Originally published in The Fauquier Times Democrat, May 2009

The job interview is the most important step of your future career. It usually starts with a phone interview. If you’re lucky, an appointment for an in-person interview follows. A request for references may ensue. A decision may be made at this point, or a second interview may be requested. Your composure and attention to your personal brand must be consistent throughout the entire process.

How to Prepare for Your Interview

Prepare for the phone interview exactly as you would for an on-site interview. Review your resume, the job description, and your responses to basic interview questions. Go to the company’s website and research their latest accomplishments. Review competitor’s websites to gain additional insight on industry products and services. Especially view the “news” section on a firm’s website since it typically has the most current information.

Be prepared to discuss why you left each previous position. The response to this question is quite revealing and shows your professionalism, motivation, tolerance, and commitment to growth, among other traits. Do not ever speak poorly of a past employer. Even if it was a terrible experience, phrase your response diplomatically. For example, “I felt a bit limited in the growth opportunities and wanted to explore some new options.”

Be able to provide examples of situations in which you demonstrated specific skills and abilities. For example, “as a supervisor at ABC Corp, I managed 10 computer technicians and was responsible for the successful repair of over 500 personal computers.” Entry-level professionals should use examples from school projects, internships, sports, volunteer work, part-time jobs, membership groups, and other areas to demonstrate competence. (See www.careerbuilder.com and other job resources for lists of common interview questions).

If you don’t have experience in a certain area, say so, but also find relevant experience you can share, e.g., “I don’t have direct experience in xx, however I did do yy which uses similar skills, and I’m a fast learner.” Let the manager know that you are willing to learn whatever is necessary to do the job.

Expect to receive questions tailored to your specific work area, e.g., accounting, sales, engineering, automotive, etc. Depending on the position, you may be asked to take a skills test, e.g., a typing test, a math test, write computer code, or edit a short technical document. If the employer requests writing samples or an art portfolio, be ready to bring your best work.

During the phone interview, speak clearly and confidently. Listen carefully to the questions and provide thorough responses. Avoid getting too excited and talking too quickly. At the end of the phone interview, thank the interviewer and ask what the timeline is for on-site interviews.

During the first on-site interview you will be asked to complete an application. Bring at least three copies of your cover letter and resume and list of references. Use your resume to help complete the application. You should also bring copies of educational transcripts (as necessary) and a pad of paper and pen for notetaking.

If you will be meeting with more than one individual, some companies will prepare an agenda listing the names and times of each meeting. Other organizations will move you informally from one person to the next as each interview concludes. Be flexible and friendly. Interviewing can be grueling, but you must be as pleasant and enthusiastic with the last person as with the first. I’ve had instances in which a candidate came in to interview with two staff persons and was so impressive that we kept him to meet with four more professionals. We hired that one. I’ve also had instances in which a candidate was scheduled to meet with five staff persons and only met with three; this candidate was dismissed early.

Upon meeting your interviewer, stand up, look him/her in the eye, smile, offer your hand, and introduce yourself. Then take a deep breath and follow the interviewer’s lead. This can be tricky. Some people are excellent interviewers and others are quite bad. The key to interviewing is listening, hearing and responding to what the interviewer asks.

Watch the energy level and tempo of the interviewer’s speech pattern. Try to match this level with your own speech cadence. For example, if you tend to be a bit high energy and speak quickly and loudly with great passion and you meet with a laid-back soft-spoken manager, tone it down a notch! This is not to say to become someone else, just be sensitive to the dynamic. Speak a bit more slowly and deliberately but also pepper your responses with enthusiasm and demonstrated examples of your prowess. The same applies for the opposite scenario; if you are quiet and speak slowly and thoughtfully and you encounter a fast-talking, fast-thinking, topic-jumping interviewer, step it up a notch to better match this style. If you do not, you may appear uninterested, boring, and not up to the task. You can still be your quiet self at heart, just pick up the pace a bit and be sure to answer the questions directly.

When responding to questions, do not wander off to some well-rehearsed but irrelevant response. You should be genuine and honest while putting your skills in the best light. In articulating responses, avoid filler words – “um,” “like,” “you know” –these words mean nothing and distract from your message.

Always bring a list of questions to each interview. Aside from the standard questions regarding daily responsibilities, also consider questions such as, “what do you like most about working here?” And, “what do you see as the firm’s biggest challenges?”

Sometimes poor interviewers will talk for the entire allocated time without asking you anything and then at the last minute ask “do you have any questions?” or “so how do you think you’d do here?” This puts incredible pressure on you to respond eloquently with limited time. My feedback from those types of interviewers is typically, “I didn’t really get a sense of him/her, he/she didn’t say anything in the interview.” Very unfair. In these situations, you have to work to find little spaces in the monologue where you can politely interject with a question or comment. This usually serves to get the interviewer back on track and more focused and engaged on you and your qualifications. If you are successful, the feedback from this same interviewer can quickly become very positive.

Make sure to get the business card of each person you meet and keep track of all interviews and contacts. Thank each person and ask the manager when the company expects to make a decision. Also ask the manager to identify who would be contacting you. This person is your point of contact for follow-up. Finally, within one day of the interview, use the business cards to send a thank-you email to all people you met. Aside from professional courtesy, a note of thanks is just one more way to differentiate you from all the other applicants. Happy interviewing!