Get Ready: Job Interviews That Get You Hired
Preparing Yourself for the Interview
NOW THAT YOU'VE rallied your resources, investigated the company, written a compelling resume and cover letter, and strongly thought about your skills, strengths, personal qualities, work experiences, and job preferences, you are ready for the interview. The difference between an average interview and a great interview is preparation. There will always be unpredictable questions. The purpose of preparation is for you to decide what experiences are the most compelling in demonstrating your talents. It gives you a chance to sort and choose the best stories to tell and determine how to tell them clearly and concisely.
The most important thing for you to know is that the interviewer's main objective is to determine whether or not you are the best candidate for the job. Your main objective is to communicate your skills and accomplishments, while determining if this is the right job and the right company for you. Your resume provides your interviewer with some answers to questions about your educational background and work history, but of all the criteria the interviewer uses to judge your qualifications for the job, none will be more important than your accomplishments.
Many companies today, particularly large companies, strive to make the recruiting process more scientific than in the past. These companies have done research to see what factors (such as skills and traits) have made their employees successful. These factors are called "behavioral measures of success" or "success factors."
Every firm values different success factors; the only way to know the specific factors a particular company esteems is to speak with someone who works for this company. However, in this chapter, we identify some generic success factors from different companies that are key in a fast-paced, competitive business environment. The best interviewing strategy is to talk about the academic and work experiences that pertain to these generic success factors. As you tell the stories, the company success factors will stand out, showing the interviewer that you are a viable candidate for the job.
Converting Success Factors to Success Stories
The most effective way to discuss your accomplishments is to recast them in the form of stories: Each one must successfully document and illuminate your successes.
Depending on the job, your interviewer will be looking for certain kinds of success stories based on a number of factors, such as your ability to solve problems, think independently, take initiative, or communicate skillfully. The ten "success factors" that most employers expect from job candidates are listed in Exhibit 4–1. Your task is to weave these factors into your own success stories.
Make Your Own Opportunities to Describe Your Successes
Learning how to use success stories effectively cannot be overemphasized. There is simply no better way to showcase your achievements and prove your suitability for a job. It takes some skill to weave success stories into an interview, but this can be done with relative ease if you rehearse them many times before you go to the interview, and use all of your communication skills to tell your stories once you get there. You will have to take some initiative to find openings for your success stories. Even if your interviewer asks you a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no, resist the urge to give a one- or two-word answer, as in the following example.
Interviewer: Do you think you work well on a team?
Interviewer: Can you think of any times when you had difficulty working on a team?
Instead, take the opportunity to present yourself in the best possible light. Use one of your strongest success stories. The following example shows how it can be done.
Interviewer: Do you think you work well on a team?
Jim:Yes. I was cocaptain of the basketball team in college—it was a great experience and a great chance to work with my peers outside of the classroom. I would keep track of new strategies, organize extra practices, and arrange social events for the team. I always thought it was important for the team to spend time together off the court—we got to know each other better, and this helped us work together in games.
Interviewer: Can you think of any times when you had difficulty working on a team?
Jim: One incident comes to mind. A member of our team was a bit of a ball hog. If he got the ball in the game, he refused to pass it, and the other team members were getting upset. But I didn't want to single him out or scold him. Instead, I came up with practice drills that involved a lot of passing. I complimented him on his passing ability and told him it was just the sort of thing he could use in a game. And I spoke to the whole team about passing more in games. Well, he got the picture—and because I was supportive instead of confrontational, I didn't end up with a big argument on my hands.
Who would you hire, John or Jim? Jim took advantage of his interviewer's questions by telling stories that demonstrated his positive traits. Although John might have been a stronger candidate than Jim in some ways, his interviewer had no way of knowing, because John didn't capitalize on the opportunity to illustrate his better qualities.
Making the Connection between Success Factors and Success Stories
No matter what kind of work you've done in the past, you can find a success story to match all ten factors listed in Exhibit 4–1. Keep your mind open—don't dismiss any work experience as insignificant until you've thoroughly examined it. Think about your academic and work experiences in terms of the problems presented, the actions you took to solve them, and the results. Let's look at each success factor in more detail, to give you ideas about how you can describe to interviewers your past success in the best possible way.
Success Factor #1: Accomplishments/Getting Results
One of the most common interview questions is: "What is your greatest accomplishment—the thing you are most proud of?" By asking this question, the interviewer is trying to determine if you get satisfaction from achieving results. The interviewer may also want to see if you are proud of your accomplishments; being proud of past results will translate into taking pride in your work with your prospective employer.
There are many types of accomplishments you could use to answer this question. For example, completing your education is an accomplishment. Focus on individual challenges or why you're proud of receiving your degree. Perhaps there's a story that illustrates your overcoming an obstacle, such as saving money under difficult circumstances, figuring out how to pass a challenging class, or getting your writing published. What were the results of your efforts?
