The Secret to a Successful Job Interview

by Robin Wagner
Friday, December 8, 2000

No matter what avenue you pursue in the quest for a meaningful and rewarding job, sooner or later your success will depend entirely on your performance in a job interview. And by the time you get to the job interview, your experience and expertise will take a back seat to the only factor that truly matters at this stage of the game: your preparation.

This is equally true for academic and nonacademic job interviews, but the advice I offer in this column refers to jobs outside of higher education. (Academic job interviewing is a very different animal, and I recommend reviewing information and guidance found elsewhere on this Web site. Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick's The Academic Job Search Handbook is an excellent source of advice as well.)

The job interview gives employers the chance to find out more about you than just the experience listed on your rsume. An employer will use an interview to assess such factors as your "fit" with the corporate culture, your personal communication and style, and your judgment. In other words, in the interview, specific qualifications for the job matter far less than the candidate's personal impact. This can put graduate students in an awkward position, since they often have had little exposure to communication styles outside academe. That's why advanced preparation can arm a job candidate with compelling answers and the ability to communicate clearly and effectively with the interviewer.

You need to prepare for an interview in two ways: physically and intellectually. Physical preparation includes the logistics of the interview (when, where, who), what to bring with you, and what to wear. Intellectual preparation includes researching the company, anticipating lines of questioning, thinking through answers, and practicing your responses.

Well before you receive the coveted invite to an interview, you should ensure that you have proper attire on hand and ready to wear on an hour's notice (it is indeed possible to be invited for an interview the same day). Even in this era of business-casual workplaces, it is usually best to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to dressing for an interview -- go with the suit. If the work environment in which you're interviewing is extremely informal and wearing a suit seems particularly awkward, then you may wish to dress more casually for second-round interviews.

Other practical elements: Remember to bring a copy of your resume with you, along with a pad of paper and a pen. Unless you are interviewing for a creative position where a portfolio of design work has been requested, you should not usually plan to bring anything else. You will want to be prompt, but not too early -- you don't want to appear overly eager. Finally, make sure to ask for business cards from anyone who interviews you so that you can send thank-you notes. If you can't get business cards, at least try to learn the correct spellings of their names.

The intellectual preparation for an interview is far less straightforward than the logistics. Yet, making the effort can truly mean the difference between landing the job or walking away empty-handed. Research is the backbone of this preparation. Employ your well-honed research skills to learn as much as you can about the industry, the company, and the specific role for which you are being considered. It will be your responsibility to learn what the employer needs and relate your skills, interests, and experiences in a way that meets those needs.

At every point in an interview, the employer is thinking about not just the roles and functions of the specific job for which you may be hired, but also for your potential to be promoted, your compatibility with other members of the work team, and your suitability as a representative of the company. To that end, not only is it important to understand the qualifications for the specific job, but also to craft your responses in a way that highlights your people skills and general approaches to problem-solving.

Beyond the initial task of researching the company, hardly anything about a job interview comes easily to most Ph.D.'s. In an academic environment, especially from a graduate student's perspective, modesty and understatement are typical modes of discourse. Inside the ivory tower, usually it is best to have your talents recognized by others (thus the whole culture of recommendation letters) and talk about yourself in more objective tones. Yet in a job interview (even in an academic interview), you need to be your strongest advocate. Modesty and humility are better off checked at the door. I have often suggested to graduate students that they pretend to be their own best friend just for the sake of interviewing effectively -- how would your best friend or biggest admirer describe your qualities? That's how you'll need to approach the interview.

One advantage you may have in the interview is your experience leading classroom discussions. Remember to listen to the interviewer carefully, just the way you would listen to a student's question in a seminar, to make sure that your response actually addresses the interviewer's underlying concern.

So how can you serve as a compelling advocate for yourself and yet not come across as an overeducated snob who would never fit in the work team environment of company X? The secret comes in the form of preparing "success stories" to serve as responses to interviewers' questions. A success story is a reasonably detailed description of an experience you have had. However you define the "success" of the story, you and your actions and ideas should play the central role. Preparing in advance about five different success stories will allow you to speak more confidently about your experiences and strengths. You'll want to make sure that you have stories that address a variety of experiences, including even extracurricular experiences where you may have had a chance to demonstrate leadership or creativity. Your work preparing success stories will pay off when you get to the interview and you're asked a typical question. Here's an example:

Interview question: Can you give me an example of a challenging situation you've faced?

Prepared answer: Certainly. Three years ago I was elected to represent the classics department on the graduate-student council. Usually this is not a huge responsibility -- you go to monthly meetings and help try to win some social funds for a department party. Well, that year the rights of graduate teaching fellows emerged as an issue, and all of a sudden the graduate student council became the central focus of a debate on unionization. Everywhere I went classmates and professors were cornering me to discuss the issue and see where I stood. There was a lot of pressure. I went to the department chairman and suggested the department host a town meeting for all of the graduate students to discuss the issue. This would allow me to better understand my constituents' feelings on the matter and make sure everyone had a chance to express their views. The chairman was reluctant to add fuel to the flames, but I convinced him that it would be far better to approach this openly than to allow the informal caucusing to persist. After the session many classmates expressed their appreciation for having a formal forum to discuss this issue. We now host town meetings each semester in the department to air student concerns. The unionization issue has still not been resolved on the campus, but the classics department has not suffered nearly as much from the rancor and discontent being displayed elsewhere on campus.

This answer is effective for a number of reasons. First of all, open questions like the one above can leave an unprepared candidate grasping for a good example. Here the candidate was able to launch quickly into an answer without appearing at all flustered. The story was also effective because it demonstrated with sufficient detail that the candidate is well-respected, comfortable dealing with peers and supervisors alike, and cares about fostering an open and democratic approach to communication. These are all traits that translate positively to the workplace. Additionally, the candidate was able to show a long-term effect of her actions. Finally, note that the interview question's use of "challenging" could have prompted a response that emphasized a negative event that had no positive resolution. The well-prepared candidate sidesteps this trick entirely to present a very positive story. The story would have been just as effective as a response to a direct question about organizational or communication skills.

What matters is not the size of the success in the success story, but rather the point you make with it. Being a graduate-student council representative is not an extraordinary accomplishment, yet this story paints a memorable picture of the candidate as someone who will probably work well in a team, handle pressure well, and be able to express her ideas persuasively. And it also does not over-inflate the level of responsibility or accomplishment.

Once you have identified some success stories to use in interviews, think about the different ways in which you might use them -- to talk about a challenge or setback you faced, to highlight an important accomplishment, or to provide details on a specific experience listed on your resume, for instance. And then practice telling your stories out loud -- to a mirror, to your friends, and to your family.

There are many sources of information available for help with a job search, and especially with the interview process. One of my favorite books for graduate students is Martin Yate's Knock 'Em Dead (Adams Media, 2000). His advice on interviewing includes all sorts of questions and the strategies for addressing interviewers' concerns. Another great place to turn for advice on interviewing, as well as the whole job search, is Richard Nelson Bolles' What Color is your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press, 2000). Both books are available in libraries and at most bookshops.

Robin Wagner is associate director for graduate services in the career and placement-services office of the University of Chicago.