Leaving the Nest, Part 4: The Pre-Game Warm-Up

During my post-graduation job search, I often lamented that the hardest part of finding a job was landing the interview. Whether it’s a phone screening, a “coffee chat”, or a panel, actually getting to speak to someone who actually works for the company you want to work for is no small feat. Depending on the job you’re seeking—and any insider leverage you might have from someone you know who knows someone—your sparkling résumé probably battled its way past dozens to hundreds of other applicants to reach the direct attention of someone who can make hiring decisions.

The first line of defense may have been an algorithm that ranked résumés by how many matching keywords they contained. The next barrier could have been a Human Resources staffer with no knowledge of what the specific job role entails, but a general sense of what the hiring manager wants in a candidate. After that, the résumé will finally find its way to someone adjacent to the vacancy who can make recommendations—if not decisions—about who to plug into that hopefully-you-shaped hole. This person may then decide to immediately call you for an interview, or they might see that you claimed to have “ecxellent attention to detail” and judge you harder than Gordon Ramsay during the dinner rush.

Chef Ramsay doesn't fool around, yo.Source: smosh.com

Chef Ramsay doesn’t fool around, yo.
Source: smosh.com

(In my current role, I’ve been responsible for screening and interviewing student interns who I’ll then mentor and supervise for a semester. Believe me: errors do get noticed, and they will count against you. Some may say that that’s an old-fashioned, elitist attitude for the modern multicultural world, but since the ultimate goal of my job is to facilitate communication, you’d better believe think it’s important.)

If the job search process was a ziggurat, then by landing an interview, you’ve finally reached the platform on top and are now being questioned by the temple priests for entry into the Sacred Halls of Gainful Employment. Unfortunately, there’s no one secret passphrase that will let you enter, so you’d better be prepared for anything that may come at you.

Ready… Set…

In the previous post, I advised you to research a company before you interview for them, because you’re going to need to know a few things before you walk in the front door (not the least of which is where that front door is physically located). What is the company’s core business? Does the job listing indicate if the role will be within that core, or is it a supporting position or for an accessory project? Is the business a start-up still in the heady days of enthusiastic uncertainty, or is it a seasoned driver with a well-worn roadmap?

Write down some informed questions about the job or employer. The best questions are those which include specific acquired knowledge—either from prior research or gleaned during the interview—then ask about how that knowledge affects your position.

  • “I grew up with your Big Name Brand widgets in my house, but it sounds like I’ll be handling accounts-receivable for only Acquired Subsidiary gizmos. Can you tell me if these product lines will continue to have separate accounting systems, or are there plans to consolidate?”
  • “During my marketing internship at Buyer’s Bonanaza, we used Salesforce to keep track of leads. I noticed that here I’d be using MailChimp for email campaigns; is that integrated with Salesforce, or is another CRM used?”
  • “When browsing your website, I noticed that you’re using a subsite redirect for mobile devices. Since you’ve asked about my experience in responsive design, am I correct in assuming a responsive redesign of the website is in my future?”

Notice how each of these questions includes specific knowledge of the company and an acknowledgement that you’re familiar with the requirements and duties of the job. None of these questions asks directly for any confidential information the employer may be reluctant to disclose, nor do they disparage the company’s current practices (even if you think you can do better).

You know what else these questions don’t say? “If I get hired…” By framing the question as though the position is already yours and you’re feeling out the scope of it, you can give the interviewer the opportunity to begin imagining you in that role already. If they can picture you doing the work (which, admittedly, is easier if this is an in-person interview, rather than a phone interview), then they are more likely to start thinking of you as the only logical candidate for the position.

Question Authority

The bulk of the interview is generally going to be them asking the questions, however, and while it’s very important to have a question of your own ready when they ask the “do you have any questions?” question, I question your preparation if you’re not ready for questioning. Any questions?

I think I just confused myself there. Source: pixabay.com

I think I just confused myself there. What was I talking about again? Oh, right…
Source: pixabay.com

Most interviews contain the same general questions inquiries about your work history, experience, skills, ethics, personality, and goals. I’ve encountered variants of all of the following:

  • Tell us a little about your work at [Employer].
  • Give an example of a time you [demonstrated key job skill/professional behavior] on the job.
  • Suppose you and a friend worked together, and your friend was [engaging in some illegal or unethical behavior]. What would you do?
  • What are your professional strengths and weaknesses?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • Why did/do you want to leave [Employer]?

Feel free to do a little more research on other common interview quest queries; there are a lot of resources out there. And, as those other resources will no doubt tell you, there are right ways and wrong ways to approach each qu interrogative. If you plan out how you’re going to respond in advance, you’re less likely to stumble when one finally gets tossed your way. Don’t try to memorize exact responses, as you’ll likely come across sounding disingenuous and robotic.

Since the act of responding is part of the interview itself, I’ll save further examples for the next article in this series. If you’ve made mention in your cover letter of any skills which are weak or lacking, be prepared to explain again how you’ll be able to overcome the ability deficit to meet the employer’s needs. If you’ve made any bold or seemingly-unlikely declarations, such as having over a decade of experience in a field when you’ve been a legal adult for only half that time*, be prepared to back up your claims.

