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Job Interviews: What to Do, What to Wear, and What to Know
At some point, everyone has to go through the process of applying and interviewing for a job. This can be nerve-wracking for newbies and seasoned pros alike, especially if it's been a while since they were out on the job market.
I've been through the process lots times. I've also got a fair amount of experience from the other side of the table; I used to work on the management team of a call center, where part of my job was taking employee applications and conducting job interviews.
I've seen all kinds of applicants and the many mistakes they can make. With any luck, if you're looking for advice for your first job interview, or if you're merely looking to brush up on your skills, you may be able to benefit from my experience.
What To Do
Do your homework!
Before we even touch on the interview itself, we need to cover some of the prep work.
First, it's important to find out as much about the company as you can. What exactly does the company in question do? How do they do it? Who are their clients? By answering these questions, you not only satisfy yourself in knowing your target profession, but you help yourself down the line by filling your noggin with information you may be asked about during your interview.
In today's market, almost everything you'd want to know can be found online, so one good way to find out much of this information is to see if the company has a website. Often, these public sites are more geared towards marketing than potential entree-level employees, but they should still give you a good idea of what the company does, their mission statement, and perhaps even a glimpse at what kind of job you might be applying for. You should also be able to find links to social media, company news letters and press releases.
It might also be a good idea to check out recent news articles, review sites, and organizations like the Better Business Bureau. This will tell you about the company's business practices, their reputation, and whatever public works they may be involved with. After all, it's probably not a good idea to be looking for work at a company facing sweeping layoffs, or one with a penchant for mistreating employees.
Be a detective!
As good as the internet is for general information, nothing can replace human experience and word-of-mouth. Ask friends and relatives if they've heard any news about the place you want to work at, or maybe have a heart-to-heart with a current or former employee. They may give you important insight on what you might expect from the job, who will interview you, and whether or not you'll be looking for a new job six months down the line.
I mention this because I've had several interviews that went nowhere or didn't happen at all because I didn't bother to go sniffing around for clues.
For example, I once applied for a sales opening at a big-box store in my city. The interview went well, but the questions seemed to be geared towards how I might deal with the misconduct of other employees, specifically my superiors and how likely I would be to report them if I saw they were breaking the rules. This seemed like a bad sign, but naturally I answered that I would do the right thing and report unacceptable or illegal activities to the corporate office.
I didn't get the job, but I did find out later that the manager was a marijuana user and tended to only hire people whom he smoked with, which also explained the strange incense smell that permeated the store.
For another interview at a popular restaurant chain, I spent a half hour waiting for the manager who was supposed to conduct my interview. He never showed. According to a friend of mine who was working there, the manager was, “Just a flaky kind of guy,” and it wasn't uncommon for him to not bother showing up to work or mislead applicants.
In both instances, I would have been better off to look for a job elsewhere than to even bother trying at those establishments, and had I done a little digging, I would have known that.
Write a solid résumé!
Just like I've been drilling into your head to do your homework on your company, your employer-to-be will want to do their homework on you. Depending on the type of job you are applying for, the type of documents you need may be different; creative jobs like architecture or graphic design will most likely require a portfolio of your previous work, while trade professions, like plumbers or electricians, may only be interested in your certification for that trade. Even if the job you're applying for doesn't specifically require a résumé, it can't hurt to have one prepared so you can staple it to your application.
If you've never prepared one before, a résumé should be a simple document that briefly describes your skills, education and job experience. It should also include a list of contacts both friendly and professional for the employer to check up on. Generally, you should list people who can vouch for your positive qualities, who have known you for more than a year, and don't have an axe to grind against you. Don't include estranged relatives, ex-girlfriends or bosses who you didn't get along with.
If you need a template résumé to work with, there are plenty of places to go online that can help you, like the Purdue Online Writing Lab or ResumeCompanion.com. Do a Google search for more information on new job trends or things employers may be looking for in your documentation. There is also lots of information on what not to do; Forbes recently published an article called 3 Things That Will Get Your Resume Thrown in the Trash that should help point out some small mistakes that can prove to be very costly.
