Around this time of year, students begin applying for internships during the summer. And as we get closer to graduation in Spring, seniors will start sending out resumes, looking for their first jobs. Over the years, I've provided resume, cover letter, and interview coaching for many students—I started doing this career coaching during my role as adviser to Triangle Fraternity and ΑΣΚ Sorority, but I've also enjoyed helping students at Morris take that next big step. It's one more way I can serve the campus. A few weeks ago, I shared some advice on writing resumes. I'd like to follow up with a few tips on how to do a successful interview.
I recommend you start by reflecting on your leadership journey, about your career highlights. If you are a student, you might instead consider your education journey: what have you learned during your time at university. What projects or assignments worked well for you, and which projects or assignments were more challenging? I find it's most helpful to focus on the peaks and valleys on the timeline: the moments that seemed to be turning points. You may prefer to highlight other points that are similar to each other, and that's okay too. By reflecting on your journey, you will be better prepared to recall them during your interview.
When you reference these milestones on your journey, try to tell a story around them. Don't just say what the project or assignment did; also describe what the project was about and why it was important. This provides a grounding for your audience and helps to "hook" them on your leadership/education moment.
Practice doing interviews with a friend or colleague. Remember that there are really only three basic interview questions: Can you do the job? Do you want the job? Will we want to work with you? Most interviewers will ask open-ended questions, designed to understand how you work:
- Tell me about a project that went particularly well for you.
- Can you describe a team personality that was difficult to work with, and how you accommodated that person.
- Tell us about a project that was challenging, and what you learned from it.
These are great interview questions, as they really put the spotlight on you and allow you to share something about yourself. You can leverage your experiences from your leadership/education journey to tell a story in your answer.
Also, don't forget the opening question: Please tell us a little about yourself. This is a basic interview question, and is usually at the start of the interview to give you an opportunity to get settled into the interview, but also to shine a light on yourself. It's great to talk about your education, your work history, your professional background. It's good to discuss a few of your side interests, such as hobbies or even sports participation. This can help to make a connection with your interviewers; maybe you share the same interests. Don't get too personal; I'd avoid talking about what your children are up to or highlights from your recent vacations. That's just distracting and rarely interesting.
At the same time, be aware that a few interviewers may not know how to ask questions in an open-ended way. They may ask yes/no questions:
- Do you know Java/SQL/Linux/…?
- Have you ever worked with someone with a difficult personality?
- Did you ever have a project or assignment that didn't go well?
These are more challenging questions. Don't fall for the temptation to answer with a simple "yes" or "no." You certainly should lead with "yes" or "no," but immediately follow it with "and let me share an example" or "and here's a great example of that." That lets you jump right into a story, which (again) you can draw from your leadership/education journey.
That gets you through the main part of the interview. But think about what questions you would ask them. At the end of the interview, most interviewers will take some time to answer any questions you might have. When I've interviewed new people for positions, how they answer this question either underscores or undermines their strength as a candidate. Please, for the sake of all that is good, don't ask basic questions that you could have looked up on their website. If you ask "what does your unit do?" then you have basically thrown the interview away, and you may as well go home.
Most candidates ask typically bland questions, such as "What's the salary?" or "When do you expect to make a decision?" or something about the benefits. To be sure, these are important and you should include them. But they don't really make a candidate stand apart. As an interviewer, I've always been more interested in the candidates who ask unexpected questions that show they are thinking about the organization and how they will fit in.
According to Jeff Haden at Inc.com, great candidates typically ask five questions:
- What do you expect/need me to accomplish in the first 60–90 days?
- What are the common attributes of your top performers?
- What are a few things that really drive results in this company?
- What do your employees usually do in their spare time?
- How do you plan to deal with …?
Haden analyzes the questions in his article, but I think these questions show engagement, and consideration for fitting into the "culture".
Finally, I ask that you consider how you will appear at your interview. Show up about 5 minutes early for the interview. If you are worried about getting there on time, get there early then sit in your car in the parking lot until it's time to "show up." And wear something nice. It's important to make a good first impression. Depending on the position you are applying for, a suit and tie (or equivalent) may be the most appropriate interview apparel. For other positions, it might be more suitable to "dress down." If you aren't sure, a good rule of thumb is: if you'd wear that outfit to church, or a funeral, or to court, then it's probably okay to wear that outfit to an interview.