The bigger the project or program gets, the more people are involved in the operation of it. Someone will be there for budgeting and overall strategy. Other people will respond for fundraising, operational management, marketing, and employee or volunteer coordination. And, of course, you will always have on the team people who take care of the administrative tasks, and any mundane daily agenda, such as answering basic emails and phone calls. This will be your duty in a job of a Program Assistant. But what will happen in an interview?
You can expect a relatively easy interview, with some personal and some scenario-based questions. The hiring managers will try to learn more about your motivation and goals, skills and relevant experience (though it isn’t necessary to have any previous experience to apply for a job of a program assistant), and also about your attitude to various situations that can happen on a typical day in work–multitasking, meeting deadlines, having a conflict with a colleague, and so on. Let’s have a look at the questions you may face, one by one.
Why do you want to work as a program assistant?
You can definitely focus on the future, and the meaningful purpose of the job. Of course, this isn’t your end station, and you hope to grow to a better role in their organization in the future. Maybe a job of a program coordinator, or even program director, or one of the most specialist roles. But you have to get your feet wet first, learn the basics, and start from the bottom like everyone else.
Nevertheless, you understand that each role in a program is important, and without their assistants, managers would not be able to carry out their work efficiently. Hence you also participate on reaching some worthy goals the organization follows (mostly non-profit organizations and schools advertise the position of a program assistant, so I suppose you apply with one of them). Last but not least, you can say that you believe you have the right skills for the position, such as excellent administrative and communication skills, you can typewrite quickly, and do not struggle with managing your time at work effectively.
Can you tell us more about your working experience?
Any administrative experience is highly relevant for the job. Be it a job of a secretary, office assistant, data entry clerk, or anything similar. Say them what you did and focus on the duties that overlap with the duties from the job description for this program assistant job.
You can get this job even without any previous working experience. Ensure the hiring managers that you have experience with common word processing software from school, and that you are used to working on different assignments when it comes to market research and data entry. Program assistant can definitely be considered an entry level job, and you can succeed in the interview without any previous experience. But you must show confidence in your ability to handle the job. That’s the pivotal thing.
How do you make sure you avoid making mistake in your work?
Everyone makes mistakes. But it is your attitude that matters to the interviewers. Ensure them that you try your best to stay 100% focused on the task at hand. No social media, no music, no distractions. Once you are really focused on the task at hand, you rarely make mistakes.
What’s more, you will double check each important record, and you won’t hesitate asking for help when unsure what do to. You can get over your ego, and do not mind showing some weaknesses in the workplace. You can also ensure them that you’ve always been extremely responsible, and plan to continue with the trend in the role of a Program Assistant. With such an attitude you should be able to minimize the number of mistakes you make, regardless of the workload.
Tell us more about your experience with MS Excel (or other common software)?
Try to be specific in your answer. It is not enough saying that you can work with Excel. Elaborate on it. Explain how long you’ve been working with it, and how exactly it helped you in your work. Tell them about the analyses you conducted with the help of various mathematical and statistical functionality Excel offers even to basic users.
Once talking about Excel, you can also mention other software programs you can work with. Be it MS Word, MS PowerPoint, Outlook, or even more sophisticated applications. You should always try to connect it with the job, explaining how your knowledge of this or that application will help you while assisting the program managers and other staff members.
Describe a situation when you had to work on multiple projects at the same time. How did you prioritize?
The most important thing is to show them that you actually have some system in your work. You can say that you always try to have a to-do list, for each day at work, with an exact priority assigned to each task on the list, and work accordingly. Or that you always try to work on the task with the nearest deadline.
You should illustrate this on an example from the past, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an example from work. Let’s have a look at one sample answer from an applicant who’s never worked before:
This is my first job application, so I have not experienced a similar situation before. But I recall my school times, when we had to prepare for different exams, plus of course I had my duties outside of school. I think it is important to set your priorities clear–for me school was my first priority, and hence I prioritized my student duties to everything else. In the workplace probably the program manager will set the priorities, or I will decide about them based on certain criteria. Once it is clear what has a priority, it’s easy to decide on which project or task I should work at any moment.
Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your superior.
They will mostly expect you to follow the orders, as long as your job title ends with the word “assistant”. However, they still want to you to have your own head, to think critically, to provide constructive feedback, instead of just blindly following each order of the manager. And that’s exactly what you should try to demonstrate with the situation you narrate.
Tell them about a situation when you had a different opinion than your superior. And you told them so, and explained your reasoning. You provided feedback and were not afraid of their reaction. But then you left them decide, because at the end of the day they bore the responsibility for the final results, and you respected the hierarchy in the team. You can also add that you plan to approach your job of a program assistant with the same attitude.
Where do you see yourself in five years time from now?
Program assistant is an entry level job, but good organizations do not want you to be “just an assistant” for years on end. On the contrary, they are looking for job seekers with a healthy level of ambition, who can imagine growing in the organization, and staying with it for longer than five years.
Try to pick some role you’d like to have, such as a program manager for example, or fundraising manager, or social media manager, or whatever. Or you can simply say that you would love to work for their organization in five years from now, but on a different position, having wider responsibility and bigger impact. Needless to say, you do not have to stick to the promises and aspirations you expressed in the interviews. Nobody knows what the future has in store for them, and you can leave the organization in three months, or even earlier. Once interviewing for the job, however, you should tell them what they want to hear from you.
Other questions you may face in your program assistant interview
- Tell me about a big obstacle you overcame in your life.
- Describe a situation when you were under pressure.
- What is the most difficult situation you’ve ever faced at work?
- What questions or concerns do you have about this role?
- Tell me about a time you missed a deadline.
- What does diversity mean to you?
- Who inspires you in your life?
Conclusion, next steps
Interview for a job of a program assistant belongs to interviews with an average difficulty. If you apply with a popular non-profit organization, you will typically compete with many people for the job, which makes it tougher to succeed.
What’s more, they will ask you many behavioral (scenario-based) questions, trying to understand your attitude to all sorts of situations you will experience as a program assistant. Try to get ready for the questions, and learn as much as you can about their organization. What they try to achieve with their activities, values they promote, their achievements and setbacks, and so on. You will find it easier to connect with your interviewers armed with the information, and personal preferences always play some role. You should not underestimate it… I hope you will succeed, and wish you best of luck!
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