Motivating the Middle: Fighting Apathy in College Student Organizations (book review)

February 17, 2012

Combating apathy can be one of the most challenging aspects of leading or advising a student organization. The book Motivating the Middle: Fighting Apathy in College Student Organizations by T. J. Sullivan aims to offer concrete solutions for this often reoccuring problem on our campuses. T.J.’s premise is that there are three different types of student organization members: the Top-Third; the Middle-Third; and the Bottom-Third. The “Top-Third” are your organization superstars that participate in everything and are high achievers. The “Bottom-Third” members, on the other hand, are those individuals who are doing the bare minimum, if that, in terms of organization involvement.

T.J. suggests that student leaders concentrate on developing those “Middle-Third” members who are not the stellar achievers, but who do indeed participate and engage more than the “Bottom-Third” individuals. They may simply be involved in other activities, have other responsibilities, or just simply want to be involved under their own terms. By developing these particular members, the organization can benefit from increased participation and renewed vigor.

The book is 64 pages in length and is easily readable in under an hour’s time. Where many student life leadership instructors miss the mark by offering theory-dense texts that may be largely academic and undigestible for student leaders, Motivating the Middle is a leadership resource that offers concrete solutions for solving organization member apathy. This book is not only appropriate for students, but for student life professionals as well. I highly recommend this book as a text for any type of leadership course your campus offers or as an appropriate resource to include during organization board training.

The book is available for purchase on by clicking HERE. For bulk purchases of 20 or more books, contact T.J. Sullivan at and mention “StudentLifeGuru” to receive 20% off the list price. The first 50 people to share this post on Twitter by clicking below will be entered into a raffle to win a signed copy of T.J.’s book.


5 Ways to Give on Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2012

Valentine’s Day is that one special day each year to express love and friendship with the people in your life.  This is also a perfect opportunity for your campus organization to spread love and friendship in your community through volunteering, donating, and participating in charity work.

1. Organize or attend a V-Day Event. V-Day is a world-wide movement created to end violence against all women and girls. Click here to read more about V-Day. See how the University of Cincinnati has organized their V-Day Event this year.

2. Collect new and / or unopened perfume, bubble bath, lotions, and make-up. Any kind of feminine luxury item that a person in crisis could find comforting will do. Donate these items to a women’s shelter. “College Feminist Connect” posted an article describing their call to Action: Break-up to Make-up.

3. Maybe your closet is overflowing with Valentine Teddy Bears or other stuffed animals given to you by all of your admirers. Organize a “Teddy Bear and Friends” stuffed animal drive. Donate the assortment to a homeless or women’s shelter where there are bound to be children that can take comfort in a cuddly toy during a time of need. Here is how Connecticut College and Amherst joined forces in their Teddy Bear Drive to benefit a local Children’s Hospital.

4. If you have creative flare, you can make Valentine cards and centerpieces to take to a senior care facility. Here are several links with great craft ideas: Family Fun, Kaboose, Martha Stewart, All Free CraftsOrigami, Candy Free Cards, Valentine’s Day Messages. Talk to coordinators at the senior care facility to work out specific needs at the facility. For instance, candy may be off limits do to dietary regulations.

5. Many hall councils and other campus organizations sell some kind of flowers, candy-grams, or Valentine wishes. Here is a social media take on a traditional idea: Sell Facebook-grams or Twitter-grams on your organizations page or account. For a nominal fee (like $1.00) students can place orders prior to the holiday. Post or tweet the Valentine wishes and donate the money raised to an animal shelter like the ASPCA. Here are some examples of Valentine SMS.

What are some ways your campus organization gives back to the community on Valentine’s Day or any day during the year?  Our readers want to know. Please share your comments below!

Happy Valentine’s Day 2012 from
We LOVE our readers!
@studentlifeguru @reslifesynergy @mhelfrich98

Making the Interview Process for Leadership Positions an Educative Experience (*free resource handout*)

February 9, 2012

Following up on a blog post titled 10 Secrets to Recruiting & Screening for Great Resident Advisors, I thought it would be helpful to create a post and “Individual Interview Questions for Student Leaders” free handout related to the interview process for all student leader positions. Crafting appropriate interview questions for interviews can be challenging, particularly if you do not already have an existing interview protocol already created. Consider the following for your next interview process:

  • Make the interview process itself an educational experience for the student. I had a colleague at a previous institution who set up resume writing and interviewing workshops prior to the actual interview process. Student candidates were invited to attend these short (30 minutes) workshops that were held in a lecture hall. Tips and suggestions were given to students related to interview practice, appropriate dress, follow-up, and information on how to seek out services at the career center for additional help and preparation. Even if they did not get the job, they still walked away with invaluable life-long skills that will help them after they leave college.
  • Student leader interviews SHOULD NOT be an officially sanctioned “hazing” experience. The goal is to illicit important information to see if a candidate is qualified and prepared for the student leader role and not to make them “pay their dues” in order to get the job. You want to make the experience as educative and positive as possible. Keep in mind that most of us student affairs professionals got our jobs after a typical phone interview and a visit to campus with various meetings. If your student leader hiring protocol is more involved than what you went through to get your own position, you may want to rethink the process. (Remember that they are students.)
  • When crafting questions, first list the qualities and skills that you need these student leaders to possess. Then develop your questions to assess for these particular attributes. For example, if you are hiring campus tour guides, you would list qualities such as: enthusiasm, ability to remember many facts and details, sociable, and quick to think on their feet. A question like “How would you respond to a parent touring the campus who asks what students can do on the weekends?” gets to the heart of their ability to think on their feet and demonstrate if they are knowledgable of campus activities and services. Not only are you going to see if they give an appropriate answer unrelated to partying, but to see if they can actually list activities available on the weekends.
  • Test interview existing student leaders. When you have your questions selected, do a test run with the student employees you already have. If your current student staffers are stumped by any of the questions, it is going to be certain that new candidates will not be able to answer them either. Get their feedback on their own interview process and what they think is important to include in an interview. They are out in the field actually doing the job so respect their experience and utilize them as an added resource. Additionally, include them in on the interview process as well so this becomes educative for them. Not only can they list this on a resume, but they will be able to implement what you taught them if they end up in hiring roles themselves in the future.

Click to receive a free “Individual Interview Questions for Student Leaders” handout, which lists 30 different interview questions that can be adopted for your own interview processes. 

Please feel free to share this resource with your colleagues.

10 Secrets to Recruiting & Screening for Great Resident Advisors

February 6, 2012

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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