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.


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.


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)

Know Your Audience When You Market Yourself

With any piece of writing that will ultimately be seen and scrutinized by another individual, it’s imperative to make sure that you know your audience and market yourself accordingly.  Some positions want to see your creative side.  Others want to see a mature professional.

I posted for an Associate Executive Director position.  Below is an excerpt (unedited) from a resume I received:


• Hustler

• Confident

• Innovative

• Personable

• Self Driving

• Heavy Scheduling   


• Creating One Liners

• Learning Languages 

• Talking In Accents

• Photography

• Traveling

Offer me a job because … I ran out of milk … so I made cereal with coffee mate … holla at me Martha Stewart.

There might be a position out there where a sense of humor and the ability to generate one-liners is paramount as a job function, but for my position this wasn’t  the case.  Figure out the culture of the work environment before you interject one liners that reference coffee mate and Martha Stewart.


“I’m Interested in Any Position That’s Open…”

This might very well be the truth but the employer doesn’t need to know that.  With each application that you send you’re trying to convince the employer that you’re the best candidate for that position.  Out of the hundreds of resumes that they’ve received, they should contact you because you will do the best job in that particular role.  How can you convince them that your specific mix of skills and qualifications make you a good fit for that position if you tell them that you’re interested in any position that they have open?

Whenever I see this blurb in an intro email or even worse an actual cover letter, I hit delete.  In some rare instances, I will actually reach out to the candidate and ask them to review the positions listed then get back to me with an updated cover letter for the position of interest.  I usually tell them that positions vary so much and listing “any” doesn’t give me a good sense of their skill set or interest.

As a jobseeker many years ago I made the same mistake.  Either there were multiple positions that I was interested in from that particular organization or I wanted them to know that I was flexible in case the position I was applying for was already filled.  What I didn’t realize was that internally, good candidates get passed around regardless of what position they’ve indicated on their application.

You do want your employer to know that you’re flexible but you always want them to know that you have purpose and drive.  Sending a generic cover letter and resume with an intro email that basically says that you’re interested in any position that’s open will convey to them that you’re lazy.  Take the extra time to review positions, assess your skill set, and apply to the one that best fits you.

Length Does Not Equal Substance

When I look back at my resume after my second job I wince.  The content was good but the resume was entirely too long.  As a college graduate with one previous full time job, internships, and campus jobs, there was absolutely no reason for my resume to be more than one page.  

Remember in college and high school when you had to write a paper of a certain length and you were stumped?  You started adding all of these extra words, definitions, reiterations, and what not to achieve whatever the goal number of pages was.  Some teachers/professors might have commented that you had too much fluff.  Others might have let it go.  Either way, your resume is not the same thing.  There shouldn’t be any fluff present. You don’t get extra points for fluff.  You don’t get an interview because of fluff.  No one cares that you attended XYZ conference in 2001.  Did you actually facilitate a workshop at this conference? No, you were a participant in the conference.  Leave it out unless you received some type of certificate that the employer is interested in.

As a screener, I’ve seen many job candidates fall into the same trap; you want to make sure to include every bit of relevant information (or what you deem relevant) so that the employer knows all about you and will be convinced that you are a good fit.  What actually ends up happening is laundry list that alienates the reader.  I’ve seen resumes from candidates with bachelors and masters degrees that are well over 2 pages long.  The actual part of the resume that details their past work history usually doesn’t start until page 2 or 3 and no duties or skills are listed just titles. By the time I’ve reached the page with information that i’m interested in, I honestly don’t want to read anymore.

Most employers spend about 30 seconds skimming your resume.  They look for keywords, titles, specific qualifications or training, education, etc., and start making piles of people to call back, throw away, or people to revisit at a later time.  Yes these employers are skimming but at some point they actually go back and read your resume.  If you can make it through the first cut, someone will actually read what you’ve written to get a better idea of you.

Page length will vary depending on your level of experience and type of job sought.  If you’re applying for a senior level VP position, and have more than 20 years experience, you can fill 2 pages with quality information that will provide a good summary of your skills and background.  It will also depend on specific instructions given by the employer.  They might ask you to include workshops, papers you’ve authored, grant proposals you’ve written, etc.  In this case include the information they’re asking for but make sure all other information is relevant to the position that you’re applying for (i.e. no fluff).

For most people just starting out or even mid-career, 1 page should be enough.

Please add the year you graduated

You’re not fooling anyone.

There are two reasons people omit the year they graduated: it happened a long time ago, or they didn’t graduate.

To address the first point: You really aren’t fooling anyone when you leave that year off of your resume.  The first thing an employer says is, “this person must be older,”  which kind of goes against what you were trying to avoid in the first place.  Embrace your graduation date and wear it proudly.  I can’t speak for every employer but in my experience the top reason why an employer hesitated hiring a more seasoned candidate was because they were too qualified for that position.  Hiring someone is an investment; you don’t want to invest in them then have them leave because they realize it isn’t a good fit.  Along with over-qualification is salary.  Seasoned candidates usually demand a much higher salary based on their experience and qualifications.  A good tip is to review the position and determine if it is truly something you would feel comfortable doing and not something that you think you can get based on being overqualified.  Once you’ve determined that it’s a good fit, address their potential areas of concern in your cover letter.  Eg: “I understand that my 20+ years of administrative experience may suggest to you that I am overqualified for a position marketed to  recent graduate but I assure you my years of experience truly make me the best candidate for this position.  Within my role I took the opportunity to learn new tasks and continue to do so as evidenced by…”

The second point is a little bit more sinister because it’s misrepresentation.  The hope here is that the employer will assume the date has just been left off (probably for the first reason listed above).  It really doesn’t matter if you’ve completed 118 of 120 credits needed to graduate, do not list that you have a degree unless you’ve truly earned it.  At the very least add a disclaimer below that reads: 118/120 units of coursework completed towards Bachelor’s degree.  Most employers are asking for proof that you graduated regardless of how long ago it was (diploma/transcript).  Don’t get caught having to explain something later on when you’re close to being hired.

Employers receive many resumes and will use the most rudimentary points to disqualify someone from a position.