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Guide to Interviewing

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Preparing for Face-To-Face Interviews

Before you can persuade an interviewer that you are right for the job, you have to believe it yourself. If you possess the needed confidence but lack ideas for how to showcase your abilities and talents, then consider using some of the techniques described below.

The Show and Tell Technique* - Select samples of course assignments that demonstrate your various work-related skills. For instance, position papers, technical reports, and promotional flyers all provide evidence of writing skills. Be selective when choosing work samples. If the job you're applying for requires technical writing skills, you wouldn't want to share a paper from a creative writing class. Be prepared to leave a copy of your sample with the interviewer, as there usually won't be enough time for him/her to properly review it during the actual interview.

The Sneak Preview Technique* - While the Show and Tell Technique looks backward in time at material you've developed in the past, the Sneak Preview Technique focuses on the future by providing the interviewer with a demonstration of what you can do for their organization. For instance, if you are applying for a training position you could develop a Power Point presentation on a topic of interest to the employer.

Timing is everything when it comes to using the above techniques. Most interviewers will give you an entree by asking a question like, "How do your skills fit with the demands of this position?" Once such a question is asked, then the ball is in your court. You can respond by saying something like, "Rather than just telling you about my skills, I'd like to show you some examples of how I've used my skills. From my understanding of the job, writing skills are key to successful performance and I believe my writing skills are very strong. I've brought a brochure that I prepared for my sorority, and think it gives a good example of my writing abilities." (This example, of course, applies to someone who is interviewing for a writing position.)

In addition to thinking about how to use the above techniques when preparing for an interview, you should also practice responding to typical interview questions. Most interview questions are intended to assess three factors: Can you do the job? Will you do the job? How well will you get along with others? Rather than developing a response to each question, it will be easier to develop three general responses: one to explain how your skills and/or experiences match the job requirements, a second to describe why you're interested in the job that conveys a "can do" attitude, and a third to give the interviewer a sense for your work style.

A considerable portion of your preparation time should be spent on strategizing how you will showcase your talents, but you can't neglect the other components of a successful interview. Use the pre-interview checklist to make sure you cover all the bases.

* Terms taken from Krueger, B.D. (1997). College Grad Job Hunter. Milwaukee, WI: Quantum Leap Publishing.

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Making a Positive First Impression

Chances are you won't be offered the job unless you make a personal connection with the interviewer. Regardless of how well you respond to the interview questions, you will lose points if the interviewer senses that your personality may rub others the wrong way. From the interviewer's perspective, the best gauge for how you'll get along with others in the organization is how you come across during the interview. The following techniques and guidelines are recommended for establishing a personal connection with the interviewer:

  • During introductions, look directly into the interviewer's eyes and give him/her a warm smile.
  • Use a firm handshake and say something like, "It's great to meet you."
  • Mental connections lead to physical connections - if you believe you are fortunate to be in the presence of the interviewer, you will radiate a positive, friendly energy.
  • Remember that small talk is really big talk, since the employer will make judgments about you based on your articulation, vocabulary, and what you choose to talk about. Although there are no "safe" small talk topics, you'll generally be okay if you stick to topics that people usually aren't divided about (e.g., sports, local attractions, weather). Avoid making small talk about religion, politics, or social issues.
  • Follow the "2-Minute Rule," which specifies that your initial responses to questions shouldn't exceed two minutes. If you are too chatty, the interviewer may view you as being self-absorbed or overly anxious. The 2-Minute Rule applies to the beginning of the interview, when the interviewer is asking questions to "break the ice." Eventually the interviewer will ask serious interview questions that are the basis of the interview. Don't limit yourself to two minutes when responding to these questions. It usually takes more than two minutes to impress an interviewer with your skills and experiences! At the same time, though, you don't want to over do it and bore the interviewer. Therefore, it's wise to test the waters to make sure you're not being too windy. This can be done by pausing as you are relating an experience, etc. If the interviewer continues eye contact during the pause, take it as a cue to go on with what you want to say.
  • Stick with positives. Complaining or speaking negatively about others is the "kiss of death" in an interview.

In addition to doing the above, you need to be aware of your nonverbal communication: What you say is not nearly as important as how you say it. The nonverbals that have the most impact on an interviewer are described below.

