Answering the Unaskable: Personal Questions in Campus Visits

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I wrote recently on this blog about advice for campus visits, but I hesitated to include suggestions on the infamous “Personal Questions” topic. The subject rather demanded its own post, and so here it is: the advice I received and the tips I learned about navigating the tricky “personal questions.”

Be careful about answering personal questions.

Legally speaking, a prospective employer cannot ask you about your marital status, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, if you want to have kids, etc., but I’ve always been warned that it will come up in casual conversation. Don’t tell them you have a partner, I was told; universities hate spousal hires. And don’t mention, they continued, if you want to have children, because then they know they’ll have to pay maternity leave. But! Don’t not answer, because that would be strange. Just also don’t tell them anything that might make you a less-than-ideal candidate. Whatever, of course, that may even be to any particular audience. The advice was both extremely unhelpful and entirely unsettling.  

This particular advice was always a sticking point for me. It raised a specter of immediate and dramatic failure — you were going to be interrogated, your potential colleagues slyly trying to extricate personal details from you like a particularly nerdy 007 remake, From Academia with Smug.

Others have talked about this particular tangle much more thoroughly and competently than I can. Nancy Scott Hanway (“7 Hazards of the Campus Interview,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 26, 2015), for example, suggests you respond by explicitly pointing out that you shouldn’t or were advised not to answer such a question, or otherwise turning the conversation back to the job in question. Dr. Karen Kelsky (“They Said What? Handling Outrageous Questions” in The Professor is In, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015), alternatively, encourages visitors to steer the conversation to a safer topic after briefly (or even instead of) answering or, alternatively, giving very brief answers and letting the asker stew in uncomfortable silence. (And besides, if you’re feeling pressured to answer questions you’re not comfortable addressing, do you really want to work with the asker?)

Often, though, these sources assume such questions occur outside the interview, since they legally cannot be asked in said interviews. Instead, the questions arise either baldly (“So, are you religious?”) or in disguise (“What do you like to do on Sundays?”) during the in-betweens, the social moments before, between, after interviews proper.

But what do you do if someone asks a strange, personally-geared question in the interview itself?

“What are your personal goals for the next five years?”

It only happened to me once, and it was not technically illegal. It is, on the surface, not all that objectionable or even unexpected. I had already provided an answer to a similar question regarding professional goals in a prior interview just that morning, and I cited it again here.

My response was brushed off as “all well and good,” and my interviewer insisted that they meant this question on more “personal level.”

I was not expecting the question or this insistence, was half-sure I wasn’t supposed to be asked something like that, and I fumbled through a response about improving my work/life balance and eventually setting down roots.

My response felt horribly inadequate, and I was left puzzling over the question for days afterward. Surely, I told myself, they didn’t mean to ask such a fishing question — surely it wasn’t intentional. Perhaps I was overreacting, I thought. Maybe I was being too sensitive.

I was not surprised I didn’t get the offer. It was likely more a matter of fit, but that question stuck with me. Perhaps it was unintentional, but that did not make it any less inappropriate.

It was a sneaky question, and I had not prepared for sneaky questions — polite probing in conversation, sure, but not this. So, according to the advice I’d received, I set out to practice my answer.

First, though, I needed to determine my boundaries for this scenario. What was I willing to disclose and what was I absolutely not? Marital status, motherhood plans, sexual orientation, etc. were all things I was adamant about not sharing in an interview setting. Goals for retirement, home-ownership, or volunteering, however, felt "safer" to me — still ambitious goals but also fairly generic ones. They could be considered personal, and they echoed a bit of my previous, fumbled response, but they also did not disclose anything that felt actually personal to me. For me, that was my boundary, and so that was the boundary I practiced setting.

I’m not sure, though, that there can be a right answer to a sneaky question. So much of it depends on you. What constitutes a "safe" disclosure to you? Can any disclosure be considered "safe"? Where do you feel comfortable setting your boundaries?

Perhaps your boundaries lie in finding your own "safe" answers. Maybe you feel more comfortable avoiding the personal and steering the topic away with a more professionally-oriented answer (as Kelsky advises and I attempted) or expressing caution in providing such a response at all (as Hanway suggests) or, even, letting the silence build (Kelsky again).

Whichever boundary you set, practice setting it. Practice holding it in place. I’ve been fortunate in my campus visit experiences to only be pushed the once, and I realize that mine is not the experience of others — sneaky questions may well be a norm for which to prepare.

And even now, I wonder if I’m not making too much of a fuss, if I’m turning one fluke question into a scaremongering tactic. But even so, I was told to practice everything, and practicing boundary-setting is never a waste of time.

Works Cited

Hanway, Nancy Scott. “7 Hazards of the Campus Interview.” Chronicle.com, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 Jan. 2015, https://www.chronicle.com/article/7-Hazards-of-the-Campus/151389

Kelsky, Karen. “They Said What? Handling Outrageous Questions,” The Professor is In, Three Rivers Press, 2015.

 Kelsky, Karen. The Professor Is In, 2018, http://theprofessorisin.com/

Author Bio

Pax Gutierrez-Neal has worked in the University Writing Center at UT Austin since 2013, serving as a writing consultant, presentations coordinator, and assistant program coordinator. This summer, she will take up the position of Assistant Director of the Writing Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.