Oral Interview Tip 1: Don’t Just Answer The Question, Answer The Question Method

Dec. 6, 2017
Steve Prziborowki suggests that firefighter oral exam candidates offer insightful, thought-out responses.

Many oral board candidates do not take the time to sufficiently and completely answer the question they are asked in an oral interview. Many answer the question with enough information to receive a passing score of 70 percent, but without enough information or detail to receive the best possible score they could, such as a score in the 80’s and even 90’s – the scores you typically need to get the job or the promotion. 

I want to share a technique that may assist you with increasing your scores the next time you are faced with an oral interview. There is a way you can answer a question in a detailed way, without sounding like you are rambling on and on. I will be the first to say many oral board answers do come across as rambling or without much detail or supporting items to actually demonstrate or prove the point you are trying to get across. This is why I say, “don’t just answer the question, answer the question!

Let’s look at a simple question that is asked at many oral interviews, “what is your greatest strength?”  There really is not one right answer for that question or really any question for that matter.  Virtually any strength you can think of is going to be a right answer, getting you a score of at least 70 percent. Now it is a good rule of thumb to have an answer that is unique to you, and does not sound like a typical, standard, commonly used answer that the majority of candidates have used in their previous interview, prior to your sitting in the hot seat.

Ask anyone what their greatest strength is, and you’ll probably hear many of the same, commonly used answers, such as dependability, ethical, loyal, motivated, hard worker, honest, dedicated, integrity, etc. All of those are not bad answers or wrong answers; the problem is by themselves, they are just typical, standard answers that do not sound unique and do not separate you from the next candidate. I bet if I asked 100 candidates what their greatest strength was, I would probably hear multiple people say the same answer I mentioned above. While this may not seem like a big deal, put yourself in the shoes of the oral board. The first candidate that says dependability is not a problem. However, by about the third or fourth candidate, who says the same, one-word answer, it starts to get old and now you start getting lumped in with everyone else, and not standing out.

Let’s get back to the original question, “what is your greatest strength?”  The immediate response that may come to your head is to tell the oral board that you are loyal.  While being loyal can be considered to be a typical, standard answer, the response itself would provide the candidate with a passing score of at least 70 percent. Not a great score, not a bad score, just not a great score. Notice I didn’t say an above average or an excellent score for that question. I said a passing score.  In school, C’s and D’s are passing.  B’s are above average and A’s are excellent scores.  When a fire department is interviewing numerous candidates (usually many more than positions available), who do you think gets the promotional offer, the candidate receiving the “passing score” or the candidate with the “excellent score?”  I think the answer is obvious; it is usually the ones with the excellent scores if there are any (sometimes there are not; sometimes there are only passing scores, which just means you have to be the best of the worst).

How do you make that answer of “I am dependable” into an “excellent score” you may wonder?  Do I need to respond with another answer that doesn’t sound like a typical, standard answer?  That is one way, but not the primary way.  The primary way is to be a little more detailed in your response, to also provide an example to support your statements, and to also attempt to tie it into the position you are applying for. 

Key point: every time you state something or provide an example, such as I am dependable, I am dedicated, I am loyal, I am motivated, I get along well with others, etc., try to always ensure you state an example to prove to the oral board why it is that you are dedicated, loyal, motivated, etc., and identify why it is important for someone in the position you are applying for to possess. Additionally, try to tie your answer into the position you are applying for.

Sample answer using 'Don’t just answer the question, answer the question method'

Now if you took the time and effort to answer that question with an answer of:

“My greatest strength would have to be that I am dependable. I have been employed with this great fire department for over 10 years and have not used one day of sick leave. I always make the best effort to keep my family and myself in the best of health, by maintaining a proper diet and by having a regular physical fitness program. I don’t believe that sick days can be used for “mental health” days or other days that have nothing to do with my not being sick. My captain and current crew depend on me to be at work every shift, on time, healthy – both mentally and physically, and be ready to be the best I can be throughout the entire shift. Additionally, when the bell goes off, the public expects the responding to crew to be on top of their game, on time, nice, and ready to solve their problem. Because my crew is depending on me, I feel it is my duty and obligation to be dependable to them as well.  Since firefighters are expected to be dependable to their department, community and fellow firefighters, I feel my greatest strength of being dependable is something that will be a definite asset to the position of captain with the (Insert Name) Fire Department.”

Doesn’t that answer sound better than just stating, “I am dependable,” or “my greatest strength is that I am dependable?” Be careful with providing too much detail because it can come across as rambling, causing the oral board to miss your point and start wondering to themselves, “when does this story end,” or “where is this story going?” 

Providing an example helps make a typical, standard or routine answer turn into an answer that is more detailed. More importantly, you now offer an answer that provides a detailed fact or reason why the oral panel should believe what you are saying.  Providing an example will help turn a passing score for that question into an above average or excellent score.  Everybody says things about themselves.  However, not too many candidates take the time to actually “put their money where their mouth is” and prove to the oral board members why they are what they say they are or who they say they are.

In Sum:

  • When providing an answer, attempt to provide an example to validate and support your answer.
  • After providing an example, identify why it is important for someone in the position you are applying for to have that quality or trait.

Anyone can throw words or phrases out there to sound impressive.  The successful candidates also add some detail to those words and provide an example to every statement to help validate and provide credibility to what they are attempting to convey to the oral board. Think of the concept every time you are asked a question in an oral interview and you should start to see your scores increasing! 

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