If you were able set up an initial meeting at one of these companies, your resume and cover letter obviously peaked someone's interest. Now you have to traverse the last minefield the job interview itself. It's time to make all that preparations pay off.
This chapter will attempt to put the interview process in perspective, giving you the "inside story" on what to expect and how to handle the questions and circumstances that arise during the course of a normal interview...and even many of those that surface in the bizarre interview situations we have all sometimes experienced.
Why Interviews Shouldn't Scare You
Interviews shouldn't scare you. The concept of two (or more) persons meeting to determine if they are right for each other is a relatively logical and certainly not apparently frightening idea. As important as research, resumes, letters and phone calls are, they are inherently impersonal. The interview is your chance to really see and feel the company firsthand "up close and personal," as Howard Cosell used to think of it as a positive opportunity, your chance to succeed.
That said, many of you will still be put off by the inherently inquisitive nature of the process. Though many questions will be asked, interviews are essentially experiments in chemistry. Are you right for the company? Is the company right for you? Not just on paper in the flesh. If you decide the company is right for you, your purpose is simple and clear cut to convince the interviewer that you are the right person for the job, that you will fit in, and that you will be an asset to the company now and in the future. The interviewer's purpose is equally simple to decide whether he or she should buy what you're selling.
This chapter will focus on the kinds of questions you are likely to be asked, how to answer them, and the questions you should be ready to ask of the interviewer. By removing the workings of the interview process from the "unknown" category, you will reduce the fear it engenders.
But all the preparation in the world won't completely eliminate your sweaty palms, unless you can convince yourself that the interview is an important, positive life experience from which you will benefit...even if you don't get the job. Approach it with a little enthusiasm, calm yourself, and let your personality do the rest. You will undoubtedly spend an interesting hour, one that will teach you more about yourself. It's just another step in the learning process you've undertaken.
What To Do First
Start by setting up a calendar on which you can enter and track all your scheduled appointments. When you schedule an interview with a company, ask them how much time you should allow for the appointment. Some require all new applicants to fill out numerous forms and/or complete a battery of intelligence or psychological tests all before the first interview. If you've only allowed an hour for the interview and scheduled another at a nearby firm ten minutes later the first time you confront a three hour test series will effectively destroy any schedule.
Some companies, especially if the first interview is very positive, like to keep applicants around to talk to other executives. This process may be planned or, in a lot of cases, a spontaneous decision by an interviewer who likes you and wants you to meet some other key decision makers. Other companies will tend to schedule such a series of second interviews on a separate day. Find out, if you can, how the company you're planning to visit generally operates. Otherwise, especially if you've traveled to another city to interview with a number of firms in a short period of time, a schedule that's too tight will fall apart in no time at all.
If you need to travel out of state to interview with a company, be sure to ask if they will be paying some or all of your travel expenses. (It's generally expected that you'll be paying your own way to firms within your home state.) If they don't offer and you don't ask presume you're paying the freight.
Even if the company agrees to reimburse you, make sure you have enough money to pay all the expenses yourself. While some may reimburse you immediately, the majority of firms may take from a week to a month to forward you an expense check.
What Color Shirts Does He Like?
The research you did to find these companies is nothing compared to the research you need to do now that you're beginning to narrow your search. If you followed our detailed suggestions when you started targeting these firms in the first place, you've already amassed a lot of information about them. If you didn't do the research then, you sure better decide to do it now. Study each company as if you were going to be tested on your detailed knowledge of their organization and operations. Here's what you should know about each company you plan to visit:
- The address of (and directions to) the office you're visiting
- Headquarters location (if different)
- Some idea of domestic and international branches
- Relative size (compared to other similar companies)
- Annual billings, sales and/or income (last two years)
- Subsidiary companies; specialized divisions
- Departments (overall structure)
- Major accounts, products or services
- History of the firm (specialties, honors, awards, famous names)
- Names, titles and backgrounds of top management
- Existence (and type) of training program
- Relocation policy
- Relative salaries (compared to other companies in field or by size)
- Recent developments concerning the company and its products or services (from your trade magazine and newspaper reading)
- Everything you can learn about the career, likes and dislikes of the person(s) interviewing you
(Is it really so important to do all this? Well, somebody out there is going to. And if you happen to be interviewing for the same job as that other, well prepared, knowledgeable candidate, who do you think will impress the interviewer more?)
