Job Hakr

Blog from the Job Hakr: Student Affairs Job Search

Blog from the Job Hakr: Student Affairs Job Search


Compete Against the Internal Hire

Compete against the Internal Candidate in the Student Affairs Job Search

Compete against the Internal Candidate in the Student Affairs Job Search

“We’ve gone with the internal candidate.”

The nerve! Can you believe this? You just spent the last month carefully researching this role, the institution, and the responsibilities of the job and they just selected someone who already works there! What a waste!

Welcome to being the external candidate.  Competing against an internal hire is common in many job searches (student affairs included). But why do colleges and universities conduct a full scale search when there is already an internal candidate in the pipeline? In this post we’ll examine the reasoning behind the decision to include an internal candidate and how you can compete against them in the search process.

Why hire internally?

Often institutions will seek a internal candidate for a role to avoid the downtime and unproductivity associated with getting someone up to speed with the workflow, culture, and, and expectations of the institution.

This is often to both the internal candidate’s and the institution’s advantage: they both know each other and are familiar with the expectations of the institution and culture.

However, you should know is that any search process with integrity is going to be competitive. The hiring manager in these situations is looking for the best person to fill the role: regardless of their background: internal or external. The process should be competitive: neither internal or external candidates should believe that they are a shoe-in for the position.

If anything, take solace in the fact that they advertised the position. It’s out there in the wild! That means anyone. Anyone, can apply for it. That includes you. So use this as your opportunity to get in there, show them what you have to offer, and prove yourself as the most competitive and best suited candidate for the position.

The Negatives

Of course there are some negative aspects involved in applying for a position against an internal candidate. You could get incredibly far in the process. Even to the final round, and still lose out to an internal hire. But sometimes in life you can do everything right, commit no mistakes, and still lose. That is not a failure of character. That is just the nature of the game.

You can of course avoid the process all together. If you have an inside contact with the department, office, or institution: then you can certainly gain some information on what the competition is like. This is where having a strong and connected network comes into play. Knowing who is also considered in the candidate pool could help save you time and anguish.

Action Steps

So you’ve decided that you are going to pursue this opportunity: either you know that you’ll be up against an internal candidate or the rest of the competition doesn’t concern you. Either way you’re going to need an action plan in order to represent yourself as the best person for the position.  Part of that action plan is knowing that you can enter the process with a clean sheet. The internal candidate won’t have that disadvantage. They have worked and been part of that culture for a while. YOU can enter with a new ideas and a refreshing mindset.

So what can you do? Specifically you can two things. First, enter the competition ready to run with the role.  The internal candidate will certainly have that ability. But you can also compete by providing the mindset necessary to excel in what is shaping up to be a demanding position.  The second thing you can do? Make sure you get the inside track. Learn as much, if not more than your internal competitor. They might know exactly where to get new K-Cups for the coffee machine. But do they know the strategic direction the institution has been moving in for the past few years? They don’t? Well then make sure you know that direction better than they do.

Have a Plan

Enter the job interview with a plan. You want to demonstrate mastery of the core job responsibilities to the hiring manager. You should do this in any interview, but you’ll need to look especially sharp for this part. You should appear as if you could hit the ground running tomorrow and succeed with the role in a short time span.

While you should do some research before attending the job interview, you can also ask a series of probing questions to get more information from the hiring manager. A powerful question would be: “If you were to hire me, what would I need to do in the first 30 days in order to make my first year successful?” This question demonstrates you humbly seeing additional information as well as gaining ground on EXACTLY what it takes to be successful and effective in the role .

Approach it like a Consultant

Go into this job interview as someone whose sole purpose is to counsel this organization. Don’t think about just attaining the role.  Act as if you are being paid a small fortune to give your best knowledge, advice, and insight to the entire institution. This is a great way to define yourself apart from the internal candidate while simultaneously demonstrating your familiarity and expertise with the surrounding issues.

In short, you should look to bring interesting ideas to the position. If they are hiring a Resident Director then propose innovative new programming. Assistant Director of Student Activities? Pitch an idea for a new clubs and organizations recognition model. Coordinator for First Year Experience? Demonstrate how a student development theory you learned in class is applicable to developing a coherent community.

Most importantly: show instead of tell your ideas. Ask permission to diagram some solutions on a white board instead of discussing them at length. Use storytelling techniques to relay a similar situation you’ve dealt with in the past and compare it to their needs. Use these tips in order to differentiate and define yourself against your internal competitor.

Fit and Personality

Joining an already existing culture will be a tough sell for any external candidate.  That is why it’s important that you demonstrate your ability to integrate quickly into the institution and its steady workflow. The best way to do is not to criticize the way things are currently done. Instead, focus on integrating your vision into the role and what you plan to accomplish.

You can succeed at this by being professional, friendly, and confident from the minute that you walk onto campus to the minute that you walk off. You want to be THE person that they look to. The one whose enigmatic personality, charm, and experience would compete against their established co-worker and colleague.

Research, Research, Research

No matter what the interview is for. Whether it’s your first or last application or whether you’re the internal or external candidate. You will want to do your research.  Gather competitive information in order to boost your knowledge of the institution’s needs, short term goals, and strategic plans. Ultimately you want to read the mind of the hiring manger. What do THEY want to see happen? What does success look like for THEM?

Ideally you want to focus on the core of your research that makes up the most important aspects of the role.  You’ll want to cover the four major pillars of: Positional Alignment, Culture & Structure, Staff Background, and some Strategic Questions. You can certainly craft all of this information into your own briefing book, but you can also turn to the Job Hakr to fulfill this work for you.


Remember, that an internal candidate may assume that they already have this job.  Don’t let them live down that assumption. Go into the interview more prepared, more driven, and more convincing then they are. Research, demonstrate, and display that you are they person they CAN’T afford NOT to hire.

Happy searching!

Dave Eng, EdD
Provost, The Job Hakr


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