Candidate: Unique or Clone?

Aug. 7, 2006
It's not the interview questions that are the problem, it's the answers! Unfortunately many candidates become clones of one another and give clone answers.

It wouldn't take you long sitting on an oral board panel to discover even with all their qualifications how many candidates are not prepared to take a firefighter interview.

It's not the interview questions that are the problem, it's the answers! Unfortunately many candidates become clones of one another and give clone answers. And the bigger problem is they don't know it. I hate to say, but often they are cloned in fire colleges and academies. Clone answers can doom your oral board.

One of our officers was on an oral board for a big city. Several boards interviewed 965 candidates. His board interviewed candidates over a period of 10 days. Imagine you were this officer and it is the fifth day of interviewing. You have just come back from lunch where the city has wined and dined you. You're tired and you know you have another five days of interviews ahead of you.

The next candidate is called in. The first question you ask is, "What sparked your interest and why do you want to be a firefighter?" He proceeds to give you the same clone answers you have heard from almost every candidate for five days. Public service, helping people, giving back to the community, not the same thing every day, blah blah blah. The magic that you needed to hook up with the oral board has passed and you didn't hook them into listening to your stuff. You have just scored yourself. Trust me. You can see the glaze come over the raters' eyes. It's like a deer caught in the headlights. They're gone and they won't come back.

It's not that you can't use clone answers. You can. But first you need to deliver a signature story about you. Not a clone answer of anyone else. I haven't met a candidate yet that couldn't come up with signature stories. How do you find your story? There was a point in your pursuit during a class, ride along or a life experience where your mind went click; that's it. This is what I want to do in life. My life is not going to be the same until I get that badge. When did this happen? Who else can tell this story but you? That's your story that you can marry off with you other information. Yes, once you have the signature story buried you can use your clone stuff.

Signature stories demonstrate experience. They also tell that you not only know the answer to a question, you've lived it. Firefighters love firefighter stories. If you open up with a signature story, you instantly separate yourself from the other clone candidates. Stories show the oral board who you really are. You capture the board and take them on a journey with a story they have never heard. Is this making sense?

The toughest thing for candidates to do in an oral is being themselves on purpose. When you are yourself telling your stories, you become conversational because you are on your own turf. This alone can lower the stress and the butterflies.

"Everyone has butterflies. The trick is to get them to all fly in the same formation." ---Dottie Walters

An oral board member told me they had a candidate who didn't answer all the questions the way they wanted him to do, but he had such great personal life experience in his answers (stories), they hired him anyway. This is human nature. Stories help bridge that gap. Clone answers and clone candidates don't have a chance here.

So the point here is not the question, but the answer. Start establishing your personalized stories.

Instant "Clones"

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in mock orals with one of my instructors who happens to be really great when it comes interviewing. In our class that comprises mostly of people starting fire tech classes, nobody did very well. It was a great lesson about how we need to start preparing and getting to familiarize ourselves with the testing process.

However, 2 guys who were friends with our instructor participated in our mock orals, and put the rest of us to shame. They obviously have spent countless hours practicing orals with our instructor.

They really knew their stuff and not having any oral experience myself, I was very impressed, along with the rest of my class. My question is that these guys were so well rehearsed and knew each question and answers like the back of their hand, they sounded like actors in a play-anybody could tell that everything down to expressions, and hand motions had been practiced over and over to perfection.

Is this what interviewers want when they interview you? Do they really want to see rehearsed answers? Don't get me wrong, the answers were very good, but seemed so artificial. Please let me know if it's better to answer questions to the best of your knowledge, or just to memorize good answers. Thanks, any input would be great.

Reply: What you saw was a perfect example of turning candidates into Clones. It's impressive at first. But if you felt it was too rehearsed, so will the oral board panel. When you see it over and over again it gets old and puts the panel into a daze. We could tell who the instructors were, which academy or college program they came from or what book that got their answer, word for word without personalizing it, from many of the clone candidates by the second or third question. The candidates often even looked alike right down to that narrow mustache.

This will stick out in an interview. One thing about clone candidates; they will end up with a score that will put them in the clone pack.

One of our officers was going to be on an oral board panel for our department. He had been telling people that he could tell which candidates I coached. After the interviews, he was telling us about this great candidate who nailed his interview and came out number one.

I asked him if he thought the guy had been coached? He said he was so good using his own stuff he couldn't have been. When I told him this was one of my candidates, he screamed . . . NO WAY! Yep, he's one of our guys.

Not only that, this flight medic guy had been testing for over 3 years. He scored 532 on his last test in Stockton. He came to us three weeks before his oral with our department. He had great stuff, but didn't know how to present it. The magic can often happen quicker than you think. Here's a young lad with far less credentials that learned the combination to the vault without being a clone: Captain Bob, I would just like to say thank you! I am only twenty-one, and no college degree, but thanks to your program I have received two job offers! After months of practicing with a tape recorder and rehearsing my answers, the only head-splitting decision I have to make is between a great big agency and my hometown department! Thanks again! Chris from California

You can learn how Chris made it happen here:

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About the Author

Bob Smith | Magazine Staff

Fire "Captain Bob" Smith has helped countless entry level and promotional candidates gain their badges. He is a retired 28-year Hayward, California Captain, speaker/author of the CD/DVD programs "Conquer the Job Interview," "It's Your Turn in the Hot Seat!," the books, "Becoming a Firefighter-The Complete Guide to Your Badge," "Fire Up Your Communication Skills" and "Eat Stress For Breakfast," which have been translated in 24 countries including South Korea, Latin America and China. He is a coach, publisher, author, and a rater on job interviews.

"Captain Bob" has gained experience from more than 175 oral boards. To date over 2,300 candidates have received their badges from his program. He uses simple tools to uncomplicate the process.

He incorporates his own experience gained from three successful start-up businesses, a 41-year marriage (29 years that were good according to his wife), education, and 20 of research. To learn more about his dynamic programs, services, newsletter and more than 250 pages of proven tips and free information visit his website at

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