Now that you've sold your skills and abilities via your resume or graduate school application, it's time to do it face to face in the interview. The interview gives potential employers or graduate school admissions staff the opportunity to ask you, the candidate, questions that assist their decision making process. The interview is also a time for you to decide if the position/program and organization are right for you. There is a lot of "behind the scenes" preparation necessary to ensure a productive and successful interview. The interviewing section of this web site will help you prepare. If you have any questions along the way, attend a Piper Center Interviewing Skills Workshop, check out Piper Center books on interviewing, conduct a practice interview with Piper Center staff. Call the Piper Center (x3268) to make an appointment for a practice interview.
"A winning interview is the result of not only what the candidate does during the interview, but also what he or she has done before it." Deborah P. Bloch, Ph.D., How To Have A Winning Job Interview
- Practice Interview
- Phone Interviews
- Dressing for the Interview
- The Format of the Interview
- Interviewing Questions
- S*T*A*R - An Interview Technique
- Illegal Questions & Tactful Responses
- After the Interview
If the prospect of the interview makes you nervous, understand that it's perfectly normal. Use that nervous energy to your advantage. Remember that interviewing is a skill, not a talent that you are born with.
The purpose of the interview is two-fold. It is meant to determine if
the applicant is qualified for the position or program and
if the position or program is what the applicant is really interested in.
The Role of the Interviewer and the Candidate
The person who is doing the interviewing is interested in discovering what you, the candidate, can offer to the organization or institution. The interviewer's role is to ask questions which are related to the position/program, your skills and experiences, and your career goals to determine whether you are the best candidate. The interviewer generally is the one who controls the interview.
As the candidate, you are interested in making a good first impression that will lead to an offer. Your role is to appear attentive and interested and to respond effectively to the interviewer's questions. It is also necessary to ask questions of the interviewer. Well thought out questions indicate to the interviewer that you have given this position/program serious thought and researched the opportunity prior to the interview. You will want to learn specifics that will help you decide whether this position/program is worth considering, should you get an offer. BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
Knowing yourself is your first task. You will need to articulate your career goals, related skills and experiences, personal traits and why you're interested in the position/program and the organization or school. Interviewers are most impressed with candidates who are focused and can discuss their goals and qualifications. You do this by being well-prepared to answer various interview questions.
Know the organization/institution. You will create a favorable impression if you are able to converse intelligently with the interviewer about the organization or school. Researching an organization requires time and effort but has big payoffs. Your knowledge of the organization/school may set you above the competition. You should know something about the industry, market, career field in addition to facts about the specific organization with which you're interviewing. Much of your research can be done online using sites highlighted in this guide. Nonprofits and some graduate schools may be a bit more difficult to research, but the CEL has several print resources that may be helpful. At the least, you should know the size, mission, philosophy, job or grad program components, management (or teaching) style, research opportunities (for grad school), and products/services the organization of interest has to offer.
Prior to the interview:
- Read recruitment brochures, promotional materials, annual reports from the company/organization (job interview). Contact them directly to request these materials as well as the job or program description for which you are applying.
- Use the organization's website to learn as much as you can about them.
- Use the Employment Research resources at Rolvaag Library to learn about the industry and the organization. Piper Center web and print resources are also available to use.
- Talk with people within the organization or institution - perhaps Oles (use the Online Alumni Directory)
- Use VAULT.com to read large company profiles and to learn more about various industries.
- Use Professional Associations' websites to learn more about career fields and required educational background.
12 Key Steps to Winning an Interview
- Understand the interviewer's point of view.
- Develop your own information goals.
- Get all the interview appointment information you need (e.g. time, place, office number where you'll be meeting, the interviewer's name, how many people you will be interviewing with...).
- Assess your own strengths and weaknesses.
- Learn all you can about the job/program and the organization/institution.
- Match your skills to the job or program requirements.
- Plan how you will look as carefully as you plan what to say.
- Turn nervous energy into positive energy through relaxation, visualization, and rational thinking.
- Know the types of interviews and their general format.
- Know the kinds of questions you will probably be asked.
- Be prepared to answer a wide variety of questions.
- Know the questions you want answered and when to ask them.
There are many books in the Piper Center resource library to assist you in preparing for an interview. VAULT.com also provides practical advice and sample interview questions under the Job Advice tab. BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
A practice interview allows you to practice your interviewing skills. You prepare for it as you would an actual interview. Focus on a specific position or program, research the organization and its competitors (or similar agencies), anticipate questions, prepare questions for the interviewer, and dress professionally. Review interview questions from this website, other websites, or interview books available at the Piper Center.
