How to Ace That Job Interview
So! After spending most of last year moaning about your job - everything from your overbearing boss to your boring duties to your tediously long daily commute, until all your friends stop returning your calls – you’ve finally decided that the New Year is the time to start your search for new employment.
We all know what this involves: an endless process of filling in lengthy online application forms, revamping your resume to fit each job, writing a succinct yet beautifully-worded cover letter, then hearing nothing in return for all your time and effort.
But what if 2016 is your lucky year and one day soon, to your amazement, you receive the longed-for response - an invitation to an interview?
Your first reaction - shout "Woohoo!" and maybe do a little dance. But your second reaction, once the initial euphoria has passed, is almost certainly to panic.
What will they ask me? What should I ask them? What should I wear? Did I exaggerate anything (or - heaven forbid - actually lie) on my application, and if so can I get away with it?
The first thing you should do is to take a deep breath, or several. Then once you've calmed down you can start to methodically prepare.
Remember to reply to the invitation email or call promptly and confirm your acceptance. Even if the date or the time are inconvenient, don't ask for them to be changed (although most companies will do their best to accommodate you) unless there's an exceptionally - and I mean “life or death” exceptionally - good reason.
Make sure you find out what sort of interview is being offered. Many companies nowadays will start with a telephone interview or video call (such as Skype or FaceTime). There may also conduct a group interview in which multiple candidates are seen together. These often involve tasks such as team problem-solving exercises, presentations and (my own personal nightmare) role play. Being judged against others can be a scary proposition, but at least it gives you the chance to assess the competition.
Other methods of interview - which sometimes follow on from those mentioned above, should the company decide you've got what it takes - are face-to-face, either with one interviewer or with a panel which may consist of people from different departments within the organization. These are usually fairly formal and can be intimidating if you are new on the job market, so try to look on them as a chance for you to interview the company as well as being interviewed. It's a perfect opportunity to find out whether the job is right for you, as well as the interviewer ascertaining whether you are right for the position.
Check Them Out!
The next thing to do (unless you were forward-thinking enough to do it before you applied) is to research the company.
When was it founded? By whom? Has it expanded/merged/moved premises? Try to get a feel for its management structure, whether it's a small company with a few employees or an international corporation. Where is their market and who are their competitors? What are the company's ethics and their approach to social responsibility? Read their website and check out their social media profiles, especially the personnel in the department to which you've applied. LinkedIn is a good source for this.
Then prepare for the interview. Try to anticipate potential questions and how you will answer them. Typical questions could include:
"Why do you want this job?"
“Because I need to earn money, obviously!” Um - no - needless to say, total honesty isn't a prerequisite for answering every interview question. Show that you've researched the role you've applied for by talking about the individual skills and talents you possess which you could utilize in your new post. Remember to emphasize how these will benefit the company, as well as fulfilling you personally. You could also mention which specific aspect of the job advertisement stood out for you and enticed you to apply.
"What are your strengths?"
Why is this so much harder to answer than questions asking for self-criticism? Check the job specification to see which attributes are specified - these could include such things as initiative, teamwork or leadership skills. Then you could pick a couple, ensuring that you can provide examples of workplace situations in which you used them.
"What are your weaknesses?"
Try to make your answer to this positive, without being overly self-promotional. Pick several attributes which you have made an effort to improve. For example, you may have started your current job lacking self-assurance and confidence, which meant you struggled to accept being criticized; however, you challenged yourself by seeking out constructive criticism which helped you to improve, thus boosting your self-confidence. Don't be tempted to use boasts disguised as self-criticism, such as "I work too hard" or "I'm a perfectionist" - these are well-worn clichés which your interviewer will have heard dozens of times and will earn you nothing but an eye-roll.
"Tell me about a time when you coped with a challenging situation."
This is a frequently-used interview technique to try and assess how you cope under pressure. You will need to come prepared to talk about how you dealt with an unexpected situation or problem. Maybe a deadline changed at the last minute, so you had to rearrange your schedule or reallocate tasks within your team. Or perhaps you had a difficult client who needed tactful and careful handling, or a colleague who was going through a particularly hard time, so you took on some of their duties to help them out.
Remember that anything you tell your interviewer may be checked out when they follow up your references, so although you may get away with a certain amount of exaggeration, actual untruths are not recommended.
It is also important to have some questions prepared to ask at the end of the interview. Examples could include:
• What opportunities are there for training and personal development?
• How often will I have reviews and appraisals?
• What path could I expect my career to take within the company?
• Will I be expected to travel?
