Seven Keys to Interview Preparation
By Bill Radin
©1998 Innovative Consulting, Inc.
Career Development Reports
Its been said that Napoleon won his battles in his tent; that
is, he did all the planning the night before the battle was joined, so that every
contingency could be adequately covered. Interview preparation is similar. You never know
exactly what will happen on the battlefield, but by being ready, you can eliminate a lot
of the uncertainty, and know how to react to different scenarios.
Later, well look at ways to effectively conduct the interview
itself; but for now, lets focus on the list, each item at a time.
One: The Resume
Of course, bring a couple of copies, and be sure to read your resume
before the interview, so youre completely familiar with everything youve
written. Nothing is more embarrassing (or potentially fatal to your candidacy) than being
quizzed on some aspect of your background that appears on the bottom of page two -- and
not being able to remember the details.
You might also bring materials which would be particularly good at
illustrating an important aspect of your work, such as creative designs, writing samples,
and so forth. Just remember to use your better judgment.
I once interviewed an engineer who brought with him a lawn and
garden string trimmer made by his current company, so he could show me the design
improvements hed made on the product. It turns out his engineering efforts had
lowered the trimmers cost to manufacture, which resulted in increased profits for
his company. His version of "show and tell" was a bit extreme (my whole office
was buzzing for weeks about my Weed Eater candidate), but at least his real-life picture
told me a thousand words.
Be careful, though, not to overdo it with the props. College
diplomas, letters of commendation, and company bowling trophies should be left at home.
When in doubt, just bring your resume and your business card -- theyre the most
important props youll ever need.
Its a good idea to carry a leather folder or day runner with
you so you can take notes or store written materials the company might hand you during the
course of your interview. A briefcase is also fine, although I prefer a folder, which is
lighter to carry, and less cumbersome. Always remember to bring a pen or pencil.
Dress and Appearance
Much as I find some aspects of the New Dress for Success (Warner
Books, 1988) formula as espoused by author and wardrobe consultant John T. Molloy a bit
disheartening, theres simply no practical excuse for dressing any way other than the
book suggests. Sure, wed all like to think that were being judged on our
qualifications, skills, and depth of character. But the truth is, when it comes to
interviewing, in most cases, clothes make the man. To think any other way is to ignore
Directions To the Interview Location
Try to get directions at least a day before your interview, so you
dont get lost and arrive late. And heres a tip: Always bring some cash to pay
for parking. Never ask an employer to validate your parking stub, or reimburse you for
parking. Not only is it impolite, youll create a negative impression, since
its considered common courtesy to pay your own expenses for a local interview.
If youre coming from out of town, then its especially
important to get directions. Naturally, if the expenses for your interviewing trip are
going to be covered by the employer, wait until the interview has concluded (or better
yet, the next day) to settle up. Usually, the company will prepay the air fare, or other
major expenses, and will reimburse you for the rest, such as your car rental, cab fare,
hotel room, and meals. Its customary that you pick up certain non-essential
expenses, such as long distance phone calls from your hotel room, or the bar tab from the
lounge in the hotel lobby.
A few years ago, a client company of mine flew a candidate to Los
Angeles for an interview. The candidate, unfortunately, was unemployed at the time, and
was in pretty dire financial straits. He charged the phone calls he made to his wife back
in Wyoming and all his dry cleaning expenses (he only brought one shirt with him for two
days of interviewing) to the company. When they got his expense voucher a few days later,
they got pretty upset -- they never expected to pay for all these add-ons. It was too bad,
too, because he was generally well received when he interviewed. Id hate to think it
was these little charges that were responsible for his not getting a job he really wanted.
The best time to arrive for an interview is precisely when
youre scheduled, not early or late. It can irk an employer to be told that the
candidate for a 2 oclock appointment is waiting in the lobby at one thirty-five. The
employer will either become distracted knowing theres someone hanging around waiting
to see him, or hell scramble to rearrange his schedule to accommodate the candidate,
which disrupts the rest of his day. If your appointment is at two, then arrive at two.
If for some reason youre running late, call ahead to ask if
you can reschedule for later the same day, or if not, later in the week. If something
unexpected happens that you have no control over, simply explain the situation to the
employer when you arrive.
