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The Most Effective Way to Prepare for a Job Interview

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Summary: Don't memorize your answers. Rather, memorize the chords, and you'll be able to improvise good answers. Practice your major statements once or twice—so that you know you can do it—and leave it at that.

Do you know the difference between an information interview and a job interview? Read more to find out.

Easier Than You Think

Preparing for a first-round interview, if done efficiently, is not a big job. The key to efficiency is knowing where to look. Don't waste your time, as so many do, digging up information that will be of no use to you during the interview. A read-everything-I-can-get-my-hands-on approach will jumble your head with so much useless data that you'll probably forget the job description.

The most effective methods of preparation involve people as the primary resource. Information interviews, though they may require a little extra work to set up, give you almost everything you need to know in half an hour's time. Company-sponsored information sessions, which you should think of as mandatory, spoon-feed you details about the job that you may not be able to find anywhere else. Both of these sources also provide you with the opportunity to make some friends in high places.

When doing your research, think about how you are going to use the information you collect. Nine times out of ten, the information comes in handy in only two places: answering questions intended to test your interest in the job and asking relevant questions at the end of the interview. Once you feel truly prepared to handle those two tasks, you can probably stop your research.

Information Interviewing

An incredible resource that most college seniors and many recent graduates tend to neglect is the information interview. If you're creative and intelligent in how you seek and use them, information interviews can both give you the edge in your job interviews and provide access to corporations that are otherwise impenetrable.

Information interviews are by far the most helpful source of information for whatever industry you hope to enter. Not only do they give you the basic facts that you need in order to sound knowledgeable about the profession; they also relate these facts orally, in the way that people ordinarily discuss them. After one or two information interviews, you will have already determined what is considered important by people in the industry, as well as how to articulate it. By the time the real interviews come along, your reviewers will think that you've already spent a year in the industry.

Information interviews are also useful in overcoming the fits of nervousness that may accompany your first interview situations. Since no one is drilling you with questions, you can relax and get accustomed to the corporate environment at a calmer pace. They also give you a chance to smooth out the rough edges before the really important interviewing starts. But beware: If you hope to eventually land a job at the same firm, a faux pas during an information interview can be just as deadly as during the real thing. While it is not the purpose of the interview, you are constantly being judged.

Happily, this works both ways, and that's the main beauty of an information interview. If the person with whom you're talking takes a liking to you, you could very well end up with an interview at the same firm. Professionals who conduct information interviews are often of fairly senior rank; if you impress them, there's a lot they can do about it. Always bring your resume along to these meetings. Don't take it out of your folder—except under the pretense of seeking advice—but be ready to leave it with an interviewer who takes the bait. Because they offer you an alternative route to the pile-per-school resume contest, information interviews are a particularly attractive alternative for walk-on candidates.

Even if you believe that you can conduct a successful job search simply by using your campus placement office (probably not a good idea), you will quickly find that a number of attractive firms do not visit your campus. You can try to access these firms through a resume and cover letter, but first, try to get an information interview. There will be plenty of time to throw yourself into the resume pile later if the need still exists.

Of course, getting an information interview isn't always easy.

Start by networking with people you know. If you have no connections at all, it is best to approach the firm through something other than its standard hiring function. Contact the company through its public relations or community affairs division, if one exists, and introduce yourself as someone studying the industry. If you're still in school, make sure that's obvious. At no time should you bring up your desire to work for the firm, because the moment you are declared a "candidate" you lose any advantage you had over the competition.

Some firms simply do not conduct information interviews. However, don't give up until you're certain that this is the case. Even if it's just for the information, you should have at least one information interview in each industry that you are considering, before the real interviews start. If you can't get one, try to speak on the phone to someone you know in the field—a recent graduate, for example. He may not be able to pull any strings for you, but he can definitely give you some valuable insight into the profession.

Information Sessions

For both seniors and recent graduates, the information sessions that many firms hold on campus provide an excellent opportunity to get a head start in acquiring knowledge and making contacts.

As far as knowledge is concerned, attending the information session is not as much of an advantage as missing it is a distinct disadvantage. Most candidates who interview will have attended the information session; if you do not, you will be conspicuous in two ways. First, you will seem less interested in the position. Many interviewers will ask, or discern, whether or not you attended their presentation. If you did not, and don't have a good excuse, you can only come off as uninterested or disorganized. (If you are a recent graduate and were still able to make it to the information session, they will be quite impressed.)

