How to Nail Your Job Interview
In a previous life, I was a manager for a local government agency. We occasionally needed to find and hire new talent. Unlike private sector companies, the public sector takes hiring to a whole new strange world in the name of fairness and inclusion.
At this particular agency, candidates were required to take a civil service exam in order to be considered for the job title under which the exam covered. This means that our agency was limited to this list of candidates. We received the "exam results" where candidates were grouped by score. Top scorers or top "tiers" where interviewed first, meaning the candidates who scored a 100 would be interviewed first. If none of these people met our expectations, we would invalidate that tier and move on the the "95" group, and so on down the list. We had ability to invalidate the list once we got down to about the 80's. This method of candidate selection resulted in a great variety of people we would interview for an otherwise low-level job. I
n this article, I'm going to discuss useful tips and tricks you should exercise in order to be taken seriously in an interview and how to stand out from the crowd. If you read and understand these points, I guarantee you will Nail the Interview.
Spoiler Alert: You'll notice while reading this that the examples I use are related to Computer Helpdesk technicians since these are the types of people whom I regularly interviewed.
Step 1: The Resume
As I discussed in the introduction, your test score was the #1 determining factor whether you were selected to be interviewed. This is not normal practice in the private sector. However, your resume does make a difference.
Make Sure Your Resume Is Up to Date
All the candidates who were our top tier scorers were required to send us a current copy of their resume. Yes, I said "current." Why people fail to send an updated copy of their resume comes across as just lazy. I have seen resumes that appear as if the person hasn't worked in the past year because they used an end date for their current job.
When updating your resume, look at the job requirements and responsibilities. Go down the list, item by item, and adjust your resume to contain those keywords. This is actually particularly useful when applying through online sites; the employer posts the keywords they are looking for and whatever resume contains the highest number of those words is flagged as a "best match." Using the keywords also demonstrates attention to detail, which I'll talk about more later.
Keep It Short
Sometimes candidates seem to think they should include their work experience dating back to when they worked at the local grocery store as a kid. We don't care. I want to know what you have been doing for the last three to seven years, and I want you to demonstrate how that's relevant to the job.
If the job involves customer support, I want to see that you have experience providing customer support and tracking those interactions in a Customer Relationship Management application. If the job involves making on-site visits and fixing someone's computer, explaining on your resume that you fix all your family members' computers does not stand out as particularly useful.
Try to mention experience where the people you served would be critical of your performance. For example, if at your last job you did perform phone support, put down that you were on the phone 15 hours a week and doing on-site work 10 hours a week. Keep it simple and keep it short. You want the person reading your resume to want to get more info, which means they will want to call you in to learn more about you.
Use Concise Language
This strategy is similar to keeping it short, with a few main differences. First, being concise means being accurate. Performing "Customer Phone Support" is not the same as simply answering the phone when it rang. Phone support implies a certain level of consistent and professional behavior. This means that when you answer the phone, you answer it with the same verbiage every time, you document who is calling and why they are calling, and you employ a certain hand-off strategy for calls you cannot assist with. Answering the phone in general might just mean you picked it up and transferred it or took a message; this is not customer support.
The second area to be concise with on your resume is the length of your explanations. If you list work experience and have a bullet list under it explaining important facts about how you fit into that role, keep the sentences to about 5-8 words. They don't even need to be complete sentences, they just need to make sense. Nothing turns me off more than someone who writes a paragraph about how they march through the day at work.
For example, if you have experience replacing components of a computer, don't say this:
- Can replace CPU, Memory, Hard Drive, CDROM, Mainboards, and other components.
This looks like a lot of "filler," be more general, it looks much cleaner.
- Responsible for the hardware maintenance of 100 Workstations and 25 laptops.
In the same amount of space, I went from a bullet point that says one thing (replace hardware) to one that says three things (Maintenance, workstation, laptops). This one sentence tells me a lot of information. This person worked in a mid-sized environment, they are familiar with fixing desktops and laptops, plus a secret bonus, they use the professional lingo "workstation" this sets you apart from the guy of the street how fixes their families Desktops and tries to use that as experience.
Use Clean, Easy-to-Scan Formatting
Nothing looks worse than a resume that makes you question if the creator has ever used Microsoft Word before. I know that some online sites require you to use plain text when submitting your resume, even so, you can come up with a formatting strategy for that.
Make sure your resume has good use of white space. Using invisible tables will help you fill up the white space that inevitably results on the right side of the page. Utilizing the white space on the right side of the page not only adds symmetry to your resume, but it also helps to reduce the number of pages you need to convey your message about who you are. I don't think the one-page resume rule is really a thing anymore, but I can tell you that three pages is too much. If you can't organize yourself on one or two pages, then you need to ask yourself, am I really including relevant information?
