Giving a Successful Interview

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education—Chapter Eleven

The Big Picture

A well-constructed résumé can take you to the next step, which is usually an interview. In most cases, the content of a college application interview and a first job interview is very similar, keeping in mind that many colleges don't require interviews, while nearly every job requires some kind of interview as a condition of employment.

A key to a successful interview is how you present yourself, and that involves preparation in everything from the voice mail message you have on the phone line you give the interviewer, to the research you complete on the college or company before you interview, to the review you make of the information you've already provided the college or interview, to what you wear that day and when you arrive for the interview. You can expect specific kinds of questions to be asked during the interview, making it easier to prepare for. You'll also have the chance to ask questions of the interviewer, and you should be well prepared to present those. Some job interviews will lead to a second interview that is remarkably similar to the first round, but with a different group of people. If you're invited back for another interview, you should be prepared at any time to discuss salary and conditions of employment, since a job offer could come at any time before, during, or after the second interview.

Congratulations! You've put together an application and résumé that stood apart from the others enough to get you an interview for the college of your choice or the job of your dreams. But now that you're going to talk with someone in person, you're starting to feel a little nervous. It's one thing to find the right type font, because no one sees all the bad ones you selected before finding the right one. With interviews, there's plenty of time to practice, but only one chance to get it right, so let's review the key elements of an interview that will get you to the next step.

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College Interviews

Whether it's for admission to college, to a special program, or for a college scholarship, there just aren't as many colleges requiring interviews for all applicants, and even fewer that will grant an interview to a student who asks for one. Part of this has to do with the growing number of students applying to top colleges; it's getting to the point where it's nearly impossible to talk with all of them and still make decisions on all applications in a timely fashion. If your college doesn't give interviews, that means it's all the more important to make sure your application is well put together, and says everything you need to say about yourself.

If your college does grant interviews, they are usually required of all applicants, and they come in a variety of ways. A limited number of interviews are often available on the college's campus, with someone from the admissions office, while other interviews will occur closer to where you live, and will be conducted by one of the alumni of the school, or someone who graduated from the college.

Some students are convinced that it's better to have an interview on-campus, and, in a way, they're right—but in a way, they aren't. Many colleges that interview also consider the student's demonstrated interest in the college as part of the decision process. If one student has submitted an application and visited the college campus, as well as talked with the admissions officer when they came to visit the applicant's high school, that student could hold a big advantage over a student who just applied to the college, and did nothing else. Why? Because the first student is showing more interest in the college by learning more about it in important ways, and using that information to make sure the fit is right between the student and the college. Since an on-campus interview means the student has to go to campus to participate, this is one way of showing you really think that college would be a good place for you to be.

On the other hand, just going to campus doesn't guarantee that what you say in the interview will be seen as more interesting, important, or successful than the student who is interviewed by a graduate of the college, or interviewed by the admissions office online, or by phone. Demonstrated interest is one category some colleges use in the selection process, but that's separate from the interview. As a result, the content of the interview will be judged in the same way as any other required interview—it will be based on how you present yourself, how you answer the questions, and the questions you ask.

Presenting yourself

No matter where your interview is held, you begin to make an impression the moment you're contacted to set up a time for the interview. Since you will likely be in class when that first call comes in, you want to make sure the voice mail message on your phone is clear and welcoming, and that you're checking your voice mail regularly to see if the interviewer has called. Once you get that message, try to call back as soon as you can. Most alumni interviewers are volunteers with limited time, and they may end up scheduling a number of interviews for the same day. If you wait too long to call back, your interview may be delayed, and that could have an impact on your application—or on the impression you leave with the interviewer, who may be wondering if you really care about going to their college, since you're taking your time to get back with them.

In setting up a time and a place to meet, it's best to try and meet when you're fresh and focused, so try and avoid evenings if possible-- in fact, most students aim for interviews on weekends, or right after school, before team practices or homework. If you're getting an alumni interview, they will usually suggest you meet in their office (if they have one), a local coffee shop, or at your high school. If an admissions officer is going to interview you, they may have rented a meeting room at a local hotel. Confirm the date and time you'll be meeting, and ask them if you should bring any written materials with you.