• Does the company offer a telecommute option?
• Does your organization have plans to develop or expand, nationally or internationally?
What to Wear and What to Take
Remember that first impressions are vital. It's said that a person makes their mind up about another person within seven seconds. Or - to quote social commentator and columnist Will Rogers - you will never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Interview Wear For Men
It's far better to be over-dressed than too casual - dressing professionally, even if the job itself won't require it, shows respect for both your interviewer and their organization. Men should always wear a clean suit (one that fits, not the one you wore to your brother's wedding when you were 16), with a not-too-bright shirt and not-too-flashy tie. Same goes for your socks - make sure they go with the suit. Do clean your shoes, including the soles. Avoid splashing on the after-shave or cologne, which may smell delightful to you but make the interviewer gag in the confined space of a small room. Don't smoke or vape beforehand, preferably not once you're dressed in your interview gear. And preferably don't eat either - we've probably all experienced the horrific discovery, inevitably too late, of spinach in the teeth!
Interview Wear for Women
Similar rules apply to women. A smart suit with either pants or a skirt is the best choice. It’s not recommended to wear anything brightly-colored or too short. You don't want to spend half the interview tugging at your hem because your skirt is much shorter when you're sitting than when you're standing! Take a spare pair of tights - mishaps happen far more often when you're unprepared for them. Road-test your heels, always: your five-inch black spikes may complete your power-outfit for that hot shot VP of Sales position, but if your interview involves a last-minute hike through a multi-story parking lot or a tour of all seventeen floors of the corporation you’ll be supervising, it might be best to stick with flats. Avoid perfume or scented products like spritz or hair spray. Minimal jewelry and make-up is best, as is muted nail polish in nude or neutral tones, unless you’re applying to be a fashion designer or band promoter. Take the bottle with you in case of chipping.
Do You Know Where You're Going?
At a risk of stating the obvious, do make sure you know where the interview venue is. Calculate how long it's likely to take you to get there, and then add on at least half the time again, double if humanly possible. If necessary, do a trial run of the drive beforehand to familiarize yourself with the route, where to park etc. On the day of the interview allow yourself plenty of time. Better to arrive too early and go for a coffee (and a restroom break) than to arrive dead on time but maybe out-of-breath and - depending on the length of your journey - desperate for the aforementioned restroom facilities.
Make sure you get ready the night before, including laying out your interview clothes (preferably in a place where the cat can't sit on them). Also make sure your cell phone is charged, you know where your car keys are and you have the following items prepared:
• Details of who to ask for upon arrival.
• Printed copies of your resume, application letter and interview invitation email.
• Photo ID and proof of address.
• Work samples, portfolio or other evidence - your invitation will probably have specified what your interviewer will need to see.
• Pen and notepad: it's perfectly acceptable to make the occasional note during your interview or to refer to any notes you've made to remind yourself what questions to ask - this shows that you've prepared thoroughly
• Water bottle to sooth the dry mouth you will most likely have in the interview room. (Never chew gum; there’s nothing more off-putting to your interviewer to watch your jaws constantly moving throughout the interview, or to catch you covertly looking for a place to dispose of the chewed piece afterwards.)
Don’t assume the company will have an accessible restroom for you to straighten your clothes and re-apply makeup before the interview; take a hand mirror with you in the car for a last-minute pre-interview image check.
Remember during the interview to adopt positive body language, such as not slouching, maintaining eye contact and smiling frequently, although a fixed grin can be somewhat alarming. Speak slowly and clearly, show enthusiasm and ask relevant questions when appropriate. Don’t gush or over-compliment, which can be seen of a sign of nerves or insecurity; act cool, confident and collected at all times, even if you don’t feel it on the inside! It's fine to pause to give yourself time to think before answering a question, or ask for it to be rephrased if you're not clear what's being asked.
Thank the interviewer at the end and give a firm handshake, no matter how desperate you are to scurry out of the room and into the nearest bar.
What's the Worst That Can Happen?
Even after you’ve done all of the above, there’s a chance that you may still not get the job. But don't collapse in a heap of despair. Every interview is a learning experience which can only improve your interview technique, highlighting the areas where you didn't do as well as you could have done, questions you found difficult to answer, and so on.
If you do receive a rejection it's really not the end of the world - just make sure you ask for feedback, the more detailed the better, which will greatly increase your chance of acing the next interview. Perseverance is the key: keep in mind that by not achieving your goal today you are one step closer to achieving it tomorrow.
As the inventor and businessman Thomas Edison said "When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You haven't."