As we've already discussed, if you give yourself enough time, most of this information is surprisingly easy to obtain. In addition to the reference sources we previously covered (see Appendix B, too), the company itself can probably supply you with a great deal of data. A firm's annual report which all publicly owned companies must publish yearly for their stockholders is a virtual treasure trove of information. Write each company and request copies of their last two annual reports. A comparison of sales, income and other data over this period may enable you to discover some interesting things about their overall financial health and growth potential. Many libraries also have collections of annual reports from major corporations.
Attempting to learn about your interviewer is a chore, the importance of which is under estimated by most applicants (who then, of course, don't bother to do it). Being one of the exceptions may get you a job. Use the biographical references available in your local library. If he or she is listed in any of these sources, you'll be able to learn an awful lot about his or her background. In addition, find out if he or she has written any articles that have appeared in the trade press or, even better, books on his or her area(s) of expertise. Referring to these writings during the course of an interview, without making it too obvious a compliment, can be very effective. We all have egos and we all like people to talk about us. The interviewer is no different from the rest of us. You might also check to see if any of your networking contacts worked with him or her at his current (or a previous) company and can help "fill you in."
Selection Vs. Screening Interviews
The process to which the majority of this chapter is devoted is the actual selection interview, usually conducted by the person to whom the new hire will be reporting. But there is another process the screening interview which many of you may have to survive first.
Screening interviews are usually conducted by a member of the personnel department. Though they may not be empowered to hire, they are in a position to screen out or eliminate those candidates they feel (based on the facts) are not qualified to handle the job. These decisions are not usually made on the basis of personality, appearance, eloquence, persuasiveness or any other subjective criteria, but rather by clicking off yes or no answers against a checklist of skills. If you don't have the requisite number, you will be eliminated from further consideration. This may seem arbitrary, but it is a realistic and often necessary way for corporations to minimize the time and dollars involved in filling even the lowest jobs on the corporate ladder.
Remember, screening personnel are not looking for reasons to hire you; they're trying to find ways to eliminate you from the job search pack. Resumes sent blindly to the personnel department will usually be subjected to such screening; you will be eliminated without any personal contact (an excellent reason to construct a superior resume and not send out blind mailings).
If you are contacted, it will most likely be by telephone. When you are responding to such a call, keep these three things in mind:
1). It is an interview; be on your guard , 2). Answer all questions honestly, And 3). Be enthusiastic.
You will get the standard questions from the interviewer his or her attempts to "flesh out" the information included on your resume and/or cover letter. Strictly speaking, they are seeking out any negatives which may exist. If your resume is honest and factual (and it should be), you have no reason to be anxious, because you have nothing to hide.
Don't be nervous be glad you were called and remember your objective: to get past this screening phase so you can get on to the real interview.
The Day of The Interview
On the day of the interview, wear a conservative (not funereal) business suit not a sports coat, not a "nice" blouse and skirt. Shoes should be shined, nails cleaned, hair cut and in place. And no low cut or tight fitting dresses (especially men).
It's not unusual for resumes and cover letters to head in different directions when a company starts passing them around to a number of executives. If you sent them, both may even be long gone. So bring along extra copies of your resume and your own copy of the cover letter that originally accompanied it.
Whether or not you make them available, we suggest you prepare a neatly typed list of references (including the name, title, company, address and phone number of each person). You may want to bring along a copy of your high school or college transcript, especially if it's something to brag about. (Once you get your first job, you'll probably never use it or be asked for it again, so enjoy it while you can!)
