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Job Steps

Interviewing Tips From the Pros

You spent hours (days?) perfecting your one-page resume. You circulated it within your network and through a structured on-campus recruitment program. Fortunately, it has been successful in securing interviews. Now what?

Interview Preparation

Career advisors say that you need to do only three things in advance of your interviews: Prepare. Prepare. And prepare some more. Interview preparation is not like cramming for an exam; it's an extended process. Your preparation began long ago and has been developing as you have made important choices: college, major/minor/concentration, co-curricular activities, internships, summer jobs, and work study. You started preparing specifically when you began working on your resume. With interviews now scheduled, there are only two more things you need to know.

First, know yourself--your abilities, attributes, values and attitudes. Assess your skills and determine specifically what you have to offer the employer. As a mathematics major, consider your skills in quantitative and analytical reasoning and how they helped you to become an effective problem solver. Prepare examples illustrating each of the various skills you want to market.

Second, know the employer. Research the industry in general and the employer in particular. You'll find literature and resources in your career development center as well as in college and public libraries. Request the employer to send corporate/organizational literature. Network with current employees (especially alumni of your institution) as well as your professors. Arrange information interviews by telephone or in person. Learn as much as you can about the employer's corporate philosophy, structure and culture, the recruitment process, the position description, and, most importantly, the skills and abilities they are looking for. Assess the ways in which the employer could benefit by your math-related skills.

When adequately prepared, you can divert the adrenaline that comes with nervousness into a positive energy that makes you alert and "pumped" for the interview. Now, you are ready for the "face-to-face" interview.

Beginning the Interview

Much has been written about the first few minutes (would you believe 30 seconds?) of the interview. Some assert that the initial impact of appearance, the greeting and hand shake, and the conversational style in this "warm-up" period can result in a decision to offer a position. Others argue that offers are not won by these initial impressions, but they certainly can be lost. Whatever the case, remember: You never have a second chance to make a first impression.

Use "warm-up" conversation to build rapport with the interviewer. Whether it is about your college, the weather, sports, or your hometown, it's meant to put you at ease, to help you settle into the interview. How well you handle this level of conversation is important, since you will have many opportunities for "small talk" in dealing with the employer's clients or customers.

Don't underestimate the power of non-verbal communication. Although word choice is critical in delivering the message, voice tone and body language have a greater impact. Facial expressions, posture, gestures, and general appearance play an amazingly important role in determining the impression you make. Participate in a mock interview so you can see yourself on video as others see you. Some of your communication habits may need correcting or improving. You can assess the total impact of your verbal and nonverbal communication style.

Marketing Yourself

It's confidence-building to think of the interview as a two-way process. Both you and the interviewer are shopping; both are marketing. The interviewer is assessing whether you are the best candidate for the position, one who offers something that others don't, one who can do the job, fit into the culture of the workplace, and make a difference. At the same time, you are trying to decide whether or not you would really like to work for this employer, whether the job opportunity is well-matched to your interests, skills, and values. In effect, you are interviewing each other.


Salable success factors valued by the employer

Prepare responses, noting your Assignment, Action, and Accomplishment:

Money--Think of a time you saved or made money for a campus organization or summer employer. Public Speaking--Did you ever have occasion to speak in public? How did you prepare yourself?
Time--Describe an action you took that increased productivity or saved time for an internship or co-op employer. Risk-Taking--What was the last "risky" situation you were involved in?
Efficiency--Can you think of a problem you solved speedily, logically, and accurately? Did your math major help? Adaptability--Describe a situation when you were called on to be flexible or adapt to a new situation.
Organization--What event, activity or project have you planned and implemented from beginning to end? Helping others--Think of a time when you helped someone in your community, on campus, in your family.
Teamwork--Were you ever involved with any team projects, sports, or activities? How did you and your team work to solve a particular problem? Perseverance-- Describe a time when you had to handle challenges and obstacles to complete a particularly difficult task or assignment.
Hiring or recruiting--Have you ever hired people or recruited volunteers? What skills did you find helpful? Innovation--Have you ever come up with a new idea for an organization or summer employer?
Making Improvements--Have you ever observed the way something was done and figured out a better way to do it?