Once the interview time is set, it's time to do a little homework on the school. If you've already submitted your application to the college, take the time to review your application, especially your essay answers. It's highly unlikely an alumni interviewer will have read your application, and it's very possible the admissions officer hasn't either, but this reminds you what you said to the college, and it helps you remember what you like about this college—and that's very important for the interview.

You'll also want to take a moment to come up with a couple of questions to ask your interviewer. It's pretty common for an interview to end with the opportunity for you to ask a question or two, and it's important that these questions show some kind of depth, and aren't questions that could easily be answered by reading the college's website. Choosing the right questions is especially important if your interviewer is part of the alumni of the college; they may love the college a great deal, but chances are, they might not know everything you want to know about the college's neuroscience program, or the job placement rate of the last graduating class.

In putting your questions together, you'll want to find a way to give the interviewer a chance to offer a mix of fact and their opinion when they answer. If the interviewer is one of the alumni, a great question to ask is “I'm thinking about majoring in (insert your major here.) How did you find your years as a student at this college prepared you for your career, both in and out of the classroom?” This question has a little bit of everything—information about you, a chance for the interviewer to discuss college programs, and room for them to share what they've done with the opportunities the college has provided them. Add one other question to this one, and you should be all set; for more ideas on questions to ask, see here.

The day of the interview

When the big day comes, you want to make sure you're well dressed for an interview. It's strongly advised that you set a time for the interview that doesn't require you to go there right after school, so you can have a chance to change clothes and freshen up. It's wise to plan on wearing something that is clean, wrinkle-free, and a little on the business side. This doesn't mean guys have to wear a suit, or even a tie, and girls certainly don't need to wear a dress (and shouldn't wear an evening gown, as one very overdressed student did). Still, this is the time to leave your jeans, leggings, low-cut tops, droopy pants, and belly shirts at home, no matter how “cool” you think the college is. The goal is to dress in a way that makes both you and your interviewer comfortable, and since you don't know their comfort level, it's wise to play it safe and be on the conservative side. No matter what you end up wearing, run a brush through your hair, brush your teeth, and if you're wearing shoes that can be polished, polish them the night before. You would be amazed what a different that will make all by itself.

You'll want to arrive to the interview about ten minutes before it's scheduled to start. If something happens where you're going to be late—or you're going to just get there in time—call the interviewer and let them know. Once you meet, say hello, tell them your name, and thank them for the chance to talk about a college you've learned a lot about. If you've brought them some written information—a copy of your résumé or your essays, for example—either give them to the interviewer right away, or set them on a table once you sit down. If you hold on to them during the interview, they will likely be a rolled-up mess, and that will leave an impression, but not a good one.

The questions the interviewer will ask will likely run something like this:

“Tell me about yourself.”

The key with every question is to make sure it's the right length, but that's especially true with the first question. Interviewers know they're in for a long day if you answer this question with “Well, I was born in Detroit on June 22, 1999.” With this question, and with every question, you want the answer to be more than just “Yes” or “No”, but you also don't want to string together three answers that are all five minutes long. Since you're likely to be a little excited about the interview, keep your answers to two breaths. Once you're about to inhale for your third breath, it's time to stop answering that question.

“What do you like to do in your free time?”

Just like college essays, students are convinced there is a “right” answer to this question, and there is—tell them the truth. If you hang out with your friends, and you think that answer doesn't sound ambitious enough, start by telling the interviewer what you do with the rest of your day. “Well, I usually have team practice after school, and then I do homework, and I tutor for a couple of hours on Saturday—so once that's all done, catching up with my friends is something I look forward to.”

“What interests you about our college?”

If this sounds like a remix of the “Why Us” essay question, it is—and since the interviewer probably hasn't read your answer, you can use most of it when answering this question. It's always wise to add a little new information to your answer, just in case they have read your essay, so be sure to have an additional idea to share with them—and since your essay most likely talked about academics, this extra piece can talk about the social life or some other part of the campus.

“Do you have any questions I can answer?”

Here's where your homework paid off. Be sure you commit your question to memory, and look the interviewer straight in the eye when you ask the questions. Maintain eye contact while they answer, and smile when they're finished answering.