Here is a sample story that illustrates how you could answer the question:
- I was extremely happy when I got into my first-choice college, Elmherst—but the scholarship they offered didn't quite cover my needs. Although I had been admitted to several schools, I felt that, for me, Elmherst would provide the best possible education. So, instead of going straight to school, I deferred for a year and spent the time working at a local hardware store. After a few months, I took on a second job waiting tables. It was a very tough year—but I was proud that I stuck to it. By the time September rolled around, I had saved enough money to attend the school of my choice, and I had some solid work experience.
This story tells volumes about the speaker's abilities to persevere, solve problems, and take charge of his career. It also demonstrates that the speaker is goal oriented, an extremely important trait in the business world, where every action has a purpose and leads to a greater goal.
Good success stories, like this one, are rich composites of your experiences and skills, so you will have some flexibility in using them; one story should answer a number of different interview questions. For example, if the speaker in the previous example had been asked not about his accomplishments, but about a time when he took charge or used initiative, his story about saving money for school would also apply.
Success Factor #2: Initiative
In a fast-paced, competitive business environment, it is important to hire people who can take charge—even if the responsibility is not in their job description. Time is an important element in taking initiative: It's about doing something when it needs to be done, instead of waiting for someone else to do it first.
Consider the following story:
- I worked on my college literary magazine. Producing the magazine was always an uphill battle. We received most of our revenues from ads, but the number of advertisers was constantly dwindling—and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. I organized a small committee, and we went door to door, speaking with local businesses about our magazine. Sometimes it took a lot of persuading, but once they saw the quality of the magazine and heard about our diverse audience, most businesses were eager to advertise. We raised so much money that we were even able to print the magazine in color for the first time.
This story brings out a number of the interviewee's good qualities, including team leadership, determination, and, above all, initiative. All of these qualities are highly valued in the business world. An employer wants to hire people who can recognize problems and take independent action to remedy them.
Success Factor #3: Communication Skills
Your interviewer will be aware of how long it takes you to answer questions: There is a delicate balance between saying enough to get your success stories across and saying too much. Ask your acquaintances what kind of speaker you are: Do you tend to go on and on or are your answers short and blunt? Better yet, have a friend or family member conduct a practice interview with you. Tell them to evaluate your speaking skills, and then try to improve your style.
Tell your story clearly to ensure that the interviewer gets your point. Be concise. Don't get sidetracked by focusing on endless details or irrelevant aspects of the story. If you're telling a story about working on your uncle's farm, for instance, don't bother telling the interviewer the names of all the horses for whom you cared. Also, it's important to avoid using slang words such as like and y'know and filler words, such as um, eh, and uh.A common interview mistake is beginning every answer with "Ummm … " Usually, a candidate uses this opening to stall for time to take a few seconds to collect his or her thoughts.
However, there are better ways to give yourself time to think. Don't be afraid to sit in silence for a moment while you prepare your answer. Your interviewer will not be surprised if you need to collect your thoughts. If this makes you uncomfortable, try paraphrasing the question as you begin your answer. For instance, if your interviewer asks, "How would a coworker describe you?" you should reply, "I think that a coworker would describe me as … " By repeating the question, you've given yourself time to compose your answer.
The only way to present your credentials well is to prepare prior to the interview—know what you want to say and how you want to say it. Have someone else listen to you and give you feedback. This will help you feel more confident and do your best.
Quick! Which sentence sounds more professional?
- Uh … I think that I'd be an asset to your firm because I'm diligent, and, um, efficient and people tell me that I'm, y'know, a good communicator.
- I think I'd be an asset to your firm because I'm diligent and efficient, and I have excellent communication skills.
Success Factor #4: Problem Solving: Thinking and Working Independently
It's just as important to take directions as it is to work independently. However, when you do work independently, it's not always smooth sailing. So, when you're thinking of a story to demonstrate independent thinking, focus on the obstacles you had to overcome to solve a particular problem. What steps did you take?
Here is an anecdote that shows a candidate's abilities to think independently and solve problems. In addition, it demonstrates analytical skills, reflective abilities, and an ability to learn from mistakes.
- I worked at the registrar's office during college. My primary responsibility was filing, but the filing system was hopelessly confusing. I came up with a great way to reorganize the files and spoke to my supervisor about implementing my plan. I was thrilled when she approved the plan, and I spent the next week overhauling the old system. That's when my supervisor started getting complaints from another employee, who had a project due. She needed some information from the files, but she couldn't find it because of the new filing system. I quickly called her to apologize and gave her a tour of the new system.
- Then, I wrote a memo documenting how the system worked and gave it to the other employees. They all agreed that it was a better process. I learned that it's not enough just to have a great idea. You have to consider all the ramifications of implementing that idea and keep fellow employees in the loop at the same time.
Success Factor #5: Innovation
We live in an ever-changing world where the past solutions to business problems aren't always effective. Consequently, more and more companies look for employees who can think outside the box. Perhaps you have never thought of yourself as creative because you don't have a special talent such as writing or painting. Yet everyone can be creative in the area of problem solving. Let's say the interviewer asks you, "Tell me a time when you developed a new idea to solve a problem?" This question is different from the previous problem-solving question because it's asking about new ideas or how you've applied your creativity when solving problems.
