Get Ready: Job Interviews That Get You Hired (page 3)
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.
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