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Education/Training

Conducting the Student Interview

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This article is the first in a three-part series about interviewing techniques. In Part 1, EMS World columnist Mike Rubin discusses student interviews.

Have you ever worked with someone you felt didn’t belong in EMS? I think most of us have. We tell friends, family members and even each other that EMS isn’t for everyone, yet we meet colleagues who seem to have missed that message. Perhaps it’s anxiety or immaturity or a poor grasp of medicine that makes it hard for them to fit in. Whatever the cause, an EMS provider who fails to thrive in our profession risks compromising not only themselves, but also patients and partners.

EMS educators often are in the best positions to spot misdirected prospects before they make poor career decisions. An early and often effective way for instructors to intervene is through student interviews.

An interview is a decision-support tool that allows two parties to evaluate an area of mutual interest. It works best when the interviewer and interviewee come prepared to exchange information and are equally proficient at verbal and nonverbal communication. This article focuses on practical techniques for the interviewer—usually a faculty member.

Something to Talk About

Evaluating candidates’ abilities to master the science of EMS is essential, but anyone who’s worked in EMS knows being “book smart” isn’t enough. Equally important is whether applicants can apply didactic material to practical scenarios. That was my biggest challenge as a paramedic student.

Given classroom variables like multiple instructors and diverse student backgrounds, not to mention the unscripted nature of real EMS, interviewers should try to judge subjects’ maturity and adaptability. To what extent will candidates’ capabilities grow to accommodate increasing demands of the program? Are applicants flexible enough to tolerate unimagined stressors?

It’s also wise to consider whether candidates might become labor-intensive students. Not only are high-maintenance learners disproportionate drains on classroom time, but disruptive or inconsiderate pupils can compromise the reputations of their schools during practical rotations.

Homework for Faculty

Estimating probabilities, through interviewing, that subjects will conform to academic and behavioral criteria is a skill requiring focus and tact. Preparation is essential.

Begin by considering your in-house resources: Will you be conducting interviews alone, or can you invite colleagues to participate? Group interviews have a few advantages:

  • Members of an interview team can listen to a subject’s answers without necessarily having to think of the next question.
  • Interviewers can play different roles—e.g., a timekeeper, a fact-finder to make sure all biographical details have been collected, a “philosopher” to engage subjects in free-form dialogue.
  • Interviewers’ personal biases play less of a role in decisions reached by consensus.
  • Tasking candidates with multiple concurrent stimuli simulates what they’ll face in the field. Nervousness is normal; paralyzing anxiety is an impediment best recognized in advance.

According to Paul Werfel, director of Stony Brook University’s paramedic program since 1993, team interviews work best when everyone in the group has a vested interest in the outcome.

“You want people who are legitimately interested in interviewing students—not someone who has nothing else to do,” says Werfel. “I don’t usually ask PA or nursing faculty to help interview because they don’t have skin in the game like my instructors do.”

Shannon Lankford, EMS training officer at Tennessee’s Williamson Medical Center, prefers to interview prospective students one on one.

“I think a panel interview is like a firing squad,” Lankford says. “I’ve been through several of those as an interviewee; they’re always more intimidating.”

Lankford adds that an interviewer’s body language can help put subjects at ease.

“I try not to cross my arms; that looks defensive,” she says. “I’d rather make it easy and relaxing—more like a conversation. It’s best when there’s no desk between us.”

The best interviewers aren’t just talkers, says Werfel; like athletes, they read situations and react: “You need to be able to ask questions and listen to the answers. You shouldn’t be cutting the subjects off. Ask open-ended questions and let people talk. Their answers will father other questions you’ll want to ask.”

Werfel says it’s important to consider high-yield questions before the interview.

“A good interviewer has to walk in with some kind of agenda—questions they need to find answers to. If you’re interviewing students, what’s their scholastic history? What’s their motivation for choosing your program? Have they actually done any research?

