In 1986, as I prepared for life beyond graduate school, I read an article in the newspaper about plans for the San Jose Technology Museum. It sounded like a fascinating place to work and, after endless calls, I managed to get an interview. I arrived for the lunch meeting, sat down and opened my menu. But, before we’d even ordered, my prospective boss said, “I want to tell you in advance that you’re not a good match for this organization. You’re just too pushy.” She was obviously referring to all the unanswered messages I had left in an attempt to reach her. I was so disappointed, and felt tears welling up in my eyes. I had to think fast to pull out of this tailspin… I sat back, took a deep breath, and apologized. I also told her I appreciated the feedback. Most people, I said, would call me high energy and enthusiastic. I told her it was helpful to know I had inadvertently misrepresented myself. Remarkably, the tension melted, we had a great conversation, and I walked away with a job offer!
Flash forward a few years, and I now find myself in a position of interviewing young people quite frequently. This past week, along with several colleagues, I interviewed 39 candidates for a selective program at Stanford. Being on the other side of the table provides fascinating insights about interviews. Below are a handful of tips that might not be obvious. I wish someone had shared these with me when I was in my 20’s.
1) An interview is a conversation… A great interview should be a stimulating conversation. If the interviewer asks you a question, give a relatively short answer. I promise, they will ask for more information if they want it. But, if you keep talking and talking and talking, you will lose your audience, and the job. In fact, studies show that interviewers are more likely to have a positive response to candidates when the interviewer talks MORE than the candidate.
2) Pay attention to your verbal tics… If you want a professional job, then talk like a professional. Stop sprinkling your speech with, “Like” and “Ya Know.” When you see me making tiny hash marks on your resume, it is likely that I am counting the number of times you are saying, “like.” This is the easiest way to be eliminated as a potential candidate.
3) Speak with confidence… Don’t preface everything you say with “I think…” It weakens your message considerably. For example, if asked, “What role do you usually play on a team?” don’t say, “I think that I am a leader.” Instead, say, “I am a leader.” Are you a leader, or do you just “think” you are? The difference is important.
4) 90 seconds is all it takes… Within about a minute and a half your interviewer has made an assessment of you. If, after this short time, he or she has decided that you are a good candidate, then everything you say afterward will be viewed through that lens. However, if you haven’t made a positive first impression, it is likely downhill from there. So, make sure to dress appropriately, sit up straight, make eye contact, smile, and take that gum out of your mouth. All these things make a huge difference.
5) Find a hook… You might think that the hobbies and special skills you put on the bottom of your resume are just fluff. Really, they are conversation starters. Interviewers often begin by asking you about the things you do outside of work, such as your time spent living abroad, your collection of petrified wood, or your black belt in karate. More often then not, they will find a common interest, a shared experience, or something they want to learn. Don’t miss this opportunity to connect with your interviewer.
6) Be willing to learn… As alluded to above, you should always be ready to learn during an interview. Jeannie Kahwajy, an expert on organizational behavior, performed research that demonstrates that candidates who are willing to learn can turn negative interviews around. Jeannie ran experiments involving mock interviews. A recruiter was primed to have a negative bias toward a candidate. Of the three groups of candidates, one was instructed to prove they should get the job; one was told to learn from the interaction; and the final group, the control, was given no specific instructions. She found that the recruiter’s negative bias was reinforced for the control group and the group that tried to prove they should get the job. However, ALL of the candidates who set out to learn from the interaction reversed the recruiter’s negative bias and were offered a job.
7) It is all subjective... With all that said, the process is still incredibly subjective. During the interviews we ran this week, each candidate met with two pairs of interviewers. At the end of each day we compared notes on the candidates we met that day. In a remarkable number of cases, our opinions were quite different. Quite often one pair of interviewers loved a particular candidate and the other pair was not impressed at all. This happens so frequently that we aren’t surprised any more. So, keep in mind that a bad interview is just that, and gear up for the next one.
No matter how an interview goes, it is not over until you write a thank you note. It should be a short email sent within 24 hours of the interview. This is an important opportunity to reinforce your interest in the job. If I don’t receive a thank you note from you, I assume that you don’t want the job.
Portions of this article are excerpts from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, by Tina Seelig, published by HarperCollins in 2006.