What Should You Bring to Your Interview

Yourself, on time which is no more than 15 minutes early.   I’ve had people arrive for an interview an hour early.  I’m assuming they’re thinking, “what’s the harm in being early,”  or “the earlier the better.”  I’m thinking, “why is this crazy person here an hour early?”  The truth of the matter is that I have blocked off a certain amount of time to interview you.  Arriving early kind of forces me to rearrange my schedule to accommodate you which changes up my whole day and quite frankly makes me grumpy.  My first impression of you might not be good.   It’s always better to be early than late but if you find yourself extremely early, walk around the block. Go to a Starbucks and calm yourself down.  Do not bumrush your interviewer because they are not ready for you.

Copies of your resume and cover letter.  When I asked an interviewee for their resume, they replied, “don’t you already have it?”  Sometimes interviewers ask to see if you’re prepared, sometimes it’s because they honestly can’t find it.  Other times a new person might come into the room to jump in on the interview that hasn’t seen your resume.  Regardless of the reason, you should have copies just in case and refrain from providing a smart answer when questioned.

A pen.  It seems trivial but you should always have a pen.  Sometimes we’ll give you an application without a pen to see if you’re prepared.  Sometimes we might be out of pens.   You should have pen at all times because you never know when you’ll have to take notes.  It’s always helpful right after the interview to go someplace and take notes so that you’ll know what information to add to your thank you letter.  A pen helps when doing this.

A printed list of professional references.  This has two parts. First, you should have at least three professional references.  What is a professional reference?  Preferably someone has worked with you, managed you, and can attest to your professional demeanor and work ethic.  Some employers don’t mind peer references but for the most part, they want to talk to someone that has managed you in some capacity and can tell them how well you performed your job duties.  The second part is the actual printed list.  We’ve all been there.  You’re filling out the application, get to the reference part then pull out your cell phone to try to find numbers and email addresses.  Do yourself a favor and compile this info beforehand.  (Make sure you’ve already contacted these people to let them know that you’re listing them as a reference).

Questions for your interviewer.  These shouldn’t be questions with answers that can be readily found via searching on their website. Try to focus on questions related to the culture/environment of the company, goals and expectations for the candidate that they hire, upward progression within the organization, etc.  Interviewers like to know that you are engaged and most importantly interested in their company and the work that you could potentially be doing so ask them about it.

A smile.  It sounds corny but it’s extremely important.  Sometimes I’ll interview someone and they are so nervous that they don’t smile.  Not smiling and being short with answers makes them come off as extremely cold.  I don’t want to work with a cold person.

Why did you leave your last position?

It’s safe to say that a good chunk of folks looking for work are doing so because their current work conditions are less than stellar.  If you’re lucky enough to interview, you will most likely be asked why you’re leaving your current position (or why you left your most recent position).  As comfortable as you may be in that interview chair and as nice as the employer might seem, maintain composure and provide a response that won’t have them thinking: will this candidate say this about my org when they leave?

Sometimes your interview is going really well.  You and the interviewer are talking about favorite pastimes and sports teams.  You may feel tempted to answer the question honestly especially if they insinuate a “difficult” or “colorful” work environment at your previous place of employment.  Don’t do it.  At some point down the line you will have an opportunity to divulge every dirty secret of the sweat shop that you called work but that point is not during your interview.  Below are some reasons decoded for use during the interview.

“I was sick of being someone’s personal bitch” – “I’m looking for a position that includes more supervisory/managerial duties ” or “There was very little upward mobility”  (It’s good to follow up with different examples of how you tried to advance).

“They had me working crazy hours all of the time” –  “I didn’t feel like there was an emphasis on work-life balance” (Be careful with this one.  You don’t want to come off as lazy but you do want to let them know that you value this balance because it enables you to do your worker smarter and better).

“I just didn’t want to work there anymore” –  “I exhausted my opportunities for personal and professional growth” (Cite examples).

“I didn’t like my supervisor.” –  “I’m interested in pursuing different positions that allow for more creativity and/or responsibility and/or whatever aspect of the new job that interests you.