As the interview ends, shake hands, thank them again for the chance to interview, and leave as quickly as you can. Once you're alone, make a couple of note of the highlights of the interview—what you think went well—and be sure you remember the interviewer's name…

After the interview

…because the day after the interview, you want to send a brief thank you note to the interviewer. To be honest, it's best if this comes in the format of a hand written note, on a nice card—that is a step that will really set you apart from others in a positive way. But it's likely that all you'll have is the interviewer's email address, so it's OK to send it that way instead.

The content of the note is simple. “Thank you again for the chance to talk with you about my interest in Southeastern Michigan. I really appreciated hearing about what the school means to you, and how it helped you advance your career in telecommunications.”

After another sentence or two that includes either your thoughts on the interview, or any additional information they've asked you to provide, finish up by saying “Please let me know if I can provide any additional information, and thank you again for taking the time to meet with me.”

Believe it or not, those seven sentences will put you much, much farther down the road of being a successful college applicant than most students, because most students don't bother to do this.

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Job Interviews

The format of many traditional job interviews is identical to that used in college interviews, especially if the interview is with a smaller company, where the first interview is likely to be with just one person. In some cases, a first interview will be with several people from the company, including the person who will be your immediate supervisor; one or two of your potential co-workers; a representative from human resources; and one or two people from departments in the company that work with the department that will employ you.

Regardless of the number of people interviewing you, your preparation for the interview is very much the same as the steps taken for the college interview. Take a moment to review your résumé , cover letter, and any application you completed for the job. Review the company's Web presence by looking at their Web page (including the specific division you'll be working in, if it has a separate section). Type in the company's name as a general Web search to see what other information is online about the company, including any recent presence they may have had in the news. Use a reliable business site to get a sense of the company's value and representation in the business community, and use all of this information to develop a few questions you might ask at the end of your interview.

Be sure to arrive early for your interview. Since rush hour traffic may be a factor in getting to the interview site, be prepared to sit in your car or at a nearby coffee shop if you're more than ten minutes early, since you don't want to appear too eager to the company. In terms of what to wear, it's pretty tough to beat business wear when you're interviewing for a job. If the position you've applied for involves working outside, you may want to be more on the business casual side, and that's definitely true if the company has a reputation for being more casual—but don't wander too far down the casual road. Just like a college interview, you don't know the tastes of your interviewer, and when dealing with the unknown, it's always best to be a little on the dressy side.

After introducing yourself to your interviewer(s), you'll find many of the questions are similar to those asked in the college interview—tell us about yourself, what are your hobbies, what interests you in the position. In addition, you can expect to have to address these questions:

“What skills do you bring to this position that set you apart from other candidates?”

If this seems like a tough question to answer, it is, since you have absolutely no idea what set of skills the other candidates have. The best way to answer this question is to think about the skills and experiences you've had allow you to give something extra to the job, like an internship with a company similar to this one, knowledge of a computer program you think could help the company, or knowledge of another language. Think about what the advertisement for the job called for, then think about the qualities you have that go beyond those. That's what you mention.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Again, it would be easy to think there's a “right” answer to this question that the company wants to hear, but the truth is still the best way to go here. If you think they want you to say “In this same job”, they could think that shows a lack of ambition on your part; if you say “A supervisory position with this company”, they could think you don't really care about this job, and only want to use it to get a promotion. If you tell them what you really have in mind, you'll say it in a way that they won't doubt your sincerity—even if the answer is “I don't know.”

“Name three ways you would solve this problem.”

Many employers ask questions that try to assess your knowledge of the field the company works in, so be prepared to answer these questions with your best insights. This may require brushing up on some classes you took in college, or being familiar with the company's current challenges. Some companies will have a separate assessment component to the interview, which includes a more formal test of what you know. If that's the case, they usually let you know that ahead of time, so you can prepare for it.

“What would you do if…”

Many employers also include questions that explore the moral and ethical standards of the employee, as the employer wants to know if the applicant's loyalties lie with their peers, the company, or themselves. Don't hesitate to take a moment in the interview to think deeply about any complex situation they present. You want to provide a clear answer, even if it takes a moment to build that answer.