What to Wear
Where I used to work we had fairly lax policies on employee dress. Generally, if it didn't have drug or alcohol references and wasn't too promiscuous, it was okay. Female employees could even wear spaghetti straps in the summer, provided the particular top wasn't too revealing, and since we had a lot of high school and college students, it was pretty common for people to show up for their shift in the same clothes they wore to class.
However, most places aren't like that. Showing up in flip-flops and cut-offs probably isn't a good idea if you want to work in an office environment or in a place where sanitation is an issue, like food service. On the other hand, if you're applying for a job at a hog rendering plant, they may not be impressed by a spiffy suit and tie.
The key to dressing correctly (and not over or under-dressing), is again to do your homework and ask around. Alternatively, it's not that hard to scope out the people who work there already and see what they're wearing. Just walk by during the lunch hour and take note as people leave the office, or pop in yourself and get a good look while filling out your application. If there is a friendly receptionist or a manager you can speak to, just ask what kind of clothes would be appropriate.
If none of this works, it's kind of hard to go wrong with a clean button-up shirt and khakis, or a plain blouse and a medium to long-length skirt if you're female. Open-toed shoes are a bad idea, and make sure everything is freshly-laundered and neat. That way, you're a little more than casual, but not so formal you'll scare anyone by being the one person in their Sunday best while everyone else is wearing a t-shirt.
Don't Forget About Hygiene!
Hygiene is also important. If you have long hair, tie it or have it styled. Make sure to shave or trim any facial hair, and your fingernails should be clean and cut short.
Some people may feel it is unnecessary to point this out, but if you're the type of person who only showers every few days, likes to wear the same clothing multiple days in a row, or has an aversion to cologne, perfume or antiperspirants, the day of your job interview may be the day to reconsider some of those habits. I can't tell you how many times I've been trapped in a small, windowless room with an applicant who both looks and smells like Chewbacca.
Don't be that guy; wash up, brush your teeth and slap on some deodorant. Most likely your place of employment will have their own policies on hygiene, so not only does a lack of it look bad on you, it may also cost you the job.
Congratulations, you've finished the prep work! You know everything there is to know about the company and the job you're applying for, you've washed your clothes and your body, and you should be confident that you are 100% ready for the big day!
There are several things to bear in mind with how you conduct yourself during the interview:
Be professional and polite.
When you step into the interviewing room, don't just plop down into a chair; be polite and introduce yourself! Shake the interviewer's hand firmly, but gently, and make solid eye contact while you do so. This shows both confidence and professionalism, two qualities that will put you above the socially awkward.
You may find that in a more relaxed setting, introductions may be less formal, particularly among younger staff. Nevertheless, always be the initiator and maintain a professional attitude; you never know when the person interviewing you may be a stickler for form, and every ounce of your first impression counts.
Keep your cool; it's an interview, not an interrogation.
Try not to fidget or bounce around; if you're like me, you may be tempted to tap your foot or shake your leg up or down if you feel nervous or if you're concentrating. Don't. It may not be a sign of bad character, but it can be annoying. Try crossing your legs or arms if you have a problem with moving your limbs, or go for a sort of "thinking pose" with one leg over the other and a hand to your chin. You'll still look engaged in the interview, but you won't have to worry about nervous ticks.
Speak in a calm voice, but be clear. Often people will become shy or speak too quickly or loudly when they are under stress. Sometimes the interviewer may feel sympathetic, but these qualities might be held against you if you're in a competitive industry or are applying for something above entry level.
If you find yourself getting nervous to the point where you might lose yourself, a good technique to borrow from your high school speech class will work here: just breath in slowly through your nose and count your heartbeats. It's best to do this before the interview starts to try to keep your heart rate down, but if all else fails and you're prone to crippling anxiety, it may keep you from panicking long enough to finish.
