Cheat Sheets

Institution research/Interview Prep: How (and why) to make a Cheat Sheet

When you’re competing for an academic job against 10 equally well-qualified candidates, one of the best ways to set yourself apart from the pack is to convince the committee that you’re a perfect fit for their particular institutional needs. And in order to do that, you need to have a sophisticated understanding of what those needs are. Which is why doing your homework before an interview becomes absolutely crucial.

In the most basic sense, the committee needs to be reassured that you can:

  • Teach their general introductory or survey courses
  • Teach courses in the advertised field, and/or in your area of specialty
  • Remain a productive scholar
  • Be a reliable (and collegial) member of the department

But remember that those are minimum requirements. Instead of simply showing the committee that you, like all of your competitors, can simply satisfy them, your goal is to demonstrate that you greatly exceed them. There are a few places where you can get the information you need to make the strongest case for this kind of exceptional fit: the job description, the school’s website, college guides or Wikipedia, and personal contacts. This guide will show you how to aggregate the most salient information from these sources into a quick reference “cheat sheet” that will allow you to go into the interview knowing exactly how to sell yourself to this particular school. (Here is a basic template I’ve created for this purpose, which you should feel free to use and tweak. The letters on that template refer to the steps below)


A. Carefully reread the job description of the position you’re interviewing for and paste it into the template. Go through and bold specific buzzwords or phrases.
B. Look up the school on Wikipedia or an online college guide, and fill in the basics on your template: name, location, size, quarter or semester, etc.
C. Go to the departmental website and read through their mission statement. Click around and figure out what their “points of pride” are, the programs or achievements they’re trying to highlight: a nationally-renowned study abroad program, a distinguished speaker series, a unique major concentration, etc.
D. Also on that website, look up what the requirements are for their majors, including what intro/survey courses they have to take, what concentrations are available, whether they do a senior project or internship, etc.
E. Now look through their course catalog and see which currently offered intro/survey courses you’d likely be expected to teach. For each one, try to find a previous syllabus to get a sense of the scope (these can sometimes be found on the faculty pages), and then come up with a very basic sample syllabi (an organizing theme, some texts, a couple of assignments).
F. Now look for courses that are either not offered or that they may not know you have expertise in. Come up with 3-4 sample syllabi, making sure you can explain the distinction between intro/lower-level and upper-div/grad.
G. Look through the faculty directory and profile pages. (If it’s a small department, glance through all of them; if very large, look through those in your and related areas of specialization.) Familiarize yourself with the search committee members, including their fields of interest, the courses they regularly teach (and the texts they tend to use), the topics of their recent publications, and any “buzzwords” they might respond to, such as particular scholars, texts, or critical paradigms that you could name drop in your own sample syllabi.
H. Look through the full list of academic schools and units on the institutional website. Read up on any that you are interested in or could contribute to, noting a particular faculty member or program that you might work with, what prior interest/expertise you have, and a potential project or contribution you’d make.
I.  Given everything you’ve learned, think about what programs or groups are currently lacking and come up with a couple that you could spearhead; perhaps a working group on a particular field of interest, a new concentration or interdisciplinary certificate. Make sure you can articulate what the intended audience and goal for such a venture would be, and try to showcase experience you haven’t yet mentioned, such as a talent for grant writing, or tech-savvy, or community service.
J. Choose the most interesting/useful answers from H and I and translate them into a few specific questions to ask the committee, phrased something like, “I see that the institution has an academic program in H. I’d be really excited to collaborate with YY on ZZ project. Is that something the department would be interested in?” Again, bold the basic buzzwords for later quick reference.
K. Refer back to your cover letter and see what you proposed as a future project (also look for any new courses or programs you proposed there, since obviously they already struck a chord). Jot down a quick summary of the project and where you see it fitting into the department.
L. Glance over everything you’ve written, and then write a few sentences to yourself (in the second person), a kind of quick game plan and mini pep-talk: “This is a perfect place for you to develop connections with people working in (H) and (I), and your expertise in (H) is perfect for their interest in (C). You’ll want to pitch yourself as a (generalist/expert/historian), and make sure to mention (buzzwords from G). They also have an amazing (C), so emphasize your interest in using that to create classes like (E) and (F).”
M. Near the top of the page, write down a few-word phrase that encapsulates your sense of how the institution/department would pitch themselves – their “brand” — something that will get you into the right mindset just before you go in: “Cutting-edge department, great diversity”; “International perspective, regional expertise” etc.


You’ve now got a lot of information before you. The point, though, is not to memorize and regurgitate it (except for the sample syllabi, which you should consider distributing or at least putting on your website), but to work the most salient elements strategically into your responses to questions.

First, however, you should memorize the sample syllabi you’ve proposed, especially for existing intro/survey courses which they’re almost sure to ask you about. The easiest way is just to write out a basic schpiel for each one and rehearse it regularly until it’s automatic: “For this course on AA, I would call it BB, and the organizing theme would be CC, because I want students to understand DD. I’d teach texts like EE, FF, GG, and HH, and I’d assign II and JJ to help them practice/master/understand KK.”

You should also do the same for questions that you’re likely to get about your next project (K), about the kinds of service or faculty governance you might embark on (H, I), and with questions that you’ll be asking them at the end.


Don’t worry about cramming the night or hour before the interview: by now, you’re already in an excellent position. Instead, take the ten minutes or so before your interview to glance through your cheat sheet, noting bolded words and briefly rehearsing the schpiels you developed in Step Two. Then, remind yourself of the names and identities of the faculty in (G) before giving yourself your pep talk in (L) and finish with a glance at the snapshot at the top in (B) and (M). Then put your documents away, and head to the interview: you’re ready to go, and you’ve got a lot to offer.

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