*Hey, I started writing website code from scratch when I was in 7th grade: I can legitimately state I have about 20 years’ experience in HTML despite being in my early 30s, but I have to also acknowledge in my explanation that most of that experience is not professional experience

(Not) Phoning it In

A phone interview is usually only a preliminary interview, with an in-person interview to be conducted later. Phone interviews are especially important if the job and candidate are not in the same city, so that no one wastes time and money on travel arrangements. If you are asked to participate in a phone interview, make sure to schedule it so that you have ample opportunity to charge your cell phone and relocate to a private place with a good cell signal and no distractions, but where you’re free to talk as loudly as you need to talk. (I’ve been known to sit in my car for phone interviews, but only in cool weather so I don’t roast with the windows up for that long.)

Even though you don’t have to go through as much effort to prepare as you would for other types of interviews, there are still several things you should do before you get started. Have a copy of your résumé, cover letter, and/or application in front of you so you can follow along with the interviewer if any questions are asked about those documents. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes, but don’t get too comfortable: sit upright or stand when you talk so that you have full breath support. If you feel the need to pace while on the phone (yep, I tend to do that when not sitting in my car for the interview), then make sure you do so quietly and slowly, so as to not transmit noisy footsteps and/or heavy breathing down the line. If you’re going to need to refer to an online portfolio, profile, or other internet resource, grab your laptop and load ’em up. Have a notepad and pencil handy to jot down quick notes about the name(s) of the interviewer(s), the position, its benefits, or any last-minute questions you might think of throughout the course of the call.

The better you prepare your interview, the less stressed you'll be when the time comes, especially if you're the sort of person who stresses out about this sort of thing. Source: pixabay.com

The better you prepare your interview, the less stressed you’ll be when the time comes, especially if you’re the sort of person who stresses out about this sort of thing.
Source: pixabay.com

A wired headset can be a valuable asset for phone interviews because you don’t have to worry about wearing out your arm holding a phone to your ear (or burning your ear when the phone inevitably gets hot), and it keeps your hands free for taking notes. Bluetooth headsets would work as well, but you also don’t want the battery dying or the audio cutting out unexpectedly during the call, and it doesn’t leave a good impression on the interviewer if you have to apologize for equipment failure. Unless you have one of the new jack-less iPhones**, you could also have your phone plugged into a charger while you talk so that you don’t need to worry about that battery, either.

**As an Android user, I laugh in your general direction.

Lights! Camera!

Now that the technology is much more widespread, a few companies out there are trying webcast interviews for remote candidates. Unless the position will also be remote, webcast interviews are also likely to be just an intermediary step in the hiring process. Some recruiting agencies like to have pre-recorded generic interviews on file for the candidates they represent, and if you’re asked to complete one of those, many of the tips in this section will also apply.

I’ve never had a webcast interview before, but I have worked with a remote team that liked to have webcast weekly meetings. While there are obvious differences (and allowances) for having a web-based meeting with people you already know and work with versus someone you hope to get to know and work with, much of the prep-work is the same: you need a “studio”.

Now, you don’t have to go crazy trying to make your digs look like a vlogger’s paradise, but there are a few things you’ll need to make sure you have. The right location will have plenty of light, a neutral background, minimal ambient noise, a strong internet connection. You’ll also want to make sure you have a working wired headset (possibly even the same one you use for phone interviews).

Libraries are a perfect place to go for phone and video interviews. No, not the main stacks where you’ll be shushed by a disapproving librarian, the study rooms! Check with a public or university library to see if you can reserve a study room for an hour; it’s usually free.
Source: pixabay.com

Try to minimize any environmental distractions. Plan to set up in front of a neutral, stationary background so that your video processor isn’t forced to choose between the foreground (that’s you!) and the background when bandwidth gets tight. Turn ceilings fans off so that they don’t cast moving shadows, and disable table fans and window units if they’re going to be disruptively noisy. Try to utilize natural light as much as possible, but you may have to get creative in order to properly light the scene. You need balanced lighting, where the foreground is only a little brighter than the background, and diffuse lighting that doesn’t cast sharp shadows. Need a quick boost to your foreground lighting? Bounce directed light (such as from a gooseneck lamp) off of a bright white surface (such as a blank poster or foam core board) so that the reflected light falls on you.

Wear medium-to-dark clothing in solid colors so that the focus remains on you, not the crazy thing your striped shirt is doing to the image every time you move. Even if your computer has built-in audio filtering (many Macs do) for the microphone, use a headset for the call so that you can hear clearly, speak clearly, and aren’t inflicting the unending echo of a thousand voices o’ doom on whomever’s on the other end of the video call. You’ll also have less to worry about when it comes to ambient noises in your environment, as the microphone will be right next to the most important noise-making apparatus in the room.

