Getting the Job: Applying and Interviewing at a Community College
In September 2009, President Barack Obama praised community colleges as places where “people of all ages and backgrounds, even in the face of obstacles, even in the face of very difficult personal challenges, can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and their family.”
He drew attention to the role community colleges play in retraining the American workforce and in pulling the nation out of the recession. This admirable mission of making the American Dream more accessible and strengthening the American economy continue to motivate and inspire faculty members of community colleges.
Community colleges offer faculty a wide range of career opportunities, challenges, and rewards at over 1,100 institutions across the nation. In 2016—2017, over twelve million community college students comprised 41 percent of all undergraduates in the United States and earned 833,093 Associate degrees and 533,579 certificates.
Community colleges generally have open enrollment and significantly lower fees than their four-year counterparts. Their mission and organization vary widely from state to state, but most community colleges balance efforts at vocational training with preparation for transfer to four-year universities.
Community colleges are teaching institutions where tenure depends primarily on teaching and service, with little or no emphasis on research. If you are considering applying for a community college position, you must enjoy teaching and do it well. Depending on the college and its location and reputation, you may be competing against over one hundred candidates for a position. Most community colleges require faculty to have a Master’s degree in history, but some colleges will prefer a Ph.D.
Doing Your Research
Begin your application process by researching the college and scouring its website. Search committees are impressed by candidates who understand their college, department, faculty, and students, and they are flattered by having their efforts and accomplishments acknowledged. Careful research will help you best highlight your relevant qualifications in the application and interview. Candidates who do not show an interest in or understanding of the college to which they are applying may be perceived as unenthusiastic, disinterested, or even self-involved.
The College: College websites provide detailed information about their mission, goals, and actions. Find and review master plans, accreditation reports, technology plans, president newsletters or updates, institutional research reports, and promotional materials. Determine the central mission of the college, the major college-wide initiatives to improve student access and success, and whether the college focuses on transfer, career technical education, or both. Avoid dwelling on a college’s challenges and instead focus on the ways it seeks to overcome them.
The Department: Gain insight into the department and how it participates in college initiatives and works to improve student success by reading its meeting minutes, program review documents, student learning outcome assessment reports, descriptions of the degree and classes in the course catalogue, course syllabi, the schedule of classes, and the department website. Pay close attention to the student learning outcomes (SLOs) for the courses and programs. Determine the instructional needs of the department by figuring out which classes are usually taught by adjunct faculty and if there any courses that haven’t been taught for over a year. You might also find out whether the department has taken a stance on dual enrollment, online instruction, and free/low-cost textbooks.
The Department Faculty: Research the department faculty and their working conditions by reading faculty webpages, conducting searches of their names on the college website, perusing the faculty contract, and reviewing the Academic Senate or Faculty Association minutes. Campus climate and engagement survey results will provide insight into working conditions and the mood on campus.
The Students: Learn about the student body by reading the Associated Student Body minutes, campus climate or student engagement surveys, and student demographic and academic performance reports. Make sure you know the racial, ethnic, gender, and age distribution of the student body and how the college researches and addresses equity gaps. Search committees may be impressed if you know the percentage of students who receive financial aid and whether a significant number of students face housing or food insecurities.
Is This the College for You?
Use your research to decide whether this is the right environment for you. Carefully review the job announcement, and ask yourself whether you are motivated by teaching, rather than research and writing. Would you be happy as part of a team working to achieve the mission of this college? Would your strengths improve the department and help its faculty in their pursuit of student success?
Incorporate what you have learned about the college and the department into your application materials and cover letter. Explain how your unique experiences and qualities will help the college achieve its mission and support student success. Don’t assume you are a shoo-in if you have a degree from a prestigious university. In fact, this might cause some search committee members to doubt your commitment to teaching, especially if your CV and cover letter are loaded up front with descriptions of your research and publishing.
