Hiring? The Best Question To Ask a Job Candidate

What were your high school dreams?

Your Business Blogger is noticing a troubling trend in the hiring process. Lots and lots of personality questionnaires. Psycho-testing. Honesty testing. Handwriting analysis.

But if you want to do well in interviewing job candidates, get Smart.

No, not the secret agent. Get Brad. Brad Smart, Ph.D..

A friend from an Ivy League university group eMailed asking about interview questions a while back.

She wanted to be prepared. She knew better than to waste time asking job seekers stupid questions, So tell me about yourself…

There’s a better way. Unless you really, really trust your HR department.

The best question, as Brad suggests is,

What were your career plans in high school?

For the interviewer, the easiest way to gauge compatibility is to determine the ‘happiness’ of the job candidate. If he’s not happy were he is, he won’t be happy were he’s going.

I recommend these candidate contentment questions; a legal line of questioning:

Tell me about your high school days.

What did you want to be then?

What was your dream?

Yes. High School. All of life is high school. [sigh]

The rationale is that the closer the current position of the candidate to his High School dream, the more content the candidate is. You should only hire contentment. With fire-in-the-belly.

For example, take my favorite example, Your Business Blogger. I proclaimed in high school the desire to be a ‘merchant.’ A peddler and presenter. A salesman of intangible Big Ideas.

Today, for me: Nirvana. A consultant with a blog.

A review. Here’s a quick three point landing for evaluating a job candidate:

1) Symmetry and chemistry
2) High school dreams
3) Track record

1) Don’t fill the slot with a cheap date. In the job search, as in a search for the mother/father of your future children, symmetry and chemistry is fertile ground. And like getting married, this is the first hurtle in seeking and/or filling a position. It is a courtship dance of both parties on both sides of the interviewing table.

This was the one thing Jack Welsh didn’t bother to quantify. (Except, maybe the cheap date from Harvard part.) (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Although he could certainly justify his decisions. But the big decisions involved more than numbers. It was, well, a feeling. Welsh named his book after it: Straight from the Gut . It also can be called wisdom and judgment.

For example, anyone who would work with Your Business Blogger would probably like this article: Dads, Death and Debt of Honor.

If you don’t care for the article or the writing or my world view, you won’t like me. And I won’t care for you much either. Symmetry and chemistry.

2) Too cool for school. I was Co-Captain of our high school basketball team, a lifetime achievement once dismissed by a recruiter. His client didn’t have a basketball team, he snorted.


He obviously did appreciate my leadership skills…so I didn’t get the girls, the NBA didn’t call, I didn’t get the job. Ask about high school. Get ready for angst.

3) A reasonable rearview mirror. The final point is the easiest. The track record. Where the best indication of future performance is past performance. The easiest to measure. And verify through reference checks.

Even with candidates competing for entry level jobs, there should be few surprises on how the new hire will turn out. Hire character and integrity first. Job competence can be trained. Goodness, even gruff personalities can be coached. But counseled only on a firm foundation of Boy Scout qualities. Beyond knowledge, skills and abilities.

And there will be a test. At every open job position to be filled.

And you thought you were done with high school.



Jack Yoest John Wesley (Jack) Yoest Jr., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Management at The Catholic University of America. His expertise is in management training and development, operations, sales, and marketing. Professor Yoest is the president of Management Training of DC, LLC. A former Captain in the U.S. Army and with various stints as a corporate executive, he also served as Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Resources in the Administration of Governor James Gilmore of Virginia.

19 Reactions
  1. While I agree with these points, I will also point out that you need to be very careful to not hire someone who is too much like you.

    By asking these types of questions, you may fall prey to accepting only the answers that match your dreams and ideas. That is dangerous and not effective if you are trying to grow a company. You need a balance of people with ideas and passion who will question “why?” and ask the tough questions, but one who will also know when they have to accept the answer and go with the team. That is the toughest character trait to find in a good employee.


  2. I like the basic premise behind the idea of asking a job candidate about their high school dream but I am a little concerned about placing too much emphasis on the response to this question.

    While many high schoolers have big dreams and know what they want to be when they “grow up”, many still have no clue. Knowing what one wants to do with the rest of their life may not come until years later, sometimes decades.

    As an interviewer, I would be less concerned about judging a candidate’s contentment based on what their high school dreams were and would be more focused on the present. As an adult, what are your dreams now and how is this job you are interviewing for helping you to fulfill that dream?

  3. I have mixed feeling about this matter. On the one hand, I agree with you that high schoold days are important. On the other hand, there are thousnads of people who did a change in their career and became successful. Perhaps, you are a good example of it. You were a corporate person and now you are the icon of small business trends.

  4. IMHO, for any but younger candidates, HS is too far in the past to be relevant… I never gave serious thought about a career in HS, but I knew what I was good at and what studies I wanted to pursue when I got out. These then led me to my (later) chosen field.

    As an experienced worker, I would be uncomfortable with such a question in an interview and it would stain my opinion of the company.

  5. I have to disagree with the High School question. Many of those tools which have given me the ability to express my creativity were not available when I was in High School. What I wanted to do when I was in High School has become very irrelevant in many ways to me.

  6. Anita,

    I can see the value of this question, but I can also see a major drawback. Ask this question of someone from a dysfunctional family, someone whose world view may not have been perfect through no fault of their own, and that finally found their passion after an honest, personal search — perhaps in college, or perhaps after college — and your gauge just gave you a bad reading.