To make an appointment for a practice interview with a Piper Center staff member, please contact us at x3268.
BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
Phone interviews are often used to screen candidates in order to narrow the pool of applicants who will be invited for in-person interviews. They are also used as way to minimize the expenses involved in interviewing out-of-town candidates. Here are some tips for successful interviewing over the phone.
• The same preparation rules apply for a phone interview as a face-to-face one.
• Select a quiet, private room to take the call. Turn off the stereo, computer, and the TV. Close the door.
• Unless you're sure your cell phone service is going to be perfect, consider using a landline rather than your cell phone to avoid a dropped call or static on the line.
• Dress as though the interviewer could see you. This will help you focus and feel more confident- which will come across in your voice.
• Stand up while talking. You will feel more alert and be able to speak with more energy.
• Convey enthusiasm through your tone of voice. Remember, they can’t see you to read your body language, so your passion needs to be heard in your voice. Also keep in mind that a smile can be heard!
• Speak slowly and enunciate clearly. Many phone interviews are conducted via speakerphone on the interviewer’s end which can make it more difficult to hear. Don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat a question if you aren’t sure you heard it correctly.
• Use pauses after a question is asked and when you are finished speaking so that you don’t interrupt anyone.
• Have notes and your resume in front of you to keep examples and your experiences fresh in your mind- make sure to bullet ideas to common interview questions so as not to sound scripted.
• Print off and highlight key phrases from the job description and their organizational literature or website for quick reference. BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
For a quick look at professional dress and business casual, click here!
According to Karyn Repinski, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Successful Dressing, there are 10 Keys to Successful Dressing:
- Recognize that you have less than 10 seconds to make a good impression.
- Know that what you wear influences others and can at [the very] least make you appear to be more confident and in control.
- Focus on being appropriately dressed - every day.
- Plan ahead; don't "wing it."
- Avoid attire that makes others feel uncomfortable. You want to stand out for your performance, not your clothes.
- Develop a consistent style of dress that takes into account your physical assets and flaws.
- Spend enough to make the grade. It's worth it to splurge on one or two great outfits that make you feel invulnerable.
- Play it safe. When in doubt, dress conservatively. It is better to overdress than underdress.
- Take cues from your superiors.
- Sweat the small stuff. Attention to detail is a virtue that employers look for in an employee's work and wardrobe.
An early arrival will allow time to collect your thoughts and to develop a "sense of place." When the actual interview begins, you want to feel relaxed and in control. You should arrive no more than 15 minutes prior to your appointment. Once in the office treat everyone you meet with respect and courtesy.
You will usually have 30 minutes to an hour to convince the interviewer you possess the skills, qualifications and potential that she/he is looking for in a candidate. For graduate school interviews, you may meet with a variety of people throughout a series of interviews, including admissions counselors, faculty, and current students.
Begin by firmly shaking the interviewer's hand and maintaining solid eye contact. Usually he/she initiates it - if not, you do it.
Each interviewer structures the interview differently. However there are three basic components: introduction, body, and close.
- Introduction: During the introduction, the interviewer will set the tone by making you feel at ease. Usually he/she will engage in small talk such as the weather, a brief discussion of the latest media frenzy, the game last night, etc. Small talk is meant to relax you, so allow yourself to be relaxed. Answer small talk questions briefly, honestly, diplomatically and tactfully. Be friendly, yet business-like and present yourself in a confident manner.
- Body: The body of the interview is your chance to shine. When you are asked questions, listen carefully, think before you speak and then give clear, concise answers and provide examples (be sure to review the S*T*A*R technique). Be honest in representing your background, your skill set, and your accomplishments. Ask questions pertaining to the job or program, the organization, and your fit. The interviewer will probably ask you what you know about the organization or institution, and after you give your answer, will talk about the program or position, the industry, and their plans for the future.
- Find common ground with the interviewer. Interviewers are human beings who will often select someone they like--someone they are connected to. If you can get them to like you as a person in addition to making them feel that you are the best candidate, you will have done yourself a tremendous favor.
- Close: The close of the interview is the time when you may be asked if you have any questions. Be prepared to ask intelligent questions that show you have done some research.
- Examples include:
- How easily do people advance from this position? What is a typical career path?
- What do you see as the biggest challenges of this position or program?
- How will I be evaluated? promoted?
- What kind of training opportunities can I expect as a new employee?
- Is there a mentoring program for new students?
- What would a typical day/week look like?
- What are the most rewarding components of this job or program?
- Who would be my immediate supervisors?