Eye Contact - Many claim that the eyes are the "windows to one's soul." Make sure to avoid looking away while listening; this can be interpreted as boredom or a short attention span. Failing to maintain eye contact while speaking; this can be viewed as a lack of confidence or, at worst, an indication that you are lying

Facial Expressions - In preparation for the interview process, take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror while you rehearse responses to typical interview questions. Work on modifying any negative facial expressions (e.g., scowls, lip biting, pursed lips, etc.) and make sure to practice smiling. Identify someone who you regard as having a warm smile and work on developing a similar smile. Hint: Don't use Bart Simpson as a role model unless you want to develop a wisecracking grin!

Posture - Stand up straight. When seated, sit at the front of the chair and lean slightly forward. This demonstrates that you are focused on what's being said. Slouching is often interpreted as a lack of confidence.

Body Space - You need to be conscientious about the interviewer's personal space. For most Americans this ranges from 30 to 36 inches. When interviewing with someone from another country, be prepared for him/her to encroach upon your personal space. Avoid moving away as it could be interpreted as a form of rejection. If you have smaller than average personal space requirements, make sure to keep your distance or else you could be viewed as aggressive.

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Demonstrating Your Stuff

Employers select people to interview who they consider to have the basic requirements for the job, and view the interview as a means of assessing how the top candidates compare with one another. Therefore, when you interview you need to demonstrate why you should be considered over the other candidates. Just sharing information from your résumé, which the interviewer is already familiar with, will not cut it! You will win points if you:

Demonstrate a "Can Do" Attitude
Impress upon the interviewer that you are someone who can be counted on to get the job done. This is best done by clearly describing how your skills and experiences match with the demands of the position. If you are unclear about what the job actually entails, you'll obviously have a hard time accomplishing this. Instead of hoping that your answers magically hit the mark, consider asking a question like the following as early as possible during the interview process: "Can you tell me about the position and the type of person you are seeking?"

The answers provided will help you to identify the employer's specific needs, which you should then address whenever possible during the rest of the interview. The strategy is really quite simple: Find out what the employer needs and then frame your answers around what they are seeking. If they need someone who can explain statistical reports to assembly line workers with remedial math skills, tell them about your experiences that relate to interpreting statistics to others. If you lack experience in this area, don't let it derail you. Instead, describe an experience where you were successful at explaining another complicated topic. Or, explain that although you don't have these experiences you trust your ability to develop skills in this area.

Keep in mind that if you can learn about the employer's specific needs prior to the interview, you'll be one step ahead of the process. At a minimum, you should always try to get a job description in advance.

Speak in Specifics Rather than Generalities
One of the worst mistakes a candidate can make is to share generalities rather than specifics. It is not enough to say, "I value learning new skills." You have to support such a statement with specifics. For example: "I value learning new skills. This year alone I have taken two seminars on HTML and took on the challenge of creating a web page for a local bicycling group. And, I'm registered to take a course next month on time-management."

Interviewers often use a technique known as "behavioral-based interviewing." The premise of this technique is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, and the questions often begin with, "Tell me about a time when you." It's essential that you respond by describing how you appraised the situation, the steps you took, and the outcome(s). If there was a negative outcome, stress what you learned from the situation and what you'll do differently if you face that kind of situation in the future.

Click here for a worksheet that will help you prepare for behavioral-based questions.

Exhibit the Key Qualities that Employers Desire A few years back, the College Placement Council identified sixteen traits employers most often look for in candidates. Demonstrating some of the traits listed below during the interview is very important, and will go along way in setting you apart from the average candidate.

  • Ability to Communicate - Do you have the ability to organize your thoughts and ideas effectively? Can you express them clearly when speaking or writing? Can you present your ideas in a persuasive way?
  • Intelligence - Do you have the ability to understand work assignments? Contribute original ideas?
  • Self-Confidence - Do you demonstrate a sense of maturity that enables you to deal positively and effectively with situations and people?
  • Willingness to Accept Responsibility - Are you someone who recognizes what needs to be done and is willing to do it?
  • Initiative - Do you have the ability to identify what need improvement and to take action?
  • Leadership - Can you guide and direct others to obtain established objectives?
  • Energy Level - Do you demonstrate a forcefulness and capacity to make things move ahead? Can you maintain your work effort at an above-average rate?
  • Creativity - Can you confront and deal with problems that may not have standard solutions?
  • Flexibility - Are you capable of changing and being receptive to new ideas?
  • Interpersonal Skills - Can you bring out the best efforts of individuals so they become effective, enthusiastic members of a team?
  • Self-Knowledge - Can you realistically assess your own capabilities? See yourself as others see you? Clearly recognize your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Ability to Handle Conflict - Can you successfully contend with stressful situations and antagonism?
  • Competitiveness - Do you have the capacity to compete with others and the willingness to be measured by your performance in relation to that of others?
  • Goal Achievement - Do you have the ability to identify and work toward specific goals? Do such goals challenge your abilities?
  • Work Skills - Do you possess the combination of education and skills required for the position you are seeking?
  • Direction - Have you defined what type of position will satisfy your knowledge, skills, and goals?

