I've been interviewing potential hires for close to twenty years now and a number of years back I had a long unemployment stint myself. I think it's fair to say that I have quite a bit of interview experience on both sides of the table. Recently, I've been interviewing for a new hire here at work and it's just been pretty frustrating.
There aren't really that many things to think of when attempting to get a job. And most of those things should be pretty basic. Sadly, though, it's frequently those very basics that candidates miss on. There are a million books on the job searching process - yes, a million. Not one more and not one less - and there are day long and multi-day seminars and classes all over the place. I thought about putting together a nice seminar to help folks with this, and I still might some day. As I was running the planning though my head, it occurred to me that there's realistically only enough material for about 30 minutes. And that would be:
- 1:00 - 1:05: Introductions and overview
- 1:05 - 1:20: Actual content regarding a successful interview
- 1:20 - 1:30: Questions and answers
And there you have it. That's about all there is. Unfortunately, few would likely pay for a 30 minute seminar so the seminar organizers fill the rest of the day with ancillary information that probably just confuses people and dilutes the actual message. If I were to spread the half-hour out into a full day, I'd likely just repeat the 15 minutes of actual content over and over and over again.
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The problem with human nature and attention spans is that (according to me, anyway) you can at most retain about three items from any seminar or presentation. Here's a big hint to anyone delivering a seminar or presentation: It doesn't matter what YOU want to say. It only matters what your audience will hear. Pick the three most important aspects of your topic and do a great job of explaining and supporting those three things. That's all you get.
If you're still reading, here's my 15 minutes on the subject of job interviewing:
1. Get yourself into the interview
Write a cover letter. I'll state that one more time in case you didn't get it. Write a cover letter. And don't just say "I read about your job opening and I could do a great job so here's my resume." That's not a cover letter. That's just an awkward opening sentence. I don't know that it matters if the opening sentence is awkward. I think they all are, but the cover has to be more then just an awkward opening.
You're going to start your research work (see #2) now so you can write an intelligent cover letter. Talk about something really cool that sets you apart from everyone else and will make you just drop into this position like it was made for you. You don't need to go on and on. Make it brief but compelling. Don't just repeat your resume. The cover letter is designed to make someone read your resume and give you a phone call, so don't just take resume bullets and repeat in the cover.
Pull out one thing - your proudest moment that can be related to the position you are applying for. Expand on it. Tell why you are so proud of it and how it demonstrates your fitness for this job. Don't just say "This makes me a great fit for this job", state why it does. Let the moment prove that you would be a great fit.
Don't forget your grammar and spelling. I've heard plenty of technical folks state that spelling and grammar aren't important, because function should lead form. That's not quite it. Form should not get in the way of function. That's my rule. Utilizing bad spelling and poor grammar will get in the way of clear communication. Doing so will create an impression that you have poor attention to detail and that you will find it challenging when required to communicate with fellow human beings. Spelling and grammar do count. You don't get a pass just because you're a technical expert.
And finally, actually read the job description. The "requirements" may just be more of a wish list then a set of hard and fast requirements, but at least be close. Don't apply for a programming job if your resume only discusses your experience as a sales person. Moderate variances are okay if your cover and resume are strong otherwise, but if you do have a big variance from the job description, look elsewhere and spend your (and my) time on positions you have a chance of getting. If you have that big experience gap but really, really feel that you still qualify, use your cover letter to explain why you fit, and ideally rewrite your resume too.
2. Research - do your homework
We have this thing called the Internet. It's really handy and it lets you go to company websites - like the website of the company you are trying to get a job with. It astounds me when a job candidate hasn't spent time with my website - and a brief cursory glance is not enough. Read it start to finish, top to bottom. Get a feel for the personality of the company and the people. Read their terms and conditions. Try and determine what's important to them; are they customer focused or internally focused. If they're an e-commerce company, go through the catalog and ordering process. You can stop short of actually placing an order, but at least do everything but.
Then, don't stop at the company's website. Google them. Read about what they do. Read about their customers, their competitors, their market. Learn everything about them that you can. Become an expert in their company. Learn their market. It's not that hard. Find blogs and message boards that talk about them or cover the same market. What magazines do their customer read? Go to those magazine websites (or even find an actual print magazine). Find out where the company advertises and what the advertisements look like.
This applies to local jobs too. If you're applying to bag groceries at a neighborhood supermarket, spend some time in the store. Buy something. Look at the organization of the shelves and note the level of customer service and clutter around. Do the same for other stores in the area. Look at the people that shop and work in the store. Are they young, old, happy, grumpy? Go back multiple times at different times. Try to get to know the busy hours and slack hours.
Here's the thing about this. Obviously, you need to know the subject matter you are being hired for, but there are a lot of people that know that. Skills and expertise get disguised as acronyms and buzzwords and your knowledge of them is pretty much table-stakes. You have to have that knowledge, but it's not what gets you hired. You get hired or not primarily based on what you bring along with those base requirements. And, that's where doing your research comes in to play. If you know the company, the customers, the competition, the environment that your (hopefully) future co-workers live in, you will be head and shoulders ahead of those who just have the skills.
3. The "look" and your in-interview behavior
Mannerisms play a pretty big role too. The interviewers want to get to know you. They want to see your skills, but also how you operate and communicate. They need to know that they can interact with you comfortably and confidently.
I shouldn't need to say this, but experience indicates that I do. Take a shower. Dress a step higher then you think the position requires. If the job requires a business suite, wear your best suit, your best tie and a great shirt (don't jump up to a tux). If you're applying for a job that requires a suite every day, you really should already know how to dress, but not everyone does. If the job requires slacks and a polo shirt, wear a button-down shirt and a tie. Just make sure you look nicer then you will need to be on a day-to-day basis. No matter what the job is, jeans and a t-shirt is never acceptable.
Avoid "the look". The look that I'm talking about is the one where your eyes say "I really don't want a job. I'd rather be home sleeping in." There's actually two related looks that I'm talking about here. Equally bad is the "I'm so desperate, I'll do anything" look. They are both harmful and both show up way too often.
I don't think those looks are at all intentional, but they are really common with people that have been out of work for a while. Desperation is never flattering and the other look leads to a sort of detached and disinterested image. The look will keep you out of a job as thoroughly as will bad spelling, body odor or a lousy resume.
And, no one-word answers unless you are specifically asked for one. Having to drag an answer out of a candidate is a serious turn off. When that happens, I immediately start looking at the clock and my concern shifts to wondering how soon can I end the interview without seeming crass. It's hard to get back in the game after that. Show an appropriate level of enthusiasm. Answer questions in such a way as to demonstrate your knowledge of the company as well as your skills.
For example, if you're asked about your truck driving skills, don't just say "Yes, I can drive a truck." If you have the experience, say "Yes, I've driven several types of trucks, including 15-ton cab-overs like you use to deliver your product. For two years, I drove five-speed and six-speed with and without a split-shift rear axle, and I've never had an incident or violation." That's an answer that shows that you took the time to get to know the company and that you really do have relevant experience.
I know some experts will recommend that you only answer questions that you are asked and to not give more information then you need to, but I don't believe it. From my side of the table, I say you don't always need to wait for a question. Don't be afraid to engage in dialog and expand in directions that you think will present yourself better. Just be sure that you are speaking the truth and that what you are saying fits the job you are applying for. Empty or mis-directed dialog rarely helps.
And, while it's good to elaborate, ask questions and keep a good dialog going, don't go so far as to take control of the interview. I've heard this as a recommended practice and I've seen it - most often from sales folks - but I think most interviewers just find it to be obnoxious.