- Who will be the other members of my team?
- What do you see as the future of this organization or program?
- What are the immediate goals of this organization or program?
- What are the challenges facing this organization or career field in the near future?
- Why was this position made available (or created)?
BE SURE to express your interest in the opportunity before leaving. If you know you want the job/program, say it! If an interviewer senses a lack of interest or excitement, they will make an offer to someone else whose enthusiasm was obvious. BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
There are many types of questions an interviewer might ask during your interview. They can be theory-based or philosophical; interviewers might ask you to project into the future or recount specific past experiences. This last style of questioning, sharing the specifics of experiences, is called behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing questions assess a candidate's past behavior as it relates to specific components of the job or program in order to predict future success. Behavioral interviewing will be discussed in more detail later.
THE BENEFIT STATEMENT
Do you know the best way to respond when an interviewer asks you, "Tell me a little about yourself?" This is the very question (and those that are similar to it) that a Benefit Statement helps you answer.
The Benefit Statement is a brief (45 - 60 second) statement about who you are and how you can add benefit to an organization. No matter how the interviewer chooses to phrase the question, the task remains the same: in less than a minute, give a concise statement about yourself that will capture the interviewer's interest. This strong introduction of yourself will draw on the accomplishment and skill statements you develop using the guidelines below.
Three areas of interest should be covered in your Benefit Statement:
- Related Experiences (Internships/Work Experience)
- Extra Curricular or Community Activities
The following exercises will help you develop your Benefit Statement.
EXERCISE#1 - ACCOMPLISHMENT & SKILL STATEMENTS:
List your accomplishments and 3-5 skills for each accomplishment to help you develop strong answers to interview questions and a Benefit Statement. The following is an example:
Accomplishment: Completed independent research project on sex role typing in two year olds.
Skills used: 1) Worked independently, 2) Conducted research using varied sources, 3) Interviewed subjects using self-designed questionaire, 4) Analyzed data, identified patterns and drew conclusions, 5) Presented finding to colloquium through Powerpoint; wrote paper summarizing research and findings.
This exercise assists in pinpointing transferable skills that are of great interest to potential employers.
EXERCISE#2 - WRITING THE BENEFIT STATEMENT
Take out a piece of paper and pencil and write out YOUR Benefit Statement. Use your Accomplishment and Skill statements from the previous exercise to guide you. Rewrite, edit, and polish this statement until you are comfortable with it, then practice delivering it until you can say it comfortably and naturally. This will be the underlying theme that you will want to stress throughout your interview. Know your Benefit Statement well enough so that you can talk about the gist of it even when you're under the pressure of an interview, however, be careful not to sound like you are reciting a speech. You want to sound natural and intelligent. When you are ready, make an appointment to share your Benefit Statement with a Piper Center Career Coach.
EXAMPLE BENEFIT STATEMENT:
I am currently a Senior at St. Olaf, Majoring in Math with a concentration in Asian Studies. In addition to my math courses, my academic training includes coursework in Economics and the humanities that has developed my problem solving and organizational skills. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to travel on St. Olaf's Global semester. My senior project has allowed me to use both my Math and Asian Studies in developing a cost/benefit model for a small exporter to Pacific Rim countries. I was complimented for my initiative and overall performance.
Last summer I had an internship working for the Twin Cities Exchange Group in St. Paul. In the internship I supported the development of a new marketing strategy while learning new and exciting computer applications in controlling costs in the export business.
I have also been involved in extra-curricular activities while at St. Olaf. I was treasurer for the Math Club and helped at the Northfield Hospice. I believe that this combination of coursework, hands-on experience, and sensitivity to other cultures makes me an ideal candidate for a position with you as product specialist.
GENERAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Take time to review many interview questions and prepare an answer you would give if asked that question. In addition to the questions listed here, the CEL has many books with sample interview questions and strategies to answer them successfully. Many websites provide the same type of information (at Monster.com, click on Interview Center under the Marketplace tab OR, at Vault.com, link to Interview Questions under the Job Advice tab). Feel free to call the Piper Center at x3268 to schedule a practice interview!
- What are your long range career goals, when and why did you establish these goals and how are you preparing yourself to achieve them?
- What specific goals, other than those related to your occupation, have you established for yourself?
- What are the most important rewards you expect in your career?
- What do you consider to be your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
- How would you describe yourself? How would others describe you?
- How has your college experience prepared you for a career?
- Why should I hire you?
- What qualifications do you have that make you think you will be successful?
- In what ways do you think you can make a contribution to our organization?
