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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

Ace Your Administrative Assistant Interview by Learning How to Answer These 10 Questions

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An administrative assistant works to make their team, a group of executives, or a group of other admins successful, while getting things done in the most efficient way possible. While often behind the scenes, they’re at the core of the business.

“Assistants are uniquely positioned in the center of the organization,” said Peggy Vasquez, author of Not, “Just An Admin!” “They have contact with more people, systems, businesses, [and] clients than anyone else in the company. They have a ton of influence and insight that can make a company be extremely successful or not.” Whether you’re looking for an administrative assistant role as a career launchpad to move into a variety of positions, to become a trusted partner to the CEO or another executive, or to be an invaluable team member at the center of a company, you first need to impress during an interview.

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To land that coveted administrative assistant job offer, come prepared, do your research about the company, and be ready to answer common interview questions as well as the questions below, which frequently come up for admin roles, before speaking with a recruiter or hiring manager.

What Are Interviewers Looking for When They’re Hiring for Administrative Assistant Roles?

For entry- and mid-level administrative assistants, companies seek candidates with great soft skills, more so than a predefined number of years’ experience or technical background.

In general, hiring managers are looking for candidates who communicate effectively, solve problems creatively, and stay on top of endless details to support the team and help everyone move the business forward.

The main things hiring managers are looking for are:

  • Communications skills: As an administrative assistant, you’ll interact with employees at all levels across the company. Communicating in a collaborative, professional, and effective way is key. Hiring managers search for a candidate with those strong communication skills above all else because they know that how well an administrative assistant communicates can make a massive impact on the organization.
  • Organizational skills: In this role, you’ll be responsible for managing calendars, planning events, project managing, and otherwise hitting deadlines. The small details are vital. When your executive misses a meeting, money could be on the line. An admin staying organized helps the business meet its goals.
  • Collaboration skills: As an administrative assistant you’ll work with your manager or managers as well as folks in other departments to keep everything running smoothly and deliver on projects. You need to be able to do this effectively.
  • Computer skills: Much of an administrative assistant’s role is on the computer, whether that be reviewing or writing emails, managing calendars, or crafting PowerPoint presentations. However, you can gain computer skills on the job, whereas communication skills are much harder to teach. So if this is your weak point, don’t panic! You can still land a great position if you show you’re willing and able to learn.

Keep these skills in mind as you prepare to answer questions for your administrative assistant interview. Working them in where it makes sense can help solidify you as the best candidate in the mind of a recruiter or hiring manager.

  1. What Tools Do You Use to Stay Organized?
  2. Describe a Situation Where You Made a Mistake. How Did You Take Ownership of This Mistake, and What Did You Learn?
  3. How Do You Juggle Competing High-Priority Projects?
  4. What Computer Programs and Software Are You Comfortable Using?
  5. How Would You Handle a Project That You Feel Stuck On?
  6. What Was Your Most Significant Contribution to a Team You Worked With in the Past?
  7. Tell Me About a Time When You Needed to Show Discretion.
  8. Tell Me About a Time You Had a Conflict With a Supervisor or Coworker. What Happened and How Did You Resolve It?
  9. What Makes You Stand Out Compared to Other Candidates?
  10. What’s Your Preferred Office Environment?

What Tools Do You Use to Stay Organized?

Hiring managers look to administrative assistants to be the most organized person in the office. Whether it’s scheduling meetings, hitting deadlines, or having documents ready at a moment’s notice, staying organized is essential to executing the role well. Organizational tools—from Google Calendar to Asana and other project management software—can help you excel in this role, so don’t be afraid to tout that you have experience with these.

Staying organized goes beyond making sure you know where every file is. “It may sound simple to manage calendars, but it makes a huge impact on an organization and can be complex. The admin must exercise good judgment and drive the right priorities,” says Treena Diebolt, Peloton’s VP, Global Talent Attraction.

How to Answer

Before your interview, think about what project management, organizational, and calendaring tools you have used in past roles or your personal life. Be ready to explain what functions you use within the tools to keep yourself organized, such as Asana’s daily email that alerts everyone on a project of an impending deadline.

Here’s an example of how an answer to this question might sound:

“I sync my checklist through G Suite so I can easily pivot from my calendar to my email and to-do list. In my last role, I also took notes during my weekly one-on-one meetings with the manager I reported to. I would email him the summary and a list of any action items for both of us afterward. Then, I’d update any project details and deadlines in Asana, so our to-do list was clear. This system helped us both stay organized and held us both accountable to our goals.”

Describe a Situation Where You Made a Mistake. How Did You Take Ownership of This Mistake, and What Did You Learn?

