A friend who is re-entering the (paid) workforce after a long stretch of fulltime/overtime-momming recently asked me for any tips I might have for interviewing. I’ve never really considered myself an expert in this area per se, but I guess perhaps I have enough experience to lend a few pieces of advice that seem to have helped land me 4 jobs over the last 8 years. My biggest piece of advice is to rehearse and learn as you go.
Start by taking the time to write down your best possible answers to the following questions. You won’t actually read your answers during an actual interview, but once you write them down & go over them several times (including right before each interview), you’ll have the basic narrative in your head & you will be able to answer smoothly w/o those dreaded awkward pauses. If you’re like me at all, another aspect that this will help with is avoiding the tendency to trail off, vaguely ending a response with “so…” Being prepared with responses will help you know when to stop talking. It may feel a little strange at first, but it will make you appear much more polished & confident if you can simply articulate your answer with a definitive conclusion, which indicates that they may ask their next question.
Tell us a little about yourself. This one used to get me stumbling all over myself from the get go. Golly where should I start? I was born in nineteen seventy-something… Think about exactly what points you want to highlight to a potential employer. Keep it brief & don’t offer too much – they’re interested, but they don’t have time for your life story. Say where you’re from, highlight (positive) educational & professional history & achievements; don’t get too personal (i.e. your single/marital & child/no child status are your business, not theirs). Tie in something unique about yourself that will make you memorable, in a positive light. Some people find this part easy; being an introvert, I absolutely don’t, so writing it down ahead of time has been very helpful.
Tell us about a situation in which you effectively dealt with a difficult or upset person/customer. My advice: write down 3 – and think of 3 that are as different as possible. Then you will be prepared with options that you can tailor to the situation. Plus if they are hardasses & actually require you to flesh out 3 different scenarios instead of just one, you are golden! These can include situations outside of work if need be, but should illustrate how you’d handle yourself in a professional situation & should not involve any venting or self-pity on your part. You’re in an interview, not a free therapy session.
What are your strengths? Think of 10 & come up with something to back up each one – i.e. don’t just write/say “I’m organized” & leave it at that. Write what do you do to maintain organization, how organization benefited your work in the past. How do you foresee it benefiting you in the role you’re seeking? They’ll probably ask for at least 3. Again, it’s nice to have options to tailor to the situation. Be absolutely unapologetic or self-depricating (ladies, especially Minnesota-nice ladies, I’m looking at you) – brag! Be bold & confident. If anyone (boss, coworker, fellow PTA member, family, friend) has ever given you positive feedback on any of your identified strengths, insert a little anecdote as you respond. This will reinforce the validity of what you’re saying & make it more memorable to boot.
What are some areas where you need improvement? Or what are your weaknesses? This is another one I’ve always found difficult to answer on the fly. Think about this. Do NOT say you’re a workaholic or perfectionist – even if you are, it sounds like grade-A bullsh*t. Identify something legit – perhaps 3ish – things. (If you can easily come up with a list of 10 professional weaknesses, you’ll probably need more than this blog post to help you.) Don’t just offer these up as is. Sugar coat them with an air of self-awareness & pro-activity. For each one, tack on something about how you have already begun to improve & what strategies you have identified as effective for mitigating &/or coping. Don’t raise any red flags. One example I’ve used is my attachment to efficiency & resulting frustration when processes in the workplace, or coworkers’ work styles are inefficient. Then I go on to talk about how great an opportunity it has been for me to develop both patience & critical thinking skills in assessing where efficiency is most important & beneficial to the organization vs. when to accept that certain best practices for whatever reason might not be the most efficient way of accomplishing the task… Sure, you can take that one – use it well. What’s a blog w/o a freebie every now & again?
Describe a situation where you took initiative to solve a problem or improve a process. How about 3-5? Let yourself shine here. And if your examples involve any negative notes about other parties (My idea was like a billion times better than my dumb coworker’s & everyone liked it way more), leave that part out. Clouds do not make your sun shine brighter. Duh.
Define great customer service. Write your definition. Then think of at least 3 times you have provided excellent customer service & relate it to your definition. If you know how it benefited the person you assisted, include that. Think of a time you experienced great customer service. If you never have, then return a pair of Keens under warranty. They have it down! A+!
What does teamwork mean to you? You’re going to want to talk about your ability to function as part of a team. Think of examples where you led & where you followed. Think of an example where you motivated someone on a team, be it superior, subordinate, or … co-so & so…what’s the word for that?! Anyway, I always like to talk about how successes are that much more satisfying when you have a team to share in them. That’s true. High-fives are meant for parties of 2 or more.
What 3 words best describe you. (Mr. Quake tells me here you should always say Three?! I’ll give you 5 (or 10 or whatever)). I’m not entirely convinced, but I like the idea of insisting that there are more than 3 words needed to sum up any person. So, here again, it’s probably good to have a list of 10 words (& why for each!) that you can have available in the recesses of your brain so that you can tailor them to the situation.
