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How to answer tough questions about your education

Hiring managers look for indicators of competence, professionalism and work ethic from other areas of your life

How to answer tough questions about your education

The toughest hiring decisions managers ever make are when they hire staff without work experience. Unable to evaluate you based on experience, hiring managers look for indicators of competence, professionalism and work ethic from other areas of your life.

Most of your interviews will start with questions about your education, because recruiters and hiring managers can learn a great deal about you from how you handled your college experience.

“What college did you attend and why did you choose it?”

The college you attended isn’t as important as your reasons for choosing it — the question examines your reasoning and your values. Whatever you say, you didn’t go there as a result of your parents’ desires or because generations of your family have always attended the Acme School of Welding.

Emphasize that it was your choice and focus on issues likely to be of interest to a hiring manager: “I went to ________________; it was a choice based on practicality and I wanted a school that would give me a relevant education and prepare me for a career in _________.”

“How did you pay for college?”

At all costs, avoid saying, “Oh, Mumsie handled that.” Your parents may have helped out if they were able, but always put as much emphasis as is realistic on whatever work experience you have.

People who pay for their own education make big points with employers because it shows motivation and any work delivers a better grasp of the professional world for people with eyes and ears.

If you worked at all, expect follow-up questions about what you learned about the real world of work. Paid internships for companies operating within your targeted profession are of course best, but any work experience will set you apart from the many candidates who have none.

If you gained little work experience going through school, find someone who can give you grounding in the basics of working in your chosen profession and graft that understanding onto whatever work experience you have. 

The work you did is not as important as the professional awareness it has delivered. No one expects you to have done brain surgery and even flipping burgers teaches you about time management and organization, keeping the customer satisfied, teamwork and manageability – all skills that are valuable in all jobs.

“Do you think employers should consider grades?”

If your grades were good, the answer is obviously “yes.” If they weren’t, your answer needs a little more thought: “Of course, an employer should take everything into consideration. However, the best academics don’t always make the most productive professionals. Einstein and Edison had terrible academic records. Bill Gates dropped out of school and Steve Jobs barely scraped through and that is four of the most productive minds of modern times.”

“I worked through college to pay for my education and believe that along with grades, there should be an evaluation of the candidate’s work experience and practical understanding of the professional workplace.”

“I’d be interested to hear about some things you learned in school that could be used on the job?”

The interviewer wants to hear about real-world skills, so explain what the experience of college taught you about the world of work, rather than specific courses. Use internships or any work experience to differentiate yourself.

Your answer might start with, “Within academic and other on-campus activities, I always looked for the opportunity to apply and develop some of the practical skills demanded in the professional world, such as ________________.”

Then fill in the blanks from the following two lists. These are skills and values sought in all professions and you’ll find most college activities gave you the opportunity to develop:

Transferable Skills     Professional Values
Communication Motivation & Energy
Problem Solving Reliability
Multitasking Determination
Teamwork Pride & Integrity
Leadership Productivity
Creativity Systems & Procedures


“What have you done to educate yourself for this job and profession outside of the classroom?”

This question examines your initiative/motivation and your understanding of the job’s deliverables. Talk about connecting with alumni who are doing this job and what you have learned about the job’s real challenges, why people failed and why others succeeded. Sharing the knowledge you gained by questioning networking contacts already in the profession will impress an interviewer with your common sense, analytical skills and the grasp of the job you gained as a result. Naturally, any internships or related work experience should be mentioned.

Listen to the Question

No one expects much experience when hiring for first jobs, but they do expect an inquiring mind, motivation and a strong work ethic. One last tip: The most important information in a sentence is usually in the second half. So always listen to the question and consider it for a couple of seconds before answering: you’ll give a better answer and the pause will show that you listen and think before speaking — three professional skills important in all jobs.

Monster Wants to Know: What are some job interview questions you've been asked about your education? Share with us in the comment section.

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