- Describe the relationship that you believe should exist between you and your supervisor.
- What two or three accomplishments have given you the most satisfaction?
- What led you to choose your field of major study?
- If you could do so, how would you plan your academic study differently? Why?
- Do you have plans for continued study? An advanced degree?
- What have you learned from participating in extracurricular activities?
- In what kind of work environment are you most comfortable?
- In what part-time or summer jobs have you been most interested?
- How would you describe the ideal job for you following graduation?
- What do you know about our organization?
- What two or three things are most important to you in your job?
- What criteria are you using to evaluate the organization for which you hope to work?
- Do you have a geographical preference? Why?
- Will you relocate?
- What major problems have you encountered and how did you deal with them?
- What have you learned from your mistakes?
Questions you typically encounter at the end of an interview include:
- What is it about this particular position or program that attracts you?
- Why do you want to work for this organization/in this field?
- Why should we select you over other candidates?
- What questions do you have for us?
For Job Interviews: If the potential employer does not offer information about SALARY and BENEFITS, it is inappropriate to ask questions regarding COMPENSATION until you are actually offered the position. Go into an interview with the assumption that the potential employer is competitive with others in the industry or field.
BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEWING QUESTIONS
Behavioral interviewing allows the interviewer to get an understanding of how you, the interviewee, actually reacted or behaved in various situations. This style of interviewing is based on the concept that future behavior is best predicted by past behavior. Every question is asked with a specific purpose in mind. For example, if asked, "Describe a situation when you had a conflict with a colleague and how you handled that conflict," the interviewer is evaluating your interpersonal/communication skills. Behavioral-based questions are likely to begin with some variation of:
- Give me an example of a time when....
- Describe a situation where...
- Give me an example of how you...
- Tell me about a time when you...
Behavioral questions must be answered with a specific example. Use the S*T*A*R technique to accomplish this task. This technique also produces a strong answer to general interviewing questions.
Typical Behavioral Questions (and what they address) include:
- Describe a disagreement you had with a supervisor, how it evolved, and how you resolved it. (conflict management)
- We've all had occasions when we misinterpreted something that someone told us, like a due date, complicated instructions, etc. Give me an example of when this happened to you, why it happened, and how you rectified the situation. (communication)
- Give me an example of a situation in which you made up your mind too rapidly, and how that affected the outcome of the situation. (decision making)
- Everyone has to bend or break the rules sometime. Describe an example of when you did this, why, and what came of it? (judgment or ethics)
- Describe your strengths (usually 3) and specific ways that you have utilized them. Identify a weakness and how you've countered or worked around it successfully. (transferable skills)
- Describe an experience when you were part of a team, the part you played on the team and how you handled team members who were not contributing. (teamwork)
- Describe a situation where you assumed responsibility for getting something fairly complicated or important done and how you went about it. (planning/organizational skills)
- Describe a time when you encountered an obstacle you could not overcome and how you dealt with that situation. (persistence)
Answering questions about negative past experiences and weaknesses
Caryl Rae Krannich and Ronald L. Krannich, Ph.D's, authors of, Interview For Success: A Practical Guide to Increasing Job Interviews, Offers, and Salaries, 7th Ed., offer the following information about answering questions related to negative past experiences or weaknesses:
You will want to select examples that promote your skills and have a positive outcome. If an interviewer asks you to talk about a time something negative happened or asks you to talk about weaknesses, try to choose an example where you were able to turn the situation around so that something positive came out of it. For example, if asked, "Tell me about a time you made a bad decision." Try to identify an example where:
- even though it wasn't the best decision, you were able to pull something positive out of the situation
- though it was a poor decision, in the next similar situation you made a good decision or you learned from it and have identified how you will handle it differently the next time a similar situation arises
- it was a bad decision but the negative outcome had only minor impact.
In other words, try to pull something positive - either that you did or that you learned - out of even a negative experience you are asked to relate. The employer is interested in the process you went through and the reasoning behind your actions - not just the outcome. BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
In an interview, you are asked to share details of your experiences on the premise that past behavior (performance) predicts future behavior (performance) . Past examples may come from work experience, internships, academic experiences, extra-curricular activities or volunteer work.
The S.T.A.R. technique allows you to talk specifically about the skills you possess. This method provides concrete answers to any type of interview question but is essential for success with behavioral interviewing.
S.T.A.R. = Situation/Task . . . . . Action . . . . . Result
Situation/Task - description of a specific situation, project or task related to skill sought
Action - initiative shown in dealing with the situation or completing the project/task; requires description of specific steps taken
Result - outcome resulting from the action taken
Tell me about a time when you gave exceptional customer service.