What strategies do you use for effective time management? &/Or How do you balance competing priorities? Your answer should probably include some sort of electronic calendaring. If you’ve never done this, goof around with Google Calendars – set yourself some reminders (seriously, Google Calendar is the reason that my dog gets his heartworm “treat” on time every month! Those little heart stickers are cute, but I frankly check my email a lot more than I look at my paper calendar). Highlighting critical thinking skills & ability to juggle multiple projects simultaneously is obviously key here. Give examples. Here’s where I have no idea of the value of my advice, but I always add that I use an old fashioned to-do list that goes w/ me everywhere. It’s true. And many items get put into my electronic calendar from there, but I do like having that list to refer back to & go over during any down time. Sweet, bless-ed down time. There’s so much more to say about this one, but I have competing priorities this evening, so I’m going to delegate this one to you. Or maybe your fellow readers will add their strategies in the comments below?
Where/how do you see yourself in 5 years? Presumably, this would include the company/org you’re interviewing with in the picture, unless it’s preposterous for some logical reason that you would stick w/ them that long. It’s hard to answer – often when you’re looking for a job, you’re just thinking about how to get that job. Suddenly you have to have a 5 year plan? So think now before the interview & you’ll look like you’ve got it all figured out. P.S. You are not chiseling this 5-year plan into stone. The key is just to sound like you’ve thought about your future & how this position would fit into that picture.
What questions do you have for me/us? This is the B-E-S-T part. And not only because at this point in the interview, you are actually allowed to read from your written notes! I recommend a nice looooong list of questions to ask them (do not plan on asking every question, but this will give you a nice set of options). Asking questions shows you care about the company/organization, that you are thoughtful & reflective about your career path, & that you are actively looking for a good fit as much as they are, not just desperately applying for any & everything (even if that is true). Don’t know where to start? Here are some examples: ask for a description of the supervisor’s leadership/supervisory style – if you are feeling bold, ask what his/her strengths are (Boo-yah! Still, probably best not to ask for a list of weaknesses; however), what employee development opportunities/training do they offer, what have been their most successful team building initiatives, ask them what they enjoy most about working for the company (I like to end with that one), ask how long they’ve been w/ the company & what their general impressions have been, ask what they would identify as the greatest challenges of the position you’re interviewing for, ask what qualities they are looking for in an ideal candidate (Bonus: you can use this as informal conversation time to highlight any of your qualities that match which may not yet have been noted during their questioning period), what advancement opportunities do they foresee: this shows you have an intention to stick w/ the organization (unless you think it does not apply to your particular situation, in which case, skip it because you don’t want to appear to be someone who will quickly be dissatisfied with the role). I also always ask how they’d describe the staff culture & working environment – mostly because I just want to know, not because it’s necessarily a brilliant question. Ask about their customer or constituent population – both the challenges & the rewards of working with them (hopefully they’ll have both). The key is to come up with a nice long list of open ended questions that engage them in conversation. This not only gives you more information, but can help build rapport. If they don’t give you time to ask questions, they are likely jerks & this is their red flag to you. That said, they may only have time for 3-5 questions, depending on how long the other portion of the interview went. Play this by ear, but do try to prioritize in advance – especially decide in advance what question you want to end with.
So, get started on those & keep them somewhere handy. I keep mine in Google docs, but whatever works for you. Read over the questions & your responses before each interview to refresh your brain so you have answers to rattle off like a pro, tailoring them to their questions as applicable. It cuts back on blanking & stumbling, awkward responses, therefore easing the added layer of nerves & sweating & all the other fun symptoms of general interview stage fright.
After each interview, TAKE THE TIME to write down any question they asked you that was not on your list while it is fresh in your mind. Do it. If they really threw you for a loop, you might be consumed with feelings of failure & dread (job hunting is difficult business, emotionally!). Let it go & get to work preparing for the next one. Focus especially on those questions where you fumbled & reflect on what you “should’ve” said. Of course you cannot go back in time & un-bomb an interview, but there’s a 95ish% chance you’ll have that same question thrown at you in the future. But by then, you’ll be so prepared, you’ll be happy when they ask it! Write out your ideal response in hindsight (which is 20/20, in case you were unaware). Just keep adding to this document as you go through interviews & soon they’ll have to work overtime to come up with a question that could faze you.
P.S. Don’t get rid of it once you get the job. Save it somewhere handy, safe, & easy to find later. I’ve used mine through three interviewing processes now & it’s helped immensely every time; not to mention it is great not to have to start from scratch.
Want to help out a job seeker? Comment below & tell us: What are the weirdest or most challenging questions you’ve been asked in past interviews? What obvious questions have I left off my list?