Preparing for interviews is more than a matter of buying a snazzy suit and and repeating each morning, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me."

These days, it takes a cool head. It takes a witty response. It takes Maalox.

Peter Veruki, director of career planning and placement at Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management, and author of "The 250 Job Interview Questions You'll Most Likely Be Asked ... And the Answers That Will Get You Hired," said companies today are looking for a way to judge how well you might react to pressure on the job. No more interviewers asking the simple niceties.

Some sample questions (and what your subconscious may be telling you):

Describe a time when you failed to solve a conflict.

[Fail? I have to tell you when I failed?]

What aspects of your work are most often criticized?

[GULP.]

Tell me about the last time you put your foot in your mouth.

[Haven't you been listening to me?]

What would you do if I told you that I thought you were giving a very poor interview today?

[I think I would run out of here and return this expensive suit, thankyouverymuch.]

It's true. Questions such as these are becoming the popular system for companies to make sure you will be a good fit and that, in this era of record-low unemployment, you will stick around. If you survive the heart-stopping interview, that is.

Career counselors and the like seem to think that you can handle it. There's more to you than the resume and cover letter, and now's the time you have to show potential employers what you've got.

Practice Makes Perfect

'Scuse me, can you tell me how to get to My Dream Job?

Practice, practice, practice.

"The number one tip is rehearsal," said Deb Gottesman, communications consultant and co-director of Center Stage Communications in the District. She and her co-director, Buzz Mauro, recently wrote "The Interview Rehearsal Book: 7 Days to Job-Winning Interviews Using Acting Skills You Never Knew You Had."

They stress that rehearsal is key so that you don't wind up "leaving things up to chance when you're in a high- stakes situation." You need to prepare yourself for this, just as, if not more than (ahem), you would for a final exam.

"I would never go on stage without a lot of rehearsal under my belt," Gottesman said. "Unfortunately, a lot of job candidates don't prepare."

Veruki agrees. You may think the inevitable "tell me about yourself" question is a no-brainer. Ha. Think again. "You have 90 seconds to do a TV commercial about yourself," Veruki says. "Even very articulate people can't handle that without practice."

Robert Hradsky, executive director of Career Services for the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, believes practicing before an interview is crucial. "We do mock interviews ... pair students up with other students to practice, have students [interview] one on one with our counselors."

He also suggests students do practice interviews with a friend or roommate. Not exactly the coolest thing to be doing on a Friday night, but nothing can prepare you better than walking through a real practice interview.

Who Am I?

"The best way [interviewees] can prepare themselves is do some real self-reflection," Veruki said.

What's really important to you? What are your values, goals, weaknesses? What don't you like to do? What work environment turns you off? Veruki says interviewees should prepare themselves by truly thinking about their answer to those questions. "Once you do that and you're honest with yourself, you're going to be able to be believable, credible" in the interview, he said.

Gottesman also says it's necessary to make sure you know yourself before you walk on the interview stage. "You need to tell the interviewer about yourself without panicking. You need to interpret yourself for the interviewer," she says. "That requires that you can talk about your past achievements and how the experiences apply to the job you're interviewing for."

You've got to illustrate yourself to your interviewer in a way that reflects something other than just your skills. Companies today are stressing the personal qualities of an applicant over his or her specific skills. That's because they want someone who is going to be a good fit; someone more likely to stay with the company despite an economy that supposedly makes it so easy to job-hop. "Companies are getting burned because [employees] can move to other jobs easily," Veruki explains. "They're willing to trade off on skills if they get the right fit. They figure they can train you if you've got the attitude and passion."

So the things that you should concentrate on before and during the interview, Veruki says, are not the things that are on your resume. "It's much more important to include what turns me on, what's my passion for life, for careers. Today [companies] want a good fit, someone who's going to be happy in your work environment, your culture, your industry."

Remember that the interview is for you as well as the interviewer.

Different Companies, Different Interviews.

Hradsky puts interviews into three different categories: the behavioral, the case and the stress interview.

The behavioral interview is when an employer is looking for specific examples from the prospective employee of times that they have used particular skills. Example: Tell me about a time you acted in a leadership role. Demonstrate specifically through your responses, Hradsky said, about the time you were a leader. Example: I was the leader of this [you fill in the blank] group project; I was the director of a camp; an editor of the school newspaper.

The case interview takes some extra preparing. Companies will present a business case to you and ask you to work through it. It's a common type of interview with some of the major consulting firms and investment houses, Hradsky said. He suggests that prospective employees check out the company Web sites beforehand. McKinsey & Co., for example, has sample cases on its Web page, www.mckinsey.com.

The last type of interview Hradsky classifies is the stress interview -- which typically consists of more than one interviewer firing questions to see how well you can handle yourself during a stressful situation.

Hradsky advised that when you find yourself in such a situation, don't freak out. "Stop and refocus," Hradsky said. "Don't take it personally. Understand the technique." It's fine to stop for a second and regroup.

Gottesman suggests simply, "Take a deep breathe. That sounds trite, but it slows down your heart rate and gives you a minute. The interviewer knows you are a human being. The interviewer is a human being and is very much on your side," she explained. "Think a positive thought: They want you to be the person for the job. The process ends for them when they find the right match."

If you have questions about getting ahead, you can e-mail Amy Joyce at joycea@washpost.com