“What questions do you have for us?”

Unlike the college interview, your goal here is to get a better sense of how you can contribute to the company. By asking questions based on your Internet search, you're trying to understand just where the company is heading in the future. In fact, it's perfectly fair to start by saying “You asked me where I would be five years from now. Where will this company be five years from now?” By focusing on the company's goals and needs, you're showing you're interested in supporting the company, all while learning if these goals and needs are compatible with what you can, and want to, give to the company.

It's also important not to use this opportunity to ask about starting salary or wages. These issues are certainly important, but this is seen by almost all companies to be rude, and a little pushy. The purpose of the first interview is to see if you're the right person to hire. You show those by talking about the best interest of the company, not about money.

It's also not wise to ask about other candidates for the job. Something as basic as “How many other people are being interviewed for this job?” can make the interviewer wonder how secure you are in your own abilities—and besides, what information can an answer to that question give you that will really help you know if this is the company for you?

It is fair at the very end of the interview to ask when you'll be contacted with the results of the interview. Once you have that information, thank the interviewer(s), and be sure to submit a follow-up thank you the next day, either to the interviewer, or to the company's human resources department, whichever you might have contact information for.

If you're being interviewed by a group, there's a good chance each member will be assigned one question to ask you. A hard copy of these questions might be given to you in advance, or when you first come into the interview setting. Some candidates are tempted to write down the names of each member of the interview team, so they can refer to them by name when answering that person's question. If that's something that comes naturally to you, do that, but you don't want to be in a position where you remember some interviewers' names, and not everyone's. Proceed with caution.

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The Second Job Interview

Some entry-level jobs will include two rounds of interviews—the first interview with human resources or a screening team, and a second interview with either representatives of the team you'll be working with, or your potential boss. In either case, applicants are often surprised that the contents of the two interviews are usually very similar, if not identical. Many companies do this on purpose, to make sure you provide similar answers to similar questions, or to see if you have the patience to answer the same set of questions twice without losing your mind.

It's also common that the second interview may ask more specific questions about your background or training. Preparing for the second interview with a review of your résumé and cover letter, as well as the company's Web presence, should put you in good shape to answer any question that may come along. One of the goals of the second interview is to make sure you're providing consistent information, but a larger one is to see if you'll be a good fit with those you'll be working with on regular basis. Just be yourself, and you'll be fine—but be sure to remember everyone you interview with in this round, since you'll likely be working with them if you get the job.

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Job Offer

The best way to be ready to discuss a job offer is to make a list of the things you would need to know before you would feel confident in accepting or rejecting the offer. This can include:

Salary

How much will you be paid? Is this an hourly wage, or a contractual wage? How often do you get paid?

Benefits

Does the job include health insurance? Sick days? Retirement plans? Paid vacation? Reimbursement for uniforms or work-related items? If the work involves heavy travel, is there reimbursement for mileage?

Evaluation

How often will you be reviewed? How are the results of those reviews shared with you? Is there an initial probationary period for review where the standards are different for review? If so, how long is that period?

Notice

How much notice would you be given if the company decided to let you go? If you take another job, how much notice do you have to give?

Job offers come in all kinds of ways, from a verbal agreement that's sealed with a handshake, to a formal offer that spells out everything you could possibly want to know. You won't have any control over when or how you'll be offered a job, so it's important that you'll be ready at any time to talk about conditions of employment. As you do so, keep in mind that the person extending the job offer may not know the answers to all of your questions. They may refer you to human resources for the answers; whether they do or not, be sure to feel comfortable with the answers you have before making a commitment you would have to rescind in a day or two, once you get more answers. That wouldn't be fair to you, or to the company.

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More Resources

Preparing for a college interview

Questions to ask your college interviewer

What to Wear to a College Interview

What to Do Before and After your College Interview

The Ultimate Guide to Job Interview Preparation

How to Prepare for an Interview Last Minute

The 8 Best Questions to Ask a Job Interviewer

How to Follow-Up on a Job Interview

How to Prepare for a Second Interview

15 Rules for Negotiating a Job Offer

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