Questions to Prepare For
Regardless of the field you are applying for a job in or the differences between individual firms and how they conduct their business, the common factor for any interview is that your potential employer wants to get to know you. Many of the questions you will be asked will be about your personality, your qualifications and work history, and how you will cope with different job situations.
There are lots of helpful guides out there that will help you get an idea of what questions will be asked during your interview. I found this video by Howdini to be helpful, particularly if you're worried about being over or under-qualified for the job you are being interviewed for.
My Go-To Interview Questions
When I was conducting interviews, I had a standard form to go through that included contact information, general employee info and questions about the interviewee's past employers, if there were any. I also went over their application and any other materials that they presented, such as court documents or special paperwork for government programs, looking for oddities or unique attributes that I could ask questions about. Usually, I would end up asking a handful of common questions for each interview:
"Why should I hire you for this job?"
There are a number of reasons I might have asked this question, but usually it was for first-time applicants who were in high school or college and I felt that they might not be reliable or may quit if the job proved to be too stressful. Other times I would ask just to hear the applicant speak; often, you can learn a lot about a person by just letting them ramble.
Your best approach to this question is to focus on your positive attributes. Are you a hard worker with reliable transportation, a good educational background and strong work experience? If that's the case, just state the facts and let your credentials sell you. On the other hand, if you have no car, no work experience and no education, try turning that into a positive with statements like, "I'm willing to go the extra mile to learn the ropes," or "I'm eager to prove myself and give it my all".
"Why did you leave your last job?"/"Why are you looking for a new job?"
This was a standard question I was required to ask. However, since the main part of my job was running and monitoring projects and keeping my team going strong, this question could tell me a lot about what I had to work with.
Like Maggie said in the previous video, it's a good idea to focus on what you're looking for in a job and your work environment, rather than how bad things were at your last job or a detailed explanation of the problems you had with your previous boss. You may have a solid reason for leaving, and maybe your problems were because of a lousy employer, but if that's all I'm hearing, all I'm going to think as manager is "I should keep an eye on this one..."
"Why are you here?"
No, I didn't mean this existentially; I would only ask this question if I noticed the applicant was from far away, possibly from out of state or from another country.
If you're looking for work in a new area far from where you lived before, you may be asked this as well. Are you an ex-con looking for a fresh start in a new city? Did you move across the country for school, or for another job that didn't pan out? Do you have binding ties to your new city of residence, or will the employer be dusting off the "Help Wanted" sign in a few months? Just like you want security in your job, your employer will want security in you.
"How well do you handle stress, late hours and the possibility of being called in on non-scheduled days?"
Your employer will want to know that they can count on you to work under pressure and at the drop of a hat, and let's face it, they will probably push you past your breaking point from time to time. If you are flexible and understand that, as a new employee, you might get the short end of the stick for a while, you should be fine so long as you can handle the stress without punching someone or yelling at a client. If you have panic attacks or a history of violent behavior, you may lose out to the applicant who is calm under fire and can keep it together when nothing is going right.
"Where do you see yourself in the future?"
Like some of the previous questions, this tells the interviewer a little about your goals and your character. Tell them about your plans for your career, what you'd like to do when you finish school, etc. Be specific as to how you would accomplish your goals and why you want them. You want to show that you are thoughtful, that you plan ahead and that you are going somewhere with your life, which may help you down the line if another position within the company opens up. Show the employer you have a future, and more than likely they will want to make you a part of theirs.
We've covered the entire application and interview process from start to finish. You should now be familiar with a sound approach for preparing a strong knowledge base about your employer and the job being offered, you know what to wear and how to act during the interview, and you even have a cheat-sheet of questions that will likely be asked.
If you still need more information, take a look at this second video by Job Test Prep; it's a little campy, but the visual aid it provides may help you practice how you sound and how you carry yourself during the interview.
Remember what you've learned, and don't sweat it if you still get nervous or make a few mistakes. Everyone is fallible, and like many things in life, interviewing for a new job gets easier the more you do it. Keep trying, and I hope you have the best of luck!