One thing that can be said about job interviews with some certainty: Expect the unexpected.

* A promising federal lawyer found himself being wooed by a Washington firm, which invited him to a lengthy lunch at The Palm to get acquainted. Primed to provide details on a strong resume, he was stunned by his four hosts. "All they wanted to talk about was the Redskins."

Law -- not football -- this bright investigator knows. Try as he would, he could not divert the table talk to another topic. He never heard from the firm again.

* A magazine writer hunting a behind-the-screen job in TV negotiated her way through several screening interviews. Then her boss-to-be invited her for a drink at a bar, where he began interrogating her like a crotchety old man.

His unpleasant manner, it turned out, was a test to see how she would handle the type of people likely to be encountered on the job. Unfortunately, the surprise mini-drama flustered her, and she failed to pass.

* Author Peggy J. Schmidt, who specializes in career advice, remembers sitting "sweaty-palmed reading a newspaper" while waiting to be interviewed. When she rose to shake hands, the interviewer mentioned -- pleasantly -- "that it looked as if I had been shoveling coal."

Most of us in the labor force go through at least one job interview and maybe dozens in our careers. It is, after all, the final -- and, perhaps, most important -- step in the often difficult process of getting hired.

For some, it is terrifying to think their futures may rest on how well they present themselves in 30 minutes to that stranger across the desk. Says Schmidt, author of Making It on Your First Job (Avon, 258 pages, $2.95 paper): "The butterflies are dive-bombing against your stomach lining, and your antiperspirant is out to lunch."

To others, like former New York advertising executive Theodore T. Pettus, the interview is "a game."

"I love interviews," says Pettus, whose One on One: Win the Interview, Win the Job (Random House, 177 pages, $10.95) is a guide to improving your employment chances. "It's a form of seduction. You're playing with the best you have. You're guarding your weak points -- all of us have them -- and throwing out bait to tantalize.

"Your resume will not get you hired," he contends. "Your qualifications will not get you hired. You will only get hired when you win the interview."

Even at the highest levels, the face-to-face meeting can be crucial to your career. Explains William H. Marumoto, who conducts intensive interviews as president of The Interface Group Ltd., a Washington-based executive-search firm:

"Despite a fantastic track record and excellent references," you still have to develop that personal "chemistry factor" with your prospective boss. "At the corporate vice-president level, you may interview with a half-dozen people. If out of six, you only hit it off with two, that's going to raise a few flags."

"Very honestly, a whole lot of what's important in getting a job," agrees Ruth Sutton, who interviews job-hunters for Acacia Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Washington, "is chemistry. If you and your supervisor don't click, it's ridiculous for you even to want the job. That's why an interview has such importance."

Nevertheless, says Pettus, at least one study indicates only about "two out of 100" job-hunters are prepared for the interview. Preparation, he says, means doing "your homework" on the company you're applying to, and, if possible, the people you are going to talk to. "It's just impossible to wing it. You wouldn't wing anything else this serious."

"Know what you are going to say before you get in," advises Barbara Fitzgerald-McClain, a student career counselor at George Washington University, "so that when you are asked, 'What can you do for us?,' you don't answer, 'Uh . . . uh . . . uh . . . .'

You might, she says, read in the newspaper that a firm is planning to expand. Get an appointment, and let the company's executives know that your skills "definitely are in line with that."

"You may have the greatest resume, but if you're ineffective in interviewing, you might as well hang it up. In a short time span, you've got to market yourself as effectively as possible."

But if a question should catch you by surprise, "don't be afraid to say, 'Could you give me a moment to think?' or 'Could we come back to that while I collect my thoughts?' Lots of people blow it because they think they have to give immediate responses."

Being prepared also can be a big advantage if your interviewer is inexperienced, frequently the case once you get beyond the personnel department.

Advises Fitzgerald-McClain, "If they seem to be fumbling around, speak up and say: 'As you can see from my resume . . . .' " You are the loser if you haven't been able to point out your attributes, especially at management level where competition can be fierce.

To Sutton, it is important that a job-hunter be able to "state your strengths and weaknesses and to know what you are looking for -- to be up front and honest. Don't shy away from questions if you've had a problem or haven't liked your boss."

Less impressive, she says, "is the person who is totally ill at ease, who can't look at me, or who is inattentive. If I'm trying to explain what the job is, they're looking out the window or at the clock."

Martha McCartney, interviewer for the Bechtel Power Corp. of Gaithersburg, similarly looks favorably on applicants "who are more outgoing -- those who speak up, who ask me questions about the company instead of fumbling with their keys or looking at the floor. I've had people come in and tell me about Bechtel. It means they've gone to the library" to research the firm.

She was also delighted by a recent college graduate who knew what she wanted and made it quite clear it wasn't a clerical post. "She stuck to her guns. That's a good attitude."Bechtel hired her as an entry-level professional.

"Presence" is what Marumoto looks for. A prime example is an executive in his mid-30s he interviewed recently:

"He was set up nicely, and looked very dignified. He was very articulate and thoughtful in answering and asking questions. He always looked you in the eye. And he has a very good track record. He could become a member of a board."

He is disappointed when a prospect displays "a lack of confidence," is "overweight" and "sloppy in dress." Some seem to have a "lack of purpose -- you even find this in senior executives. They're going through the functions, but they don't really know what they want in life.

"It may sound corny," he adds, but he also judges candidates on "terms of their commitment -- whether they're committed to doing something for the company, the work ethic."

When he was in advertising, says Pettus, he ruled out applicants "who didn't know what clients my firm had. But I was most furious when they weren't sure what they wanted. You turn from interviewer into counselor, some kind of therapist. I also get angry if I suspect someone is lying or exaggerating a fact.

"On the other hand, I like someone who is human. If you ask their weak points, they say, 'I can't make speeches or I'm the world's worst . . .' It shows they do have blood in their veins."

Company interviewers tell Schmidt, she says, that "if a person is not desperate to have a job, that person becomes a more interesting prospect. If they take the job, it's because they really want to have it, and not because they need it."

Questions about race, religion and marital status are no longer fair game in an interview because of discrimination laws. But what do you do when someone asks?

"Perhaps the question was asked out of ignorance," says GWU's Fitzgerald-McClain. "Most Washington interviewers are pretty sophisticated. If it's not particularly offensive, you can answer.

"If you're a woman and asked when you are going to get pregnant, you can laugh and say, 'I don't think you can ask that' and then pull around the topic to your work experience. If he or she continues, you have to question whether you want to work for that company."

One aspect of the interview that many people flub, say these experts, is the follow-up. By all means, "send a thank-you letter," advises Marumoto, but also include something "that ties in with the conversation." If you touched on a certain topic, send an article that elaborates "or a copy of a speech you made. It illustrates some thoughtfulness on the part of the interviewee."

If, even after preparing for the big day, you still have the jitters, Schmidt has this consolation:

"Everybody's nervous when they walk in, and some of that's good. You come across as excited and enthusiastic."