Second, you will be noticeably less prepared, both in terms of your understanding of the job and your knowledge of how to impress the interviewer. Quite a few presentations include descriptions of the firm's ideal candidate, and one or two companies even hand out a list of desired qualities. If information is power, ignorance of the idiosyncrasies of the employer's criteria can make you a weaker candidate.

Making contacts at information sessions is an art in itself. Most people don't try, and some try too hard, but few get it right. These contacts can be incredibly valuable: Those people giving campus presentations are often heavily involved in the interviewing process, and many are on the actual decision-making committees. At the time of the presentation, these people are most concerned about the year's harvest and will be at their warmest when it comes to appreciating your attention. Furthermore, since it is early in the season, they are not yet sick of the whole recruiting scene and will view your interest with less jaded eyes.

Friends are made one-on-one, not in crowds, so the time to ask your questions is after the session when everyone is mingling about. Questions asked during the group Q & A period rarely make the questioner look good. Leave those to somebody else, unless the Q & A period consists of an embarrassing silence—you'll be considered a hero for breaking the ice.

A question asked in a group, as most people seem to forget, should apply to practically everyone in the group. It should also address a subject that was at least briefly mentioned during the presentation. Avoid self-serving, show-off, nerdy questions such as, "Your P/E Rado went up eight percentage points this year. Would you credit this to marketing or R & D?" (And if you were actually considering that type of question, may I suggest graduate school?) Q& A questions should be asked in a casual, relaxed voice. They should not sound as if they were prepared beforehand.

Although it may seem otherwise, the presentation team is visiting your school to talk about jobs, not about their firm, and this distinction applies equally to the questions you ask one-on-one after the session. Be interested in the industry as a place to work and about the mechanics of the specific job they are pushing. If anyone on the presentation team holds the job you are seeking, ask him to describe some of his experiences. Show an interest in a specific sector of the industry (one of the firm's product groups, for example), and if you are lucky they will offer to send you some information on it. This is the perfect in.

As in an information interview, one mention of your desire for a job or a job interview will blow your cover. To bring your resume is also a grave mistake. One final point: As helpful as these contacts can be, never resort to pushiness to get a recruiter's ear. Your ultimate goal here is to make an important friend or two, so a rushed or unpleasant conversation is worse than none at all.

Written Material

Your research of written material can be extremely quick. To be adequately informed you need only read the company's latest annual report, along with one general review such as The Value Line (available in most libraries). In the annual report, concern yourself only with text; you are not supposed to understand the financial statements.

Otherwise, you are responsible only for the information that the company sends you personally or provides at your career center library. If you have a campus interview scheduled with a firm that has neglected to provide the library with any written material about the job, there is nothing wrong with calling up the person who granted you the interview and asking if there is any information that he could send you. Offer to place a folder in the library for him. (If he says no, apologize for bothering him and tell him you'll do some more research on your own.)

If you have a walk-on interview scheduled, it is more than acceptable to call the firm and ask for some preparatory information. If you can't get in touch with your resume-reviewer, you should always be able to get the public relations department to send you something general. If you don't have access to a business library, public relations will also be able to email you an annual report.

You should also be aware of whether the company has been in the news lately. The only newspaper that everyone in business seems to care about is the Wall Street Journal, so that's all you need to read. Starting a few weeks before your interviews, skim it daily. While you don't want to bring it up during the interview, you should certainly be aware of any serious problems plaguing your prospective employer.

Before reading anything else, ask yourself if it is likely to contain information that you can actually put to use during the interview.

Performance Preparation

This is the side of interview preparation that most novice candidates neglect. Have you ever given a thirty-minute oral report with no index cards? That's what an interview is, yet many candidates think that research without rehearsal is enough. By the time the interview comes around, you want to have a good idea of what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Not only should you have some prepared answers and questions (as discussed later), but you should be ready to state them articulately and convincingly.

But don't think of your interview as a recital; it's more like a jazz performance. Don't memorize your answers. Rather, memorize the chords, and you'll be able to improvise good answers. Practice your major statements once or twice—so that you know you can do it—and leave it at that.

I avoided interview workshops as a senior, but I now believe that they are a good idea. If your school provides them, go to one. Who knows, you may have some horrible subconscious twitch that only shows itself in interview situations. Ask the instructor if you have any problems.

Finally, prepare yourself emotionally. Visualize yourself having successful interviews. The best part of being prepared is feeling prepared, and the work that you have done should allow you to approach your interviews feeling confident and relaxed.

See the following articles for more information:
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