No one is perfect, and mistakes inevitably happen even to the best administrative assistants. Hiring managers understand this and want to know how you’ll own up to an error, quickly find a solution, and learn from it to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

How to Answer

You should come prepared with a real example of a scenario in which you made a mistake. Take time to reflect on this mistake, why it happened, and what you did to rectify the situation. Finally, discuss what you learned and what you do differently now to avoid making the same mistake again.

Use the STAR method to craft your answer (to this and other behavioral questions) to best explain your story and make sure you convey all the key points. STAR is an acronym that stands for:

  • Situation: Set the scene and give any necessary details.
  • Task: Describe what you were responsible for in this situation.
  • Action: Lay out what steps you took to address it.
  • Result: Share the results of your actions.

For example:

“As an intern last summer, my responsibilities included scheduling car service for my boss, even during his vacations. I forgot he had a 24-hour layover in Chicago on a Saturday and failed to schedule a car pick-up service from the airport to his hotel. I was in a movie with my phone silenced, so I missed his calls for more than two hours. When I realized what happened, I knew I had to fix it.

I called him, owned up to my mistake, and apologized without an excuse. After that mistake, I rearranged my schedule to allow 30 minutes every Friday to review my boss’s travel schedule and confirm I’d made all the necessary arrangements and double-checked them. I even started dropping scheduled pick-up times, confirmation numbers, and the best contact person to reach out to right in his calendar in case he can’t get a hold of me.

“I haven’t made that mistake again since his Chicago vacation and other interns at the company also started following my system.”

How Do You Juggle Competing High-Priority Projects?

Some administrative assistants report to multiple supervisors; others may have a broad scope of responsibilities, which means they oversee numerous high-priority tasks. Managers use this question to discover how the candidate manages their time and uses their judgment skills to prioritize tasks.

How to Answer

You should demonstrate how you can juggle multiple projects—whether that be work projects or schoolwork—by explaining how you divide your time and prioritize among various projects. This is also an excellent chance to showcase your judgment skills.

This might sound something like:

“In college, it always felt like big papers were all due the same week. Before getting started on the actual work, I’d take the time to briefly lay out deadlines in my planner. Then, I’d predict how long each would take me and make a plan in advance for how to get everything done on time, building in some buffer to account for any delays or obstacles. I’m someone who likes checking off a list, so I’d complete some of the shorter projects first, or ones I knew came more easily to me to help build momentum. I’d prioritize the papers due earlier in the week but would also be sure to give projects that were worth larger portions of my grade more scheduled time.

“In this role, I’d be sure to ask my manager for clear deadlines and make sure I understood the impact of each project on the business. For example, I’d want to make sure to know if they’d want me to prioritize a certain project if I’m in a time crunch. For projects with similar deadlines, I’d be sure to set clear expectations with my managers of what will be done first and when. I’d sketch out a plan on my end like I always have during finals weeks to ensure I was on track for every assignment.”

What Computer Programs and Software Are You Comfortable Using?

Hiring managers generally don’t mind doing some computer training, but they want to see you have some experience using different software and are willing to learn any other programs needed on the job.

People who are hiring admin assistants are often looking for experience in Microsoft Office Suite—especially PowerPoint to help craft internal or external presentations for the team. Depending on the job, hiring managers might want a candidate who is proficient in social media, can manage online conferencing, is adept in document creation, or has experience using collaboration software, says Stephanie Naznitsky, the executive director of OfficeTeam, a division of Robert Half that specializes in placing highly skilled office and administrative professionals.

How to Answer

You should come ready to list which programs you’ve used in the past and explain the level of understanding you have in each. Depending on the company, they’ll use different software, so check the job description to see what they’re looking for. If no specific programs are listed, prioritize mentioning big-name software, such as Salesforce, Slack, G Suite, or Microsoft Teams. You can also draw attention to which programs you learned quickest—to show that even if you haven’t used some particular program this team relies on, you’re a fast and eager learner who could easily pick it up.

For instance:

“Personally, I use G Suite products to email, create my resume, and design presentations. In school, we utilized Microsoft Teams for virtual learning during the pandemic. I’d never used Microsoft Teams before, but quickly needed to learn. I used Microsoft’s website to teach myself the basics and watched a few YouTube videos to discover shortcuts and helpful tips. I found I got comfortable with the program really quickly and was even able to help one of my professors troubleshoot in real time when he couldn’t quite figure out how to work a new feature. I know ABC Company uses Zoom, Slack, and Trello, which I’m confident I could learn just as quickly. I’d spend a few hours before my first day watching videos to learn tips and tricks and get up to speed.”

How Would You Handle a Project That You Feel Stuck On?

A stressed or busy manager may delegate a project to an administrative assistant without fully explaining the goals or the process they expect. Here, hiring managers are looking for an administrative assistant who will show initiative and ask for help instead of completing the project haphazardly.