Here's a success story that displays the teller's innovative thinking:
- I was a member of the drama club in college. We put on several plays each semester, but over time, our audience began to decrease in size. We needed to come up with new ways to draw people to our shows. One day, I was having a cup of coffee in my favorite coffee shop, thinking about the problem, when I hit upon a great idea. What if we could get the coffee shop to provide free coffee and dessert during intermission or offer discounts to anyone presenting ticket stubs from our shows? In exchange, we could promote the shop in our playbills and on posters.
I spoke with the owner of the shop and he was thrilled—he had also been trying to come up with new promotional ideas. Some of the club members were skeptical of my idea, but the refreshments and discounts worked like a charm—ticket sales improved 30%!
Success Factor #6: Leadership and Team Playing
So much work today is done in teams that employers often want to know if you can get along with others and get the work done. What have you done in the past that illustrates your ability to work successfully with others?
Remember Jim, the basketball team captain you met earlier in this chapter? His anecdotes about playing on and managing a sports team showed that he was comfortable as both a team leader and a team player. Stories about playing sports, working in small groups in classes, or participating in college clubs and organizations all demonstrate that you work well with others.
Success Factor #7: Project Management
Just finishing college exemplefies the ability to plan, organize, and set priorities, particularly if you were a student who successfully juggled schoolwork, part-time jobs, club activities, a healthy social life, and maybe even volunteer work. Try to think of specific examples that illustrate your abilities to manage many tasks at once.
The following is a story from a recent college graduate:
- I was an editor of my college newspaper, which came out every Friday. On Thursday nights, all of the editors would gather in the newspaper office to make last-minute changes, finalize the layout, and so on. Usually, we were there until seven or eight in the morning. There was a lot of fallout from these all-nighters: Some people weren't prepared for their Friday classes. They fell behind in their reading and turned assignments in late.
- After a couple of difficult weeks, I discovered that managing the all-nighters at the paper was simply a matter of budgeting my time. I finished my reading the weekend before it was due and completed all of my assignments early in the week. If I had a project due on a Friday, I made sure to get it done well in advance.
- Because I stuck to my schedule, late nights at the newspaper office didn't sabotage either my academic responsibilities or my social life. In fact, I was more efficient and also found that I had more free time to spend with friends.
This story demonstrates the speaker's ability to set priorities, manage time, and successfully juggle various facets of academic and personal life.
Success Factor #8: Decision Making
Decisive action taking is important to any business, whether your job involves working independently or in a group, but how you arrive at decisions will especially interest prospective employers. Decision making involves generating multiple solutions to a problem and using your discernment to select the best choice from those options. Being judicious—thoughtfully weighing the pros and cons of a situation before taking action—is just as important as knowing how to make decisions. It involves deciphering which path to take and following a logical thought process to the end.
If you've ever worked in student government or ran a college organization, then you should have plenty of stories to tell about active decision making. Or, you could discuss how you chose your major, why you decided to take a certain class, or why you decided to attend your college. We make decisions every day, and any number of them could be incorporated into an anecdote to tell your interviewer.
Try a college-related story like this one:
- At my college, students typically live on campus for the first two years, and then they tend to find off-campus housing for the next two years. At the end of my sophomore year, I had to decide where to live in the fall and with whom I wanted to share housing. My current roommate got offered a position as Resident Advisor on campus. The perks included a large room to share; the downside was that I'd have to remain on campus if I wanted to be her roommate. My other choices were to take a shared room in my sorority's house or take a private room in an apartment with three other friends, fellow education majors.
- The choices were tough: continuing to live with the tried and true roommate in a less-than-choice setting, giving up privacy for the potential fun that the sorority house offered, or taking the open room at the apartment, which was further from campus but offered some personal space not often found at college.
- I opted for the apartment. I was scheduled for student-teaching the following spring semester, and I knew that I'd need to go to bed early and prepare my lessons. I decided that the atmosphere at the sorority house could get tiring—if I wanted that scene, I could visit any time, day or night. I realized that I needed to be more independent, so the dorm option was out for me, too.
- I ended up making the right choice—I got my work done, had a successful experience in the classroom, and, with my own apartment, was able to invite my old roommate or sorority sisters over for an occasional escape from their surroundings.
Success Factor #9: Strategic Thinking
Thinking strategically is the ability to link long-range visions to daily work. The emphasis is on having a long-range goal where you needed to sustain effort over time despite setbacks and unpredictable events. In your academic experience, it could mean how you ensured that you graduated college in four years. In the workplace, it would translate to knowing company initiative was to cut expenses and taking action to cut expenses or save money for your department throughout the year.
- Midway through my sophomore year in college, I decided that I wanted to spend a semester studying in Paris. I was a French major, so I knew this would be the best way to improve my skills and knowledge of French culture. Some of my friends strongly advised against it, however—my college had a lot of course requirements, and many people who spent time abroad were unable to complete their degrees in four years or they spent senior year struggling under impossible course loads.
