How To Prepare for Job Interviews

October 2003


Randall Scasny

Little in my military service and experience prepared me for the variety, purpose or competitiveness of job interviews. I suspect many other veterans may feel the same way. But job interviews are at the heart of the hiring decision. So if you want to succeed, you must learn how to prepare for them.

Some of my job interviews over the past 16 years have been little more than bull sessions with the department's supervisors and workers.

I didn't feel I was being interviewed! In hindsight, I wasn't.

They had already made their decision to hire me and were using the interview to get to know me. (These were hard-to-fill positions so I didn't have much competition, Plus, for some of them, I had contacts or employee referrals.)

I've had other interviews that were not so easy. They were all morning affairs, beginning with a proficiency test (sometimes even a psychological test) and concluding four hours later with a panel of interviewers posing me questions about business strategy or group dynamics, that is, how I interact with my co-workers.

For these interviews, it didn't take me long to realize that I was being interviewed! I was being inspected under a microscope with each interviewer taking copious notes on yellow, legal pads.

These are the most competitive kind of interviews that require extensive preparation. (In my case, they were for positions I had had no contacts or referrals. I guessed at the time the companies had received hundreds of resumes so there were many qualified applicants vying for the job.)

So, where do you begin your preparation for a job interview? It's a four-step process:

  • Understand.
  • Prepare.
  • Perform.
  • Follow Up.

Understand. To prepare for an interview, you first must understand what are the employer's business needs.

This is where having contacts within the company show their value. Your contacts know what is going on within the company and can give you some context. This context will help you formulate answers to interview questions in terms of the employer's needs.

Several months ago, I had a reader email (in frustration) when I had written an article that mentioned the importance of job networking. He told me "Why should I bother to network? If I have the skills that match the job description in the ad, what more do I need?"

This is a good time to revisit this comment.

A job description in a job ad does indeed tell you what skills the job candidate needs to have to be considered for the position. But job ads rarely articulate an employer's needs.

For example, if a job candidate answers an ad for a computer network administrator, what is the employer really in need of?

Specifically, why has this position opened up at this time? Is it the result of new business that a new position was created to service the new growth?

Or, did the previous administrator quit? And, why? Or, was he or she fired? Or, finally, did they lay off an overqualified, overpaid administrator to hire someone who was competent yet commanded less money?

You have to get beyond the job description in an ad and begin "thinking like an owner" if you want to shine in an interview.

You may not have contacts to help you answer these questions. You may have to rely on industry experts to help you.

For example, I recently read a column by Carol Kleiman, a nationally syndicated columnist and author, who wrote about "how to do well" in job interviews.

In the article she quoted several career counselors who said employers are seeking to hire people who "think like an owner" and are committed, "stable-minded" employees.

These characteristics must be explicitly communicated in a job interview if a job-hunter hopes to win a job, say the experts.

This sounds like good advice. But is it the kind of advice that can help you understand what employers need?

I'll say, "Somewhere between yes and no."

When newspaper journalists write articles about job-hunting strategies, they usually source their information from experts. However, too often these experts, rather than give specific advice to job-hunters, repeat the needs (really, the frustrations) of their own sources--company hiring managers or human resource professionals.

When hiring managers tell the experts they are looking for employees who "think like an owner" and are committed, stable workers, what is really being said?

Are business owners complaining behind closed doors that their workers are self-centered and uncommitted? Well, I wouldn't go as far as that! But they are implying something to that effect. But is it valid criticism?

Are many employees are not focused their jobs? High levels of absenteeism and tardiness tend to back up this assertion.

Are many employees uncommitted? Turnover rates (job jumping) in private industry, especially in the technology industry, are high and usually cause an annoying disruption of business operations.

If you read between the lines, I think the experts are saying: While job skills are essential for being considered for a job, employers need workers with people skills, reliability, honesty, commitment, and a good work ethic. These are the factors that will get you hired.

Prepare. How do you prepare for a job interview? Review your resume, update it, if necessary, and print a few copies to take with you are common interview prep tasks.

Others may include, visiting the company's website to find out more information about its business. Notifying your list of references. Getting your interview suit pressed and cleaned.

Preparing answers to typical interview questions does not hurt, either!

If you are preparing for an interview in this manner, you are starting in the middle of the "job," not at the beginning.

Where should you begin?

Compliment yourself. (Yes, I am serious.)

By winning an interview, you have achieved something very important. The employer who has called you for an interview is essentially saying, "Look, I've waded through a lot of resumes and you look pretty darn good. I'm thinking about hiring you."

Your self-compliments can also include the rhetorical pat-on-the-head for your resume. It worked! If you had someone write it for you, call them up and say "Thanks."

Complimenting yourself is the first step you take in the mental preparation prior to an interview. The goal of your mental prep is to put you in good spirits.