How to Answer

Lay out the steps you’d take and your perspective on seeking help. You should first explain how you would research and look to solve problems yourself. You can also talk about turning to other resources and connections in the company—finding examples of similar projects completed in the past or reaching out to someone you know has done similar work before. Then, describe how you’d seek clarification from your manager if needed.

You should say that as the admin, you know your manager’s schedule and know when they’re busy, Naznitsky says. Then you can say that you’d “either use your one-on-one meeting or book time to ask for clarification. Booking 10 minutes now can save you hours of worthless work or wasted time.”

For example, you might say something like:

“If I got stuck on a project, first I would spend a little time trying to problem solve myself by referencing my notes from the project rollout. Then if I was still struggling, I’d consider reaching out to a peer who was also in the meeting or who might have experience with similar projects in the past. Ultimately, even if my manager is busy, I know taking a few minutes of their time now will save more time later and make the project stronger. So I’d be sure to either use my weekly one-on-one meeting or reference their calendar to find a small slot for me to step in for a quick catch-up. Before meeting with my manager, I’d prepare specific, to-the-point questions to use the limited time we might have together effectively and get the clarification I needed. ”

What Was Your Most Significant Contribution to a Team You Worked With in the Past?

Administrative assistants can shine in event planning, project management, or organizational projects that help a team function more efficiently. While administrative assistants do have defined roles, they’ll often also be asked to take on new projects or “fill the void” if something needs to be completed and no one else can do it. Hiring managers seek candidates who will work well with others and can help their team function at a higher level.

How to Answer

Come prepared to talk about a marquee project or contribution you’ve made to past teams you’ve worked on. If you’re more entry-level, think about any major group project you did in a class or as part of an extracurricular group.

When choosing a project to describe, pick something you’re passionate about to allow your interests, best traits, and personality to come to the forefront. “Think about what you enjoyed the most, [then] create simplistic bullets to describe what it was, what was being asked of you, and the creative solutions you had, and then describe the outcome,” Naznitsky says. Be ready to explain how you spearheaded or contributed to the project, took charge of your responsibilities, and executed on time. Then wrap up with how this helped the team flourish or meet its goals.

Here’s how this might sound:

“In my last job, I oversaw two vice presidents’ schedules for a small nonprofit. The culture there was very meeting heavy, and these VPs often had six hour-long meetings a day. I could see they were getting fatigued going from meeting to meeting all day, with barely time for a bathroom break! I read an article about how meetings fill the time you give them.

I shared this with my managers and recommended we adjust all internal meetings to 50 minutes instead of 60 to give everyone time to catch up on email or Slack or just take a quick break. I had to work with the tech team to create a rollout plan for adjusting everyone’s calendars to default to 50 minutes when creating an event, perfect the messaging so the entire company would understand the adjustment, and research and share tips for being just as productive with ten fewer minutes to work with. In the end, the entire staff was happy with this significant culture shift and felt more productive even though meetings were using less time.”

Tell Me About a Time When You Needed to Show Discretion.

Administrative assistants often help manage communication, scheduling, and other projects for the management of a company without details leaking to the entire staff. Meanwhile, the rest of the staff often sees administrative assistants as a peer to confide in, which can help the organization function better, but also requires administrative assistants to use their judgment about different situations.

How to Answer

When answering a question about discretion, use discretion. Divulging all the details of the situation will hurt you and show that you don’t know when to omit information to protect your company or your colleagues.

“Think about this ahead of time, because explaining too many details—that doesn’t show discretion!” says Julie Perrine, founder and CEO of All Things Admin, a training company for administrative professionals. Talking about a situation vaguely but still giving enough detail to get your point across takes practice.

If you’re an entry-level candidate, hiring managers may skip this question, but if it comes your way, think of a club you participated in during college and use an example from there. You can also use the STAR method to structure this answer.

“My last manager was an executive who counted on me to be aware of the sentiment toward changes and the general morale of the team. I started hearing rumblings that people were unhappy about a few issues I knew would make her upset. My coworkers knew I was close with the executive, but they also trusted me and confided in me so I could help the entire office function better. I decided to go to my executive and tell her what I was hearing overall but not to give names or any other details that would make it clear to her where the feedback was coming from. Omitting the names helped my executive process the information better. It allowed her to work to fix the problem for the staff without holding grudges against anyone in particular. By using discretion about the identities of the unhappy workers, I built trust on both sides and we were able to improve everyone’s experience in the office.”

Tell Me About a Time You Had a Conflict With a Supervisor or Coworker. What Happened and How Did You Resolve It?

Workplace disagreements and conflicts are natural. As an administrative assistant, you interact with a lot of the staff, so the likelihood of a dispute arising is higher. Hiring managers use this question to assess if you possess the ability to self-reflect, self-analyze, and learn from past experiences.

