The Purpose of the Interview

Your cover letter asks for an interview. Your résumé shows why you should be invited for an interview. The purpose of the interview is to gain a job offer.

Notice that the purpose of the interview is not to get a job; it is to get an offer. This is an important distinction, particularly for new graduates. Why? Without a job offer, you have no decision to make. Also, if you go to every interview seeking an offer, you can hone your interview skills. In other words, take every interview offered you, regardless of whether you want the job. As someone new to the job market, the more practice you can get interviewing, the better off you will be.

Never turn down an interview, and always state that you are interested in the job, even if you are not. You can always politely decline later if you are offered the position. Besides, you may realize following an interview or two that you are in fact interested in the position; the additional information that you obtain during the interview could change your mind. If you turn down an interview, you will never know if the position is of interest.

While the interview is primarily for the interviewer to determine if you are a good match and if you are qualified, it is also a time for you to interview the company. Bear in mind that you are seeking a position that is well suited for you just as much as the interviewer is seeking someone qualified for the position. If you remember this, it can help with interview jitters.

Very few people actually like to interview. This includes the people conducting the interviews. Studies have shown that many people conducting interviews feel anxious and unqualified when doing so. It is also known that most people are not trained in conducting interviews. So in your job search you will run into all types of interviewers, from the inept to the skilled and trained professional interviewer. You need to be prepared for all types.

While there is no way to be prepared for every type of situation you may encounter, being prepared for the interview process is key. Interviewers are looking for someone who is qualified, communicates well, and will fit into the company culture. This is why your company research is vital. The more you know about the company the better.

Interviewers are also looking for someone who exudes professionalism. It is hard to define professionalism because it is a way of being that is learned over time. For someone with little "real world" experience, professionalism is, in all honesty, hard to come by. How do you combat this issue? It is like the age old dilemma of "How can I gain the experience needed to get a job if no one will hire me in the first place?" There are a number of steps you can take to help you on your way. If you follow the suggestions given here, you will be off to a good start. As you progress through your career, you will naturally develop your own professional style.

Know Thyself

First and foremost, you must have an understanding of who you are. Otherwise, you will not be able to communicate this in an interview, and the purpose of the interview is for the employer to determine who you are, what you can offer, and to get a glimpse of your personality. When you have a thorough understanding of yourself, you can then present yourself in the best possible light. You can show employers what you want them to see.

This is where your self assessments are key. Take advantage of the tools listed earlier in this section, seek the guidance of career counselors, and use the career resources available to you through your school (most colleges offer career services to alumni, so if you graduated without using these resources, it is not too late). Too many people do not take advantage of these resources; those that do will be well ahead in the game. Whether you are feeling very clear in your career path or have just graduated with a specialized degree and are trying to determine a career path, getting a good grasp of who you are will help you immensely in the interview process. Because you will be required to answer difficult questions not only about your skills but also about your behavior, you need to know what you would do in a hypothetical situation and how to best present your answer.

Just as important, having a good grasp on who you are will help you determine if you like what you learn about a company and its culture; you are conducting an interview yourself, so you need to know what it is you want and what type of atmosphere is best suited for your personality. Just as you would not buy an expensive suit without first trying it on, nor do you want to "buy" a job that way, either.

Career coaches Sande Foster and Susan Tovey of Catapult Your Career (http://www.catapultyourcareer.com) stress the importance of using assessment tools in your career search. Assessments help you determine where you are best suited and what type of position is best for you. They give the example that not everyone is a leader, and that is okay. Yet so many people walk into an interview and, when asked where they want to be in five years, answer "management" because they think that this is what the interviewers want to here. Similarly, some people seek positions that are not well suited to them but pursue that path due to parental or societal pressures or for monetary reasons, not realizing that money may not be one of their true motivating factors.

Assessments can also help you determine your attitude toward work and your skills. You need to be able to clearly articulate your skills and personal attributes. Without fully exploring these issues, you may come up short when answering questions during the interview. Knowing your behavioral traits will also help you in the interviewing process. You will be asked hypothetical questions, such as, "What would you do in this situation?" followed by a specific problem you may encounter on the job. Many grads have limited work experience to show what they have done in the past. You need to have a strong sense of self to know how you would most likely react in the given situation and why; and be able to show why that response is appropriate.

This self-awareness is also important because just having a degree is not enough anymore. You need to be able to demonstrate qualities that show you will be a good employee despite of, or in addition to, your education. This is not necessarily an easy task, but it is worth the time and effort. However, as Foster and Tovey point out, you need to be ready to do this kind of self-assessment. If you are not at a point where you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can "go through the motions" but it will not mean as much. If you are serious about finding a career and succeeding in the interview process, you must be willing to take a good look at yourself.

The bonus to learning more about yourself is that you are the only person who can toot your own horn in the interview. No one else is going to go in there and do it for you. When you know what your best skills are, your most desirable attributes, and your personality traits that will help you succeed in your chosen career, you can then go in and speak to those things in the interview. Those who do not do this self-research will not have as good an idea of what to highlight during the interview, so you will be ahead of your competition. Reviewing your strong points is also a huge confidence booster that will help you tremendously in the interview. If you are able to exude confidence and show conviction in your answers because you know these things to be true about yourself, you will be much more successful.

Foster and Tovey also discuss the benefits of internships in developing professionalism. This type of real-world experience is invaluable; students are able to learn firsthand the dynamics of company culture and begin developing their own sense of professional style. These experiences will put them ahead of the competition. If you are still in school and are able to obtain an internship position, take full advantage of the opportunity.