It is quintessential that you go to the interview upbeat and really believe you are on top of the world and YOU WILL GET THE JOB.

I once attended a job-support group and listened to a speaker discuss job-hunting strategies. When he began talking about interviewing, he asked the group, "You only hire people you like, right? After all, who wants to work with someone all day long, month in and out, that they don't like!"

After the session, I reflected on his statement. When I was in the service, I worked with someone for four years whom I disliked. And the feeling was mutual. (But at every job I've had since my service days, people who didn't get along either quit, were fired or transferred.)

When it came to the hiring decision, however, I felt that I was hired because they liked me. And I liked them in return!

To get someone to like you in an interview, you must be in good spirits. Sure, you may feel tense or stressed out on the day of the interview, but that's natural. Interviewers know it is stressful and they will make you at ease, especially if they like you.

So, do anything to get yourself up. Go to a movie or rent one that makes you happy. (Personally, the movie The Blues Brothers with Dan Akroyd and John Belushi does the job for me.) Forget your diet and treat yourself to a banana split. Give your spouse some positive attention and he or she normally will return the favor!

After you have mentally prepared for the interview, you are ready to tackle the all important question: Why should they hire you?

This is the "thinking like an owner" advice the experts talk about. And you cannot go to an interview without knowing its answer.

Answering it satisfactorily means you can show your interviewer that by hiring you the company will improve its revenues, decrease its costs, improve its products and services or increase its customer satisfaction.

Before you can answer the question, you have to be well versed in the company's business. Now, it's website time. The Internet is great at finding information about the company and its business.

But don't stop there.

Do you know any old buddies or family members who know something about the company? If so, give them a call. Find out anything you can to demonstrate in the interview that you know their business and can answer "the important question" in terms of their business.

Are you finished preparing?

You will know when you have finished your preparation when you have formulated a list of questions for the interviewer.

If you are really engaged in the prep process, you will be excited, curious and fascinated by what you have discovered. Hence, you will want to know more.

This thirst for "more" will suggest questions to you. The questions you ask in an interview will normally impress the interviewer and differentiate yourself in a positive way from the rest of the job candidates. This simply means, they'll remember you, which is precisely what you want.

Perform. Job interviews are a lot like dress uniform inspections in the service. You have to look sharp and be there on time.

But unlike military inspections, a satisfactory interview performance requires more than just looking good and being timely.

The interviewer(s) need to get to know you quickly and determine if you can and want to do the job. The "want" is the important part of the equation.

Wanting to do the job is all about attitude. I remember a civilian friend who came back from a job interview dejected. I asked her what happened. She said the interview went well and she had great rapport with the interviewer until she was asked if she were willing to do some menial administrative job tasks. She didn't say no but she wasn't excited about the prospect, either.

She never got the job. Never was even called back.

The essence of a good performance is to give the interviewer first, a positive impression of you as a human being.

Next is for you to answer any question posed to you in terms of the company's needs and your ability to perform the required job tasks above expectation.

Finally, for you to close the interview with questions that suggest you are really interested in the company, the business and your fellow employees.

Avoid leaving the interview with questions about salary and benefits. These things will be addressed later. You want to leave them with the impression that you are thinking "like an owner" and are likeable co-worker.

Follow Up. People who are new to job-hunting generally are reluctant to follow up a job interview with a phone call or an email. The reason they give is "I don't want to bug the employer and ruin my chances."

If you have this idea, please put it out of your mind. Employers know that follow ups are a part of the job-hunting process. You will not ruin your chances if you follow up in a smart and professional manner.

Always make sure to follow up to the people who interview you. It's optional to follow up to the human resources rep or personnel manager. They will forward your letter to the interviewers anyway.

Make sure you ask for the business card of every interviewer. If they forgot to bring one with them, ask them for their email addresses. They know why!

Your follow up letter can be sent by email, snail mail or both. Do it within 48 hours of the interview.

Avoid the standard follow up letter that numerous job hunters copy from job-hunting handbooks or websites. These canned letters do little to woo the interviewers to your side. Most are smart enough to know where you got them from because they may have used the same one at one time or another!

The goal of the follow up letter is to let them know you care and you want the job. Hiring one candidate over another is many times a hairline difference. Widen the gap and lead them over to your side.

In the letter, you can review points you covered in an interview. What is better is to take one point you covered, develop it, demonstrate how you can meet their needs, and wrap up the letter with a friendly, human, likeable last paragraph.

If you don't get a phone call from them in a couple of weeks, give them a call. Busy people are busy. Most people will not mind the reminder. That's how I got my first job out of the service. I called them and a day later I got a job offer.

And you can too.

Best of luck in your job search.

All opinions, advice, statements or other information expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily express the opinions of or the publisher.

Copyright 2003 Randall Scasny. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed.