Prospective employers typically have two goals in an employment interview—to ensure that you possess the necessary skills for the position, and to verify that you are a culture fit. Acing these two elements requires preparation, but it is possible. Even if you have no job experience, consider these tips:
Conduct thorough research
First, review the job description, and then polish (or familiarize yourself with) the skills it describes. One simple way to do so is to read blog posts or magazine/newspaper articles that discuss the latest trends in your field.
If the job description includes acronyms or unfamiliar vocabulary, you have been given a valuable clue as to which topics the company considers important. So, learn them. As a recent computer science graduate, you might know a great deal about programming theory, but do you know how a modern technology company designs scalable software? You may not be an expert yet (and that is okay), but you should be able to discuss the concept in an interview.
Your research should also extend to the company you are interviewing at. Know what they sell, and to whom. Government agencies and non-profits have customers too, even when their services are free. Think about what your role would be in enhancing those services. What did you learn in college, or in your prior work experience, that will bring value to the organization?
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Cultivate a positive identity
Next, prepare your elevator pitch. Imagine that you find yourself standing next to Elon Musk or Marissa Mayer. You have 30 seconds to tell them why you will make an excellent member of their team. Your pitch is not a recitation of your resume—that is, after all, the purpose of your resume. Instead, your pitch is a short summary of your passions and identity (carefully crafted to appeal to an employer). Consider this example: “I love discovering how things work, and then applying that knowledge to making tools. [Company X] is already doing so much in the field, and I want to help.” Or, “I love meeting people, learning their stories, and helping them find solutions to their problems. I think that [Company Y] develops amazing products that can make a real impact in people’s lives.” You can elaborate by describing a time that you demonstrated these passions, but keep your elevator pitch brief.
Remember, too, to stay positive. The example pitches above use words like love, help, and solution. You may have had very negative experiences in your past—difficult coworkers, unfinished projects, embarrassingly public mistakes, and so on. You will likely be asked about them. The interviewer may say, “Tell me about a time that you had a conflict with a coworker.” He or she does not want to hear about the conflict, or the awful colleague. The interviewer wants to hear how you handled adversity. Were you proactive in finding a solution? What lessons did you learn? Demonstrate that you understand that adversity is inevitable, and that you excel at working through it.
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Avoid excessive bragging
Finally, avoid the humblebrag. The cliché example would be answering, “I have to try not to be a perfectionist,” when asked to describe your biggest weaknesses. You are saying, in effect, that you do not have flaws—just strengths by other names. A better way to answer the same question is to talk about how you have worked to overcome a personal challenge. Just as in the above example, the interviewer is not asking you about flaws to actually hear about your flaws. Rather, he or she wants to hear that you recognize that you have things to work on, and that you are actively working on those things. A better answer might be, “I had a semester with two science classes and a writing-intensive literature course, and I was president of my sorority. I have always had difficulty keeping multiple deadlines straight, so I learned to use my phone calendar to manage tasks. I am still working on improving my scheduling.”
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Finally, ensure you arrive a few minutes early, dress neatly, treat everyone with respect (they deserve it), ask questions about the company, and send a follow-up note thanking the interviewer for his or her time. Good luck!
Brian Witte is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University