Acing a Job Interview in Five Easy Steps

It’s just a matter of months before another wave of capped and gowned graduates armed with diplomas and resumes hit the job market, and with the waning economy, they won’t only be competing with each other for jobs. Even the “minimum wage retail monkey” type jobs are being snatched at by far too many eager hands, and there certainly isn’t a shortage of qualified candidates everywhere.

But everyone needs to eat, and keep a roof over his or her head. And pay cell phone bills and car insurance and perhaps even go on a date now and then. Obviously, one needs to have money for such things, and as Grandma was only too fond of saying, money doesn’t grow on trees.

One of the most important steps to bagging that dream job (or even that reasonable, decent, steady-if-boring one) is acing the job interview, and while everyone knows to arrive on time and hide that navel piercing, there are several finer details that are often forgotten, and only too many interviewees are caught unawares when faced with That One Question or That Tiny Detail.

It’s really not rocket science, but really, interviewers are looking for some basic things, and as they say, knowledge is half the battle.

I have, through the course of the last year alone, conducted probably close to fifty job interviews, and have seen the gamut from the interviewee from hell to the perfect fit for the position. In my opinion, the former isn’t any worse a person than the latter, but there are just small things that separate the men from the mice.

Here below is the Cliffnotes ™ version of things that matter in a job interview.

1) Present Yourself Professionally From the Start

I use this category as a catch-all for everything that garners a first impression. The interviewer has not met the candidate before. At the very most, he or she has glanced at the resume and perhaps conversed over the phone. In that case, several things have already been established: that the things on paper look good, and that the interviewer is willing to take time out of his or her day to meet the candidate. All in all, the interviewer is not likely to go into the interview with an established negative impression. Sadly though, at least one out of every four interviewers in my experience sour that impression within the first ten minutes of an interview, and it’s like trying to climb a glass mountain to scale back up to a favourable impression.

It should go without saying that on a job interview, hygiene and dress are very important. I cannot say that I have hired everyone who came dressed in a nice suit, but I have never once hired anyone who came underdressed, with greasy hair and dirty fingernails. It’s not necessary to drop $50 at a beauty salon before an interview, but for heaven’s sake at least take a shower, wear a nice shirt, and use deodorant. For those who do not own suits or perhaps are applying for non-white-collar positions, keep the following in mind: it’s better to be slightly overdressed than slightly underdressed. An interviewer likes to think that the candidate holds respect for the job position.

That aside, there are other things that don’t directly have to do with dress itself. Whatever the job is – and I mean WHATEVER the job is, no interviewer will hire anyone who conducts him or herself in a less-than-professional manner on the interview. It does not matter whether one is applying for a position at a prestigious law firm or at the local truck stock cafe: anyone who swears, props his or her feet up on desks, and gets too familiar can almost be guaranteed to be shown the door. The interviewer might be wearing torn jeans and dangling a cigarette between his fingers, but don’t think for a moment that a job applicant can get away with such things. It implies a lack of respect – or a lack of a sense of propriety, and those qualities are the last things that any employer wants in a prospective recruit, no matter how qualified.

Make a good initial impression: look sharp, give a firm handshake, and smile!

2) Be Punctual

This should go without saying, but it’s shocking how many people disregard this simple thing, and I can say from experience that the quickest way to give a negative impression is to arrive late. Keep in mind that an interviewer has many duties during the course of the day, and for him or her, time is money. Arriving for a nine o’clock interview at half-past nine implies that the same sort of thing would occur if given the position. The interviewer’s first thought will be that if hired, the candidate can be expected to be perpetually late as well, since he or she can’t even be on time for an interview. A candidate who is late looks unprepared, irresponsible and uncaring, and no interviewer worth his or her salt will offer the position to someone who doesn’t care enough about the job to be on time.

Yes, of course there are extenuating circumstances such as traffic and car problems and the like, but these things are also common occurrences, and as unfair as it might sound to someone, an interviewer expects a candidate to be prepared for these things. Certainly, nothing is foolproof, and no one can account for getting into a freak accident involving a sheep stampede or an abduction by aliens, but how many times do such things happen?

It does not take too much time and effort to find out the location of the interview before-hand and figure out the best route to get there. Nor is it extremely difficult to allot an extra fifteen minutes to account for traffic irregularities. If being late cannot be helped, the least a candidate can do is to call absolutely as soon as he or she realizes that it is inevitable and ask to reschedule – after figuring out the problem (i.e. car difficulties, wrong turn, whatever have you). By no means should one make excuses (“Your place is just so difficult to find! How am I supposed to get there?”) or assume that rain checks are commonplace or accepted (“Tell you what, just put me in whenever someone else cancels THEIR interview!”). Most reasons for tardiness can be prevented, after all.