“We have people whom we ask, ‘Why do you want to be a paramedic?’ and they say, ‘I don’t know, I never gave it much thought.’ Not what you want to hear. Ask them if they’ve considered how the course will impact their lives outside of school. Sometimes that answer tells you more than anything else about their expected longevity in the program.”

Lankford favors career-oriented questions too.

“I want to know about future goals,” she says. “Questions such as ‘What do you like about the thought of doing this?’ and ‘What are your concerns and fears about getting into this field?’ make it harder for a student to give us the usual ‘I’m just here to help people’ answer.”

Case-oriented questions can be another good source of feedback.

“We usually ask an integrity-based question,” Werfel says. “For example, ‘Suppose your partner gives the wrong drug and tells you not to say anything. What would you do?’ That might give you some insight into a problem with integrity or judgment. There’s no way of fixing those problems in a course like ours.”

If time and schedules permit, gather the members of your team for a few simulated interviews. The practice subject should be an experienced interviewer who can play a range of personalities, from an introverted, ill-prepared student to the most boisterous candidate.

Judgment Day

Interviewers should encourage candidates to ask questions too. Applicants who see their interviews as conversations rather than interrogations often learn more about the opportunities they’re pursuing and presumably make better decisions about continuing or halting the application process. Thought-provoking questions from subjects can also indicate sincere interest and good sense.

How candidates dress is another indication of their judgment, Werfel notes. “Most of our applicants look like they’re showing up at a baseball game—jeans, shorts, tank tops,” he says. “That goes to maturity.

“Be careful, though; I once interviewed a guy who arrived in an oil-stained work shirt. I asked him if that was his normal dress. He said, ‘No, I left work to do this. I really need to get into this course.’ I make allowances for that.”

By broadcasting an inclusive attitude, rather than an exclusive one, interviewers encourage students to speak freely. Candidates who are at ease sometimes make accept-or-reject decisions easy.

“I was interviewing a young man who seemed to be talking to the bulletin board in my office instead of me,” says Lankford. “When I asked him about it, he said, ‘Yeah, I guess I talk to things. Sometimes I hear music when they answer me.’ Needless to say, he didn’t get very far.”

Measuring Performance: An Inexact Process

Earlier I used the word estimating to characterize interviewing because the practice is inherently imprecise. “There’s no evidence any of this works,” says Werfel.

Even the best interviewers reach mostly subjective conclusions about applicants. Often the most realistic way to measure subjects’ performance is to compare them to each other.

Some institutions ask interviewers to grade candidates independently on numerical scales, but force-fitting such scores to applicants’ responses often leads to goal-directed manipulation of point totals. It works something like this:

  1. Candidate A was pretty good, so I score her a 7 out of 10.
  2. Candidate B was even better. I give him an 8.
  3. Candidate C is good too—better than A but not as good as B—so I’m making C a 7 and dropping A to 6.

My subjective comparison of the three candidates determined their scores. Instead of assigning contrived point values during interviews, I could have maintained a relative ranking or yes, no and maybe lists of candidates, including a sentence or two about my impressions of each.

Another practice of questionable value is requiring applicants to submit references.

“I haven’t found them helpful at all,” says Werfel. “The only ones that are credible are the bad ones, and you’re not likely to see too many of those. Instead we ask students where they took their EMT course because then I can call their instructor. That’s much better than any personal references.”

Summary

Student interviews help ensure a match between classroom imperatives and candidates’ capabilities. Exploring students’ maturity and judgment is often more important than confirming their academic proficiency.

Walking into an interview unprepared can be as damaging for interviewers as for interviewees. Selecting the right people and the right process for conducting interviews depends on planning and practice. A team approach to interviewing can be particularly effective if team members take the time to discuss topics and roles before meeting with candidates.

Although imprecise, interviews increase the chances that instructors and students will achieve mutually satisfying results, particularly when students play active roles.

Next time we’ll cover patient interviews.

Mike Rubin is a paramedic in Nashville, TN, and a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at mgr22@prodigy.net.

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