How to Answer

“Don’t answer with ‘I never have conflict, I get along with everyone.’ That’s BS. Everyone has conflict. Tell a story. How did you resolve it?” Vasquez says. If hiring managers are asking this question, they don’t care that the conflict happened, they want to know what you did to fix it and keep working without repeating the same conflict.

For entry-level candidates, Vasquez says you can use conflicts from outside work, such as a disagreement during the sorority recruitment process or a classmate failing to carry their weight during a group project. Come ready to succinctly explain what happened, where the conflict arose, and how you reached a solution, or if it couldn’t be resolved, how you decided to move forward. Never insult a coworker or former boss. Instead, focus on how you thought creatively to come to that resolution and what you learned.

Vasquez recommends practicing your answer so you can remove some of the emotion when telling a story about a charged or frustrating situation.

Your answer might sound like this:

“During a group project in a class, we had to plan a fake event, managing a budget and sketching out every last detail of what it would look like. My partner for the assignment had drastically different opinions about how to spend the money in the fake budget. He wanted to spend the money on a large headliner to attract bigger crowds, and I wanted to make sure there were enough refreshment stands, porta potties, and event staff to ensure everyone was comfortable and cared for. We were both passionate about earning a good grade, as it affected our final GPA. This disagreement stalled our work for nearly three days.

“I knew that moving forward with the project and committing to a decision—regardless of whether we went with my approach or not—was the only way for us both to achieve our ultimate goal of planning a strong event and receiving a good grade. So I reached out to him with my plan for a compromise where we both came down on our budgets for the things we wanted. I proposed negotiating the fee with a relatively big headliner, so we could still get someone notable but have some money left for a refreshment station. He agreed and we were able to move forward and get an A on the assignment.

“I learned that when you hit a roadblock, thinking creatively can help you find a new way to incorporate multiple good ideas without sacrificing quality, money, or your deadline. ”

What Makes You Stand Out Compared to Other Candidates?

With this question, hiring managers want to hear what you feel your greatest assets and skills are and how those are unique to you.

How to Answer

You should reflect on your strengths before the interview. Start by looking closely at the job description and analyzing which skill or skills the hiring manager is looking for that you most embody. Give a tangible example of how these strengths have benefited a team you’ve been a part of in the past.

So you might say:

“I stand out because of my ability to solve problems creatively. Last year, I was a senior in college and planned an event for the college newspaper. Alumni were set to visit campus, conduct panels and discussions with current journalism students on career development, and participate in a networking hour. Due to COVID-19, we had to cancel the in-person event. Many on the newspaper staff were ready to cancel the event altogether, but I saw an opportunity to move the event online. Since no one had to travel anymore, we could expand the panel to include other high-profile alumni who had previously declined the invitation. We had twice the turnout expected and got feedback from students and alums about how grateful they were to have a chance to connect during such a turbulent time. I’d take that same creative thinking and apply it to my role here.”

What’s Your Preferred Office Environment?

In an interview, hiring managers not only need to gauge if a candidate has the skills necessary to excel as an administrative assistant, but they also need to check if a candidate will work well with the existing team. What the manager is looking for will depend on the office environment at that specific company.

How to Answer

Research the company you’re interviewing with ahead of time, so you understand their values and culture. If during your research you realize your goals are aligned with theirs, you’ll be able to answer more passionately. Make sure you answer honestly here. If you’re someone who thrives on collaboration, say so. On the other hand, if you’re a worker who likes to put your head down and work independently most of the time, describe that. As badly as you want the job, if the culture isn’t right, you won’t enjoy working there long term.

Here’s how that might sound:

“I love working in a collaborative environment and thrive in a fast-paced setting. My favorite job was in college when I worked as the front-desk receptionist at my school’s admissions office. Deadlines were a key part of the culture, and the staff always valued my input on any systems that could help better organize incoming applications or mail in order to expedite things. I like working with others who have the drive to get things done and are willing to work together to try new solutions.”

Hiring managers want candidates who communicate well, so practicing how to answer these typical interview questions will help you feel prepared, confident, and ready to convey why you’re the best candidate for this administrative assistant role.

After the hiring manager asks you questions, you’ll almost always have a chance to ask questions of your own. Don’t forget to come prepared! For example, you might ask the hiring manager to “describe a powerful partnership between an executive and administrative assistant,” Vasquez says, because “that will tell you a whole lot about how they view this role.”

Ultimately, “the most important thing someone can do when applying for the job is to realize it’s as much their decision as it’s the employer’s,” Diebolt says. So use your interview to help you figure out if this is the best job for you—as well as to prove you’re the best person for the job.