Manage Interviewing Jitters Effectively
Wouldn't it be nice if interviewing went as smoothly as a well-rehearsed role-play? Interviews are obviously more challenging because they are the real thing - you are in the spotlight and all eyes are upon you. It's natural to feel anxiety during an interview! If your anxiety results in more than sweaty palms and you find yourself having difficulty concentrating, the following techniques will allow you to buy some time while you formulate answers to those tough questions.

  • The Parrot Technique Useful for when asked a question that you know you have a good answer to, but cannot think of it immediately. Works as follows: Repeat back the question using your own words. Interviewer: "If you could change your life, what would you do differently?" You: "Hmm. How would I live my life differently? That requires a bit of thought.I would."
  • The Delay Technique Useful when you are really stuck. First, repeat back the question using the Parrot Technique. If you still can't think of what to say, comment on the importance or relevance of the question: "I would ask the same question if I were doing the interview." or "I understand the importance of this in regard to..." If you still haven't formulated your answer, you might be able to reflect the question back to the interviewer in some instances. For example, if the original question were, "How would you respond if a co-worker became hostile toward you or another co-worker?" you could query with, "Has this organization had problems with workplace violence?"

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Closing with Finesse

In most situations, you will know how long the interview is scheduled for. Most organizations will indicate this when the interview is first scheduled, and the interviewer will usually also state the end time at the beginning of the interview. Additionally, you will be able to determine when the interviewer is getting ready to conclude the interview by looking for one of the tell tale signals: the interviewer starts glancing at his/her watch or the interviewer asks you, "Do you have any other questions for me?"

If you are truly interested in the job, you need to use the remaining time to re-state why you feel you are the best candidate for the job and to re-state your interest in the position. This is best accomplished by restating the two or three strongest qualifications that you shared at the beginning of the interview and by leaving no doubt in the interviewer's mind that you are interested in the job. Consider the following closings - which sounds better to you?

"I'm very interested in this job and believe my experiences fit what you are looking for. Is there any area of my experiences that you 'd like to know more about in relation to your needs?"

"I realize our time is running out so I'd like to use the remaining minutes to quickly highlight why I think you should hire me. You need someone who can design creative marketing pieces, evaluate the effectiveness of marketing strategies, and forecast customer needs. I can do all of those things, but then you probably determined that when you first reviewed my résumé. What's most important is that I'm really interested in working for this organization. I value the organization's goals and will work hard to help you and the organization succeed."

After you've made the final pitch for why you're a good candidate for the job, there are several do's and don'ts to keep in mind during the final minutes of the interview.

  • As time permits, ask questions that weren't addressed by the interviewer. Click here for a list of typical interviewee questions. Be careful not to ask about something that has already been shared by the interviewer because you'll lose points for listening skills!
  • Thank the interviewer for taking the time to meet with you while you maintain good eye contact. Say good-bye with a firm handshake.
  • Don't ask the interviewer how you did, as this will raise doubts about your confidence.
  • In the unlikely event that you're offered the job without having met the person you would report to, request the opportunity to meet with him/her. It's important that you get a sense for what it would be like to work for such an individual.
  • If you're offered the job and it's your first interview with the organization, don't accept or reject the offer until you've had time to think about. It. A good response in such a situation is, "I appreciate your offer and am excited about the opportunity to work for this organization. I would like to have a day or two to think this over. When would be a good time for me to call you with my decision?"
  • If you are interviewing with a Human Resources staff member, close by asking to move forward to the next step in the process, which will likely involve meeting on-site with the hiring manager.
  • Ask for the following "process" questions as needed.
    1. What are the next steps in the selection process? Do you plan on conducting second interviews?
    2. How would you prefer for me to contact you should I think of more questions about what you shared? Via phone? Via e-mail?
    3. When can I expect to be contacted about the hiring decision?

