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Acing the Interview

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After you’ve built your résumé, written a great cover letter and scheduled the interview, it’s time to meet the interviewer and get the position you’ve applied for. This guide can help you prepare for your important interview day.

Know Your Target

Companies like candidates who know what they want from a job. They are also impressed with someone who has done some research before arriving at the interview. Make the effort to look into the organization you’re interested in, and you’ll find yourself ahead of the competition.

You can find out about large organizations in several ways. To get a sense of how the organization you’re interested in sees itself, go to their corporate website and read about the company’s history and plans for the future. Company websites sometimes have employee photos or blogs, both of which will give you some idea of the company culture. You can also read the company’s brochures and annual reports if they’ve been made publicly available. No matter the size of the company, you can do a web search for the organization’s name and read any articles that may have mentioned the company – you may find that the organization was recently involved in a charitable event – or a lawsuit.

You may also be interested to find out what other people think about the organization you’re interested in. These days, most organizations are rated and reviewed by web users in some way, and these opinions can be found online. Just be wary about what you’re reading because anyone can post an opinion, whether it’s an accurate representation or not. Additionally, the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org), an organization that helps people find trustworthy businesses and charities, may be able to tell you if the organization you’re interested in is a member or not.

As you do this research, make note of the organization’s purpose, products or services, chief executive officer’s name and any recent news or company developments. Use your notes to develop questions of your own and take them with you to the interview.

More about Researching Companies:

Know Yourself

During an interview your job is to sell yourself, so you need to know your skills well enough to do this effectively. Once you figure that out, you can apply those insights to the needs of your target company. Connecting your skills with the company’s needs successfully is the best way to get hired. But above all else, be authentic. If an employer doesn’t perceive that you have a sincere interest in working at his or her organization, he or she can’t be sure that you will be committed to the success of the company.

Keep in mind that during an interview you’re “selling” your skills and yourself as a person. First: your skills. An easy way to determine your skills is to list your accomplishments and then think of which skills it took to do them. Did baby-sitting require psychological sensitivity? Did selling kitchen knives require skills of persuasion? Did playing school sports and maintaining a high GPA require strong time-management skills? Review your list and refine your skills into a “package” you can explain easily in a minute or two.

In the midst of addressing your skills, don’t forget to sell yourself as a person. Most organizations want honest, smart, friendly, motivated and responsible employees. Do you deal well with people? Are you smart and conscientious? Self-motivated? Did you, for example, show determination to get back on the slopes after you broke your leg skiing? Again, after you make your list, refine it so you can explain your personal assets in a minute or two. It’s also wise to keep in mind that everything you say is part of the interview, even if you end up at lunch or another casual setting.

Remember that an interview is also your chance to ask questions about the job and the company you would be working for. This is how you figure out if you really want to work there. Once you know what’s important to you in a job, ask about it!

Practice

You can make all the lists you want, but there’s no substitute for rehearsing how you’ll handle an interview. Ask your parent, sibling or friend to be the interviewer, and give him or her a list of questions to throw at you, especially the hard ones (see some examples below). There are ways to handle each of these. If you know what they are before you’re in the “hot seat,” you’ll be more confident going into the interview. You will also benefit from having thought about the answers, and you may be able to apply them to questions that you didn’t anticipate.

If you get a question that you can’t answer, simply say you don’t know. Then say the question is something to which you would like to give more thought and that you are willing to learn what it takes. Again, an employer will respect someone who is honest and open about his or her limitations.

Here are some sample interview questions:

  • What were your responsibilities at your last job (or at school, if this is your first job)?
  • What major challenges and problems did you face? How did you handle them?
  • Which was most/least rewarding?
  • What was the biggest accomplishment/failure in this position?
  • What was it like working for your supervisor? What were his or her strengths and shortcomings?
  • Why are you leaving your job?
  • What have you been doing since your last job?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • Why should we hire you?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • What motivates you?
  • How do you prioritize tasks?
  • Do you prefer to work by yourself or within a group?
  • Describe your ideal job.
  • Describe your ideal work environment.
  • Discuss a situation where you had to resolve a conflict.
  • Discuss a situation where you had to demonstrate teamwork/leadership skills.
  • Describe a situation where you failed.
  • Describe a situation where you set a goal and met it.

