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Ask an Ethicist: Can I share my interview questions with peers?

In preparation for Fall Career Days at Penn State, we are publishing a five-part series retailed to the career-fair. Interviews can be stressful, especially for the first time. Many people feel that if they know the questions ahead of time, they’ll do a better job as they will be prepared. But is that really true? And, is knowing the questions ahead of time ethical or is it considered cheating?

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: Is it unethical for students to seek out or become informed of interview questions from a friend who interviewed with the same company or organization that they intend to also interview with?  The sometimes anxiety-provoking interview can cause some students to try and hunt down every interview question they’ll be asked, and while it may seem helpful to do so, is it truly worthwhile? Does it create more hindrances than advantages?

Wayne Cross headshotAn ethicist responds: When it comes to getting a job, some believe the most difficult part is getting an interview. For others, the interview is the part they dread the most and understandably so! Interviews can seem and be intimidating. So much so that a lot of people go through great lengths to make sure they’ll give the “perfect” interview, in hopes of obtaining that all-so-desired spot at a company or organization. One way students prepare for an interview is through mock interviews at their institution’s career center. These mock interviews use universal questions that are typically asked in interviews such as “Tell me about yourself.” Sometimes they’re even tailored for specific interviews (e.g., medical school interviews, questions for HR positions, etc.)

Using websites like Glassdoor.com to do research on a company is another way to prepare for an interview. People can visit these sites and, among other features, get firsthand accounts into how specific companies’ interviewing processes are set up, where people can actually rate their interview experience with the company, and even share the questions they were asked. This does sound like a pretty good deal, getting the questions in advance. What could make an interview easier than knowing exactly what will be asked during it? Is this ethical though?

While it’s not necessarily unethical to become informed of interview questions, it is not advantageous and actually can be a detriment to the interviewee. Some interviewers frown upon sharing interview questions and see it as cheating and unethical because principles like fairness and truthfulness are compromised. Knowing the questions ahead of time also falsely prepares the interviewee into focusing on those questions instead of the skills need to succeed at the interview. To help build these skills, I would suggest participating in a mock interview. Mock interviews are there to help interviewees become comfortable with the interview process, to gain experience with interviewing do’s and don’ts, and how to present qualities and skills without the need to memorize a script (which is what knowing the questions ahead of time tends to lead to).

To better support this, let’s take a look at interviewing itself. Breaking it down—besides getting a job—an interview has 4 main purposes:

  1. For employers to determine if you can do the job;
  2. For you to evaluate and determine if this is a job or position that you want;
  3. For both sides to determine whether or not your goals fit with the company or organization’s qualities and values; and
  4. For you to determine whether or not the employer is a good fit for you.

These four purposes share a commonality in that they are dependent on the individual knowing himself or herself.

This is why sharing interview questions can be seen as unethical to the self. You can’t memorize passion and skills. You can practice answering them—getting advice on how to express yourself, your interests, skills, and experiences—but there’s no perfect answer to be found. Interview questions are not math exam questions; the answer to ‘simplify 2x­(-3x2)3’ is going to be the same for everyone in the class, while “tell me about yourself” or “give me an example of a time you were faced with tremendous stress” will not. You could memorize seven specific questions your friend told you about and never be asked any of them; or, you could be interviewing at a consulting firm and they do ask all seven questions you were told beforehand, but then you’re thrown a curveball and asked an eighth question that your friend wasn’t.

You could spend time focusing on only the questions shared with you, but that takes away your ability of knowing yourself, your level of self-awareness. Every individual is different, therefore, every interview is different.  Preparing and practicing to better understand the interview process, to better understand yourself, is key to acing the interview. You’re not an exam question. You are you.

Wayne Cross is an interim career counselor at Penn State Career Services.  He recently graduated from Penn State with a master’s degree in Counselor Education, Career Counseling.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.