Maintain “eye contact” with the webcam while you speak and don’t fidget off-screen. If you’re a restless leg-bouncer, don’t. If you’re a swivel-chair spinner, don’t. The people on the other side of the video call can see only enough of you to know that you’re doing something, and their minds may fill in what you’re doing that they can’t see in ways that won’t be flattering. (Restless-leg bouncers with their hands out of view look like they’re having a 900-number sort of conversation, if ya know what I mean.)

As with the phone interview, be sure to print out copies of your resume, cover, letter, and any other relevant information you may need so that you can refer to them as needed, and have a notepad and writing implements at hand for taking quick notes.

Face-Off

Interviewing in-person is still the gold standard of job interviews. While scheduling your interview over the phone or by email, note any specific details about who you’re meeting, when, and where. Is this a “coffee chat” interview where you meet the interviewer(s) at a nearby café? Is it a group interview where you’ll ask for the HR recruiter at the reception desk?

Before ending the call or exchange, try to find out about the corporate culture and dress code standards: “I understand you often have clients in the office. Will business casual attire be fine or should I take it up a notch?” “Sounds like you have a very relaxed atmosphere there. Is the dress code much the same?” If the answer is vague or you forget to ask, check the company website for staff photos. Everyone wears jeans and polos? Show up in slacks and a nice button-down. Are they rocking the power suits? Then so should you. It’s always better to dress a little “too high” for a position than it is to show up under-dressed, so if you don’t find out, assume that means business formal (e.g. suits).

Guys, if you don’t already own a well-fitted solid black suit, now’s your chance. No, don’t borrow a suit from your dad or older brother, get your own suitDon’t just go to Kohl’s and grab something in your size, actually try it on with the appropriate accoutrements (including dress shoes!) to see how it looks on you. Better yet, go to a specialty menswear store and get an associate to help you find pieces that fit the way they’re supposed to fit. If you’re particularly sartorially-challenged, get the associate to help you pick out the rest of the ensemble, too.

A good suit is a worthwhile investment. Paired with different shirts and accessories, you could potentially wear the same suit several times in a week without anyone realizing it is the same suit. You will need a black suit for weddings, funerals, dates, business meetings, and more. Navy and grey suits are also great options, but nothing beats a sleek black suit for versatility. Pinstripes come and go in fashion, so if you have only one suit, keep it a solid color.

See? A smile and a sharp suit can you get you anywhere. Source: wikimedia.org

See? A smile and a sharp suit can you get you anywhere.
Source: wikimedia.org

If you can’t afford to buy a suit now, check with local clothing charities who supply career wear for job interviews. But, the moment you can afford to spend $300 or more on a new suit from a specialty clothier, do it. If you have to have it tailored to alter the length of the sleeves or pants legs, do it. Your body type is likely to change over time, and you should make sure to always have at least one dark suit which fits.

No matter the attire you choose, make sure it is clean, well-fitted, and wrinkle-free. If you have any pets, make sure you have a lint-roller handy to remove any decorative fur your little buddy may leave on you. Try on your outfit a few days before the event to make sure you have everything you need to look your best (e.g. non-holey hosiery), and to ensure that you’ll be able to move well and sit comfortably for an hour or more. Skip the stiletto heels, ladies: if all goes well, you might get taken on a walking tour of the facility, and you’re going to want to be able to walk quickly and confidently.

Print out a dozen extra copies of your resume and place them in a solid-colored pocket folder; add to that your cover letter and/or application. Make sure you have a notepad and functioning pen or mechanical pencil; for an especially elegant touch, load your paperwork, notepad, and writing implements into a nice-looking padfolio. If your position requires it, bring a polished portfolio of your work. If you need to show off any digital work, bring your tablet or laptop with you. Do not assume you will be given access to the company’s wi-fi network, and if you have mobile hotspot capability on your phone, don’t assume you’ll be able to reach your wireless network: pre-load your examples before you head out the door.

Padfolios are like grown-up Trapper Keepers. Wait, are you even old enough to remember Trapper Keepers? Source: amazon.com

Padfolios are like Trapper Keepers for grown-ups. Wait, are you even old enough to have had a genuine Trapper Keeper? Get off my lawn. *shakes cane*
Source: amazon.com

Hit the Road, Jack

Will you have to travel for the interview? If so, is the employer making travel/stay arrangements for you, or will you have to make your own accommodations? Be sure to keep receipts and detailed records for ALL of your travel expenses, including gas/mileage, airfare, rental car expenses/transit fare, lodging, and meals. If the employer hires you, you may be reimbursed for these expenses as long as you have them well-documented. If you aren’t reimbursed or if you don’t get the job, you may be able to itemize these expenses on your taxes the following year as long as you have them well-documented.

The night before the interview, make sure everything you need is ready so that you’re not scrambling to get out the door. Check your route on Google Maps to see how long it will take to get there by your preferred transportation method; adjust the arrival date and time to make sure typical traffic is taken into account. Plan to leave at least fifteen minutes earlier than Google says it’ll take to get to the site of the interview, as it’s better to be a few minutes early than late. Set at least two alarms, go to bed early to give your nerves time to settle, and get ready to have a slam-dunk interview the next day!

As for that slam-dunk interview… well, stay tuned for next time, fledglings: same bat time, same bat channel!

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