3) Be Prepared

This is probably the biggest catch-all category, and I won’t elaborate too much on everything included, but I’ll touch on all the most important things. The first – and it is quite surprising how many people forget this – is to BRING A COPY OF THE RESUME. It might be the case that the company has already received a copy, but the interviewer might not have it on hand, or perhaps the interviewer has it filed away in some obscure folder in a filing cabinet. Bringing a copy for the person conducting the interviewer is simple respect and courtesy.

The second step is to go over the details of the job ad/company website/requirements before-hand. Just as an interviewer will pick out the items on the resume that stand out to him or her, the candidate can similarly pick out the portions of the job description that he or she is particularly qualified for, and have some idea of what sort of company he or she is applying at. This will also make it easier to ask educated questions and get more out of the interview.

The third is to anticipate some of those common interview questions and formulate answers for them so that one is not caught off-guard. Here’s a list of common interview questions that probably apply, in some form, to every job:

1) What did you like and dislike about your current/previous job?

2) Where did you hear about our company, and what made you apply for this position?

3) What are you looking for out of a prospective employer?

4) What are your three greatest strengths? Weaknesses?

5) What qualities can you bring to the table that no one else can? (Note: A brief, half-assed answer will not do for this one. I can promise that an indifferently stated “I’m hardworking and have good communication skills” will not be viewed with favour, because in all likelihood, that was said by everyone else who was asked that question.)

6) What were some of your most important responsibilities at your last job?

7) If we were to contact your previous employer/your references, what would they say about you? (Note: It is best to answer with something both professional and personal, such as “They would say that I was a very hard worker and had a lot of friends around the office.”)

8) Why do you think you are more qualified for the position than the candidate who has more experience/has a more relevant degree/etc.?

9) What are some of your hobbies? (Note: It is not necessary to come up with something untrue but impressive-sounding, like “researching cancer treatments”, but similarly, do not talk about such things as “getting wasted at the bar”.)

10) If we were to offer you a position, when would you be able to start?

Of course, there are other possibilities, but having answers for difficult questions will make a candidate look more confident, polished and ready for any potential challenges.

4) Be honest and humble

Everyone wants to impress on a job interview, and perhaps with the last few steps, it might seem like appearing overqualified for the job is the way to go, but in actuality, the interviewer is also reviewing attitude. I have turned away candidates that I firmly believed would have been qualified and done well at the job, because of the fact that they came off as arrogant. No company wants to hire someone who believes him or herself to know everything already and doesn’t seem trainable.

For example: let’s say that the position is a sales job, and Mr. X had been previously employed for the last ten years as a salesman. Sure, Mr. X might be wonderful at what he does and has the skills and qualifications necessary for the job, but unless he has been previously employed in the company, he still would be starting off brand-new, and would need to undergo any training of company policy, product and service knowledge and specific methodologies before he can successfully sell for the new company. Mr. X cannot assume that he has the job simply because he’s done something similar before. If he does, he will invariably come off as condescending and conceited, “too good” to work for the company, unwilling to do things by the company’s policies. And in that case, despite myriad qualifications, the drawbacks of working with such an individual would overwhelm the benefits.

Similarly, one should avoid asking the interviewer’s age, qualifications, or why he/she was chosen to conduct the interview. Whatever the candidate’s personal opinion of the interviewer may be, it should be assumed that he or she is qualified by company standards to conduct an interview and make an active decision whether or not to hire somebody.

It should go without saying that one should not lie on an interview. One should not make up qualifications and experiences to “pad” a resume or make oneself look better. The best way to respond to a question about abilities or qualifications is to acknowledge and overturn the objection. If, for example, Miss H is applying for a human resources job and is asked by an interviewer why she does not have a business management degree, she could respond that while she might not have the piece of paper, she had been working with people in all her jobs since college, has managed small groups in a school environment, is a good judge of character, and is willing to learn everything necessary for the position that she might not already know. She might also remark, respectfully of course, that not all qualifications can be pulled off of a resume. But it would NOT do for her to say that she expected to receive her MBA in just a week, if that was not actually the case.

5) End on a good note

At the end of the interview, it is not seemly to ask presumptuous questions along the lines of “So, when can I start?” or to lose professionalism and say something along the lines of “Want to go for a drink later?” Typically, unless the interviewer has offered a position on the spot, he or she wants to mull over whether or not to hire someone. A final impression is as important as an initial one, and little things like maintaining eye contact and thanking the interviewer for his or her time matter more than one would think. Even if the candidate has decided that the job position is not for him or her, it is not a good idea to burn any unnecessary bridges. Shake the interviewer’s hand again, mention contact information, and wish the interviewer a good day, expressing a wish to hear from him or her soon.

If one can master these steps, one will come off as more confident, qualified and prepared than the twenty other candidates vying for the same position. Sure, the fellow with the degree and the fifteen years’ experience and the senator father might look more impressive on paper – but isn’t every company trying to “think outside of the box” these days? Go after that dream job and thank me when you win rookie employee of the year.

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