Frequently Asked Interview Questions (and the qualities they seek to identify)

Under each quality is a series of questions that aim to give the employer an idea of how you rank in that category.

Intelligence and analytical ability
What were your favorite and least favorite
courses in college?
Would you describe yourself as more analytical
or more verbal?
Does your grade point average reflect your academic ability?
Why did you choose to major in mathematics?
Initiative and entrepreneurship
What one thing would you change about your college?
Describe one change you instituted at your last summer job.
Where do you see yourself in five, ten, or twenty years?
Work experience and required technical skills
Can you walk me through your resume?
What specific skills did you develop in your internships or co-op experiences that you would consider useful here?
Maturity
What are your career plans?
How did you choose your college?
Tell me about one of your weaknesses.
Leadership qualilies/team-playing ability
What makes you better than everyone else I'm interviewing today?
Why should I hire you?
Tell me about your extracurricular activities.
Communication skills
Tell me about your senior thesis.
Describe your responsibilities on your last job.
Read any good books lately?
Energy and stamina
Describe your average weekday.
How do you feel about sixty-hour workweeks?
Creativity and flexibility
Why are manhole covers round?
You can have dinner with anyone throughout history. Whom would you choose?
Interest in the position
What fields are you investigating for employment?
What other firms are you interviewing with?
Strictly hypothetically, of course, if we were to give you an offer today, would you accept it?
Describe your ideal job.
What is your current understanding of what we do here?
What do you see as the greatest problem facing our industry right now?
Personal qualities and personality
What do you do for fun?
Describe your ideal weekend.
How do you choose your friends?
What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you?

You are marketing yourself as a "product" which will meet the employer's needs. You want to help the interviewer know your "features" but, more importantly, the benefits you can bring to the employer. Dorothy Leeds calls this "benefit selling." It assumes "the only reason an employer will hire you for a particular job is because there's something in it for him."

Throughout the interview, you will have the opportunity to emphasize your features and benefits. What features you choose to highlight and how you customize your potential benefits will depend on your research of the employer.

While nearly all interview guides deal with transferable skills, Leeds deals with "salable success factors" and encourages you to develop a structured way of responding to the interviewer's questions. She talks about the AAA's of selling yourself. Assignment--a particular situation you faced, Action--the strategy you employed, and Accomplishment--the results of your action .

The assumption that past performance predicts future performance is used extensively by the best-trained interviewers. It's effective in getting the information the employer needs to assess the transferability of your skills; it's also an excellent way for you to showcase your experiences and relate them to the potential job.

Remembering that your features remain the same for all employers, choose benefits that fit the particular job. In your responses emphasize the abilities that will be of value to the particular employer. Emphasize results. Leeds recommends that you keep 10 "benefit statements" in mind so you can choose one when needed. Have a minimum of three examples of objective/strategy/results "stories" to demonstrate each relevant skill.

Think through and prepare these responses. Memorize the content and the theme of each; so you will be ready to improvise depending on the interviewer's question. Explore different approaches to these questions; talk them out with a friend; stand in front of a mirror. Prepare until your responses flow naturally.

Most Often Asked Questions

While you can find plenty of lists of "the most often asked interview questions," what you need to figure out is why the interviewer is asking each question. In Hot Tips, Sneaky Tricks & Last Ditch Tactics Jeff Speck organizes the intent of the most frequently asked questions into categories. Once you know the category and the skills being sought, you'll know how to respond or, to put it bluntly, "to give the interviewer what he wants." The interviewer will rate you on each of these categories; your answers will determine your ranking.

Imagine other questions and what the employer is trying to find out about you. Expect the unexpected. While most interviews are not designed to be stressful, occasionally an interviewer will "throw you a curve" to see how well you respond.