Body language is another thing to be aware of. If you have a video or web camera, use it for the practice; otherwise a mirror will do, or get feedback from your parent, sibling or friend. Hand and arm movements shouldn’t be too large. Don’t fiddle, shake your leg or tap your fingers. This is unprofessional and may distract your potential employer. Your posture should be relaxed, but alert. Don’t slouch; if you look bored in the interview, then the interviewer will assume that you’d be bored in the job, too. Communicate interest and energy. Be yourself. Your potential employer knows that you’re nervous, but try not to make it so obvious that it becomes a distraction.

Sample interview questions:

Dress the Part

You wouldn’t wear torn jeans to a wedding, and you shouldn’t wear cargo shorts to an interview. Remember, looking professional means looking respectable. Your best bet is to dress for an interview as if you already had the job. That said, it’s best to err on the side of formality. While many offices allow their employees to dress casually on a day-to-day basis, your interview is a time to make a professional first impression with your appearance. There will be plenty of casual Fridays to take advantage of after you’re hired.

Checking the company’s website for pictures of the employees can give you an idea of the overall level of dress. While a suit is nearly always appropriate in a corporate setting, sometimes it does not make sense for the organization. Whatever you choose to wear, it should be clean, ironed, coordinated and appropriate. Skirts should not be above the knee, shirts should not be cut too low and jewelry should be moderate. Shirts should also cover the entire shoulder – no tank tops. Even employers who don’t ask that their employees dress up will appreciate that you’ve chosen to put your best foot forward. It’s important to be professional from head to toe. Sneakers and flip-flops should stay at home. Wearing open-toe shoes may be fashionable, but they’re not appropriate before you get the job. Likewise, it’s a good idea to remove piercings (aside from small, traditional earrings) and make sure any tattoos are concealed under your clothing.

Personal grooming is part of your “dress” too. Be sure to freshen up before your interview but don’t overwhelm your potential employer with your favorite perfume or cologne. Hair should be kept simple, and when it comes to makeup – less is more. Take extra time to look great, and it will be one less thing that stands between you and your dream job.

On some occasions, an employer will call you back for a second interview. Think positively and plan ahead – make sure you have a few professional outfits.

Other Resources:

Arrive Early

It may seem obvious, but if you’re not on time for your interview the game is over. Getting there early makes a good impression on the interviewer and allows you to take a few deep breaths, organize your notes, refresh your memory on any points that you’ve found difficult in your practices and scan any company materials that may be available in the waiting room. It also allows you to use the restroom if needed, freshen your breath and make any last-minute appearance adjustments. This means you won’t get flustered if you get lost on the way, and you will still get to your interview on time if you get lost.

Arriving early is easiest when you’ve planned your route. Whatever your mode of transportation, make sure you have directions to your target organization, along with a back-up route, in case of unexpected obstacles like traffic or a subway delay. Also, have the telephone number of someone to notify in case you’re running late. It’s also highly recommended that you perform a dry run a few days before your interview – travel to your target organization and be sure you know how to get there – to the door – without getting lost.

If you plan ahead, you’ll feel better about yourself, and you’ll be more relaxed in the interview. So leave plenty of time and get there early. It gives you a psychological edge.

Make a Good First Impression

There are a few things to keep in mind when meeting with potential employers. They’re looking for someone who is confident, assertive and friendly, and they will be taking this opportunity to see if you’re a good fit. You’ll want to follow these quick tips whenever you meet anyone at your target organization, particularly the person who’ll be interviewing you:

  • Look the person in the eye as you offer your right hand for a handshake.
  • Shake his or her hand firmly, but easily; try to have the web of your hand touch his or hers.
  • Smile at the same time, and say something enthusiastic like “Hello, Mr. Byrnes. It’s a pleasure to meet you!”
  • As you walk to his or her office, make some small talk – weather, how great the lobby looks. Just try to avoid politics or off-color humor (racial, ethnic or religious jokes). Small talk will establish a positive rapport, and the rest of the interview will feel more natural and less like you’re being grilled.

