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How to Interview Effectively

The job interview is a strategic conversation with a purpose. Your goal is to persuade the employer that you have the skills, background, and ability to do the job and that you can comfortably fit into his/her organization. At the same interview, you should also be gathering information about the job, future career opportunities and the organization to determine if the position and work environment are right for you.

You can strongly influence the interview outcome if you realize that an interview is not an objective process in which the employer offers the job to the best candidate based on merit alone. But rather, an interview is a highly subjective encounter in which the interviewer offers the job to the qualified person whom he/she likes best. Personality, confidence, enthusiasm, a positive outlook and excellent interpersonal and communication skills count heavily.

One key to success is to use every means at your disposal to develop effective interviewing skills: selective presentation of your background, thoughtful answers to interview questions, well researched questions about the organization, and an effective strategy to market yourself. There is no magic to interviewing: it is a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice. The Career Center offers the regularly scheduled workshop, Effective Interviewing, and has excellent books and videos on interviewing.

A second key to success is careful research about the job and the organization, agency, or company with whom you are having the interview. You can request printed materials such as annual reports from the employer in advance or use internet and library resources. You should also talk with your contacts in the organization or use your personal network to discover the names of current employees you might call prior to the interview. Knowing about the job will help you prepare a list of your qualifications so that you can show, point by point, why you are the best candidate. Knowing about the employer will help you prepare an interview strategy and appropriate questions and points to emphasize.

The Interview Structure

Before receiving a job offer, you will typically have a series of interviews with an employer. The first interview is a screening interview that could be conducted over the phone or at the place of employment. On-campus interviews are also considered screening interviews. Screening interviews are rather brief, usually lasting 30-60 minutes. During that time, the employer will want you to elaborate on experiences outlined in your resume or application, and will describe the organization and available position. If the employer is impressed with your performance in this interview, you will be invited to a second (and perhaps third or fourth) interview.

The second interview process is longer, lasting anywhere from two hours to a whole day. It could include testing, lunch or dinner, a facility tour, as well as a series of interviews with various employees. You should come away from the second interview with a thorough understanding of the work environment and job responsibilities and have enough information to decide on a job offer should one be extended.

The "Warm-up"

Each interview follows a rather predictable communication pattern of "warm-up," "information exchange," and "wrap-up" conversations. During the first few minutes of the interview (the "warm-up"), an employer will be formulating a first, and perhaps lasting, impression of you. How you greet the employer, the firmness of your handshake, the way you are groomed and dressed, will all be a part of this initial impression. To help you feel at ease, a practiced interviewer might ask "common-ground" questions about shared interests or acquaintances, or your travel to the interview. Some interviewers might start by saying, "Tell me about yourself," an opening for you to concisely describe your background, skills, and interest in the position.

The "Information Exchange"

The information exchange will be the primary part of the interview. It is when you will be asked the most questions and learn the most about the employer. In screening interviews, many employers will spend more time describing their opportunities than asking you specific questions. The reverse will be true in second interviews. Interview questions may range from "Why did you choose to pursue a degree in ...?" and "Describe the job you had last summer" to "What are your strengths/weaknesses?" and "What are your long-range career goals?" If you are prepared for the interview, you will be able to promote your qualifications effectively as you respond to questions. With practice, you will gain confidence and become more polished in your presentation.

The "Wrap-up"

Eventually the employer will probably say, "Do you have any questions?" This is the cue that the interview is moving to the "wrap-up" stage. Always ask questions because this demonstrates your prior research and interest in the job. Your questions might be direct, logistical questions such as, "When can I expect to hear from you?" (if that has not been discussed); a question to clarify information the employer has presented; a question regarding the employer's use of new technology or practices related to the career field; or a question to assess the culture and direction of the organization such as "Where is this organization headed in the next five years?" or "Why do you like working for this organization?" Do not ask specific questions about salary or benefits unless the employer broaches the subject first. The employer may also ask you if you have anything else you would like to add or say. Again, it's best to have a response. You can use this opportunity to thank the employer for the interview, summarize your qualifications and reiterate your interest in the position. If you want to add information or emphasize a point made earlier, you can do that, too. This last impression is almost as important as the first impression and will add to the substance discussed during the information exchange.

Communicating Effectively

Because a job interview is a communication process, your skills will become more polished over time. It is helpful to remember the following:

  • Speak clearly and enthusiastically about your experiences and skills. Be professional, but don't be afraid to let your personality shine through. Be yourself.
  • Listen carefully. You will want to remember what you learn about the job, and you will certainly want to answer the question that was asked.
  • Be positive. Employers do not want to hear a litany of excuses or bad feelings about a negative experience. If you are asked about a low grade, a sudden job change, or a weakness in your background, don't be defensive. Focus instead on the facts (briefly) and what you learned from the experience.
  • Pay attention to your nonverbal behavior. Look the interviewer in the eye, sit up straight with both feet on the floor, control nervous habits (cracking knuckles, drumming fingers, etc.), and smile when you are greeted.
  • Don't be afraid of short pauses. You may need a few seconds to formulate an answer. The interviewer may need time to formulate an appropriate question. It is not necessary to fill up every second with conversation.
Interview Tips
  • Be prepared to market your skills and experiences as they relate to the job described. Work at positioning yourself in the mind of the employer as a person with a particular set of skills and attributes. Employers have problems that need to be solved by employees with particular skills; work to describe your qualifications appropriately.
  • Plan to arrive for your interview 10-15 minutes prior to the appointed time. Arriving too early confuses the employer and creates an awkward situation. By the same token, arriving late creates a bad first impression. Ask for directions when making arrangements for the interview.
  • Carry a portfolio notepad or at the very least a manila file folder labeled with the employer's name. Bring extra resumes and a list of questions you need answered. You may refer to your list of questions to be sure you've gathered the information you need to make a decision. Do not be preoccupied with taking notes during the interview.
  • In many career fields, the lunch or dinner included during the interview day is not only employer hospitality but a significant part of the interview process. Brush up on your etiquette and carry your share of the conversation during the meal. Often social skills are part of the hiring decision.
  • After the interview, take time to write down the names and titles (check spelling) of all your interviewers, your impressions, remaining questions and information learned. If you are interviewing regularly, this will help you keep employers and circumstances clearly defined.
  • Follow up the interview with a thank-you letter. Employers regard this as evidence of your attention to detail, as well as an indication of your final interest in the position.

Counseling & Advising Center Building: Community and Services Building, 2nd Floor, Room 201
Phone: 408.864. 5400

Last Updated: 2/23/12