I placed a candidate named Alan recently, who was over an hour late
to his first interview. Hed been caught in a monstrous traffic jam and was unable to
call ahead; but fortunately, he handled the situation like a real pro. When he arrived, he
apologized for being late, and got right down to the business of interviewing. He simply
put all the anxiety and frustration behind him, so that he could concentrate on the reason
he was there, not the reason he was late.
If youre ever caught in a situation like Alan was, stay cool,
take a deep breath, and remove whatever misfortune befell you from your mind.
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and Title of the Interviewer(s)
When you arrange the interview, find out who youll be talking
to, and what their function is within the company. Will you be speaking with the hiring
manager? The manager from another department? The personnel director? The internal
recruiter? A peer level employee or subordinate? A staff industrial psychologist?
You might already know the person. If thats the case,
youre ahead of the game. If not, send out feelers among your own contacts within
your industry, or look in your industrys trade publications to see if the person
youre going to be meeting is distinguished in any way.
Its also helpful to find out whether you and the person
youll be meeting have any commonalties or interconnecting points of interest, in the
way of origins ("Hey, youre also from Wisconsin?"), schools ("My
brother went to Duke, too. How did you like it?"), professional achievements
("My article appeared in Ad Week a month after yours did."), or personal
interests ("I heard you were the Nebraska state ping pong champion. Well have
to get together sometime for a match."). These tidbits can break the ice when an
interview begins, and create a bond with the interviewer.
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Understanding the Companys Hiring Procedure
To correctly gauge the sequence of events surrounding or following
your first interview, ask these questions:
Can you describe to me, step by step, the hiring procedure
for this position?
This is important to ask, because you want to find out if (and when)
the company needs to schedule a second or third level interview. Some companies will make
hiring decisions on the spot; others will take months of meetings and endless signatures
to process a simple request for a second interview.
Will I be asked to take any tests?
And if so, what are they, and how long will they take to administer?
Proctor & Gamble, for many of its professional positions, requires candidates to take
a one-hour math and abstract reasoning test. Some companies require a full day of
psychological, aptitude, technical skill, and intelligence testing. With most companies,
failure to pass the tests means automatic elimination from consideration.
Most drug tests are simply referred to as "physicals," and
may take several days to schedule and process. Often, youll have to use your own
doctor or clinic.
How long will it take before you reach a decision?
This will help you measure your progress through the hiring process,
and could spare you from getting the jitters if you dont hear something immediately.
I once got bent out of shape because a new client company was taking
a long time to make a decision whether to bring back one of my candidates for a second
interview. Later, I found in my original notes that the company was right on schedule;
theyd told me up front that it would take them several weeks to reach a decision. As
it turns out, I had no reason to complain.
Do you currently have any finalists?
This question lets you know if youve entered the race late,
and your interview with the company is only a formality. In a situation like this,
isnt it best to know where you stand?
Who will be making the hiring decision?
Find out if the decision will be made by a committee. If it is, must
the committee come to a unanimous agreement? Or, will the decision be based on the
recommendation of a single person?
The more information you can dig up about the hiring procedure, the
better youll be able to give a more confident, thoughtful interview. Whats
more, arriving at an interview armed with a bastion of facts will help you shield yourself
from the fear that occurs as a result of feeling out of control.
Background Information On the Company
While the amount of background information you can gather about a
company is practically endless, it would be ludicrous to try to become a walking
encyclopedia of corporate trivia. However, knowing something in each of these categories
should significantly improve your odds of getting hired:
The companys personnel -- who the major players are,
who was recently hired or let go. Its also a good idea to know something of the
history of the company, and who the founders were. For example, if you were interviewing
for IBM, it might be considered a faux pas to look puzzled and ask, "Who?" at
mention of the name Thomas Watson, Sr.
The companys basic structure -- what products or
services they provide to which customers, what the various divisions are, and whether
theyre privately or publicly held.
The companys vital signs -- how the company is doing
financially. Are they solvent or struggling? Are they involved in a hostile takeover, or
merging with another company? Hows their stock faring? You get the idea. Many of my
candidates like to look through Value Line before they interview, so they can talk
intelligently about the companys financial picture.
