How to Impress in a Job Interview
I’m wearing a tie and trying to look and sound responsible. The woman interviewing me only about seven years older than I am, but she has a professional air about her that is almost intimidating; it keeps me from being totally relaxed, despite the fact that the interview has gone well so far. I’ve answered every question clearly and concisely, coming across as a young guy who is nonetheless ambitious and responsible. Then she asks a question that takes me by surprise.
“When is the last time you did something nice for someone?”
This was not a question I had rehearsed in my head. Possible answers run through my mind: washing the dishes without asking, tutoring, even recycling. I hesitate for a second too long, then tell her I tutor kids at a volunteer program I work for at William and Mary.
“That is nice,” she concedes, and the interview goes on.
Whatever the amount hesitation or awkwardness was that came through in my response, it didn’t throw me off too much, and I got the job at Banana Republic. But the stumble made me think about questions that actually have cost interviewers potential jobs. Here are some of the most common questions, along with safe suggested answers.
What is your biggest weakness?
It may be the cliché question, but it’s best to have an answer ready just in case. An effective way of answering is to candidly mention a common problem that’s not necessary for the job you’re applying for. For example, someone applying for a mechanic’s spot might say:
“I used to be very afraid of public speaking, I get nervous in front of crowds and sometimes forget lines. It’s gotten somewhat better over the years, but it’s still a struggle for me.”
With an answer like that, you neutralize a potentially thorny issue, and may even win points for honesty and candor.
What can you bring to this company?
A very open-ended question, with an answer that depends a lot on what position you’re applying for and where. It’s always a good strategy to fall back on your previous work experience, and if possible, letters of recommendation. For example, if you’re applying for a job as a waiter, you might say:
“I have over a year’s worth of customer service experience from my previous jobs. I’ve shown up on time, worked dependably, and earned good letters of recommendation. If I’m lucky enough to get this job, I know I have the work ethic, skills and experience to hit the ground running-and my resume shows that.”
Your resume shows you’ve been unemployed for over a year.
Technically not a question, but this statement demands an explanation. If you’re in college, you can always say you were taking a challenging course load for a semester or two, but if you’re not studying and just haven’t had luck with job searches in a while, honesty is the best policy…though you can still spin it. Use whatever skills you’ve honed that are necessary for the job, and explain they’ve been especially competitive this year. For example, if you have plenty of experience in shops, you can explain that there haven’t been many openings in retail in other areas you’ve looked, but you hope you get the chance to apply your experience here.
What sets you apart from other applicants?
This may be the trickiest question of all. On the one hand you don’t want to be seen as boastful, but on the other, you need to make an impression. So where’s the happy medium?
Make sure the interviewer knows about any uncommon experience you may have had. Did you study abroad in Paris? Have you been attending fashion shows or following your father on business trips since a young age? Any experience you’ve had that reflects an interest or affinity for the position sought is always a great point to raise at this juncture.
One way to make sure that you have an answer to this question is to think about it while you update your resume. As you’re writing about your job experience and answering the typical questions, try to get a word in about why the job interests you, what characteristic or ability you have that would make you good for it. Once your resume reflects this, you’ll have this question in the bag.
And remember, you should always have a few questions ready for you to ask the interviewer. Often, she’ll conclude the interview by asking what you want to know. It doesn’t look very good if you appear not to be curious, or disinterested about the very job you’re applying for. Lack of curiosity will probably be seen as a sign you’re just not informed.
A Few Cautionary Tales
For most people these rules are instinctive, but just in case, I’ve listed a few Interview Don’ts. What you don’t say in an interview is often as important as what you do say, so remember not to…
Trash your old boss.
Even if you have a legitimate grievance against him/her, you want to take the opportunity to appear gracious. Just say that you learned from your boss, and now are looking forward to a new career chapter. Remember, it’s easy for the interviewer to listen to you condemning an old employer, and imagine you doing the same to her later on.
Even if there was a scandal, even if you were disgracefully treated, or horribly unlucky, you’re always better off staying positive. Every business owner knows that cheerful people will provide better customer service, have a better work attitude, and naturally be more productive.
Avoid eye contact/ offer limp handshake.
It’s important to exude confidence as well as honesty and reliability in the interview. A strong handshake and steady eye contact will help reinforce the right impression.
So remember to practice interviewing if you need to, but first, some congratulations are in order! If you’re scheduled for an interview, there’s a very good chance you’re the favorite for the position. So remember these tips, dress for success, and sell your credentials!