- After thinking about the situation, I realized that studying abroad was not impossible—I just had to plan ahead. I had planned on taking two electives per semester, but I decided to replace one with a required course and add an additional required course to my schedule. Taking six courses a semester was tough, but I made a strict study schedule for myself and stuck to it.
- I studied in Paris during spring of my junior year, and it was the best educational experience I ever had. And, thanks to my good planning, I had no trouble completing my requirements. I was able to take all the electives I wanted senior year, and even had time to work as a research assistant for one of my French literature professors.
Success Factor #10: Staying Cool under Pressure
Part of the maturity equation is coping with pressure—knowing what to do first when you walk into your office and have 50 e-mails and a ringing phone to answer, not to mention five people who are waiting for appointments.
Think of a story about your own performance under pressure. Maybe you were on your college swim team and had a meet the day before a big test. Or maybe you came to work one day to discover that several employees were sick—and you were left to handle their work as well as your own. How did you control the situation? Was the result positive?
Here's how one candidate demonstrated the ability to handle pressure:
- When dealing with pressure, I try to step back from situations and assess them logically, rather than getting carried away by my emotions. In college, I was the stage manager for the drama club's production of My Fair Lady. When we got to the theater to prepare opening night, we discovered that all our props, makeup, and costumes were scattered and out of place. Apparently, a group of students had used the theater to practice some improvisational comedy, not knowing that a production was going up the next night.
- We didn't have much time to get ready, and the cast started panicking about their missing items. I asked everyone to find his or her costume. While they were busy, I quickly found some cardboard boxes and labeled each one with a character's or group's name: Eliza, Henry, street merchants, racetrack patrons, and so on. The stage crew collected props and other items, brought them to me, and I deposited them in the proper box. Everything got sorted quickly, and the curtain went up on time.
Rehearsing Your Success Stories
In order to weave your stories into an interview so that they sound effortless and natural, write them down and rehearse them, saying them several times. The goal is to be clear, concise, and to make your point; you don't want to sound like your answers are pat or over-rehearsed. Eventually, you may feel comfortable enough to tailor your stories to individual interviewers, but this takes a lot of practice.
Recording your stories is a great way to hear all the things that need to be smoothed out or tightened so that your delivery is perfectly natural. Also, ask your family and friends to critique your stories and edit them. The reason for rehearsing your stories aloud is that the way you tell a story is different from the way you write one.
While you're rehearsing, you may want to watch your facial expressions in a mirror. Are you smiling and enthusiastic, or do you look somber and serious? Observe how your facial expressions affect your tone. When you're smiling, your voice sounds friendly, pleasing, and warm; when your expression is somber, your delivery may sound flat. Vary the tone of your voice and the tempo at which you speak. This will help create interest in what you say, especially if your interviewer's attention seems to be momentarily drifting away.
The point of rehearsing your stories isn't to memorize them. What you want is to become so familiar with them that you can hit the main point of each of your success stories even though you may not tell them exactly the same way every time. Relax, improvise, enjoy, and above all, feel confident about telling your stories. Just make sure you have stories for each success factor.
Because you can't possibly anticipate what the interviewer will ask, be prepared with several stories. For instance, you may have a great problem-solving story, but unless you can engineer a smooth transition to it, chances are you will have to rely on another story that can be worked into the conversation with more ease. Having lots of stories from which to draw will give you the flexibility to react quickly to unexpected questions and shifts in conversation.
At this point, you may wonder if so much rehearsing is too much. Will all of this preparation, anticipation, and planning make you seem less authentic—less like yourself? Of course you want to be truthful and act naturally at all times, but don't forget that an interview is just like any business meeting. Preparation is the key to getting your ideas across and facilitating a positive result.
To do well in an interview, you need to familiarize yourself completely with the sorts of questions you might be asked and rehearse your replies. It will help you to stay calm in a situation where there will be a raft of variables you can't control. For example, you will have no idea, beforehand, what your interviewer's body language will be like. While you're busy trying to read it, you will be concentrating on making your own body language look positive. At the same time, you will be listening to your interviewer's questions, deciphering them, and forming a response. This can get tricky, so give yourself a break! Being prepared will give you a cushion on which to relax, and it will make you feel more confident, too.
Connecting Interviewers's Questions to Your Own Sucess Stories
A lot transpires during an interview—you're listening to the question, trying to pick the right success story, watching the interviewer's nonverbal cues, and so on. The trick is to quickly determine what the interviewer is asking you, and then link the question to your success story.
Try this exercise. On the left hand of the column in Exhibit 4–2, we've listed a typical interview question. On the right side are suggestions for the success story topic. Cover the right-hand column, and see if you can identify which of your success stories you would use to answer the question.
Before the interview, give yourself a little pep talk. Remember that there is a point to an interview, and you have an objective. Remind yourself of that objective and visualize what success looks like to you. An interview is like a sales pitch, so before you go, tell yourself to be confident, that you're well prepared, enthusiastic, upbeat, and completely focused on your objective.
