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For the Interview, Your Motto Is 'Be Prepared'

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, February 17, 2008

Interviews are perhaps the most stressful part of any job search, but a few hours of preparation can go a long way toward quelling some of your anxiety. That time can also make it more likely that you will get the job.

Good preparation starts with your attitude. "Number one: Relax," said Brad Karsh, author of "Confessions of a Recruiting Director: The Insider's Guide to Landing Your First Job."

"So many people think everything [in a job interview] is a trick question," he said. But these are just "honest conversations between two people."

But relaxing doesn't mean slacking off. Nor does it mean slipping into overconfidence. "Interviewing is the step that most people think they're good at, but they're not," said Susan Strayer, author of "The Right Job, Right Now: The Complete Tool-Kit for Finding Your Perfect Career."

Before you walk into a job interview, there are some basic steps you should take to prepare. Some questions are almost universal, and you should know how to answer them in a polished way. These include standards such as discussing your strengths and weaknesses. Other questions will be specific to the job for which you are applying, and will require some research to answer thoughtfully. The most common questions will relate to your work history and education, and how they relate to the job at hand. In short, what makes you qualified?

Start with the job description, if there is one. This is practically a cheat sheet for the interview, Karsh said. "If it says they want someone with managerial experience, be prepared to be asked about your managerial experience."

Also, be prepared to expound on everything on your r¿sum¿. "Have reasons for everything that you've done," Karsh said. "The r¿sum¿ is what I call the 'whats.' In an interview, I want to know the 'whys' and the 'hows.' A single bullet point on your r¿sum¿ might inspire an interviewer to talk for 10 minutes."

You should also expect to answer some questions about the company -- and to ask a few intelligent ones of your own.

"You should absolutely know what an employer does, how it was founded and what its goals are before you walk in the door," said Strayer, who is director of talent management for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

"Know how a company makes money," she said. "Even if it's a nonprofit, you still need to know what their funding model is." Nonprofits can be grant-funded or donor-funded, and "the difference is a big deal in D.C."

With well-known employers, it's easier to tell how they butter their bread, she acknowledged. It's when the company is new or works primarily business-to-business that deeper knowledge about its operations will really help you stand out.

Think broadly about where you can gather information, Strayer said. "People rely on Web resources and company reports, but their best bet is to find contacts in the company. Ask what they are working on, what their struggles are." You can even ask about the interview style of the people with whom you will be meeting.

Be prepared to ask your own questions. "One of the worst things you can say at the end of the interview is that you don't have any [questions]," Karsh said. These queries can be business-related, about the employer's long-term goals, or they can be personal, about workplace culture or how the interviewer came to work there.

Strayer said you should always practice your responses. She encourages people to tape themselves to see whether they are engaging in any unconscious behaviors that could hurt them, such as excessively using filler words like, well, "like." You know?

However, please don't try to memorize specific answers to any of the likely questions. At best you'll sound wooden; at worst you will forget all your best lines just when you need them most.

Instead, bring along a notebook, with a few key points you want to remember jotted down.

You can even create a list with brief descriptions of your accomplishments, said Katy Piotrowski, author of "The Career Coward's Guide to Interviewing" and a career counselor in Fort Collins, Colo. "Write it down. Take it to the interview. It's like a security blanket."

Strayer said the secret to interviewing is to create a library of stories that indicate the point that you want to get across. "That way when you're in the interview, you're just recalling a story," she said. "When you give examples, then you bring life to it."

All this preparation may sound like a lot of work, but it can pay off when hiring managers are trying to decide between two otherwise equally qualified candidates, Strayer said. "When decision makers sit around a table . . . they recall stories. They don't just recall words."

Bait and Switch?

Have you ever taken a job that turned out to be different from what you applied for? How did you handle it? If you're willing to share your story for a column on the subject, e-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com. Include your full name and daytime phone number. No attachments.

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