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Home > Training > Would you rather be a hammer or a nail?: A look at some mock job interview questions

Would you rather be a hammer or a nail?: A look at some mock job interview questions

It is clear that Pre-release mock job interviews offer direct benefits to inmate students and their teachers.  The former gains confidence from the successful completion of the interview itself.  The latter can attribute part of the students’ success to their abilities as instructors. 




But the indirect benefits are rarely examined.  Custody staff benefit from prisoners participating in vocational education in the same ways that programs enhance security.  A busy, productive prisoner body eases tensions in the facility.  And all prisoners are permitted to feel hope from the promise of another program that supports reintegration.  The job market reaps the harvest of a better-prepared pool of candidates.  Of course, taxpayers and society benefit from a lowered recidivism rate. In short, whether in a subtle or obvious manner, everyone wins when the pre-release mock job interview is conducted well.


The gains from a well-run vocational education interview cannot be questioned.  But behooves us to examine a few things. We must ask the following questions.  What kinds of interview questions do we ask?  What are the true purposes behind the questions?  Is the process enhanced by how we arrange the interview questions? How many “trick questions” should be asked?


What do we ask?  Ask questions that prisoners will encounter in a real world interview.  It is best to sample from classic job interview questions.  These are available in dozens of books and on many web sites. For example:


> Will you tell me about yourself?

> What did you like most about your last job?

> What kind of people do you like to work with?

> What motivates you?

> What is your best quality?



Why do we ask?  We take inmates through interviews in order that they may be prepared for real-life job seeking.  And with a scrupulous mindset, we do not endeavor to prepare dishonest, professional interviewers.  The goal is to enable prisoners to obtain skills to help themselves get jobs. Naturally, it falls to the discretion of the individual instructor as to how much coaching should be done in the process.


How can we arrange the questions?  The questions can be asked in opposing pairs.  For example, What do you like about your current job?  What do you dislike about your current job?  Or, what was the best aspect of your last job?  What was the worst aspect of your last job?  The purpose of this is to demonstrate to the inmate that there are two sides to the coin.  Information can be gained in a variety of ways.  Through carefully arranged questions, employers can determine if a candidate is positive, negative, or realistic. 


Other questions can be asked in pairs.  For example, What kind of people do you like to work with?  What kind of people do you prefer not to work with?  If the pairs are asked in succession, the prisoner/student can see patterns and assume reasoning of the questioning.


Trick questions. Each interviewer should consider using some cunning questions.  The goal is not to foster paranoia or to stage a failure through confusion.  But, a few in the mix will prepare the prisoner to think quickly when faced with a real-life interview. The final touch to this is a post-interview critique.  That is where the true learning occurs.



Where do you see yourself in five years? The purpose is to see if the candidate is living in the present, or thinking about the future.  Sometimes the answer, ambitious in the mind of the responder, may be perceived as aggressive. Often, one will hear this response; “I’ll have your job in five years!” In the post interview critique, the prisoner should be reminded that those seeking jobs should never proclaim that they intend to replace their supervisor.


Will you tell me about your time in prison? Prisoners should be cautioned to stay away from blaming others for their troubles.  During practice, the instructor can phrase this as “What did you learn while incarcerated?”  Prisoner should be taught to gently guide the interview toward positive aspects of programming and self-growth.


Would you rather be a hammer or a nail?  The purpose of this is to determine if the candidate is part of a team, a pawn, or a leader. Typically the answer is aggressive: “I’m going to be the hammer and do the hitting!”  The best answer, most would agree, is conditional.  “I would be a hammer when action is needed.  I would be a nail when cohesion is important.”



As taxpayers, we want prisoners to come out of the system ready to seek employment. The conscientious instructor would hope to evoke honest introspection in the answers, not canned, insincere replies. It is possible to achieve the former with a well considered pre-release mock job interview.   Many benefit from this program. Because of the far-reaching positive potential of this program, it is worth while to analyze the process in detail.




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joebouchard Training

  1. John Rakis
    May 23rd, 2010 at 10:51 | #1

    Correctional agencies involved in preparing prisoners for the world of work will want to obtain a copy of “Career Resource Centers – An Emerging Strategy for Improving Offender Employment Outcomes,” a new release from the National Institute of Corrections. The document is an information-rich bulletin that provides a step-by-step guide for setting up a Career Resource Center in a correctional facility, a parole or probation office, or a community-based organization. It includes a companion, multimedia DVD that contains many of the resources needed to operate an effective center. Through an easy-to-use menu that parallels the written text, the user can watch videotaped interviews with practitioners, install career assessment software, and read dozens of documents related to career exploration, offender reentry, collaboration building and much more. A no cost copy of this bulletin can be obtained by calling NIC’s information center at 1 (800) 877-1461 and asking for item number 023066 or by visiting NIC on the web at

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