Of course, there will always be some unpredictable aspects of interviewing. But you've probably had to think on your feet many times. Try to think of the interview as a learning experience. At the end of each interview, ask yourself, "What went well? What would I do differently?" If you can incorporate what you've learned into your next interview, you've been successful.
How to Read and Use Nonverbal Cues During an Interview
Knowing how to read—and send—nonverbal cues can be extremely helpful in a situation where both interviewer and interviewee need to learn as much about each other as possible in a short period of time. You don't want to send the wrong message to an interviewer, so take the time to familiarize yourself with some of the more commonly used nonverbal cues.
There are dozens of them! But don't worry, you can think about and even practice most of them before going to an interview. An excellent way of seeing some of your unconscious habits is to ask a friend to videotape a rehearsed interview. It doesn't have to take long, and the family video-cam will do the trick. It is astonishing how unaware most of us are of our personal habits, posture, and gestures. Now is good a time to become familiar with them and make a few conscious changes. Exhibit 4–3 lists some of the most common nonverbal cues of which you should be aware.
The most important thing is to maintain normal eye contact with your interviewer, because it will show that you are listening actively and interested in what he or she is saying. Be careful not to stare or you will likely make the interviewer feel uncomfortable. One technique you might use to practice looking directly at your interviewer without staring is to pretend that there is a triangle connecting the interviewer's right eye, left eye, and mouth. Try to keep your gaze focused on this triangle, without letting it linger on one point for too long. It might also help to conduct a practice interview with a friend and ask him or her to tell you if you are staring or allowing your eyes to wander.
Some people try to mirror the interviewer's body language, facial expressions, and gestures. If you try this, remember to be as subtle and natural as possible. Ultimately, what you want to mirror is your interviewer's communication style and level of energy. If you are alert, sympathetic, and listen attentively, you will put your interviewer at ease. As a result, you will relax, too, and both of you will feel more comfortable in each other's company.
Using Verbal Cues Effectively
Verbal cues are much easier to read than subtle visual cues, but they do require that you listen carefully. Some people are good at remembering names, for example, but others tend to forget a name as soon as they hear it—especially in a tense or unusual situation. A good way not to forget your interviewer's name is to listen for it, of course, and then repeat it. For example, if your interviewer introduces himself to you as John, and says, "It's nice to meet you," your reply could be, "It's very nice to meet you, too, John." Once you've heard yourself say the name out loud, it is much easier to remember it.
Good listening and speaking skills are essential to good interviewing because you always need to have one ear on the conversation while you plan your next comment or question. You certainly don't want to be so anxious about telling your own stories that you can't hear what the interviewer is saying.
Consider the following story:
- Russell was incredibly nervous on the day of his interview with a major bank. He didn't want to stumble over his words, so he rehearsed his anecdotes over and over in his head. Unfortunately, he was rehearsing while his interviewer was talking to him about a recent change in corporate policy. When she asked him a question about the policy, Russell didn't know what to say—he hadn't heard a word of her explanation! It was obvious to the interviewer that Russell hadn't been paying attention.
Don't let this happen to you!
The Importance of Listening
There are three good reasons for listening well:
- To gain information about the job
- To ask questions
- To link what you have heard with the success story you want to tell
Summarizing information and using it to preface a question make it clear to the interviewer that you've been listening and understand the information correctly, but also give you the opportunity to connect what you've just learned to an anecdote about yourself.
For example, suppose the interviewer has just told you that the company's objective for the year is to develop new business in a particular area and, consequently, certain departments will be reorganized or perhaps created to meet the new objective. You could start your response by summarizing: "Because the company is interested in new business development, I'm sure you're looking for people with initiative and creativity." This is your "in"—the appropriate moment to launch into one of your success stories. In this case, of course, the main idea would be to give a compelling example of your initiative.
Above all, remember that an interview is a conversation. Make sure that you are an active participant in that conversation.
Effective listening involves skill. Here are a few points about listening to keep in mind for an interview:
- Be attentive and slightly lean forward to signal your interest in what is being said
- Look directly at your interviewer, but in a natural way (without staring or blinking)
- Pay attention and stay in the present
- Don't interrupt
- Balance talking with listening
- Ask questions if there is something you don't understand or if a point needs to be clarified
- Take the time to answer a question, rather than rushing in with a half-baked response
How to Ask and Answer Questions Effectively
In an interview, you will be doing a lot of talking, whether you're asking questions or responding to questions. In any case, be clear on your objectives: Why are you talking in this interview?
- To give information
- To sell yourself through your success stories
- To project confidence
- To demonstrate your communication skills
By showing that you are a good listener, you get more than information and an opportunity to tell one of your success stories: listening makes a connection, establishes a rapport between you and the interviewer. The same applies to talking—to what you say. This requires a few good verbal communication skills. Here are a few basic tips:
- Be clear and concise. If your interviewer's attention seems to wander, you might be rambling. If he or she constantly has to ask you to say more about a question you just answered, you may not be saying enough.