On Time Means Fifteen Minutes Early
Plan to arrive fifteen minutes before your scheduled appointment. If you're in an unfamiliar city or have a long drive to their offices, allow extra time for the unexpected delays that seem to occur with mind numbing regularity on important days.
Arriving early will give you some time to check your appearance, catch your breath, check in with the receptionist, learn how to correctly pronounce the interviewer's name, and get yourself organized and battle ready.
Arriving late does not make a sterling first impression. If you are only a few minutes late, it's probably best not to mention it or even excuse yourself. With a little luck, everybody else is behind schedule and no one will notice. However, if you're more than fifteen minutes late, have an honest (or at least serviceable) explanation ready and offer it at your first opportunity. Then drop the subject as quickly as possible and move on to the interview.
The Eyes Have It
When you meet the interviewer, shake hands firmly. People notice handshakes and often form a first impression based solely on them.
Ask for a business card. This will make sure you get the person's name and title right when you write your follow up letter. You can staple it to the company file for easy reference as you continue your networking.
Try to maintain eye contact with the interviewer as you talk. This will indicate you're interested in what he or she has to say. Sit straight. Avoid smoking.
Should coffee or a soft drink be offered, you may accept (but should do so only if the interviewer is joining you).
Keep your voice at a comfortable level, and try to sound enthusiastic (without imitating Charleen Cheerleader). Be confident and poised, and provide direct, accurate and honest answers to the trickiest questions.
And, as you try to remember all this, just be yourself, and try to act like you're comfortable and almost enjoying this whole process!
Don't Name Drop...Conspicuously
A friendly relationship with other company employees may have provided you with valuable information prior to the interview, but don't flaunt such relationships. The interviewer is interested only in how you will relate to him or her and how well he or she surmises you will fit in with the rest of the staff. Name dropping may smack of favoritism. And you are in no position to know who the interviewer's favorite (or least favorite) people are.
On the other hand, if you have established a complex network of professionals through informational interviews, attending trade shows, reading trade magazines, etc., it is perfectly permissible to refer to these people, their companies, conversations you've had, whatever. It may even impress the interviewer with the extensiveness of your preparation.
Fork On The Left, Knife On The Right
Interviews are sometimes conducted over lunch, though this is not usually the case with entry level people. If it does happen to you, though, try to order something in the middle price range, neither filet mignon nor a cheeseburger.
Do not order alcohol. If your interviewer orders a carafe of wine, you may share it. Otherwise, alcohol should be considered verboten, under any and all circumstances. Then hope your mother taught you the correct way to eat and talk at the same time. If not, just do your best to maintain your poise.
The Importance of Last Impressions
There are some things interviewers will always view with displeasure: street language, complete lack of eye contact, insufficient or vague explanations or answers, a noticeable lack of energy, poor interpersonal skills (i.e., not listening or the basic inability to carry on an intelligent conversation), and a demonstrable lack of motivation.
Every impression may count. And the very last impression an interviewer has may outweigh everything else. So, before you allow an interview to end, summarize why you want the job, why you are qualified, and what, in particular, you can offer their company.
Then, take some action. If the interviewer hasn't told you about the rest of the interview process and/or where you stand, ask him or her. Will you be seeing other people that day? If so, ask for some background on anyone else with whom you'll be interviewing. If there are no other meetings that day, what's the next step? When can you expect to hear from them about coming back?
When you return home, file all the business cards, copies of correspondence and notes from the interview(s) with each company in the appropriate files. Finally, but most importantly, ask yourself which firms you really want to work for and which you are no longer interested in. This will quickly determine how far you want the process at each to develop before you politely tell them to stop considering you for the job.
Immediately send a thank you letter to each executive you met. These should, of course, be neatly typed business letters, not handwritten notes (unless you are most friendly, indeed, with the interviewer and want to stress the "informal" nature of your note). If you are still interested in pursuing a position at their company, tell them in no uncertain terms. Reiterate why you feel you're the best candidate and tell each of the executives when you hope (expect?) to hear from them.
