Three commonly overlooked job interview essentials
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
I sit on interview panels and I have taught job success skills for years, so I have some simple suggestions for anyone who is job hunting and lands an interview.
First of all, let me describe the prototypical process that leads up to the interview so that you know what is going on internally. This process is based on current best practices, however, there are still companies that hire based on personality or connection and just use the process to mask a pre-determined decision. There is nothing that can really help you get through that door (unless you are the "ringer"). However, assuming a reasonably well-thought-out process, what follows is a description of how a company selects interviewees and how the panel ranks those chosen, at least for the first round.
First, a company identifies the needs and skills and creates a position description that determines the content of the job announcement. Contemporaneously, someone (or more likely a team) creates a matrix that ties directly to the job announcement that ranks applicants objectively based on how the information in the cover letter and resume line up with the position description (cover letter and resume are a whole other post). Once applicants are ranked, the committee selects interviewees. Somewhere in this process, the selection committee and the hiring authority (the person who makes the final decision) come up with a list of questions that will dive deeper into your skills, experience, and qualifications, along with some guidance from the hiring authority about preferred answers, and probably a scale from say 1-5 that ranks answers against the preferred response. If you are on that interviewee list, you get a call and an appointment.
It goes without saying to dress appropriately, act appropriately, be on time, address people by name or honorific (e.g., Dr. Cooke, if that is how I address myself to you). But here are some actual suggestions about your performance that relate to how well you score on the interview questions themselves. Again, assuming this is an objective process, your selection should rest almost entirely on how well you score, and your hairstyle, color of shirt, Zoom background, etc., are probably not on that scoresheet. Not to say those things aren’t important. They are. But they alone won’t get you the job.
Also, let me point out the obvious: these suggestions will not get you a job for which you are not qualified. Nor will they get you a job for which someone else is better qualified. That is just out of your control. However, if you are the most qualified candidate, and the process is as objective as possible, these three simple tips will put you in the best position to land the position.
1. Be able to “pivot”
That word has taken on a negative connotation with regard to political dissembling and misdirection, but for lack of a better term, in interviewing, a pivot is a way of taking a question that might be on a specific subject and moving to answer it on your own terms. For instance, if an interviewer asks you to describe your experience coding in H5P, you could start by acknowledging that you don’t have any direct experience with H5P (which you would have looked up before the interview, assuming it was an essential skill) and then pivot to anything similar that you have learned, demonstrate that you learn quickly and have similar skills and that you will look forward to enjoying learning more about H5P.
2. Make your point, and don’t ramble on
Take a moment to organize your thoughts, and, as a corollary to this point, make sure you (a) understand the questions, and (b) address the salient points in the question. Sometimes your prompt may include multiple points. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification, and even to ask, “Did I answer the question completely? There were multiple parts and I want to make sure I addressed them all.” For instance, say the interviewer asks, “How have your education and experience prepared you for this position?” Answer succinctly, tying your education to the position, and then your experiences. It sounds simple enough, but interviewees tend to ramble and get lost and even forget the 2-part nature of the question. It’s okay to take notes as you are being prompted. It’s even okay to tell the interviewing team that you are taking notes so that you can be sure to answer completely. Questions may even have three or more parts. Make sure you address them all, but once you have hit the salient points, move on. In speaking, as in writing, use just the number of words it takes to get the point across, and no more. So, I should move on.
3. Be specific
Even if an interviewer does not ask a question in terms of “tell us about a time” or “give an example”, couch your responses in specific terms by using solid, relevant examples. However, do your very best to use different examples for each question. Also, be specific within your examples. Rather than say, “In my prior job…”, identify the employer, your job duties and title, and how you solved a problem or accomplished something, tying that in as precisely as possible to the question. A common “question” you can expect would be something like, “Tell us how you deal with difficult co-workers.” I realize this is a poorly worded question, and it might prompt you to wax philosophical about communication and tolerance and organizational theory, but don’t fall into that trap. Try to hear the prompt as, “Tell us about a time you had to deal with a difficult co-worker and explain how you solved the problem.” You could say something like, “When I worked for IBM in customer accounts, my supervisor’s bonus was based on completed calls, forcing her to push us to close our accounts as quickly and efficiently as possible. There was a lot of friction between management and line workers because of that, and we were evaluated based on customer satisfaction, so I organized a series of meetings with my boss and we worked out a way to balance those two seemingly incompatible goals by…” You get the idea.
Before you even go in for the interview, try to guess what the questions might be. Study the job announcement carefully and get into the mind of the hiring authority. Don’t take this preparation lightly. Clear communication is a product of clear thinking, and what you are trying to do is score as high as you can on the question matrix. Doing your best means that if you don’t get the job, it had nothing to do with you. Also, the more you do this, the better you get, so any job you don’t land pays off by preparing you for the “right job” - the one where you feel challenged, happy, and appreciated for exactly who you are.