- Make sure you have answered the question being asked.
- Be direct: Make declarative statements by using the word I.
- Don't hedge: Avoid words and phrases such as maybe, perhaps, you know, and so forth.
- Project your voice, so you can be heard clearly (but don't shout).
- Speak with enthusiasm.
If you are extroverted, social, and tend to talk a lot (or perhaps even too much, on occasion), you will want to pull back in an interview. Pare down the stories you tell by eliminating extraneous information. Even better, conduct more practice interviews with friends and family; they can tell you if you are being overly gregarious.
On the other hand, if you are quiet by nature, make an effort to become more actively engaged in the conversation and use more energy. This is where videotaping and rehearsing your success stories before an interview comes in handy. Listen to your stories again and again and cut or embellish them as you go along. Be sure to get as much critical input as you can from people you know, especially those who have been interviewed themselves or, even better, who have interviewed others.
Sell Yourself—and Prove Your Claims
The interview is a sales meeting, and your goal is to sell yourself. It's tempting to make flat assertions that you expect the interviewer to take on face value. Some of these assertions might be: "I'm a great worker, I'm punctual, upbeat, and diligent."
The problem with this response is that you are telling the interviewer what to think rather than proving your claim. By now, you've probably realized that this is what success stories are all about—backing up your claims about your abilities by giving a real-life example. So, if you're tempted to say that you're a good worker, then you need to give an example to back up that claim.
Often companies look for your experiences on a team and how you contributed to the overall team outcomes. So another thing to consider is when to say "I" and when to say "we." The answer is that you have to balance both. It's a mistake to always say "we." The interviewer will never fully understand your individual contribution. In addition, if you always say "I," it will seem as if you weren't able to collaborate.
A final word of caution: Don't be tempted to fabricate your role on a team. Company recruiters say that they are often in situations on campus where they interview every member of a team. Eventually, the real contributors to the team are clear to the recruiters because all the other team members corroborate their story.
For example, compare the following responses. Emily and Shira are both interviewing at an insurance company. The interviewer asks, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?"
Emily: I'm a great worker. I'm punctual, efficient, upbeat, and diligent. These skills make me a perfect candidate for this job. I've never missed a deadline. I never received a word of negative feedback at my old job. My only real weakness is that I'm such a perfectionist.
Shira: My greatest strength is persistence. In my old job, I was on the audit team of a major cosmetics company. The team leader always gave me the fact-finding missions that had stumped everyone else. However, I sometimes try to take on too many projects at once, and it's difficult for me to admit that I can't handle my workload. I had to learn that there are times when the best thing to do is delegate tasks to other people.
In this example, Emily is only giving flat assertions with no proof of claim. Shira, on the other hand, describes her strengths. She readily admits her faults, but also shows how she tries to overcome them.
The objective of any interview is to strike a balance between describing your accomplishments to the best of your ability and giving the interviewer enough room to judge them independently. In other words, don't try to tell the interviewer what to think. But do tell your stories as compellingly as possible. The power of influence should be wielded gently and used intelligently.
Remember to Dress Professionally
Listening and responding well to your interviewer and subtly reflecting his or her body language, mood, and communication style will exert a powerful influence on how you are perceived by the interviewer. A rich mix of verbal and visual signals will pass between you, many of them on a subliminal level. But there is one aspect of interviewing that you can influence quite consciously through a nonverbal cue: clothing.
An entire lexicon has been written on the subject of "dressing for success," but perhaps the best approach is to keep it simple. For example, why not put together a couple of interview "uniforms" that look great and make you feel great every time you wear them. For the sake of saving time and anxiety (not to mention money), it helps to have fewer choices. If you want to refresh the look of your "uniform," you can always accessorize. Following are some tips.
The main point about dressing for an interview is to feel that the clothes you are wearing are both comfortable and appropriate. In most cases, appropriate means professional. Of course, there are many ways to interpret professional, but if you are unsure, ask someone whose authority you trust.
Your best bet is to go with a business suit. A suit always looks professional and shows that you are serious about finding a good job. Your suit should be well tailored and dark in color—stick with black, dark gray, navy blue, or dark brown. Shoes should be clean and polished, and accessories should be conservative. You don't want to show up in a nice business suit with a neon green watch on your wrist. Make sure that your hair is neat and combed and that your shoes aren't scuffed or dirty.
Women should wear minimal jewlery—small earrings and simple necklaces, such as a strand of pearls or a gold chain. Keep your makeup simple and conservative. If you decide to wear a skirt, make sure that it is an appropriate length. Generally, skirts should be no shorter than an inch or two above the knee.
Some small or creative companies may not mind if you dress down for an interview. For men, this usually means slacks with a jacket and tie. A woman might wear dress pants or a skirt with a blouse or sweater set. Again, you should try to keep accessories to a minimum, and avoid loud colors.
But only choose one of these more casual options if you are sure it is appropriate. You might be making a big mistake if you assume a particular company will be relaxed about what you wear to the interview. The employees at a particular firm might wear jeans, but that doesn't mean that you should wear jeans to your interview—you're not an employee yet.