Answer Honestly and Well

You’re going to be asked some questions, and there are some tricks to answering them well.

  • Don’t ramble. Concise answers with strong points are better than disorganized babble. Respect the fact that your interviewer is taking time out of his or her busy day to meet with you.
  • Look the interviewer in the eye when you’re answering.
  • Gather your thoughts. If you need a minute to collect your thoughts in order to answer a specific question, feel free to say, “I need to think about that for a moment…” or “That’s a great question…”

The interviewer will respect your honesty and your desire to offer a thoughtful answer. If a question is particularly difficult, try to remember how you approached similar questions while practicing. If you blank out, be honest, but definitely put a positive spin on your answer. A little humor in moderation never hurts either.

Ask Questions

Usually at the end of an interview, you’ll be asked if you have any questions. If you don’t ask something, it can be taken as a sign of lack of preparation or interest.

Prepare some questions before the interview. There are two areas you should inquire about – the organization and the job itself. We recommend asking about the job first. Are you clear on the responsibilities of the job? If not, ask for clarification. Do you see where the job fits into the structure of the organization? What is the working environment like? Is there a path for advancement? If all else fails and you can’t think of what to ask, ask your interviewer for clarification or further detail about something he or she has already brought up. It will show that you were paying attention and were interested in what he or she had to tell you. If it seems appropriate, ask your interviewer what his or her favorite thing or least favorite thing about working at this company is – you may learn about something you wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Be sure you know what the next steps are after the interview. Are they going to contact you? When do they think they will do that? Would they prefer that you follow up with them? How is the best way to do that?

The end of the interview is also a good time to emphasize how interested you are in taking the process to the next step and why you think you’d be the perfect candidate for the job. You can reinforce this sentiment by asking your interviewer for his or her business card so that you can be in touch with him or her.

But don’t beg for the job – let your positive attitude and enthusiasm speak for you. Upon leaving, make sure to shake the person’s hand again and make sincere eye contact. And, of course, don’t forget to thank him or her.

“Closing” is a job-interview term used to describe the process of securing a job offer. Knowing how to successfully “close” or wrap up an interview can be the difference between getting a job and getting overlooked. You want to leave a lasting impression that you’re the right person for the job, which requires a combination of equal parts skill and personality. Depending on your interview style and job choice, there are some key points to keep in mind. Review our “Tips For Successfully Wrapping up an Interview” Checklist for a step-by-step guideline.

Checklist: Tips For Successfully Wrapping up an Interview

Be Yourself

In the interview, let your true personality shine through. Trained interviewers spot actors quickly, and they are unlikely to hire anyone whom they feel they can’t trust.

Be proud of that unique collection of talents, motivations and skills that make you the individual you are. Believe in your ability to learn, grow, develop. Show “the real you” and you’ll be well on your way to getting hired.

Follow Up

Your interview isn’t over when you walk out the door. As soon as you get home, write a short thank-you note to your interviewer. Tell him or her that you appreciated the time he or she spent with you and the chance to learn more about the job and the organization. Traditionally, a thank-you note refers to a neatly handwritten card mailed to the organization’s address, but today it is equally acceptable (and expected) to send a thank-you email to your interviewer. If you promised to send something additional – writing samples or another copy of your résumé, for example – make sure to enclose it. Keep your note short and restate your understanding of the next step. Be sure to follow through. If you say in your note that you’ll give them a follow-up call on Tuesday, be sure to do so. If you’d like to add something you forgot to say in the interview, this is the time and place. If you did not obtain your interviewer’s business card before you left, find another way to be sure that you spell his or her name(s) correctly. If it can’t be found on the company website, call the receptionist to have him or her spell it for you. Unless told otherwise, keep in contact with the human resources representative after your interview and consider sending him or her a thank-you note as well.

You’d be surprised how many candidates never offer this simple courtesy. Send a thank-you note and you’ll stand out in the crowd.