10 Secrets to Recruiting & Screening for Great Resident Advisors

The spring semester is the time that we spend recruiting, screening, and hiring our new resident advisors and community assistants for the fall semester. I have been a part of this process in one shape or form at multiple campuses across the country and have seen many different good and bad practices. Unfortunately, many campuses still use RA recruitment and hiring practices that are little different than when I began my own undergraduate experience 20 years ago. With that being said, I would like to offer 10 secrets to recruiting and screening for new resident advisors that I have found helpful in hiring hundreds of RA’s during the past 12 years:

1. Set the Context for the Position – Community assistants and resident advisors fulfill crucial roles on our campuses. Not only do they help us run the Housing & Residence Life business, but they are educators, role models, and potential life-savers due to the prolific mental health and alcohol & other drug issues that we must manage. If the perception is out there that the RA role on your campus is another “work-study-esque” position or simply another extracurricular activity, then you may be setting yourself up for subpar performance from potential candidates.

2. Be Explicit About Your Expectations During Recruitment – Make sure that you fully communicate to recruits your honest expectations of RA’s. Be explicit about pay, hours, on-call, responsibilities, programming, alcohol use, and role modeling. As I tell students looking to become an RA, “It not only a job, it’s a lifestyle!” I stress that if they want to do the “college thing” (e.g., partying, flexible schedule, many activities, flippant social media photos & posts, etc.) they can take advantage of those opportunities, but DO NOT become an RA as it will be a lose-lose for both of us.

3. Don’t Rule Those Out that Talk about Room-and-Board – Typically one of the first interview questions we ask candidates is: “Why do you want to be an RA?” Many professionals can be easily turned off when a student responds with the often-dreaded, “Because it pays room-and-board.” However, do not simply throw them to the “no” or “maybe” pile because of this response. Keep in mind that this could be the first time this student has ever had a job interview and is simply being honest. You should assume that every RA candidate is applying for the free room and not the higher student affairs philosophic ideals that made us into ResLife professionals. Some students are simply more saavy than others in responding to this question. However, it is you job to effectively assess whether or not a candidate has the skills to fulfil the job and not become insulted by an honest answer.

4. Use Meaningful Assessments for Hiring – Remember, you are hiring individuals to fill important roles and perform specific tasks, to achieve goals for the department, and honestly to make your job easier. You are NOT hiring them because they are good at ice-breakers or other non-job-related group activities. These types of group process activities can actually be counter-productive and may not assess anything other than showing that they are good at the “human knot.” Create candidate evaluation processes that allow them to demonstrate their knowledge of campus services, how they have been a role model, their ability to listen and follow instructions, and ability to work on a team. Examples include: having them lead a campus tour; developing a portfolio of their previous leadership and volunteering experiences; and planning, marketing, and implementing an actual hall program. In short, make them demonstrate, present, or create something.

5. Ask Meaningful Interview Questions – It pains me when I hear of colleagues creating and asking interview questions that have little or nothing to do with the attributes or qualities needed to be a good RA. Granted, I have a clinical master’s degree in mental health counseling so I was trained to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health problems. I translated these skills into assessing and “diagnosing” whether a student would be a good fit for an RA position. Past behavior usually predicts future behavior so you need to be able to seek out information related to teamwork, leadership, good decision-making, patience, and loyalty among many other qualities. Asking a candidate what their favorite color is or what kind of fruit or vegetable they would be and why is really not helpful. Your role is to assess a candidate’s ability to work on your team; a job interview is not meant to be cute or simply an extention of another ice-breaker. Ask them to describe specific examples of their experience with leading a project or team. Ask them about their pet peeves and hot-button issues and when one of those situations has arisen for them (and how they handled it). Ask them to describe a supervisor they did not respect and why. Ask them what they are most proud of and why. Again, ask behavioral-related questions to assess whether or not they would be a good fit on your team and a hard-worker.

6. Don’t Take on a “Project” – While it is the hallmark of student affairs professionals to be compassionate and always looking out for the best interests of students, you must be more discriminating when you are hiring staffers. I’ve seen many colleagues in the past hire someone who they said was “A good kid,” and the experience ended up being a workplace nightmare in the end. NFL teams do not recruit players because they may have “potential” with training and the ability to become a good athlete. They take great candidates and make them better. This should not be any different in Residence Life. If you have someone you want to mentor, get them involved in other ways, such as hall council, RHA, or other departmental opportunities rather than having them apply for an RA position. If they step up to the mark during that “trial run,” potentially consider them for next year.

7. Be Weary of Colleagues Trying to “Dump” Someone on You – Unfortunately, the politics of ResLife staffing can be similar to the drafts and trading practices of professional sport teams. In this regard, it is easy for a colleague to push one of their “ne’er-do-well’s” onto you rather than effectively supervising them. The kicker is that this colleague may come to you with promising statements about an individual, but in fact is simply looking to get rid of a problem (e.g., “I think they’d fit great on your staff!”) If you do consider such a move, make sure you screen this RA like you would a candidate just applying for the position and treat them as such.

8. Be Weary of Overcommitted Candidates –  Let’s be honest. Students who are already over-extended with their activities are usually not a good candidate for an RA position. Not only does this become a scheduling problem, but can also be counterproductive academically for the student. This is especially true for those students working off-campus. Research in Pascarella & Terenzini’s How College Affects Students illustrates that students who work more than 15 hours a week can suffer academically. This is not to say that you should always rule out students in other engagement-heavy activities, but keep in mind that students in athletics, band, internships, practica, social Greek organizations, and student teaching are always going to have loyalities split between you and their other responsibilities.

9. Use Social Media as a Screening Tool – Because Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms are so ubiquitous in the lives of our students, it only make sense to see how they represent themselves online. Recruiting and training RA’s is expensive and very time-consuming, and you should take advantage of every piece of evidence about a candidate before hiring them. By looking at their public social media information, you can easily ascertain whether or not this person would represent your department and team in the best light. An RA is in a very public role, and their social media presence is a part of that presence. As I say, “If you are going to post it, I am going to see it.” You can also specifically include discussions and questions related to social media use during the selection process with candidates (e.g. Without using names, give me an example of when you saw something an RA posted online that you thought was inappropriate?)

10. Hire a Diversity of Skills & Talents to Complement Your Own – It is very easy for those in supervisory positions to hire people that are exactly like themselves. Make it a point to recruit and assess for those skills in individuals that will complement your strengths and weaknesses and those who are already on your team. This will bring a greater depth of skills diversity to your staff that you may be lacking. Get your existing RA’s involved in the screening and selection process to help you look for individuals that have qualities and skills that your staff does not already possess.

What are some secrets of the screening and hiring process of RA’s that you can share here with your colleagues?

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