The companys divisional or departmental details -- the
changes that are taking place that could potentially affect the position youre
interviewing for. Is there a new product introduction or marketing strategy in the works?
Or how about an overhaul in the companys accounting methods, capital equipment, or
By arriving for your interview adequately briefed, youll make
a strong impression on the interviewer. Best of all, you can spend your interviewing time
discussing your background and the companys needs, not the corporate biography, or
company financial report.
A Complete List of Questions You Want to Ask.
During the course of an interview, your dialogue with the other
person will spawn a number of questions spontaneously. However, there may be important
issues to discuss which will never come up unless you take the initiative. For that
reason, you should bring a list of questions with you that will address these issues, so
that you dont leave the interview uninformed.
Premeditated questions can be grouped into four different
 Company questions deal with the organization, direction,
policies, stability, growth, market share, and new products or services of the prospective
company or department;
 Industry questions deal with the health, growth, change,
technological advancement, and personnel of the industry as a whole;
 Position questions deal with the scope, responsibilities,
travel, compensation policies, and reporting structure of the position youre
interviewing for; and
 Opportunity questions deal with your own potential for growth or
advancement within the company or its divisions, and the likely timetable for promotion.
You may have specific interests or concerns surrounding topics in
each category. For example, if youre interviewing with a computer manufacturer, you
may want to ask about the future growth of the industry. Or, lets say youre
interviewing for a position with a company thats known for its high rate of
personnel turnover. You might want to prepare a carefully worded question that deals with
Leave Your Laundry
List at Home
Naturally, you need to be careful not to come on too strong by
asking too many questions -- it may turn the interviewer off. Presumably, if theres
mutual interest, youll get all your questions answered at a subsequent interview.
The general rule of thumb is to limit the number of premeditated questions to about a
dozen or less. While its true that youll be interviewing the company as much
as theyll be interviewing you, the last thing you want to do is turn a dialogue into
an inquisition, or come across as a walking encyclopedia of corporate trivia.
You should also be aware that theres one specific taboo to
first-level interviewing, in terms of the questions you should ask. Never, ever bring up
the issue of salary or benefits. If the employer initiates a dialogue surrounding these
issues, and asks if you have any questions, fine.
But if it appears to the employer that your primary motivation for
changing jobs is the new companys compensation or benefit package, youll be
out the door quicker than a bolt of lightning. Employers get chills of fear and loathing
when they think youre only on the job market to feather your nest at their expense.
They visualize your employment with them as a short term, non-committal, career leveraging
maneuver, and understandably, want to avoid being victimized.
Early in my career as a recruiter, I arranged an interview for a
qualified candidate with a client company. After the interview, I called Shelly, the
employer, to debrief her.
"Well, your candidate didnt do so well," Shelly
"Really? I thought he had the perfect background."
"That wasnt the problem. I just didnt like the way
he handled the interview."
"I spent over an hour with him, telling him everything about
the company, and introducing him to all the key people," Shelly said. "I even
gave him an extensive tour of the manufacturing area."
"And then, I brought him back to my office, and we sat down to
talk about what hed seen. I asked him if he had any questions."
"And did he?"
"Yes. Thats when the interview ended. He looked me
straight in the eye and asked, What are your benefits?"
"And I got up," Shelly said, "and walked him right
out the door."
Dont misunderstand me. The candidates actions in no way
reflected on his abilities or his character; his intentions were perfectly honorable. But
after that incident (which cost the candidate a job and me a placement fee), I learned to
caution interviewees not to initiate the subject of salary or benefits.
My suggestion is to take the John F. Kennedy approach to
interviewing: "Ask not what your company can do for you, ask what you can do for your
This way, you can present yourself as a loyal, hard-working,
virtuous, and dedicated candidate, rather than as an opportunistic job-hopper whod
prefer to live off the fat of the land.
While its unthinkable to accept or even consider a job without
first knowing the financial rewards (or the details of the benefit package), there are
better and more timely ways to broach the subject, without endangering your candidacy.
Interview preparation is perhaps the single most overlooked aspect
of the job changing process. A candidate whos fired up and ready to go at the time
of the interview has a tremendous advantage over a candidate whos not.
The more carefully you prepare for your interview, the better your
chances of getting hired.
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Go to the next section:
to Master the Art of Interviewing