Pay Careful Attention to Detail
As a candidate, you are trying to stand out. In my experience, one of the worst ways to stand out is by not including something or not following the employer's instructions. Some of the most common failures to follow instructions are the following:
- Not including a cover letter when the employer asked for one.
- Not including references when the employer asked for them to be included.
- Emailing your resume and cover letter when they asked for it to be sent via post.
- Not having your correct mailing address on your resume or cover letter.
- Failing to do a spellcheck on your documents.
- Not updating the date on your cover letter.
- Not updating the employer's name address or any reference to the employer that may be contained in the text of the cover letter.
- Not using the correct job title in the cover letter.
- Failing to ask questions when you honestly are confused.
When given the option to mail or email your resume and cover letter, I personally choose to mail it via post office so I can send a non-folded signed-in-pen document on fancy resume paper. It just looks better and stands out against all those resumes that the employer printed out on copy-grade paper and threw in a stack.
In summary, your resume and cover letter are not intended to tell your life story, they are a quick and easy introduction to let the employer know what you've been up to, what experience you may bring to the table, and give just enough insight to compel the employer to want to ask more questions.
Step 2: The Interview Confirmation
Congratulations, you have been selected for an interview. Please be at XYZ street @ 1:00 PM on 03/01/2019. Please bring an updated copy of your resume and references.
So that is of course a pretty generic response and chances are good that the employer will call you to set up a time. In our case, we provided a list of candidates and the front desk person was responsible for calling the candidates and setting up the time. Take advantage of this opportunity. Make sure to ask the person who reaches out to you important non-interview questions like:
- Do you recommend a place to park?
- How long do the interviews last? (Pay for twice the parking you think you'll need. Feeding the meter is an embarrassing reason to have to cut the interview short)
- Are there special instructions to get to this floor?
- Who usually attends the interview? This one is a tricky one, sometimes the person calling you does not know, but if they tell you the Manager, the Director and the CIO, this information will be good to know, so you're not caught off guard when you walk into a conference room full of people.
At our building, we required the candidate to bring in their interview confirmation letter to show the Officers in the lobby of the building. If they require you bring paperwork, make sure you bring it.
Step 3: Preparation Before the Interview
So you set up the interview. It's the day before and you are starting to get nervous. That is normal. You need to find some quiet time the night before your interview to sit down, make sure all your papers are in order and really start to think about the kinds of questions you think the interviewers may ask. It's impossible to know exactly what they are going to ask, but you can be fairly certain that they will ask the generic ones, like "Tell us about your strengths." In my case, I thought these were terrible questions to ask, but it can be interesting to hear how people answer them. Take the time to reflect on your experience and think about specific examples that you don't mind talking about in the interview.
Some examples of generic interview questions you should practice answering are:
- Tell us about a time you disagreed with your boss/supervisor.
- Tell us about a time you experienced conflict with a co-worker.
- What do you consider to be your strengths / weaknesses?
All these questions have a negative connotation. As an interviewer, I can tell when someone is feeding me a line of garbage, this is especially true when someone says they have no weaknesses. Be honest with yourself, you are not perfect. The trick is to be honest, but put a negative spin on it.
For example, when asked what my weaknesses are, I tell the truth, I state that I'm not particularly good at spelling and I always have to use spell check and read my messages two or three times to make sure I'm accurate in the message I'm trying to convey to someone, especially when I'm sending that message to a large group of people. This is an honest answer. I identify an actual vulnerability I face and I talk about how I mitigate the issue. In fact, I usually get a response from someone interviewing me who agrees that they are the same way, bonus points.
Another example: talking about a time you disagreed with your boss. I try to be generic about this, but if they ask a follow-up question, asking for a specific example, I like to be prepared. I will usually answer this with:
Well, if I find myself in a position where I think my approach may be better that my boss's approach, I will try to explain to her/him why I feel the way I do, what evidence I have and listen to their feedback on the issue, if their response is, thank you, but still do it my way. Then, I will proceed with their directions, that way I at least feel like I offered a reasonable solutions.
You do not want to come across as being confrontational, but at the same time you don't want to be a "yes" man. Chances are good they will ask you for an example. Be ready with one. If you blank out, just be honest and say so, but try to be ready with an example. Something that they could confirm, especially if your former boss is a reference.
Again, be honest, these don't have to be catastrophic events. I will usually say something like:
We are a pretty busy department and there were a number of times that my boss would ask me to start working on a new project before my previous project was complete. I would let him know the status of my project and ask him to let me know what priority I should assign to the new project. 90% of the time, he would re-evaluate what I told him and ask me to finish what I'm working on.
