Top 5 questions to prepare for in an architecture job interview
This post is originally published in The Architect’s Guide by Brandon Hubbard.
It’s that time of year when many graduates across the Northern Hemisphere are searching for jobs or internships – the time of year when many realize that there’s a lot more to landing a solid position at a good firm than simply being a great designer. One of the largest hurdles they will encounter is the job interview, and while there is plenty of advice out there about job interviews in general, little of it is aimed directly at architects.
The architecture profession has been steadily recovering since the downturn of 2009. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) has released “NCARB by the Numbers,” their annual report featuring a positive trend for the architecture profession. This means more jobs for architects – assuming you can get through the interview of course…
So you have made it through initial job screening to make it to this point. Congratulations! The interview questions I discuss below come up in almost every profession. However, as an architect I am primarily focused on how to best respond to these common questions in the context of an architecture interview. As you go through each of the questions below, think about your response. WHY is the interviewer asking this question? Put yourself in his or her shoes. This will help you to understand that they are not trying to stump you but rather get an idea if you will be a good fit within the firm. If they do throw you a curve ball with a question you haven’t prepared for don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know but… I can check on that and get back to you”. The worst thing you can do is make something up on the spot then look foolish later in the interview. This is especially true with an architecture interview. You can very easily go down a drawing detail rabbit hole that you can’t escape.
Although thinking on the spot can be stressful (especially given the fact an interview is generally the culmination of weeks, if not months of work) try to think of this as just getting to know someone better. Try to keep it conversational. As part of this conversation the interviewer (usually a senior architect or director within the office depending on the size of the firm) will generally ask a series of generic questions. More on that in a minute.
Do Your Research
One of the most important things you can do before stepping foot in the office is to do your research on the interviewer. Usually you can find out ahead of time specifically who is interviewing you. We architects love to talk about ourselves so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding information online using their office website, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Also try to get their picture so when they greet you in the lobby you know who it is and can greet them by name. I will get into this topic more in a later post but knowing who you are talking to is key.
The questions below are what I have found to be the most common throughout my architecture career and from many discussions with architects over the years.
1. Tell me about yourself.
Most people hear this and think “great, an easy question to talk all about my childhood growing up with five brothers and sisters” First of all, by stating something like that you have shown you have already missed the point of the question. The real question they are asking is actually “Tell me about your recent work experience”. You should probably give a few highlights of where you are from just to build up a little personality but don’t spend more than 30 seconds on this.
To begin, don’t just start listing off projects, you need to treat the interview as if you are telling a story. This is where your research becomes very important. Depending on how much information you have gathered on the interviewer (years of experience, previous offices, project experience) the more you can discuss technical details or project specifics. If your interviewer spent 20 years designing airports, you may want to structure your discussion and/or portfolio to larger scale projects if possible. However this also brings up a key issue. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. There is a big difference between adjusting your portfolio to emphasize your relevant work vs. saying you ran an airport project.
Having a clear, written description of the expected role is very useful as part of your preparation. Treat this description as bullet points for you to address in the interview. Go through the description line by line and think about how you can list any relevant projects/experience that would show how you work in a team or how you solved a problem. By structuring this as a sequential story in your portfolio you will be able to be clear and concise in your delivery. The advantage architects have in an interview is you have a portfolio. A portfolio is essentially a cheat sheet to allow you to take the interviewer step by step through your experience. Therefore a well structured and well thought out portfolio should make an interview go much smoother. Again, if you have prepared ahead of time your chances of it going well are greatly improved.
2. Why are you leaving your job?
This can trip up an interviewee if you are not prepared. Often a common reason for leaving is a dissatisfaction over pay, hours, projects, co-workers, etc. While these may be the reasons why it isn’t always best to list these to your potential future employer. Again, this doesn’t mean you should deceive the interviewer. You should, however, craft your answer in a way that does not put down your previous employer. After all, the person across the table could be your current employer in a matter of weeks.
I have found the best way to answer this question is to try to NOT make it about yourself. This is a mistake I made in the past and it is a very common one. I tried to make it about myself and how this new job will advance my career. Try a specific example like, “I know you have an office project that has just started design development and at my previous employer we focused mainly on design competitions. The majority of my experience is with the later project phases so I am looking to leverage my knowledge base in a new environment.” Saying something like this can further emphasize your fit with the firm while not speaking negatively about your previous employer.
3. What are your weaknesses?
Generally this is everyone’s least favorite question. I try to never ask this question myself because it usually just results in an awkward conversation. The best thing to do is just prepare for it (this is true for all of these questions by the way). What usually helps when brainstorming a good answer is to think about all the things that you wouldn’t want to mention. Examples: not getting along with co workers, not finishing deadlines, coming in late, etc.
The typical advice is to list an actual strength but tell it like it is a weakness such as “I work too hard” or “I like architecture too much”. No. Actually give this some thought. Think about a time when you did legitimately make a mistake (pick a minor one though) and explain what you learned from it. Showing that you have taken a setback and turned it into a learning experience can emphasize your level of accountability and honesty.
4. Where do you see yourself in five years?
This is always a tricky question. Since I am mainly discussing getting a job in an office a response you normally want to avoid is “I want to start my own office”. I see this quite often in the architecture world and for good reason, most architects do aspire to own their own firm at some point. While this may be a goal of yours someday an interview isn’t the time to share this.
What the interviewer is looking for is someone to fill the position now but is also looking for a long term commitment. Admitting you would like to jump ship and go out on your own, while admirable, doesn’t accomplish this goal.
Every response to these questions needs to reinforce your willingness to join the firm. A more appropriate response might be, depending on the stage of your career, “I would like to get my architecture license to expand my knowledge base” or “I want to lead a residential project”. Pick something relevant to the job and to the firm, show that you are looking to grow with the company, not away from it.
5. Do you have any other offers? / Are you interviewing anywhere else?
A lot of architects see this as an opportunity to brag about how many job offers they have. First of all, this should be obvious but the number one rule in an interview is: DO NOT LIE. If you have other job offers, that is fine go ahead and say so. If not, don’t try to leverage your situation. I will discuss a good answer and justification for both responses.
Scenario 1: You don’t have any other interviews
Question: Do you have any other offers?
Response: No, I am selectively looking for the right fit. I am not just sending out hundreds of resumes looking for any job. I am searching for a good fit between the company and what I can bring to the table.
Who would be put off by that response? In fact this shows you are carefully thinking about the role and the office.
Scenario 2: You have a pile of interviews
Question: Do you have any other offers?
I am currently interviewing at other firms. I am looking for a long term move so I want to make sure I make the right decision.
This doesn’t present your current situation as an ultimatum but helps your case by explaining why you are looking at several offers and wraps it in your commitment to a firm when you do join. This is especially true for the younger generation as there seems to be a bit of a stigma (possibly earned) that they jump from job to job. Putting this out there can give the interviewer peace of mind that he/she won’t be doing this again in a month.
In conclusion, I hope this is helpful to any architects out there hoping to land their dream job. Remember that if you have prepared properly, know yourself and your projects you will be just fine. By just spending some time gathering your thoughts a few days leading up to the interview will put you far ahead of the competition.
Now go ace that interview!