You get the point.

Refrain from citing a laundry list of everything that you hated about your past or previous job.  When you think of what you’ll say when asked this questions think about whether or not your answer would be viewed negatively.  Are you talking about a specific person that made your job difficult or a specific aspect of your job that you just didn’t like?  If so, then STOP!  In answering this question you want to give them a glimpse of what interests you and what you’re looking for a in a position/work environment.

Staying Motivated During Your Job Search

Staying motivated during your job search is probably one of the most difficult things to do.  Sending out countless resumes without any response (or very little response) can really take a toll on you and make you start to doubt yourself and your abilities.

1. Daily affirmation – It may sound a little corny but I used to start my day off with a reminder of an accomplishment I achieved or an area where I excelled.  Sometimes I needed that reminder so as not to fall in the slump of self-doubt.  Sometimes you may need a quote to get you going.  Either look for your own inspirational saying or go to a site like this that does it for you http://www.louisehay.com/affirmations/.

2. Keep a work schedule.  Initially when you’re out of work you can easily fall into the slump of staying up late and sleeping in.  At first it kind of feels like a vacation but after a few weeks the days start to blend together and you just start feeling down. Don’t fall into this trap.  Keep a work schedule.  Wake up before 9am and go to bed at a decent hour.

3. Pick up a hobby (an inexpensive one) and a library card.  Remember when you were slaving away working 60 hours a week and didn’t have time to knit or where too tired to read that book?  Do it now!  If you don’t have a library card, get one (it’s free).

4. Work your networks.  If you graduated from college or grad school there are probably free listserves and alumni groups in your area.  Talk to your friends!  Do not be afraid to tell them what you’re looking for.  You never know who they might now or what positions may be available.

5. Check out free (or low cost)  webinars, workshops, and events in your field of interest.  These events are a great opportunity to remain aware of new developments in your field and can also serve as gap fillers if it’s been a while since you’ve been employed.  Employers understand that sometimes it takes a while to find something but they want to know what you’ve done during that off time that relates to what you’re interested in.

6. Volunteer!  Preferably in your field of interest but if that’s not possible try and find something that can create the opportunity to acquire transferable skills.  Is there a church or community group looking for better organization? Help them create an online filing structure or database.  Something that won’t take up a lot of your time but can still add value to resume.  You never know, you might be able to spin your work into a paid short-term position.

7. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t hear back from employers. Many positions that are posted are already filled by internal candidates so the posting you see is basically just protocol. It sucks but it doesn’t mean that you should stop applying.   Increase your minimum number of applications per week to make up for the duds.

8. Most importantly, don’t give up and don’t let your job search define you.  If you’re taking the time to research tips and job search strategies, you’re definitely doing something right.  Things will turn around eventually.  Stay positive and keep up the great work!

What’s your weakness?

This question has become a staple at interviews and most people feel they’ve crafted the perfect response to this question.

Your interviewer asks you for your weakness.  You tell him/her, “I’m a perfectionist.  I just  have this INNATE need to make sure my job is done PERFECTLY well.  I can’t leave until that has been achieved.”  You imagine your interviewer is pleased with your dedication to getting the job done and proceed to ask about benefits and vacation time.

Employers ask this question because they want to know if you can evaluate yourself and if you’re able to generate a plan towards improvement.  We’d all like to believe that we are rockstars at what we do but the reality is that there must be an area where we struggle and we should be able to recognize that area and figure out how to improve it.  The days of advising the positive trait disguised as a weakness are done.

Employers want to know that you’re working towards becoming a better employee.  Do you have difficulty delegating tasks?  What are you doing to correct that?  Do you take on too many tasks or are unable to say “no”?  How are you fixing that?  As an interviewer i’m not going to fault you for having a weakness, you’re human, we aren’t perfect.