On The 8th Day God Created Interviewers
Though most interviews will follow a relatively standard format, there will undoubtedly be a wide disparity in the skills of the interviewers you meet. Many of these executives (with the exception of the Personnel staff) will most likely not have extensive interviewing experience, have limited knowledge of interviewing techniques, use them infrequently, be hurried or harried by the press of other duties or not even view your interview as critically important.
Rather than studying standardized test results or utilizing professional evaluation skills developed over many years of practice, these non professionals react intuitively their initial (first five minutes) impressions are often the lasting and overriding factors they remember. So you must sell yourself...fast.
The best way to do this is to try to achieve a comfort level with your interviewer. Isn't establishing rapport through words, gestures, appearance common interests, etc. what you try to do in any social situation? It's just trying to know one another better. Against this backdrop, the questions and answers will flow in a more natural way.
The Set Sequence
Irrespective of the competence levels of the interviewer, you can anticipate an interview sequence roughly as follows:
- Social niceties (small talk)
- Purpose of meeting (let's get down to business)
- Broad questions/answers
- Specific questions/answers
- In depth discussion of company, job and opportunity
- Summarizing information given & received
- Possible salary probe (dependent upon level of achievement)
- Summary/indication as to next steps
It's Time To Play Q & A
You can't control the "chemistry" between you and the interviewer do you seem to "hit it off" right from the start or never connect at all? Since you can't control such a subjective problem, it pays to focus on what you can the questions you will be asked, your answers and the questions you had better be prepared to ask.
Not surprisingly, many of the same questions pop up in interview after interview, regardless of company size, type or location. I have chosen the thirteen most common along with appropriate hints and answers for each for inclusion in this chapter. Remember: There is no right or wrong answers to these questions, only good and bad ones.
Substance counts more than speed when answering questions. Take your time and make sure that you listen to each question there is nothing quite as disquieting as a lengthy, well thought out answer that is completely irrelevant to the question asked. You wind up looking like a programmed clone with stock answers to dozens of questions that has, unfortunately, pulled the wrong one out of the grab bag.
Once you have adequately answered a specific question, it is permissible to go beyond it and add more information if doing so adds something to the discussion and/or highlights a particular strength, skill, course, etc. But avoid making lengthy speeches just for the sake of sounding off.
Study the list of questions (and hints) that follow, and prepare at least one solid, concise answer for each. Practice with a friend until your answers to these most asked questions sound intelligent, professional and, most important, un memorized and unrehearsed.
"Why do you want to be in this field?"
Using your knowledge and understanding of the particular field, explain why you find the business exciting and where and how you see yourself fitting in.
"Why do you think you will be successful in this business?"
Using the information from your self evaluation and the research you did on that particular company; formulate an answer which marries your strengths to theirs and to the characteristics of the position for which you're applying.
"Why did you choose our company?"
This is an excellent opportunity to explain the extensive process of education and research you've undertaken. Tell them about your strengths and how you match up with their firm. Emphasize specific things about their company that led you to seek an interview. Be a salesperson be convincing.
"What can you do for us?"
Construct an answer that essentially lists your strengths, the experience you have which will contribute to your job performance, and any other unique qualifications that will place you at the head of the applicant pack. Be careful: This is a question specifically designed to eliminate some of that pack. Sell yourself. Be one of the few called back for a second interview.
"What position here interests you?"
If you're interviewing for a specific position, answer accordingly. If you want to make sure you don't close the door on other opportunities of which you might be unaware, you can follow up with your own question: Am here to apply for your Sales Training Program. Is there another position open for which you feel I'm qualified?"
If you've arranged an interview with a company without knowing of any specific openings, use the answer to this question to describe the kind of work you'd like to do and why you're qualified to do it. Avoid a specific job title, since they will tend to vary from firm to firm.
If you're on a first interview with the personnel department, just answer the question. They only want to figure out where to send you.
"What jobs have you held and why did you leave them?"