    My dream in high school was to attend GMI and become an automotive engineer. Alas, they took their last freshman class in the fall of 1975 (I graduated high school in 1977), leaving me to take another look.

    A few years later, while in college, I found that my strengths were in writing and editing. After college, I found my passion: the Internet. My passion hadn’t even been invented while I was in high school! So I took every free hour I had to learn web design, development, server technologies, scripting languages, databases — everything I could to become a fully capable web designer and developer. And I have become just that.

    Am I happy? Ecstatic!

    Well, almost… I could be happier if I was employed rather than searching for a constant flow of independent side jobs…

  7. It’s a great question, so long as the interviewer uses it only as an unscientific personality indicator, not as any sort of career satisfaction statement. “Close but no cigar” on a career track may indicate frustration and bitterness, instead of contentment.

    I am a PR consultant, and it’s not all that unusual to interview candidates whose original career plan was to be a newspaper reporter or the Great American Novelist. I would be much more interested in the personality of someone who ended up in PR after planning to be a lion tamer, a fire fighter, or a professional wrestler!

  8. Kezia, my point — exactly.

  9. I think this is tongue-in-cheek idiocy.

    I mean, come on. My two sons are in college, just fresh out of high school. One wants to be an architect, the other isn’t sure yet. The one who isn’t sure has great sales and people skills and tested gifted in high school. The one who knows just decided this after high school, although we had coached him throughout toward a couple interesting and lucrative career goals that took in his ability to draw and handle comlex mathematics equations.

    Point: they are kids and dreams are fine, but life isn’t about being happy or finding all of our dreams. We have to raise teens to be professionals. You don’t have to be happy eveyday to work hard and be a professional. You just have to find a place of contentment.

    I suggest the following solid old-fashioned tactics when looking for a good emmployee.

    Work samples.
    A solid interview process, meet the boss, meet the team, etc.
    Integrity/honesty is important, but one can’t always nail these with certainty during interviews.
    Skills tests are good ways to be sure what is going to be expected can be handled. I took one once before landing a job writing large gov’t. proposals. I had to take one small paragraph, and a series of bulleted items and turn that into a two page bid for a company I knew very little about. You can either do that, or you can’t.
    Check professional references.
    Go with your gut.

    Let high school be high school. It is a stepping stone toward adulthood, a base for higher education, a hotbed for the maturing brain. It is not a time of certainties or the solidifying of values and goals, etc. It is the springboard.

    Concerned in Denver.

  10. Mike, The Key Word you mentioned is ‘contentment.’ I think you might have lurched into the truth. (Which is how I usually uncover what is true.) Here is my favorite example from the most important search I ever conducted:


  11. An interview is meant to be a two-way street. The hiring manager is interviewing you to determine whether you’re the best fit for the job. At the same time, you should be asking questions to determine whether you would be happy in the position or with the company.
    But once nerves take over, it’s easy to forget your role. After all, you’re meeting on the employer’s schedule in an unfamiliar office. After listening to the interviewer’s monologue about the company and role, you’re asked a barrage of questions about your background and future plans ” all the while praying that you’re delivering the “right” answers.
    By the time the employer asks if you have any questions, it’s easy to be so drained and nervous you can only stammer out, “Nope.”

  12. High school dreams as a hiring criteria? Are you an idiot? Not everyone is a recent hs grad. Believe it or not, most people looking for a job left high school a long, long, long time ago.

    Yikes! Using the dreams of a 14-18 year old mind as a current measure of motivation is just plain ridiculous. At that age, kids are impractical, naive, unaware and a bit delusional. It’s the hormones.

    Apparently, you should have had more technical / analytical aspirations when you were young. Then, you might actually have developed a capacity to reason and analyze the advice of “Brad”. Through experience, you learn NOT to take the advice of PhDs. They have lots of academic horsepower, but no common sense or real world experience. In other words, they are intellectuals, not managers.

  13. Two Ring Dings, to be exact. ,

  14. I would agree that asking a job candidate “What were your career plans in high school” is better than the typical “so, tell me about yourself” type questions. However, the only benefit of asking this question would be to gain more insight into the candidates personality, thought process and, more specifically, how they have transformed since high school. This question would become more effective if it were followed by “Why do you feel those plans never came to fruition?” An interviewer could potentially uncover character flaws or other red flags.

  15. Lucky for me I knew what I wanted to do first semester of my freshmen year of High School. I don’t believe a lot of people do and I know people change when they graduate. High school does not define who were are is my point. What matters is knowing where the potential employee is coming from and whether they are happy where they are now. They could have believed they would never make it to college, but then graduated and worked very hard in college for that bachelor’s degree. Knowing a potential employee’s progress since high school is also useful. In my opinion, if an employer wants to learn about a candidate they should look at the candidate’s achievements since high school, their background and whether they are content where they are in their career path. Personally, I believe it is more useful to look at the most recent years of the potential employee’s life to understand who they are today.

  16. I found this line extremely compelling, “If he’s not happy were he is, he won’t be happy were he’s going.” This is something that I have found very true in my own life and my observation of others. It isn’t until a person stops complaining about their situation and makes a personal change that their surroundings improve. Happiness and true fulfilment comes from within, I think its very important that you pointed this out. This one line in the very beginning of the article is more compelling to me than all three of the points detailed throughout the rest.

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