By Donavan Makus
Well, it’s that time of the year again. Christmas has passed, the semester has begun, and finals are still a distant ideal, leaving us with the need to find time for another aspect of life: applying for jobs. Summer jobs are picking up steam with some positions already hiring, or at least posting their jobs to Indeed. Having experienced more than my fair share of interviews over the years with both successes and failures, I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the observations I’ve made along the way.
Ultimately, an interview is about selling a vision of yourself as the best candidate. Your goal isn’t merely to show up 15 minutes early, smile, and answer questions, but to present a picture of yourself as the ideal candidate. This starts with your resume, tailoring it to the position, deleting irrelevant information–as much as the desire to have a longer resume may make this painful. After updating your resume, it’s a good idea to tailor your resume to the company’s goals, job description, and to brush up on your understanding of the company. As a note on deleting unnecessary information, I’ve learned this from experience. I once interviewed for a summer Environmental Science job where the first question was asking about my availability because of an unrelated volunteer activity at the very end of my resume that I usually spent two weeks working on each summer. Also remember, the interview doesn’t start when you sit down, it starts the minute you are within sight of the interview spot. Don’t talk about your commitment to safety in the interview and peel out of the parking lot aggressively afterward. If it is a group interview, the appropriate time to express a dislike for any refreshments is never. Be your best self.
Preparing for an interview can be a very involved practice, involving careful research of the organization, preparation for likely questions, or you could always try walking in and try to wing your interview. Ultimately, it is your choice, but I would recommend conducting at least some background research about the position and organization you’re applying for, mainly focused on the “Why us?” interview question and any position-specific questions. Start by reading through the relevant pages on the organization’s website to learn about them. Overpreparing is a good idea for the common questions, I once went into an interview with only one answer for the “What’s your greatest weakness question?” and they asked for three. During the interview, it’s also helpful to try and figure out how much background the interviewers have on you, namely, have they read your resume yet? I’ve sat down at interviews at large organizations where they haven’t, and at small organizations where they asked about the very last part of my resume in the first question. If you have less experience interviewing or are facing high-stakes interviews, it’s worth practicing with someone from the Career Services office or a competent friend or acquaintance. Make sure that if you do exercise with a friend, they are sufficiently honest and knowledgeable to help you. What you don’t want is someone who merely builds your confidence, as important as confidence is, while you cement bad interview habits with bad practice. Perfect practice makes for an excellent performance. Inadequate preparation makes for even worse performance.
Broadly speaking, there are 2 types of interviews, focused or broad. A concentrated interview will, hopefully, be relevant to your major and allow you to demonstrate field-specific jargon or skills. One question I appreciated was one asking me what tree I would be if I were a tree, and why, requiring both field-specific knowledge of trees and a sense of creativity. An extensive interview is more focused on broader skills–areas like communication, collaboration, and the like, requiring more creativity on your part to respond. No matter the interview, your goal should be to demonstrate personality; they have your resume, the dates and titles, what they want to learn more about is you. Your resume won’t tell them that you are a pleasant person to work around, or that your sense of humor will brighten the workplace. This is your opportunity to demonstrate these qualities.
Anytime you get asked a question that isn’t a focused technical question. However, you can try this strategy if the question type lets you, isn’t just an opportunity to answer the question, it’s an opportunity to bring up something you’ve done, or a skill you have that is relevant and shows why they should hire you. To this end, it’s helpful to have a list of stories prepared that demonstrate a time you dealt with conflict, failed, disagreed with a supervisor, and any number of common interview questions.
Secondly, don’t take all the questions at surface value and be prepared for unexpected directions. I once went into an interview where I consistently brought up what I thought was a relevant volunteer experience, and they didn’t ask me any further questions on it. We did, however, spend a solid couple of minutes talking about scholarships because one of the interviewers had also won the same scholarship and felt like talking about their time in school. Unexpected? Yes, but wherever they take the interview, you follow and adapt.
Post-interview, it’s helpful to conduct a post-interview analysis as soon as possible. Try and reconstruct the interview: were there any exceptional bright spots, or any spots you could take away as a question types to prepare for in future interviews? The definition of insanity is sometimes said to be “Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Learn from each successful interview as well as the ones that could have gone better. At the same time, don’t take any interview “failure” personally. I remember being rejected for a job but told I was welcome to reapply in the future. I did that and was hired. I then discovered that in the first hiring process I went through, they were only hiring 2 people out of a group of 8, and that there were 3 people in that group who all had significantly more experience than I did as well as personal connections to the managers. You never know what goes on behind the hiring process, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t go as you planned.
Overall, interviews are something to take seriously, even if the whole experience can be unpleasant. I must admit that the “Why am I doing this?” thought has crossed my mind many times, but interviews are a fact of life, and getting better at them is an important skill. The skills developed from interviewing, the ability to pivot, and respond to questions are valuable to anyone.