Or the direct approach: "Have you ever been fired?" Take this opportunity to expand on your resume, rather than precisely answering the question by merely recapping your job experiences. In discussing each job, point out what you liked about it, what factors led to your leaving and how the next job added to your continuing professional education. If you have been fired, say so. It's very easy to check.
"What are your strengths and weaknesses?"
Or "What are your hobbies (or outside interests)?" Both questions can be easily answered using the data you gathered to complete the self evaluation process. Be wary of being too forthcoming about your glaring faults (nobody expects you to volunteer every weakness and mistake), but do not reply, "I don't have any." They won't believe you and, what's worse, you won't believe you. After all, you did the evaluation you know it's a lie!
Good answers to these questions are those in which the interviewer can identify benefits for him or herself. For example: "I consider myself an excellent planner. I am seldom caught by surprise and I pride myself on being able to anticipate problems and schedule my time to be ahead of the game. I devote a prescribed number of hours each week to this activity. I've noticed that many people just react. If you plan ahead, you should be able to cut off most problems before they arise."
You may consider disarming the interviewer by admitting a weakness, but doing it in such a way as to make it relatively unimportant to the job function. For example: "Higher mathematics has never been my strong suit. Though I am competent enough, I've always envied my friends with a more mathematical bent. In sales, though, I haven't found this a liability. I'm certainly quick enough in figuring out how close I am to monthly quotas and, of course, I keep a running record of commissions earned/'
"Do you think your extracurricular activities were worth the time you devoted to them?"
This is a question often asked of entry level candidates. One possible answer: "Very definitely. As you see from my resume, I have been quite active in the Student Government and French Club. My language fluency allowed me to spend my junior year abroad as an exchange student, and working in a functioning government gave me firsthand knowledge of what can be accomplished with people in the real world. I suspect my marks would have been somewhat higher had I not taken on so many activities outside of school, but I feel the balance they gave me contributed significantly to my overall growth as a person."
"What are your career goals?"
Interviewers are always seeking to probe the motivations of prospective employees. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the area of ambition is discussed. The high key answer to this question might be; "Given hard work, company growth and a few lucky breaks along the way, I'd look forward to being in a top executive position by the time I'm 35.1 believe in effort and the risk/reward system my research on this company has shown me that it operates on the same principles. I would hope it would select its future leaders from those people displaying such characteristics."
"At some future date would you be willing to relocate?"
Pulling up one's roots is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but it is often a fact of life in the corporate world. If you're serious about your career (and such a move often represents a step up the career ladder), you will probably not mind such a move. Tell the interviewer. If you really don't want to move, you may want to say so too, though I would find out how probable or frequent such relocations would be before closing the door while still in the interview stage.
Keep in mind that as you get older, establish ties in a particular community, marry, have children, etc., you will inevitably feel less jubilation at the thought of moving once a year or even "being out on the road." So take the opportunity to experience new places and experiences while you're young. If you don't, you may never get the chance.
"How did you get along with your last supervisor?"
This question is designed to understand your relationship with (and reaction to) authority. Remember: Companies look for team players, people who will fit in with their hierarchy, their rules and their ways of doing things. An answer might be: "I prefer to work with smart, strong people who know what they want and can express themselves. I learned in the military that in order to accomplish the mission, someone has to be the leader and that person has to be given the authority to lead. Someday I aim to be that leader. I hope then my subordinates will follow me as much and as competently as I'm ready to follow now"
"What are your salary requirements?"
If they are at all interested in you, this question will probably come up. The danger is that you may price yourself too low or, even worse, right out of a job you want. Since you will have a general idea of industry figures for that position (and may even have an idea of what that company tends to pay new people for the position), why not refer to a range of salaries, such as $20,000 $25,000?
If the interviewer doesn't bring up salary at all, it's doubtful you're being seriously considered, so you probably don't need to even bring the subject up. (If you know you aren't getting the job or aren't interested in it if offered, you may try to nail down a salary figure in order to be better prepared for the next interview.)