I can’t speak for all organizations but I know that all of the orgs that I have worked for check references and we ask former supervisors about the candidate’s weakness.  This also lets us know if you are truly aware of your skill and performance.  If I ask you about your weakness and you tell me that you’re a perfectionist but I ask your supervisor and she says that you take on too much and have difficulty meeting deadlines, I’ll be concerned.  If you were to tell me that you take on too much but have learned to re-prioritize and communicate with your supervisor regarding  updating deadlines (citing a recent example), I’d be less concerned because you’re able to identify an area where you need improvement and it’s in line with what other people see when they evaluate you.

It might not seem like an important skill to have but being able to honestly reflect on your performance, recognize your weaknesses, and construct a plan towards improvement is the marker of a knowledgeable worker that will always strive to do better.  This is the person that gets an offer, not the “perfectionist.”

On a sidenote, the weakness conversation is not the time to be super candid about things that make you seem unprofessional, i.e.

“I can’t get to work on time.”  Yes, I actually heard that. Set multiple alarm clocks and get yourself to work on time.  Some places are more lenient than others but you can’t start off the job waltzing in 15 minutes late (or implying that you would).  

“I don’t like taking direction. I prefer to work independently.”  Yup, heard that too.  No one likes to be micro-managed but unless you’re working for yourself, at some point someone will be giving you some type of direction and you need to be able to deal with that.  

Also not a good time to mention weaknesses that are essential parts of the job, “I can’t juggle multiple projects (but i’m applying to a project manager position).”  If you find that essential parts of the job are areas within which you have significant deficiencies, perhaps you should look at a different position.

 

Pre-Interview Prep

Congrats!  You’ve received a call back and are scheduled for an interview.  What should you do now?

1.Return their call/email right away to schedule your interview. Right away doesn’t mean immediately 2 seconds after they contacted you but it should be the same day if possible.  Confirm date, time, location, and person(s) you are meeting once you connect.

2. Start your research.  Research the organization/company, the person/people you’re meeting, and any current events that pertain to the organization/company.  My very first interview out of college my interviewer asked me if I had seen the organization in the news recently.  Before the interview I went over the website but blatantly missed the section on press releases.  When I said no, he made a face and told me about the story that featured the org that was all over the news.

3. Review the job posting and know what the job requires backwards and forwards. Sometimes they’ll ask you to tell them about the job to see if you have a good grasp of the position.  If you fully understand all aspects of the position you can better articulate why you’ll be a good fit.

4. Review your resume.  Make sure you know what you’ve written.  It seems silly but sometimes people don’t remember what they’ve listed on their resume.   In the midst of a job search, when was the last time you actually read not skimmed  your resume?  Going over your resume will also allow you to identify and develop answers for any red flags. Do you have gaps?  Why was the length of time at that last position so short? Did you take a pay cut/demotion?

5. Get directions to your interview location and figure out travel time.  If possible print up alternate directions because you never know what can happen the day of.  If the location is unfamiliar, don’t feel shy about asking the person who’s scheduling your interview for directions.   Decide what time you need to leave and leave about half an hour earlier than that.  Lateness can lead to no interview or an interview where the employer has already decided they won’t consider you.  If you get there early, walk around for a bit until you have about 15 mins before your interview time.   Too early isn’t good either because they’re not ready for you yet.  Use that extra time to calm yourself down.

6. Make sure your suit is ready to go.  Yes your suit. Every adult should own at least 1 full suit.  Business dress varies by sector but that’s after you have the job.  No one will fault you for wearing a suit to an interview but there’s a chance that someone will fault you for not wearing a suit.

7. Print out copies of your resume if possible on resume paper.  When you get to your interview someone might ask you if you have a copy of your resume.  Most of the time they have your resume already, they just want to know if you came prepared.  Other times you might meet with someone else that hasn’t had time to review your materials.

8. Think of some questions to ask.  These questions shouldn’t be general information that can be found on the website.  They should deal more with the culture of the org, the goals for that program, the goals for your prospective supervisor etc.    You want your interviewer to know that you are engaged and interested.  If you really can’t think of anything at least ask them what is their time-frame for hiring for the position  and what are the next steps.