As a student worker in St. Olaf's admissions office, I am back-up for the phones. Last week I answered a call from Mrs. J who had some questions that were pretty specific. When I suggested that she call the academic departments involved, Mrs. J sounded very annoyed and said that her phone call had been transferred several times already. So I offered to gather the info for her and call her back later that afternoon. First, I talked with my supervisor and explained the situation and what I was going to do. Then I made a couple of calls to get the info I needed. I had a class that afternoon and so had to leave a message with one department, but I returned after my class, even though it wasn't a regularly scheduled work time for me, to follow through. When I returned the phone call to Mrs. J, she was very appreciative and said that the St. Olaf admissions office had been more responsive than had other colleges she called. She then made an appointment for her son to have a campus visit next month.
Think of your answer as " story-telling ." Tell the interviewer a story with a beginning (the situation, problem or project), a middle, (the action you took), and an end (the result of your action) that illustrates how you used a particular skill.
To be effective your answer must contain all of the S.T.A.R. components. BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
The books available in the Center for Experiential Learning are excellent resources to help you prepare for your job interview. They are also excellent at raising questions you may not have thought about. Unfortunately there are still some employers who may ask questions that are illegal. Interview For Success: A Practical Guide to Increasing Job Interviews, Offers, and Salaries. 7th Ed. By Caryl Rae Krannich and Ronald L. Krannich, Ph.D's, has a section on "Illegal Questions and Tactful Responses." The following information was gathered from their book.
- The following types of questions are considered illegal:
- Are you married, divorced, separated, or single?
- How old are you?
- Do you go to church regularly?
- Do you have many debts?
- Do you own or rent your home?
- What social or political organizations do you belong to?
- What does your spouse think about your career?
- Are you living with anyone?
- Are you practicing birth control?
- Were you ever arrested?
- How much insurance do you have?
- How much do you weigh?
- How tall are you?
Though it is hoped you will not encounter these types of questions, it is better to be prepared than to be caught off guard. There are three ways of approaching these questions: 1) you may decide that the job is not as important as defending your principles and that this position/organization is not a good match, 2) you may choose to answer the question and, if you get the job, work from within the organization to change their interviewing etiquette, or 3) you may believe that the employer is trying to see how you'll react in stressful situations, so you answer the question by indicating indirectly that it may be an inappropriate question. See pages 88 - 90 in Krannich and Krannich's book for more details and examples on this topic.
Tom Washington, author of, Interview Power: Selling yourself Face to Face, also touches on the topic of illegal questions in Chapter 14 of his book. BACK TO INTERVIEW MENU » »
Take some time immediately after your interview to reflect upon the interviewing exerience. Ask yourself: How could I have better answered the questions? Where did I succeed? Where did I fail? What will I do differently next time? Consider what you have learned about the organization or institution and whether or not it will be a good place for you to be. Evaluate what you are most looking for in a job or graduate program. Did this organization match the hours, pay, and work environment you were hoping for? Did this program meet your expectations for research opportunities, mentoring relationships, and coursework? It is your responsibility to assess the "fit" with your expectations.
Thank You Letters
As soon as possible after your interview, mail a thank-you letter to everyone with whom you interviewed. "This is one of the most important yet least used tools in a job search. It is used to establish good will, to express appreciation, and/or to strengthen your candidacy. The basic rule of thumb is that everyone who helps you in any way gets a thank you letter. When used to follow up on employment interviews, thank you letters should be sent within 24 hours to everyone who interviewed you. Also, be sure to send thank you letters to each of your contacts who granted you informational interviews and to people who provided references for you." (Planning Job Choices: 1999, National Association of Colleges and Employers). It is better to type your thank-you letter if your handwriting is not easily readable and legible.
Make your thank you letters warm and personal. Use them as an opportunity to reemphasize your strongest qualifications. Draw attention to the good match between your qualifications and the job or program requirements. Reiterate your interest in the position/program. Use the opportunity to provide or offer supplemental information not previously given. Restate your appreciation.
SAMPLE THANK YOU LETTER (Note: You need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view this file...you can download it free here)
During the interview process you should inquire as to when you can expect to hear about the status of your candidacy. If you do not hear by the date indicated, do not hesitate to follow up with a phone call. Interest and persistence pay off.
Dealing with rejection
If you are not selected, don't take it personally. Think of these interviews as a learning experience. Make a list of ways you can improve when the next opportunity comes along. Then move on. The average professional changes careers six times in his or her lifetime. You've got other interviews in your future!