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Important Post-Interview Tasks

Keep a Record of the Interview
There are several reasons why record keeping will work to your advantage. First, a written record makes it a lot easier to keep track of the people you've met with and the information they shared with you. Second, you could get a call from an organization several weeks after the initial interview. Detailed records are a big help in these instances. Third, after you've had a number of interviews, a review of your observations may generate useful insights for how you can improve your interviewing skills. Click here for a record-keeping form.

Send a Follow-Up Letter that Reaffirms Your Interest in the Job
This should be done immediately! Because letters sent via the postal service can take as long as a week to arrive, you are advised to fax, hand deliver, or e-mail your letter. The simple gesture of sending a letter can make a big difference in separating you from the competition. If you interviewed with multiple individuals, send the letter to the hiring supervisor and copy the letter to the others. Click here for an example of a follow-up letter.

Anticipate a Second Interview
If the interview went well, you will likely be invited back for a second round. It's best to plan ahead to make sure you have a second outfit ready to wear and to give yourself adequate preparation time. What questions do you have that weren't answered during the first interview? Now that you have a better sense about what the job entails, what Show and Tell or Sneak Preview techniques could you use to demonstrate your value to the organization?

Consider going to a second interview even if you have doubts about working for that employer. By going back you will have the chance to meet more people and find out more about the organization.

Prepare to Respond to an Offer
Carefully review the things you've learned about the job, the company, and the city you'd be working in if re-location were required. Think about the people you met and the information they shared. Are you interested in doing the kind of work the job requires? Will you acquire new skills or sharpen existing ones? Are there opportunities for promotion? Do the people you'd work with seem friendly, fair, and capable? Does the organization seem like a good one? What is the minimum salary you're willing to accept? What factors can you use to negotiate for a higher salary should the organization make an offer at or below your minimum requirement? Click here for salary negotiation tips.

(The post-interview tasks described above are adapted from Kalt, N.C. (1996). Career Power! A Blueprint for Getting the Job You Want. Pound Ridge, NY: Career Power Books. )

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Tips for Phone Interviews

  • Keep your goal in mind: You need to pass this screening to get to the real interview. Beware of any employer who gives you an offer without a face-to-face meeting.
  • Create your own interview office: Set up your desk so that you are prepared for unexpected interview calls whether they come at 8 am Monday morning or during your favorite soap opera. You will need: a door that closes out family, pet or roommate noises, a copy of your résumé, a file on all the employers you have sent résumés that includes the questions you have about each, your completed worksheet to use for behavioral based interview questions, and a mirror at eye level (so you can "see yourself as others hear you").
  • Warm up your voice while waiting for the call.
  • Turn off call waiting if needed.
  • Have a bottle of water handy.
  • Stand up: Many people find it helps if they stand up during the interview. You come across much more energetic than the guy they called last, who was lounging on his unmade bed.
  • Develop stall tactics: "Thank you for calling, Ms. Jones. Would you wait just a moment while I close the door?"..."while I pull my file on your company/organization?"
  • Use the interviewer's surname. Use his/her first name sparingly, and ONLY if invited.
  • Avoid giving yes/no answers. After all, one of your major selling points is that Liberal Arts grads have better communication skills than the average college grad.
  • This is no time for eating/drinking/smoking/static. All 4 of these normally innocuous noises are magnified on the phone, as are background music, barking puppies, and obnoxious roommates. Speak directly into a phone held 1 inch from your mouth.
  • Take notes. This is the biggest advantage of phone interviews. You can use prepared interview notes or take notes for your file on that employer.
  • Take surprise calls in stride. If you are registered with the Career Center and giving out your résumé to network contacts at every opportunity, you are going to get some employer calls you're not anticipating. If the first surprise call doesn't go well, figure out what you could do better and next time.
  • No-no's. Don't ask about salary, vacation, dental plans, etc. Your task is to convince them that you want to do the job and to get an opportunity for a more extensive set of interviews. In those later interviews you can begin to evaluate whether the position and its benefits fit into your life-plan.

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