Want to arrive at your interview feeling confident and well prepared? Follow a series of progressive steps, including talking to the mirror!
No, I’m not endorsing narcissism. I am, however, a proponent of ensuring you put your best foot forward.
Let’s face it: some of us are comfortable walking into an interview, be it with the CEO or a five-person panel. Others among us consider interviews among the most daunting forms of torture, and their entry to an interview room can be a self-imposed gauntlet; once inside, it may be only the clenched grip on the table or arm of the chair that keeps them from sliding under the table, hoping to disappear.
A few years ago, I spent some time helping a friend (let’s call her Jen) who was firmly in the latter camp. Jen had good office skills and was among the most gracious, helpful people in her office; she also very much needed both the benefits package and the confidence that came with the success of landing a full time / “permanent” position. Despite all her attributes, she consistently failed to secure anything other than temporary positions in various departments within her organisation.
Why? Interviews frightend her, and she didn’t adequately prepare for them.
Finally, after being shortlisted, interviewed and rejected yet one more time, she was open to some supportive coaching.
With a specific job opportunity in sight, a couple of friends arranged to have informal get-togethers with Jen. We emulated an interview panel; having read the job description, we tossed a few questions her way. It soon became clear that, rather than focusing on the questions we posed, Jen was relying on her resume to speak to her skills and attributes. Her discomfort with the situation was evidenced in the way she prefaced her responses with an “Um … “, or inserted phrases such as, “Like …” or, “You know …”
Don’t rely on your resume to speak for you; that was only your entry to the competition
When we asked about her education in relation to the qualifications required for the role, Jen spoke about her professional development (PD). While it was good to know about her PD (which was a subsequent question we’d drafted), Jen was missing the point: interviewers may be locked in to a system in which – in the interest of fairness – they treat all candidates similarly, and allocate points for each interview question. Depending on the organisation, managers and supervisors must refrain from making allowances for nerves; they may well have a union observer in the room, ensuring all candidates are treated in the same manner.
The same principles apply for pre-screening, telephone interviews
In some union environments, managers who invite colleagues to form an interview panel recognise that some panel members may benefit from insights as to the ideal, or preferred, responses that would indicate a candidate is suitable for the role, and has the required knowledge base; such administrators may prepare a Q&A section for panel members, with a maximum number of points to be assigned a candidate based on how their responses align with the preferred answers. If a candidate doesn’t touch on those points, that individual’s point score may be reduced from the maximum potential.
We gently offered Jen the good news: walking in to an interview needn’t be a gauntlet. We’d identified opportunities to help her improve. All that was required was good, old fashioned hard work.
Interview Prep 101: Roll Up Your Sleeves
Research: Read and analyse the job description or posting. Understand the position, the desired and required competencies, and map out how you bring those attributes to the table.
Anticipate: Anticipate behavioural questions; the manager needs to know how you have handled circumstances that may arise in the position for which they’re recruiting.
Build your confidence: Do all you can to support your confidence before you walk into the interview. Research not only the job, but the department / division and the organisation. Ask if it’s appropriate to release the names of the interview panel, if there will be more than one person interviewing candidates for the job. Then, learn what you can about panel members’ professional roles in relation to the position you’re seeking. The bottom line is that, the more you know, the more comfortable you can be.
Emulate the best: Emulate the best, while never losing sight of yourself. This goes to my early days, when I identified someone I recognised as a superior admin. professional. I observed her ways of conducting business, how she dressed, and how she treated people from all levels of the organisation – she treated everyone with the same level of respect. Lesley was, to me, the consummate professional and she still represents a standard of excellence in my eyes.
The fact that she was the President’s right hand was secondary to my impressions; she was, simply put, a pro. Identify an assistant whose professionalism you admire, and ask yourself what it is s/he does well.
Develop questions you will ask: Beyond identifying the questions you think you may be asked, consider that you will have the opportunity to ask some questions of your own. See my article, Interview Prep: What Questions Should an Assistant Ask? This portion of the interview, usually toward the close of your meeting, is your additional opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
Practice: Nothing beats good old fashioned hard work. If you don’t invest the effort in researching the position, the people, the organisation and their needs, why should you expect them to invest in you?
Talk to the mirror: This goes back to Jen. I encouraged her, after each of our informal get-togethers, to go home and practice talking to the interview panel … in front of her mirror. The point was for Jen to see herself as interviewers perceived her. My premise was that, in order to expect an interview panel accept her, she should first be able to face and accept herself as a candidate.
Jen struggled desperately with this the first few tries; she was a busy mother of teens, and she resorted to locking herself in her bathroom with a list of anticipated interview questions. Apart from her kids wondering if their mum was all right, Jen sometimes broke into giggles in front of the medicine cabinet; at other times, she’d mentally beat herself up for inappropriate grammar or responses. After three weeks, though, she made it past a hurdle she’d never yet surpassed; Jen faced her interview panel with a better sense of preparedness and confidence than any she’d brought to any previous interview, and landed the job.
Focus on the Employer, Not Nerves
Dress the part: Confidence also comes from sorting out well in advance what you will wear to the interview. You needn’t break the bank to buy a new outfit; make sure everything is clean and pressed, and that your attire is appropriate for the position you hope to land. If uncertain, scope out the office; how do the people you hope to join present themselves?
Less is more: While I love perfumes, scents can distract from the process – and many workplaces now have scent-free policies. Keep this in mind, and also apply makeup with discretion; remember, less really can be more.
Come prepared, and listen carefully: Bring a pen and professional looking notebook to the interview; ask if you may jot down thoughts during the interview. If allowed, this may help you focus your responses on the question at hand. Then, listen to the questions being asked. If you’re not certain about something, ask the interviewer if s/he can repeat the question.
Empathy: Acknowledge that, while you may be excited, nervous and hopeful, it’s not all about you. Have some empathy for the busy people who are investing time in their search for the right assistant. They didn’t invite you to the interview to intimidate you, or make you break out in a cold sweat; these people have a need they’re seeking to fill, and the sheer time involved in interviewing likely means they’re sacrificing other needs in order to get this right. That’s their focus.
Don’t rely on your resume/CV to speak for you: Having served on a number of interview panels, I can tell you that this is not only one of the most frequent errors on the part of candidates, it’s also one of the easiest to resolve. Remember that the interviewer or panel needs to hear you articulate why you’re the right person for the role; in some environments, they can not assign you points/scores for your education or PD if you don’t touch on it during the interview. Keeping this single point in mind can dramatically improve interview success.
Rambling on: Focus on the question, and answer it. Don’t think that you have to provide your life story in response to each question, but balance that with refraining from providing terse, “yes” or “no” responses to questions. If in doubt, ask the interviewer if you’ve captured what s/he was seeking, or if s/he would like you to expand on your answer.
Grammar tells a story: It tells a story about you. While some workplaces are less formal than others, consider your use of language; there’s no place for slang in an interview and you want to display good grammar. Practice your responses, and check yourself for the use of “um”, “like”, “me and … “, “you guys”, or “you know”. Then sort out a way to eliminate such language from your interview vocabulary.
It’s up to you; do your homework, find a mirror, and then shine in that interview.