A strategy guide for student leaders by student leaders.
Tryouts are a vital part of the recruiting process that let’s you select the candidates who are most qualified for and interested in your organization. Your tryouts should thus test both the skills and cultural fit of your prospective applicants.
Tryouts are a vital part of your recruitment process. It’s simultaneously the most difficult hoop your prospective applicants will need to jump through while also being the most specific. Your tryouts should be split into two sections: skills assessment and cultural fit. The first section should focus on skills that are necessary to succeed in your organization. Build an assessment that allows them to demonstrate that prospective students have either the necessary skills or the potential to develop them. Second, you’ll want to ensure a cultural fit. While you want to maintain an open mind with regard to the type of people you want to accept, there are certain qualities that you should aim to weed out like laziness, apathy, and disloyalty. Your interview should seek to identify if your prospective candidate displays any of those tendencies.
That being said, certain personality characteristics are difficult to identify. The biases of your evaluating members may also come into play when evaluating an individual’s cultural fit. Therefore, you should weigh the skills assessment higher than the culture fit. I personally use a 65% to 35% weight towards the skills assessment (in other words, I consider the skills assessment to be about 2 times as important as the cultural fit). Select the distribution that makes the most sense for you.
In case two, if you’re the leader of an organization that focuses on board games or intramural sports, etc. You may want to create a more relaxed environment where people can come and go as they please. In those scenarios, it may not be necessary to hold tryouts.
As you think about what you want your applicants to demonstrate in the skills section of the tryout, you’ll want to identify the skills that make a great member of your team. A desired skill can vary depending on your organization. To assist with this process, I’ve included some examples from tryouts that I’ve held:
CS1 (Speech & Debate): The Speech & Debate Team’s main goal was both to improve our members’ ability to communicate and to achieve competitive success. Thus, our tryouts asked potential members to prepare a presentation or an argument. For public address, the persuasiveness, emotional impact, and delivery of the presentation would be evaluated. For debaters, a mock debate was staged with evaluations focusing on analytics, insight, and argumentation.
CS2 (Consult for America): As a consulting organization, we focus on helping our clients solve their business dilemmas. Thus we presented a brief business problem to our applicants and asked them their ideas to solve the problem. We were looking for succinct, logical, and complete analysis. We were also looking for a sensible process and a coherent style of communication. Therefore, we created an assessment that simulated a difficult client interaction and monitored the applicant’s response.
Depending on the type of skills assessment you decide to hold, you’ll want to ensure appropriate preparation time. Optimally, you’ll give your participants a week to prepare from the date of your last information session. If you hold tryouts too soon, your applicants won’t have time to prepare and you won’t be able to differentiate who worked hard to join your organization and who didn’t. If you hold tryouts more than a week out, people will have joined other organizations and may not be interested in joining another. Not to mention, giving your newcomers a week will give them time to stew about their chances and talk with their friends about the process for entering your group. It will build up anticipation and make your students feel invested in the process. A week will balance optimal preparation time without sacrificing the momentum of your recruitment process.
Lastly, tryouts should not be longer than an hour per participant. If you have many applicants, they might even be as short as fifteen minutes. Plan accordingly.
Many of the best practices for event planning are relevant for tryouts. Advertise your tryouts at the activities fair and at your information sessions. Secure a suitable room. Ensure that you start and end on time.
Your application form should be straightforward. Create a form that people can fill out online. It should be required that they provide their name, email, category of tryout, and desired timeslot. You should also ask them to provide a picture. This will make the evaluation process simpler as it can be easy to forget applicants if you have many of them.
Have people sign up to judge tryouts who are knowledgeable about the skills you want identified and secured. If you can provide all your judges with an agreed upon set of criteria, all the better. Additionally, strive for diversity of judges to ensure that no particular personality style is favored. Tryouts can span many hours and multiple days. Build in breaks so that your judges can have time to relax, and you don’t disadvantage an applicant with a crabby panel of judges.
On the day you hold tryouts, print out a sign that both identifies your organization and asks applicants to wait to be escorted into the tryout room. It’s also a nice touch to have a greeter who puts your applicants at ease as well.
As your tryouts progress, you’ll want to ensure as much consistency of format as possible. This way, you’ll be able to judge fairly across all applicants.
CS1 (Speech & Debate): During our first year of Speech & Debate tryouts, one option an individual could select was impromptu speaking. However, we found that anyone who tried out doing impromptu was found to be vastly inferior to those who were performing prepared speeches. Impromptu is a difficult event even for seasoned competitors. Thus, we were unable to determine whether the applicant had not prepared for the tryout or if he/she was having a difficult time due to the nature of the event. We eventually eliminated impromptu as a potential tryout selection in order to level the playing field.
After the skills assessment, you’ll move to the fit portion of your tryout. Your questions during this portion should be tailored to the kind of person that you would want to accept into your organization. Of course, you have your generic questions which have their merit in establishing expectations. Questions like these should be present in any fit interview and will give you a preliminary gauge regarding the interviewees’ motivations and potential dedication:
Why do you want to join organization X?
What do you hope to gain from organization X? What do you hope to contribute?
How much time a week do you think you could dedicate to organization X?
However, it behooves you to ask questions that will allow you to select members who you’d like to be on a team with. I lean towards kind, self-reflective team players. Some questions I might use to evaluate if a person fits that criteria include the following:
What is the best and worst thing anyone has ever said about you?
How would the world be different if you never existed?
What does it mean to be a productive member of a team?
What would you do if you knew no one would judge you?
Or, perhaps, you want to recruit people with a sense of humor. Some relevant questions might be as follows:
What would you do if you found a pink ostrich in your room?
What is your favorite animal? Pretend to be that animal for 10 seconds.
Tell me a joke.
Again, focus on the type of person you want on your team and filter your questions accordingly. Consistency is the key! If you want to ensure a good fit, try and predict qualities you’d like to identify for each question and what type of answers show that quality. Once you’ve selected your questions, ask the same questions to all applicants (you may deviate with follow-up questions as necessary). Apply the same standard to all candidates and you’ll be able to mitigate potential hidden biases that you or your teammates have.
Once your tryouts have concluded, I recommend having your judges make decisions immediately. This way, the tryouts are still fresh in their minds. Lively discussion should be had. Start with applicants who are obvious accepts or obvious denies and work your way toward the middle of the pack.