"Tell me about yourself"
Watch out for this one! It's often one of the first questions asked. If you falter here, the rest of the interview could quickly become a downward slide to nowhere. Be prepared, and consider it an opportunity to combine your answers to many of the previous questions into one concise description of who you are, what you want to be and why that company should take a chance on you. Summarize your resume briefly and expand on particular courses or experiences relevant to the firm or position. Do not go on about your hobbies or personal life, where you spent your summer vacation, or anything that is not relevant to securing that job. You may explain how that particular job fits in with your long range career goals and talk specifically about what attracted you to their company in the first place.
The Not So Obvious Questions
Every interviewer is different and, unfortunately, there are no rules saying he or she has to use all or any of the "basic" questions covered above. But we think the odds are against his or her avoiding all of them. Whichever of these he or she includes, be assured most interviewers do like to come up with questions that are "uniquely theirs." It may be just one or a whole series questions developed over the years that he or she feels help separate the wheat from the chaff.
You can't exactly prepare yourself for questions like, "What would you do if… "(Fill in the blank with some obscure occurrence)?", "Tell me about your father," or "What's your favorite ice cream flavor?" Every interviewer we know has his or her favorites and all of these questions seem to come out of left field. Just stay relaxed, grit your teeth (quietly) and take a few seconds to frame a reasonably intelligent reply.
Some questions may be downright inappropriate. Young women, for example, may be asked about their plans for marriage and children. Don't call the interviewer a chauvinist (or worse). And don't point out that the question may be a little outside the law the nonprofessional interviewer may not realize such questions are illegal, and a huffy response may confuse, even anger, him or her.
Whenever any questions are raised about your personal life and this question surely qualifies it is much more effective to respond that you are very interested in the position and have no reason to believe that your personal life will preclude you from doing an excellent job.
"Do You Have Any Questions?''
It's the last fatal question on our list, often the last one an interviewer throws at you after an hour or two of grilling. Unless the interview has been very long and unusually thorough, you probably should have questions about the job, the company, even the industry. Unfortunately, by the time this question off handedly hits the floor, you are already looking forward to leaving and may have absolutely nothing to say.
Preparing yourself for an interview means more than having answers for some of the questions an interviewer may ask. It means having your own set of questions at least five or six for the interviewer. The interviewer is trying to find the right person for the job. You're trying to find the right job. So you should be just as curious about him or her and the company as he or she is about you. Here's a short list of questions you may consider asking on any interview:
- What will my typical day be like?
- What happened to the last person who had this job?
- Given my attitude and qualifications, how would you estimate my chances for career advancement at your company?
- Why did you come to work here? What keeps you here?
- If you were I, would you start here again?
- How would you characterize the management philosophy of your firm?
- What characteristics do the successful at your company have in common (fill in the blank with an appropriate title)?
- What's the best (and worst) thing about working here?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your company in terms of salaries, benefits and employee satisfaction in comparison to similar firms?
Though not part of the selection interview itself, job applications and psychological testing are often part of the pre interview process. You should know something about them.
The job application is essentially a record keeping exercise simply the transfer of work experience and educational data from your resume to a printed applications form. Though taking the time to recopy data may seem like a waste of time, some companies simply want the information in a particular order on a standard form. One difference: Applications often require the listing of references and salary levels achieved. Be sure to bring your list of references with you to any interview (so you can transfer the pertinent information), and don't lie about salary history; it's easily checked.
Many companies now use a variety of psychological tests as additional mechanisms to screen out undesirable candidates. Although their accuracy is subject to question, the companies that use them obviously believe they are effective at identifying applicants whose personality makeups would preclude their participating positively in a given work situation, especially those at the extreme ends of the behavior spectrum.
Their usefulness in predicting job accomplishment is considered limited. If you are normal (like the rest of us), you'll have no trouble with these tests and may even find them amusing. Just don't try to outsmart them you'll just wind up outsmarting yourself.