9. Practice your pitch (tell me about yourself) and some basic interview questions.  What are your major strengths?  What are your weaknesses?  A weakness is something that you have trouble with but are working to improve. “I have difficulty waking up on time for work” is not a good weakness (Yes, someone actually said this to me).   I like to “interview” in front of the mirror so that I can see what I’m doing with my hands and  faces when i’m describing something.

10. Get some rest!  You’re nervous and excited but try to get some rest.  You’ll do much better fully rested than if you’re up all night trying to prepare.

To suit or not to suit

Some people have asked me if it’s necessary to wear a suit to an interview.  My personal opinion is that every adult should own at least 1 full suit and said suit should be worn for interviews.  It’s true that various sectors are more laid-back than others and might have a more relaxed office dress-code but you can take advantage of that once you’ve been offered the job.

You never know who you will encounter during your interview and what their personal preference will be.  People make snap judgments when they first meet you, especially when you’re going in for an interview.  What if you interview with the one guy in the office that although there is a business casual dress-code still believes in business professional attire everyday?  That person will probably think to himself, “I would have worn a suit to an interview,” and now you’ve started off on the wrong foot.

Aside from that, there are various degrees of business casual all subject to your employer’s personal opinion.  At one job I was told that business casual meant having a blazer everyday.  I kept a black blazer on the back of my chair.  At another job I was told that I just had to look “neat and professional,”  (slacks, skirts, collared shirts, etc.).  The point here is that what was considered business casual at one place wouldn’t have been at another.  Do you want to take that chance at your interview?

Answering the Salary Question

Sometimes they’ll ask you to send your salary requirements within your cover letter.  Other times it’ll be a question on your application or they’ll ask you during the interview. Regardless of how they ask, they will ask.  

The discussion of salary is a dance between employer and potential employee. As the employer, I want to know how much you’re willing to take first.  That way I’ll know if I can get you for less or if you expect too much all together.  As the potential employee you want them to give you a number first for the same reason. You don’t want to give them a number that’s low and risk losing a higher salary and you also don’t want you to price yourself out of a position.

As a jobseeker, the standard rule is to say open. This allows you to see what they’re offering first so that you can determine how to negotiate.  Most employers will press you for a number after you say open so be prepared to offer a relevant range.  Your salary range isn’t an arbitrary amount that you think you should be paid.  This range should be based on research for different positions in your industry/sector related to your level of experience and education. 

Recently during a telephone interview I asked the candidate about her required salary.  The number that she gave me was about 20K more than we were willing to offer for the position.  It was also about 20K more than her current salary  More importantly, her experience and background didn’t warrant a salary that high even if we did have the higher amount in our budget.  She effectively priced herself out of that position.

As a job seeker you should know how much people are being paid for the kind of work that you want to do and you should be able to justify why you should receive that amount.  You should also be able to  realistically figure out where you would be within the range that you provide.  Let’s say the salary range for your position of interest is $40K – $55K.  If you have limited experience (entry-level to less than 3 years) without a Masters degree (if it’s preferred), expect to be on the lower end.  Concurrently if you have more than 5 years of experience plus supervisory experience and an applicable Masters degree, expect to be on the higher end.

Several factors go into salary offers: your current salary and salary history, program/organization budget, the outgoing person’s starting salary, possible room for an increase down the line (if your status might be changing in a few months with a new certificate or degree, there’s a chance they’ll offer you more at that time so they can start you off lower to make room for that increase), industry salary standards for that position, etc. Ultimately the employer wants to remain competitive but at the cheapest price possible. 

 In order to make sure that you’re still in the running, do your research and come to the table prepared.  If your range is on target for your field and you can provide concrete evidence that  XYZ pay rate is justified (i.e. skills/qualifications, educational background, increased level of responsibility, etc.), you’ll be able to settle on an offer that makes both you and the employer happy.

Websites to Research Salaries

http://www.payscale.com (Nice site.  You can evaluate your current salary to see where you fall within your field, evaluate offers, and research)

http://www.salary.com/(You can research specific positions to see national averages and generate salary reports. They also break things down by level of experience).

http://www.glassdoor.com/ (Most people are familiar with this site.  Besides salary information it’s also good to read reviews)