See, simple, true and respectful.
Make sure to have your documents in order. Have an updated copy of your resume ready. If it's no different than the copy you sent in previously, that's fine, just make sure you have a few copies. Sometimes someone who hasn't been in communication with the candidates may want to sit in on the interview and they may not have any information about you. The people performing the interview all have their copy of your resume, but it's a bonus to be able to hand over a copy to the person who doesn't have one. This proves you are ready for the unexpected.
Research the company. You should walk into your interview and confidently know how many people the company employs, what their major products are, any interesting (positive) press releases. If you find negative press releases, you'll need to figure out how that affects your decision to work for the company should they offer you a job.
It's important to spend some time planning before your interview, if this interview is important to you, then plan for it and take yourself seriously.
Step 4: Dress to Impress
The first thing the employer sees when they meet you is what you are wearing. If you show up for an interview in jeans and a t-shirt, it's hard to take you seriously because it honestly feels like you rolled out of bed and just put on clothes that were on the floor. Always strive to be the best-dressed person in the interview. For men, this means suit and tie. If you feel like you can get away with Kauai's and a nice sweater, but you show up and the entire interviewing panel is wearing suit and tie, you will feel uncomfortable. Don't risk it.
I had a job interview once where I did all my research a few days before and I couldn't much information about this employer, red flag. Secondly, when we set up the interview, it wasn't even at the company he claimed to be the owner of, red flag. I was somewhat reluctant to go to the interview, but I put on my power suit and met the owner where he asked. This guy walks in wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I'm thinking to myself, "Well, at least I'm dressed for this interview," I felt a sense of confidence in my presentation to him. We proceeded with the interview, he turned out to be a great guy who did IT consulting for a number of small businesses in the city. He offered me the job and to this day its been one of my favorite experiences.
Step 5: Arrive Early
Make sure to be early for your interview. Ten minutes is a good starting point. Any more than that is pointless, most interviewers are doing other things right up to the scheduled time, so if you are 30 minutes early, then your get to sit there for that whole time. I generally try to get to the site 20 to 30 minutes early, then just sit in my car until it's time to start walking. doing this gives you a padding in case there are unforeseen traffic problems or I have a hard time finding a place to park.
Just don't be late. Being early looks good, being on time is OK, but being late puts a bad taste in the employer's mouth. If disaster does happen, have the receptionist's number ready and if you think you will be late or can't make it, call immediately. Calling before your interview start time to let them know you are running late looks much better than calling after your interview has already started.
Upon arrival to your interview, you'll probably need to check in at the reception desk and be prompted to take a seat and wait. If you are lucky, they will ask you to fill out a questionnaire or something. This saves you from awkwardly having to stare off at the wall and smile and nod at each person who happens to pass by.
Do not take out your phone and start reading the news, people are generally not allowed to use their phones on the job, so for you to walk in and whip out your phone and start browsing the web looks bad. Especially if someone important walks by, you don't want that to be the first impression you make. If they provide reading material like magazines, just pick that up. Or just sit there like an adult and wait.
Step 6: Introducing Yourself
I almost didn't add this section, but I remembered that I have experienced issues with this in the past. When I walk up to someone I'm about to interview and introduce myself, I expect the candidate to tell me their name, as they like to be called (like Dan rather than Daniel). Also, it's your opportunity to learn at least one person's name, chances are good that at this point you walk into a room with three to five other people who will introduce themselves and you'll forget half their names. That's common. When you take a seat, open your notebook and write down their names and their orientation to you so you can easily too at your notebook and know who is who.
Acknowledge each person as you meet them, repeat their name out loud. Something like, "John, nice to meet you John." Repeating their names a few times increases the chances of remembering their names by a huge percentage. It may still be difficult because you are probably nervous.
Step 7: Interview Warm-Up
At this point in the process, the interviewers might make a little small talk to get you feeling a little relaxed by talking about the weather or something. Then they will likely give an overview of the company and go into details about the specific department they are looking to place you in. If they fail to mention it, asking why the position is vacant can be a good segue into a discussion about the working environment. I was always surprised that so few people ever asked us why we were looking to fill a position, or what happened to the previous person in that role.
Eventually, the interview will get going and the conversation should start to flow. When asked to "tell about a time..." this is a question looking for a story about some situation you have been in at some point in time. Take your time to think about the situation before you start talking. I've seen so many people who immediately start to answer the question and forget what they were talking about. Or they keep running on forever and you think to yourself, this person is so unorganized, they can't even answer a simple question. Tell about your experience, then stop talking and wait for the next question. As you tell your story talk to all the people in the room, not just the person who asked the question. They are evaluating you to see if you have the ability to articulate experiences from your past. Not just that you have a specific experience with a specific thing.
