community college. What composition theories have informed your teaching of writing? What literary theories have informed your teaching of literature? If you have graduate coursework in linguistics, reading, or education, apply those as well.
  • Explain your stance on issues such as literacy, Ebonics, Standard Written English, students’ right to their own language, teaching grammar in a writing class, whether expressivist or academic writing should be stressed, and so forth. (Tact counts here since you will not always be able to discern the department’s stance on these controversies nor should you necessarily play to it.)
  • What is your ideal composition course, complete with textbooks and assignment sequences?
  • What are your experiences using educational technologies in the classroom, and what, if any, distance learning courses have you taught? (Express interest in teaching distance learning courses and ask about opportunities to teach writing online.)
  • Explain the concepts of service learning and outcomes-based learning and assessment and how they fit into a writing program. Ask about the results of the college’s most recent outcomes assessment for writing if you have the opportunity.

Other General Points

  • Be prepared to demonstrate your teaching skills as part of the initial screening interview. Candidates are often asked to teach a short lesson, sometimes on an assigned topic. Ask about time limits, audience, and other parameters, if possible, before you come to campus. If you get to choose your topic, remember that demonstrations of your ability to teach a well-defined, concrete concept work best, especially when they address common problems in the discipline. Above all, committees are interested in your presentation skills. One administrator on an interviewing committee explains how candidates are evaluated: “Do they stand up there and just give a straight lecture? Do they just talk to us? Their eye contact is absent. Do they just kind of meander up there? Do they engage the audience? Do they use interactive things? What types of learning activities do they include?” (qtd. in Twombly 436).
  • Have a few suitable questions in mind to ask about the position or your department or the college, if given the chance. Committees are not impressed by candidates who have no questions or who only want to know about salary and benefits or opportunities for teaching more advanced courses or for obtaining released time for research. Instead, ask about the administrative structure of the college (if that has not already been made clear), opportunities for faculty development, the reappointment, promotion and tenure procedure, challenges facing the college, and opportunities to serve on committees or to become involved with student groups or the community. Let the committee know that you will engage with the institution if hired.
  • Be aware of the time limits of the interview and be sure your answers are delivered in a succinct, energetic manner. The committee will be observing you closely during the interview to determine how you will engage with students.
  • What not to do? This is not the place for an exhaustive study of poor interviewing technique, which would be similar at any rate in a four-year or two-year interview. Do realize that the committee is seeking an instructor committed to the specific mission of that community college with a focus on teaching. Committee members want to assure themselves that you are really interested in a career at their college, not just interviewing there as a second choice because there is no position down the road at the university. Be clear in your mind about your commitment to the position and be sure that this commitment is communicated to the committee.
  • Instructional technology plays a key role in many teaching positions.
    Exploring the role of instructional technology in course planning and classroom teaching: implications for pedagogical reform” by Matthew T. Hora & Jeremiah Holden 
  • How have you reenergized your teaching through the use of technology? How do you incorporate technology in your classroom and/or how do you use technology to reach various types of learners? 
  • https://er.educause.edu/articles/2019/10/catching-the-waves-technology-and-the-community-college
  • “The community college movement was inspired by an unwavering passion to expand access to higher education, and so it makes perfect sense that the first wave of technology adoption at community, technical, and comprehensive colleges was focused on access” (O’Brien and Milliron). 

What Else to Expect at the First Interview

Some colleges have only one interview while others have a committee interview followed by an administrative interview for finalists. Your initial interview will probably last one to two hours. Interview questions are often reviewed in advance by human resources personnel and administrators before being assigned by the screening committee chair to individual committee members to ask. All candidates will be asked the same questions, usually in the same order, though follow-up questions may differ depending on your answers. The committee’s need to ensure uniformity and fairness can give the interview a stilted feel, but do not take this personally or be put off by it. You may be offered a tour of the campus on the day of the interview, but this is not a given. Community college instructors teach several hours every day, so interviews and tours are wedged into this schedule. Wise committee members realize that they are “selling” the campus to the candidates as much as the reverse, but the time-limited format of the community college interview does not necessarily support this effort.

The Finalist Interview(s)

After the initial interviews are concluded, the committee may have the authority to rank candidates or may be able only to make recommendations and present perhaps three to five names to the administration. Some colleges simply offer the position to the top-ranked candidate at this point. Other colleges invite the top candidates to a second interview with a dean or vice president. If you are invited to this second interview and are interested in the position, do accept the invitation! Do not hesitate to mention financial limitations and ask for support if this is a factor for you. Often, accommodation can be arranged through teleconferencing or a telephone interview if finalists do not live within commuting distance of the college.

If you are chosen for the position, some colleges arrange for you to meet with the college president for final approval and negotiation of placement on the salary schedule, based on past teaching experience. At some public community colleges, you are only “hired” officially after the governing board meets (usually biweekly or monthly) and approves your hiring.

Continue to 4. The Adjunct Position at the Community College.