Know Thy Company

Once again, company research is vital when you are going into an interview. You will be asked, "Why do you want to work here?" and "What do you know about the company?" You need to be able to answer these questions, so do your research.

Most companies have websites these days. This is an excellent place to start. Your interviewers will be impressed when you are able to discuss how your personal values are closely related to the company's mission statement, which you will be able to summarize. Read the entire website. Get a feel for how the company operates. If the company is public, look up its stock information. Then cover the basics. What does the company do? How big is it? Is it national or international? How many employees does it have? How often does it hire? Does it promote from within? Who are the major competitors? How does this company's philosophy differ from those of its competitors? Also review any employee biographies that may be listed on the site. You never know; one of those people might be interviewing you. If you have an idea what the personnel are like, you have a better chance of striking a chord with them.

If possible, you may want to visit the company as well, depending on the type of business and what, if any, security measures they have in place. At the very least, you may be able to see what the employees look like; this will give you a good idea of how to dress for the interview, as well as give you clues to the company culture. A company where employees show up in suits is much different from a company where employees show up in jeans.

If you were referred by someone in the company, ask as many questions as you can if the person is willing. The more inside information you can obtain, the better. Go in prepared.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Preparation also includes learning as much as you can about interviewing. "We are not taught how to interview," says Kevin Cox of Career Unfolded (http://www.careerunfolded.com). The irony is that an interview is such an integral part of our career success, yet many people do not know how to interview well. "Graduates learn discipline through school, but they do not learn what employers want," says Cox. Because of this, he recommends students take advantage of the career services available through the school (are you noticing a trend here?). The career counselors can help students learn what employers are looking for and learn how to show that they can meet those needs.

Because gaining a full understanding of what employers look for comes from time and experience in the "real world," Cox recommends taking advantage of the information interview as well. Talk to people who work in your desired field. Ask as many questions as possible. He warns against assuming that your success will follow the same path as the other person's success. This is not always true; each person is unique, but knowing how another person reached success can certainly be helpful.

Going into the interview prepared also includes having an idea of what you will be facing and being prepared with your answers. Employers have a need; you need to demonstrate that you can meet that need. If you go into the interview feeling desperate, it will show, says Cox. Having an idea of what to expect will boost your confidence.

Michael S. Levy of Career Designers Services, LLC (http://www.careerdesigners.com), compares the interviewing process to preparing for a marathon. Runners begin preparations up to a year in advance. While this may not always be practical for the job seeker, the sooner you can begin preparing the better. Levy says of the interview, "It's much more than a day of answering questions and hoping to get a few right. It's much more than putting on your best attire and flashing a lot of smiles. It's much more than dazzling the interviewer with your technical expertise. It's a day to give it 'all' you've got."

Practice, Practice, Practice

An actor would not go out onstage without first practicing the role; similarly, you should not go into the interview without first practicing. Using the marathon metaphor, just as runners need to constantly work their bodies, so too should you do practice runs before the real thing.

Kevin Cox stresses the importance of practicing for the interview. He advises all of his clients to videotape a practice interview and then watch it for things to change. And he does not recommend just doing this once; he recommends four to five times. For the college student, the career resource center is an excellent setting in which to practice interviewing. Many centers are set up to video and comment on practice interviews. As mentioned elsewhere, many of these career services are open for use by alumni as well, so there is really no excuse for not taking advantage. For other resources, seek a qualified career counselor or career coach.

Practice and preparation go hand in hand. You want to be prepared to answer tough questions and practice answering them with confidence and control. Preparation includes knowing what you will say in response to those questions. Practice is finding your natural voice and rehearsing posture and communication techniques when responding. This is why your self-assessments and review of your past is so important.

When reviewing your strengths, review all areas of your past that demonstrate skills and attributes that can be helpful on the job. Look to your educational background, volunteer activities, sports activities, clubs and memberships, employment, and any other situations where you used your talents. (Be wary of using political or religious affiliations, however, as you want to avoid all references to these subjects when interviewing). Make a list of everything you can come up with, and compare it to a list of questions you may encounter in an interview. (There are many resources available that list all kinds of possible interview questions.) What from your past demonstrates how you can solve problems? What shows your ability to make decisions? How have you been able to demonstrate communication skills? When have you needed to use your technical skills?

After you have mined your past, put all this information together with what you know of yourself from your assessments. Carefully review everything you now have in front of you. This is what you will draw upon to answer questions. As you are faced with those tough questions, you will have a list you can readily draw from to compose your answers. However, you will not be able to take this list to an interview with you (although you may be able to take in a "cheat sheet," discussed later) so you need to practice the skills necessary to be able to pull this information from your brain when necessary.

Although you do not want to memorize word-for-word how you will answer certain questions (because you do not want to sound rehearsed), you will want to memorize the overall message you mean to convey. We all have moments where something slips our mind or we are not able to pull out the information we want at just the right moment. Under stress, it can be even more difficult to remember everything you need to know at the precise moment. When you are facing five senior members of a corporation who just asked you to provide a specific example of a time when you solved a problem, you might cave under pressure. This is why practice is so important. If you have had a chance to go through the motions, even if the rehearsal is not stressful, you will have experience to draw upon when facing the real thing. These practice sessions allow you to review not only the answers you provide but the tone and energy in your voice, how you carry yourself, and any unconscious movements you may have a tendency to make. The more interviews you are involved in, the better you will become at interviewing. Why not give yourself a head start and practice rather than using your first real interviews as your practice sessions?

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