Step 8: The Heart of the Interview
Be honest and don't exaggerate your experiences. This is so easy to see through. As a technical person, I pick up on those little phrases or verbiage that someone might stick in their responses that are red flags that they don't actually understand what they are talking about or that they are trying to make themselves sound better than they are.
In the technical support world, it's impossible to know everything about every piece of hardware or software that exists and most companies use some unique combination of products that you need to spend some time learning about. When you have a candidate who worked at a small company with one or two IT guys and they were responsible for fixing the workstations, it's not exactly believable when they say they are familiar with administering a VMware farm or MSSQL cluster. These technologies are typically platforms that large scale enterprises would use. So be upfront, say that you've heard of them, but haven't been presented the opportunity to work with such systems and ask how the company uses them. Take notes. then you can research them later.
A good trick to keep in mind is the use of clarifying questions. If the interviewer asks about, let's say, your experience using a Customer Relationship Management application and you have no idea what that is, ask. It could open lead you to talk about a similar application you have used or lead you to talk about a similar experience. Its much better than just saying, I've never done that. Also, the interviewers are exposed to their workplace on a daily basis and sometimes take for granted the things they use to get their work done, I've actually had to clarify some of my colleague's interview questions because no one outside our agency knows some of the acronyms we have for applications.
If you are an entry-level candidate or come from a small business, the chances are good that you won't have experience with most of the things you are asked about. The interviewers will give you some time to think about your answers, come up with something and try to relate it to their question as much as possible. For example, if you are asked about a time a customer was clearly angry with you while on the phone and you were afraid that they might complain about you, what did you do? If this hasn't actually happened to you, think about what you would do. Something like:
Fortunately, I cannot think of an instance where this happened, but if I was in a hypothetical situation where this was unfolding, I would make sure to take notes about what the customer is calling about, make sure I'm following the company policies and procedures when telling the customer what I can and cannot do for them. Then if all else fails, I would explain to the customer that I'm not in a position to help and I'd like to ask my supervisor to further address the issue with them.
This is a great answer to an experience question you've never seen first hand. It shows that you are up front and have good instincts. You have to show the employer that if they put YOU in a tough situation, that they will have the structure in place to support you when things get tricky.
Entry-level candidates or candidates coming from small businesses may not be familiar with concrete policies and procedures that are common in large organizations, but they should understand that they are a good thing to mention during an interview. It's basically says to the employer, if I find myself in a bad situation, my default behavior will be to fallback on the rules and regulations you give me. Employers don't want to hear that if you get in a tough spot, you'll do whatever it takes to get out of it; these types of candidates are unpredictable.
Be Aware of Body Language
I recall one interview where my CIO attended the meeting. I really liked the candidate's resume and I emailed the interview panel ahead of time and said that this guy's resume looked great. I do not know how the CIO misunderstood my message, but he started drilling this guy, relentlessly. The candidate was sitting at the center of the rectangular table and the CIO was at one end and another interviewer at the other. After the CIO drilling him, he answered a question then the candidate turned his back to the CIO and started talking to someone at the other end of the table. It was hilarious. To this day, I still remember that day. After the candidate left, I asked the CIO why he was being so hard of the kid, and he said, "Oh, I thought you guys wanted to get rid of him," I explained that I liked the guy and he probably scared him off, and the CIO felt a little silly. The guy turned out to be the best hire I ever made.
The interviewers only have about an hour to get to know you as a person that they may have to work with for the next 25 years. It doesn't seem like a lot of time to get to know you, so every little mannerism counts.
- You should sit up straight in your chair.
- Have your notebook or notepad open with a pen in your hand ready to write should something noteworthy come up.
- When explaining an experience, talk to all the people in the room.
- Try not to use your hands too much, this is distracting.
- Look directly at the person asking you questions.
Watch for "Gotcha" Questions
During my interviews, I like to get a feel for people's analytical skills. I had done some research online and found a list of unusual interview questions that can tell you a lot about a person. So I would ask seemingly odd questions of the candidate to see what they come up with. For example, I would ask them "How many Ping-Pong balls does it take to fill a bus?" Many people would just laugh it off and say something like "I don't know," but it's a serious question and you could figure it out with some simple math. If a bus is about 40 ft. long and about 7 ft. tall and 7 ft. wide, that gives you a volume of 1960 sq. ft., which is about 23,520 sq. inches. a Ping Pong ball is about 1 inch by 1 inch, so a good estimate would be around 20,000, assuming the seats cut into the total that would fit.
