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An Advanced Course in Interviewing

By Marty Nemko

Despite the tough job market, you’ve managed to land an interview. Now what?

Before the Interview

Do your homework. Of course check the organization’s website and google it both using’s web search and its “groups” search. The latter searches online discussion groups—a source of inside information. Ask the administrative assistant who scheduled your interview if there’s anything you might read to get a better sense of the job or the organization.

Prepare a one-minute answer to “Tell us about yourself.” That’s not the time to talk about how much you love fly fishing. Focus on the parts of yourself most relevant to the job.

Prepare three PAR stories: a problem you faced at work, how you approached it, and its positive resolution. A PAR story should be 30-60 seconds long.

As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So practice those crucial first few seconds with a friend. Try different smiles—which one is most appealing? Practice that one until you can reproduce it easily. Establish eye contact—notice the color of your interviewer’s eyes. Extend your hand and give a firm handshake, saying in a confident tone, “Hi . I’m (insert your name.)”

Prepare a few questions to ask. Don’t ask about salary or vacation. Ask about aspects of the job, the organization, and/or its products and services. For example, what sorts of people fit best into your workplace's culture?

If you’re not sure what to wear, phone the administrative assistant and ask: “I don’t want to be over- or underdressed. What would you recommend I wear to the interview?”

During the Interview

Unless it’s a scripted interview, early on, ask one or both of these questions: “After the first month, what would you expect I would have accomplished?” and “To succeed in this job, what ends up being most important?”

Sometimes the employer isn’t certain about the duties of the position. That allows you to try to mold the job in your own image. Ask questions about the organization’s needs and try to craft a job description that uses your strengths to meet their needs. If you can pull off this difficult feat, you may well lock up the job for yourself.

Keep your answers brief: under a minute is usually best. No one likes a blowhard. Don’t stare, but periodically, for a few seconds, look the interviewer(s) in the eye.

Avoid stuffy job-seeker language. Yes, be earnest enough that the employer believes you’re serious about the job. But being (or at least appearing) relaxed, even playful can build chemistry.

Early on, volunteer a weakness that could be relevant to the job. If you have a weakness that will likely make you fail on the job, it’s better for you and for the employer to know that upfront. Also, your candor establishes you as a person of integrity, a refreshing change from most interviewees who are hell bent on snowing the employer.

For example, if I were applying for jobs, I’d say, “I’m not much of a team player. Give me something to do and it will get done, but when I have to work on a team, I find myself getting impatient.” If I got a job requiring a team player, I’d be miserable and so would the employer. An interview is like a first date: you’re both trying to figure out if you’d be happy with each other.

If asked about salary, try responding with, “It depends on the nature of the position. What salary range have you budgeted for the position?” If forced to give an answer, respond with a range that starts with a number slightly above the minimum you’d accept and ends with a number that’s 15% higher than that. So, for example, if the lowest you’d accept was $60,000, say, “Low 60s to low 70s depending on the nature of the position.”

At the end of the interview, if you think it went well and still want the position, ask, “I think I can really do a good job for you. What do you think?” That gives the interviewer an opportunity to raise any objections, which you can then, if possible, counter.

After the Interview

In your thank-you note, remind the interviewer(s) of things he or she liked. For example, “I am glad you appreciated my experience in coordinating a direct-mail campaign.” Also patch up any flubs. For example, “You had asked me about e-mail campaigns. On reflection (Insert improved answer.)” End by saying something like, “I’m enthusiastic about the position and look forward to working with you.”

You might also write a thank-you note to the administrative assistant for any help you received. Not only is it a nice gesture, you’d be surprised how often admins have input into who gets hired.

Considering including one or more supplementary items, for example,

  • a revised job description that you think better meet the organization' needs and match your strengths:
  • a one-to-two page bullet-rich white paper that would impress the employer. For example, if you're applying for a job marketing mobile apps, you might write, "Seven Keys to Marketing Mobile Apps in 2013."
  • a business plan for yourself. For example, if you're a salesperson, what you'd do and who you'd contact in the first 30 days.

If you don’t get the job, don’t call to ask why. It will only make the employer defensive. Call to say, “I would have loved to work for you and want to let you know that if something else comes up, I’d welcome the opportunity to interview for it.”

Class dismissed.

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