"You want to look more for the story behind the company," says Fitzpatrick. "This is far more important than any information you'll find in the annual report. The more people from within that you can tell your interviewer you spoke with, the more informed you'll seem. Your goal is to try to understand the industry from an insider's perspective, to have a working knowledge of the company's structure and of the different jobs within the company--not just the one you're applying for."
"People love to talk about what they do," advises Victor. "When I was exploring career paths, I would often try to find someone within an industry or company that I was interested in, and just come right out and ask for informational interviews, making it clear that I had no expectation of a job. Once that's clear, most people are happy to be frank about the pros and cons of either their profession or their company." Make sure you act as if the informational interview were a real one, though; no matter what anyone says, you are being evaluated in these situations, and if the interviewer likes you, he or she may very well pass your name along to someone else.
Ask the Right Questions
Asking intelligent questions during interviews shows that you've done some homework and demonstrates your interest in the field. Pamela Anderssen, art director of a large publishing company, says, "The more questions candidates ask, the better I feel about the interview. Ask questions about everything--the industry, the competition, the latest trends that are relevant to the company." Fitzpatrick agrees, "Questions are the most important part of an interview. I like interviewees to feel free to interject at any time with questions. But it's crucial that they not be generic; they should reflect your knowledge of the business you'd like to join."
Through talking with people at the company or with second-years who have already met with the recruiter you're interviewing with, try to anticipate the types of questions you're likely to be asked. "You should know the standard interview questions," advises Victor. "But you don't want to give canned answers--'I'm a people person.' What does that even mean?" Come up with some original responses to the questions you know you'll probably get. A little bit of forethought can make all the difference.
The more experience you have in the field for which you are applying, the more targeted the questions are likely to be. Liza Goodman, a high-tech public relations director, is "constantly amazed by people who have job experience but have trouble answering basic questions about their work. I ask interviewees for an example of a product or campaign that they've successfully pitched--an obvious inquiry for someone in this field--and people are thrown by this."
No matter how well you anticipate an interviewer's questions, you'll probably come across the "curveball," a completely out-of-nowhere--and at times not entirely ethical--query that a recruiter might throw your way. "I interviewed with a white-shoe real-estate firm in Chicago," Fleming recounts. "My interviewer asked me to name my favorite beer. I think he was determining if I was a Budweiser drinker or a Chimay man--I went with Heineken."
Other curveball questions might be a bit more cerebral. The point of the exercise from an interviewer's perspective, according to Fitzpatrick, "is to see how candidates handle themselves under pressure. I ask questions that require thought. I'm not looking for the right answer as much as for how the person processes the question and comes up with an answer." Fitzpatrick usually asks simple probability questions, such as "What's the probability of rolling double-sixes with a pair of dice?" "This is not high-level math," he says. "I was an English major in college." In Fleming's experience, interviewers often ask intricate questions about the banking industry and the direction it will take in the future. "They're testing how quickly you can think on your feet," he explains. "This is not generally information that you'd need to know in your job."
Never Let 'Em See You Sweat
The higher your degree or job level, the more people you are likely to encounter during an interview process. For his current position, Fleming was given a back-to-back interview, consisting of six to eight meetings in a row, with five-minute breaks between interviewers. Tiring but practical: "It's a time issue," he explains. "It makes the most sense for the company to try to bang it all out in one day." Less common is the lunch interview, which is generally one of the last steps in the process, a final meeting that is more about personality than preparation. "The lunch interview is less about what this person can do from a business perspective as it is about determining whether this is someone who we want to represent our company and to interact with clients," Fleming continues. "You'd never get a job based solely on a lunch interview. But you want to be prepared." Always bring a few clean copies of your resumi in the event that you meet more people on an interview than you had anticipated.
Being prepared is only one-half of the equation. Sit up straight. Smile. Don't fidget. But nothing is ever simple--it's also possible to seem too relaxed. "I know someone who casually put his hands behind his head during an interview," warns Fitzpatrick. "The interviewer felt that he seemed too comfortable; you want to convey confidence, but a certain amount of humility is important."
So is politeness. Though Fleming advises that job hunters try their best to avoid human resources, this is not always possible. Fitzpatrick explains, "You might find yourself interviewing with someone junior to you, or in an unrelated area, but you always want to give off a professional and respectful impression." This includes the way you speak about your current or past employment situations. Victor's number-one rule is "Never bad-mouth anybody. Nothing dissuades me from hiring someone as quickly as a negative attitude." Even if your interviewer takes on an intimate, chatty tone, tread lightly where your opinions are concerned.
To complement your well-honed poise, humility, and congeniality, pay attention to your attire. "Dress for the job you want, not for the one you have," says Fitzpatrick. This is one area in which less is definitely more; avoid anything marginally flashy, and, Victor warns, "watch the perfume."
Close the Deal
So you've done your research, you've worn the right clothing, you've asked provocative questions and delivered insightful answers, and when your interviewer thanked you for your time, you felt confident that this would not be your last good-bye. What's next? Yes, you knew it was coming--the all-important thank-you note. Says Fitzpatrick: "Follow up immediately. If you wait longer than a week to send a thank-you note, the effort is wasted." As your mother probably drilled into you, thank-you notes should be handwritten, and like your attire, your stationery should be neat and professional.
"Write your thank-you note on nice paper--nothing tacky or gold-trimmed--and make sure that your handwriting is legible and your name is clearly written," Fitzpatrick continues. "You should be specific about when your meeting was. A lot of people come through here, and it's easy to lose track." Victor adds, "This can be your most important writing sample." Should you place a follow-up phone call, clarify up front who you are and why you are calling, and inquire as to whether or not this is a convenient time for your interviewer to speak with you.
While the interview process can be daunting, it is not a mystery. It's also not an exact science--no matter how well prepared and appropriately dressed you are, your success may ultimately depend on something as elusive as the rapport between you and your interviewer. So while there is no surefire route to acing an interview, your knowledge of the industry, enthusiasm for the job, and common sense will take you far. //
Laura Buchwald is an online writer and editor in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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