You don't have to be accurate on a question like this, it's just nice to see someone take what seems like an impossible task and break it down into manageable pieces. Some people impressed me by at least trying, they tended to be the high-quality candidates.
I didn't ask everyone. Many people, I had zero interest in hiring them so why bother? In fact, I had a staff meeting once where I had each person draw a question like that out of a hat. Only one person actually tried to figure it out. These results were right about what I expected after getting to know my team. It was disappointing to confirm that most of my team either didn't care to try, or they just get overwhelmed by lack of details and think it's not worth the effort.
Investing in You
As a candidate looking for a good job, you are under a lot of stress to do well in an interview. As someone who has done a good deal of interviews and hiring, I'd say the number one point of interest from my perspective is your experience. If your resume looks great and your experience is in line with what we need, the interview is just our opportunity to get to know you as a person and make sure the experience you list on your resume is true. Sometimes people will say they are, for example, an Active Directory expert, but during the interview, they say they used AD one time to reset someone's password. So this is not exactly experience, this is just a one-off. These types of issues are easy to spot.
The employer is trying to figure out how much money this person will require to get up to speed. The employer knows that, depending on the job, it could take a few weeks or a month to get familiar with the job before they start taking responsibility for their own work. We come to accept that, but the employees need to understand that we are not only paying you, we are dedicating management time and time of otherwise productive co-workers to train you. So a new employee is quite a commitment of time and money. It's important to take that seriously as a candidate.
During your interview, it's important to point out times that you started a new job and within a week or two you were volunteering to take on projects. These actions look good on your behalf. If you say something in the interview like, "I've been working at XYZ company for a year and my boss hasn't yet given me any additional responsibilities or project, that's a red flag. Sure, your boss may be a micro-manager, but since this is something we cannot confirm, we assume that the reason is because each time your responsibilities increase, something negative happens and the boss pulls back the responsibilities.
Try to be ready to talk about times your boss needed you to take on more responsibility or times that you stepped up to help out. These are great things to hear about and it makes it easier to invest in a person you feel with give you a great return.
Step 9: The Wrap-Up
As the interview starts winding down. We would always give the candidate some time to ask any questions they may have. During the interview, the candidate is encouraged to ask questions, but they are usually follow-up questions to things we ask them, so this is an opportunity to ask anything related to the job that we may not have covered. You should take time in your preparation for the interview to write down a few questions that may have popped in your head during your research of the company.
We expect people to ask things like, "what do is a typical monthly cost for parking," "how many sick days do you get?" or "What are the health and dental benefits?" I think some people are reluctant to ask these questions, but they are actually fair questions. I feel like if we have a candidate who is trying to be practical and figure out the total cost of job vs the compensation, they are trying to perform a fair assessment. We usually tried to have this information available, or at least an estimate (parking costs varied based on where you parked) so we were prepared.
Other questions that you may want to ask, if they are not answered during the interview might include, "How much travel should I expect during a typical month?" or "How much times should I expect to be working on projects vs daily break/fix issues?" Again, fair questions and they should definitely be asked. If the job requires you to sit on phones for 80% of the job and work on projects 20% of the time, but you hate phones, well, then it might not be a good fit.
Your list of questions is important. Try to at least have a couple ready and write down anything that may come to you during the interview but you cannot quite fit them into the conversation. You will be given time to ask the questions, so take advantage of that.
Step 10: The Follow-Up (Post-Interview)
I am a firm believer in the follow-up message from the candidate. However, I do not like when they send me a two-page document to simply thank me for an interview. After you leave, I go back to work, I'm not sitting in my office waiting for a dissertation from you summarizing what happened at the interview. Sending me a quick email works fine for me. "Greetings, just wanted to thank you for the interview today, it was nice to meet you and the team. I appreciate the opportunity to come in." I like this message because it's short and to the point.
The only rare exception I have to this message is if I specifically asked for something. Occasionally, a candidate will talk about something that I am so interested in that I ask them to send me more information due to my own personal curiosity. If this happens, take advantage of it. This is a great chance to prove that you can assemble a coherent and professional message that gives me more information about a topic. Just because I asked for more information doesn't mean we are friends. I don't want an email saying something like, "What's up, here is more info..." Never waste an opportunity to show you are competent for the job.
Contrary to popular belief, getting a job has many more steps than just submitting your resume to an employer and going in for an interview. You should understand all the phases of job acquisition and take advantage of all the little opportunities that exist between the time you see a job posting and when you exit the interview. During the process, do not get comfortable, you want the employer to look at you as a competent professional worker. Take it seriously. Be prepared. Good Luck.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.