Women should keep their dressers well stocked with pantyhose. You don't want to wake up on the morning of an interview to discover that every pair of stockings you own is either in the laundry basket or full of runs! And be sure to tuck a pair into your purse or briefcase—if you get a run on the way to the interview, you will be prepared.
Men should pay careful attention to details. Shined shoes will make you look professional and polished. If you have facial hair, be sure it's trimmed and neat. Your tie should be simple and appropriate—you don't want to show up at an interview with a conservative bank wearing a loud or garish tie.
In addition to looking professional, you also want to be comfortable. Make sure that your clothing fits properly. You don't want to spend the entire interview squirming in a pair of tight pants. Also make sure that your clothing is weather appropriate. If you're interviewing at an Arizona law firm in the middle of August, you don't want to be wearing a wool suit. Iron your clothing the night before the interview, so that you can be unhurried and relaxed the next day.
If you're not sure what to wear, ask. If you know someone at the firm with which you're interviewing, he or she will give you the best information. You can also ask someone in the same industry. Dress codes may vary widely in different industries. If you can't think of anyone to ask, go to your college career center for advice.
What Did You Wear to Your Interview?
- "I wore a charcoal gray suit with a white shirt, and I had my dress shoes shined the day before the interview. My tie added a little color, but it wasn't loud. I opted to bring a leather portfolio instead of a briefcase. If you're still in college, I think it sometimes looks a little silly if you carry a briefcase. The interviewer knows that you don't use it regularly, so it seems more like a prop."
—MIKE, MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT
- "I wore a black business suit with a lavender silk shirt, black stockings, and black pumps. I accessorized with pearl earrings and a pearl necklace. I usually don't wear cosmetics, but because I look very young, I wore some simple, natural-looking makeup."
- "I wore a black suit with a blue button-down shirt and lowheeled shoes. I also wore a simple gold necklace and small, gold earrings. My office is pretty casual, but I wanted to make a good first impression. After I was hired, I was able to get more creative about the way I dress."
—PEGGY, EDITORIAL ASSISTANT
The way you dress should tell a story that is compatible both with who you are and what is required for the job. Moreover, if you feel comfortable in your clothes, you will feel more confident about yourself in general.
What Questions Should You Ask?
You've already given yourself a tremendous advantage if you've taken the time to research the company that is interviewing you. (Please see Chapter 3 for more information.) Your questions will be all the more informed and your interviewer will be impressed with your resourcefulness. If you've listened well during the interview and have garnered new information, take the opportunity to use it as a frame for your next question (as suggested earlier in this chapter). Or use a fact you already know to ask more questions about the company. When you are preparing questions, either before or during the interview, make sure you ask:
- Questions about the job
- Questions about the company
This seems fairly obvious, but sometimes people are so focused on getting a job and understanding what the expectations of that specific job are that they lose track of the bigger picture. This omission will give your interviewer information about you on which you might not have counted. You don't want people to think that you're monofocused. But over and above that, you probably do want to know what other people in the company are doing and what the corporate goal or direction is. Ask what projects you will work on if you get the job.
Before You Leave the Interview
The way you say good-bye is just as important as the way you greet an interviewer. As you leave, try to maintain the same level of enthusiasm, interest, and sincerity you brought to the interview. Above all, be tactful as you make your exit, even if you feel that the interview didn't go as smoothly or as positively as you had hoped.
You should thank your interviewer for having taken the time to speak with you and answer your questions ("It's been a pleasure meeting you and your associates"). Express interest in the job ("I'm very interested in the job and would really enjoy working with your team"). And ask about the next step ("May I phone your office in a few days to find out about your decision, or would you prefer that I contact your human resources department for further information?"), and don't leave the interview until you know.
After the Interview
Whew, you made it! You have earned the right to relax as soon as you get home. After you've given yourself plenty of time to come down from the interview, take time to think about what happened. While it's still fresh in your mind, replay the interview and put yourself in the interviewer's shoes. How do you think you came off? What can you learn from analyzing your performance, and how will it help you at the next interview?
How Did I Do?
To help you organize your thoughts, write them down on a piece of paper or in a journal or diary (if you keep one). If you took notes during the interview or immediately afterward, read them now. Make a list of things you can do to present yourself a little differently at the next interview. A sample list might look like this:
- Stay focused on the current question, and don't worry about previous answers
- Do more research on the company so you can ask more questions
- Practice the success story on taking initiative
- Wear something more comfortable
- Try to relax (do deep breathing exercises before the interview)
- Smile more
- Wake up 30 minutes earlier to allow for more prep time
- Bring paper to take notes
Evaluating the Company
Interviewing is a two-way process: While the interviewer is assessing you, you are evaluating whether this is the best position and company for you. Will it allow you to use your skills, learn, and excel? The chart you made in Chapter 3 (Exhibit 3–3, Ten Requirements for the Ideal Job) will help you analyze your prospective employer. Take a look at your list of requirements. How does the company stack up against your criteria? Did you get all the information you wanted to know about the company from the interviewer? What questions could you ask next time to learn more? Review the list carefully before the next interview. If you think you might forget some questions, bring the list with you.