Your Turn to Ask Questions

Some interviewers encourage you to ask questions. They may provide time near the close of the interview for this. This is at one level a courtesy, but also interviewers see the kind of questions you ask and how you ask them as another way to judge your candidacy.

The person asking questions tends to be in control of the interview. By asking well thought out questions about the employment opportunity, you will control the conversation and can steer it in the direction you want. The more you ask, the more control you gain.

Organize your questions in advance. You may want to have a copy of them with you for reference in case you have forgotten some questions. This lets the employer know you have given considerable thought to the interview and are prepared.

Use this portion of the interview to ask open-ended, neutrally phrased questions. Make your questions relevant to the position for which you are interviewing and specific to the employer's needs. This is not the time for asking "yes" or "no" questions. You can also ask questions about the interviewer's experiences with the employer. Asking about something positive you've recently learned about the employer is a good way to end this portion of the interview.

Prepare a question for each attribute you want the interviewer to know about. If certain attributes were not discussed, ask the related question to let you reinforce a key strength.

You'll find a list of suggested questions to ask the employer in nearly every interview guide. Thoughtful questions might include such topics as:

  • financial stability/growth of the organization
  • new products/technology
  • training program
  • supervision/performance reviews
  • travel/relocation
  • typical day/first year assignments
  • company culture/management style
  • career paths/opportunities for advancement
  • need for graduate/professional school degree

Closing the Interview

Recruiter feedback indicates that a major weakness of students is failure to ask for the job. Don't just let the interview end; take the initiative and close it as a salesperson would "close the sale." No matter how great you look, how firm your handshake, or how impressive your answers, if you can't convince the interviewer that you really want the job and why you want it, don't expect another interview, much less an offer.

You will need to find a way to express your genuine interest. Try something as simple as: "I'd very much like to work for your company. When can I expect to hear from you?" An expression of sincere interest in the position may keep you in the running for a job offer.

The Follow-Up

While many of today's employers don't consider thank-you notes necessary, it remains both a courtesy and a smart strategy to send a letter following your interview. You should follow two rules.

First, send your typewritten thank-you letter, the same or next day. True, the decision to offer another interview (or even the job) may have already been made, but the promptness of the follow-up suggests an energy, a professionalism, and a thoroughness that are valued by employers. If you are on the border line, it may be a decisive factor; if you are invited back for the next round, your immediate follow-up becomes a plus in your candidacy.

Second, make your thank-you letter distinctive and specific to your interview. Reference an attribute which you have and the employer needs. Remind the interviewer of some "story" you told about how your response to a particular situation had outstanding results. Tell the employer how helpful the interview was in increasing your understanding of what the organization does and what kinds of career opportunities it offers. Finally, reiterate your interest in working for the employer and the fact that you are looking forward to continuing in the recruitment process and to visiting the company and meeting other employees. If appropriate, suggest that you will be following up with a telephone call within an earlier agreed upon time period.

Because you have met the interviewer, the tone of your letter can be a bit more casual and personal. But remember, the purpose of the letter remains professional, and the letter may be shared with others. If you are fortunate, it might become a part of your employment file!

Many successfully employed people will tell you "it's not what you know but whom you know." Or it's all about "being in the right place at the right time." Or that it's a matter of luck. Don't believe them, unless, of course, you accept Thomas Jefferson's definition: "Luck is when hard work meets opportunity."

In that spirit, good luck in interviewing!


References:

Dorothy Leeds, Marketing Yourself: The Ultimate job Seekers Guide, Harper Collins, 1991.

Jeff B. Speck, Hot Tips, Sneaky Tricks & Last-Ditch Tactics: An Insider's Guide to Getting Your First Corporate Job John Wiley & Sons, 1989.

MARY SCHILLING is the Director of the Career Development Center at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

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Copyright 1994 Math Horizons The Mathematical Association of America

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