Demonstrate your commitment to teaching, students, and student success in your CV, cover letter, and written answers on the application. Carefully explain your teaching style and strategies by moving beyond stock phrases such as “active learning” and “student engagement.” Search committees read and hear these phrases repeated by applicants over and over again and would prefer direct evidence of how you plan on implementing them in the classroom. Search committees want to see that you are confident but self-reflective and willing to engage in a continual process of instructional improvement.
If the college has a diverse student body, know the difference between equality and equity. Understand the steps the college is taking to reduce equity gaps and explain how you incorporate equitable teaching practices and culturally responsive methodologies into your instruction. It is not enough to say that you have experience teaching a diverse student population with a variety of strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and disabilities. You need to demonstrate to the committee that you know how to do it well.
Your application may be processed initially by a Human Resources Department that strictly adheres to deadlines and will not consider candidates with late or missing materials. Make sure your application is complete and submitted properly and promptly. Pay careful attention to any supplemental, written questions and be sure to answer them in detail.
The interview format at community colleges differs from state to state depending on the structure of the college and state regulations. Some colleges may have a process that is similar to interviews at a four-year university, with formal presentations and question sessions balanced with informal opportunities for the search committee to get to know the candidate. Other colleges have more rigid processes and work under guidelines that require strictly equal treatment of candidates. In California, for instance, colleges typically develop specific questions that are asked in a particular order, and search committee members are not permitted to ask follow-up questions.
Consider calling the Human Resources department to ask politely about the basic stages and structure of the interview, how many people serve on the search committee, and whether students will be present during the teaching demonstration. Do not request information that is not available to all candidates or for special treatment beyond accommodations for disabilities. Be aware that community colleges typically cannot afford to fully reimburse interviewees for travel to on-campus interviews.
Before the interview, develop thoughtful, evidence-based descriptions of your teaching methodologies and plan carefully for your teaching demonstration. Although the committee will want to see your lecturing style during your teaching demonstration, they also want to see more. Demonstrate one of your favorite classroom activities that engages students and demands higher level critical thinking. This activity may be the hook that helps the search committee remember you and your strengths as an instructor. Also, balance the complexity of the content you are covering with the time allotted for the teaching demonstration. Do not try to rush through a complicated topic.
Throughout the interview, show the search committee that you care deeply about teaching, students, and student success. Demonstrate that you fully understand the mission of their college and department and that your strengths will help them achieve their goals. Use your research to help anticipate the questions you may be asked. For instance, if a college is expanding its distance education offerings, prepare for questions about your training and experience in online instruction.
Furthermore, search committee members are judging you as a colleague. They may be teaching alongside you or even sharing an office with you for decades. The questions you ask them during the interview should reveal your desire to be a good colleague and strong instructor. For instance, you might ask about opportunities for professional development and service on campus committees. Following the interview, a thank you email is appreciated, but be ready to wait patiently to hear the outcome. If you have not heard within a month, call the Human Resources Department to follow-up.
After the Interview
You may be one of the lucky few who is offered the job after your first interview. But, if you are like most of us, you will have more interviews and opportunities to improve your interviewing skills. Learn from the experience and try not to be discouraged. Identify and address any weaknesses in your application or interview. For example, should you learn more about student equity or obtain training in an online Learning Management System? Do you need more teaching or committee experience? Should you experiment with some innovative strategies in the classroom? The time spent preparing for an interview is not wasted if you aren’t offered the job. The preparation and interview will help you reflect on how to improve your teaching and will give you better perspective on how community colleges and departments function. Once you are hired as a full-time faculty member, what you have learned during the application and interview process will make you a more effective teacher and a better colleague.
Christina Gold is the Dean of Behavioral and Social Sciences at El Camino College in Torrance, California. She taught U.S. history for almost twenty-five years and earned the Distinguished Faculty award at ECC. Dr. Gold also served as the President of the ECC Academic Senate and the Chair of the OAH Community College Committee.
Cited in Grace Chen, “Why Obama is Hailed as the Community College President,” Community College Review, Aug. 7, 2018.
American Association of Community Colleges, “Fast Facts, 2018,” March 2018.