Now, think about the person who would be your boss. Did you get a good feeling from him or her? If you didn't click instantly or if you can't quite make up your mind about how you would feel if this person became your boss:
- Make a list of desirable and less desirable characteristics for an employer to have. Check your interviewer against it. How does he or she rate?
- Ask yourself if you could learn from him or her. If so, what would this person teach you?
- Think about the questions you can ask the next time to discover if your prospective employer is the right boss for you.
Saying Thank You
The next step to take after you come home from an interview is to write a thank-you note. Be aware that notes of this kind are meant to be more than polite. In fact, they are powerful selling tools, so write them carefully. Your thank-you note should show appreciation for the time the interviewer took with you and reinforce that you are the ideal candidate.
Even though some people might believe that writing a thank-you note is optional, it is not. As the formal conclusion to an interview, a thank-you note is required. Think of it as an essential feature of your job application. To write one of these important notes as effectively as possible, make sure that you address the following points:
- Tell the interviewer how much you enjoyed meeting him or her (and the staff)
- Express your enthusiasm for the job and the company
- Repeat the main reason why you think you're the best candidate for the job
- Clarify or state an important point that you might have fumbled or forgotten about during the interview
- Establish when the next contact will be, unless you feel more comfortable with a closing statement such as "thank you for your time" and/or "I look forward to hearing from you."
Although it is generally agreed that a thank-you note should be short, opinions differ as to whether it should be handwritten or typed. It is safe to say, however, that if a company is conservative, the best bet would be to write your thanks by hand on a small, plain, good-quality note card (5" × 31/2"). On the other hand, you can type your thanks on good-quality, standard size (81/2" × 11") stationery. Some job candidates use the same paper and style of heading they used for their resumes and cover letters. (In this instance, the thank-you note is considered the final addition to the resume package they've already submitted.) The format is less important than the time frame, however. A thank-you note should be mailed no later than a day after an interview.
Don't underestimate the power of a thank-you note. When two equally qualified candidates are under consideration, deciding whom to choose often comes down to who is the most courteous. Make sure that person is you.
If you opt to send thank-you cards, go to your local stationery store and buy a box of good quality cards and keep them on hand for other interviews. Don't forget to send a thank-you note to everyone you met at the interview, including the person who took you from one interview (or interviewer) to the next. If you're not quite sure how to write a thank-you note, take a look at the sample shown in Exhibit 4–4. More sample letters are included in Appendix D.
If you haven't heard from your interviewer or human resources contact by the appointed time, follow-up with a call of your own or send an e-mail. A good way to re-open the conversation with your contact in human resources, or with the interviewer, is to call back a few days after the interview and ask if you can clarify or add to any of the answers you gave during the interview.
Being prepared with many detailed success stories and anecdotes will ensure a successful interview. At the same time, don't forget to be aware: Listen carefully to the interviewer; notice your body language (and your interviewer's); and be conscious of your speech patterns. Use your best communication skills and demonstrate your awareness by asking questions. Not only will this action show that you have been paying attention, it will help ensure that both you and the company are a good match.
Be sure to dress the part for the job you want; make sure that you look neat, capable, and professional. Finally, don't forget to write a thank-you note to your interviewer. This step is both a courtesy and a smart way to follow-up, because it serves as a reminder that you are willing and able to be a great addition to the company.
This chapter covered a lot of ground to help you prepare for an interview, but now that you have read it, you should be ready:
- You have thought about what stories you can tell about yourself that will show you have the ten success factors for which most
employers look, and this chapter offered some examples and suggestions for how to demonstrate each of these.
- You've learned to be aware of non-verbal cues (that your interviewer may be sending and that you may be sending unconsciously, as well as those you want to send consciously).
- You also know how to use verbal cues, listen attentively and effectively, ask the right questions, and sell yourself with proof of what you've done well.
- You know how to dress professionally, so you will make a great impression on your interviewer.
- And you know how to follow-up after the interview with a thank-you note.
One more thing: Exhibit 4–5 is a final preparation checklist of things you should do the day before an interview. Keep this handy, and best of luck!
The next chapter walks you through the actual interview process— for both informational interviews and interviews with companies looking to fill a job opening.
Don't Let Your Mind Wander.
"I interviewed a candidate for an entry-level position at a telecommunications start-up. It became clear to me that he wasn't paying attention to me when I asked him, 'What does success mean to you?' and, after a long pause, during which he looked very confused, he answered, 'Salary can be variable depending on the availability of stock options, bonuses, etc. I'm sure you will make me a fair offer based on what you see on my resume.' The moral of the story: You shouldn't let your mind wander during an interview, but if you do catch your mind drifting, it is much more professional to ask the interviewer to repeat the question than to take a stab in the dark."
—NICK, DIRECTOR OF TECHNOLOGY
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