TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL INTERVIEWING


Much of this information is geared for recent graduates and entry-level individuals, although experienced professionals and career public administrators may still find the information helpful.

Pre-Interview Research

The more you know about a position and the employer, the better your chances of preparing your resume in away that best communicates your background and qualifications, and the better your chances of having a successful interview.

When you do your initial research, your objective should be to develop an understanding of the type of community, the nature and history of the position, and the particular issues the organization and the department is facing. No one will expect you to be completely knowledgeable about these matters. However, gaining insight into them will put you in a more competitive position (not to mention your decision as to whether to apply in the first place).

You can gain information about a position in a variety of ways:

1. Visit the organization;

2. Make telephone calls to key individuals in the organization;

3. Contact former employees or officials;

4. Request printed materials about the organization.

A key to success is careful research about the job and the organization, agency, or company with whom you are interviewing. Use your personal network to discover the names of current employees you might call prior to the interview. Knowing about the job will help you prepare a list of your qualifications to match the position profile. Knowing about the employer will help you prepare an interview strategy, appropriate questions to ask, and points to emphasize.

Purpose of Interviews

The job interview is a strategic conversation with a purpose. Your goal is to persuade the employer that you have the skills, background, and ability to do the job and that you can comfortably fit into the organization and its culture. At the same interview, you should also be gathering information about the job and the organization to determine if the job and work environment are right for you.

You can more likely influence the interview process if you realize that an interview is not an objective process in which the employer necessarily plans to offer the job to the "best" candidate, based on knowledge, ability and skill alone. More often than not, an interview is a fairly subjective meeting in which the interviewer or appointing authority may offer the job to a qualified person whom he or she likes best. You need to understand that personality, confidence, enthusiasm, a positive outlook and excellent interpersonal and communication skills count heavily.

One key to success is to use every means at your disposal to develop effective interviewing skills, including selective presentation of your background, thoughtful answers to typical interview questions, well researched questions about the organization, and an effective strategy to market yourself. There is no magic to interviewing. It is a skill that can be learned and developed with practice.

The Interview Structure

Before receiving a job offer, you will typically have a series of interviews with an employer. The first interview may be a screening interview that could be conducted over the phone or at the place of employment. Screening interviews are rather brief, usually lasting 15-30 minutes. During that time the employer may describe the nature of the position, and will want you to elaborate on experiences outlined in your resume or application, and may ask you a few questions. If the employer is sufficiently impressed with your performance in this interview, you may be invited to a second (and perhaps third or fourth) interview.

The second interview process is longer, lasting anywhere from an hour to a whole day. It could include testing, lunch or dinner, a facility tour, as well as a series of interviews with various employees.

The third interview (if held) may be more to discuss particular points, concerns, issues, or approaches. Salary and benefit needs may be discussed.

The "Warm-up

Most interviews follow a rather predictable communication pattern of "warm-up," information exchange, and "wrap-up". During the first few minutes of the interview (the "warm-up"), an employer will be formulating a first, and perhaps lasting, impression of you. How you greet the employer, the firmness of your handshake, the way you're groomed and dressed, will all be a part of this initial impression.

To help you feel at ease, a practiced interviewer might ask "common-ground" questions about shared interests or acquaintances, or your travel to the interview. Some interviewers might start by saying, "Tell me about yourself," an opening for you to concisely describe your background, skills, and interest in the position.

Information Exchange

The information exchange will be the primary part of the interview. It is when you will be asked the most questions and learn the most about the employer. Typical interview questions include such inquiries as: "Why are you an ideal candidate for this positon?", "What are your strengths/weaknesses?", "How would your past supervisors describe you?", What are your long-term career goals?". More typical questions can be found in the section entitled "Questions Often Asked by Employers".

Since many traditional interview questions elicit responses that can be answered by opinions, feelings, and "text book answers" that may or may not reflect how the employee will actually behave or the job, many employers are now asking more "behavior descriptive" questions. Behavior descriptive question have been demonstrated to more accurately predict success on the job. Behavior descriptive questions assume that a person will behave on the next job in similar ways to behavior in the current or previous job. The more recent the behavior, the more likely it will be repeated. Thus, an employer may ask such questions as:

 "Describe the most difficult budget (or personnel, etc.) decision you have made this year? How did you go about analyzing the issue and making a decision?

"On your present (immediate past) job, in which situation did you make the best use of your technical or problem-soving skills? Please describe a specific challenge that brought out the best in your skills.

"Describe a situation in which you needed to solicit the cooperation of others in order for a project to proceed, but you had no "authority" over the persons involved. How did you go about gaining cooperation?"

If you are prepared for the interview, you will be able to promote your qualifications effectively as you respond to questions. With practice, you will gain confidence and become more polished in your presentation.

The "Wrap-up"

Eventually the employer will probably say, "Do you have any questions?" This is the cue that the interview is moving to the "wrap-up" stage. Always ask questions because this demonstrates your prior research and interest in the job. Your questions might be direct, logistical questions such as, "When can I expect to hear from you?" (if that has not been discussed); a question to clarify information the employer has presented; a question regarding the employer's use of new technology or practices related to the career field; or a question to assess the culture and direction of the organization such as "Where is this organization headed in the next five years?" or "Why do you like working for this organization?" Do not ask specific questions about salary or benefits unless the employer broaches the subject first.

The employer may also ask you if you have anything else you would like to add or say. Again, it's best to have a response. You can use this opportunity to thank the employer for the interview, summarize your qualifications and reiterate your interest in the position. If you want to add information or emphasize a point made earlier, you can do that, too. This last impression is almost as important as the first impression and will add to the substance discussed during the information exchange.

Communicating Effectively

Because a job interview is a communication process, your skills will become more polished over time. It is helpful to remember the following:

Speak clearly and enthusiastically about your experiences and skills. Be professional, but don't be afraid to let your personality shine through.

Listen carefully. You may be asked multi-part questions, and your ability to recall all the parts of the question may be part of the examination. Thus, you need to focus and concentrate on what is being said, both explicitly and otherwise. Your answers should be concise and to the point.

Be positive. Employers do not want to hear a litany of excuses or bad feelings about a negative experience. If you are asked about a sudden job change, or a weakness in your background, don't be defensive. Focus instead on the facts (briefly) and what you learned from the experience.

Pay attention to your nonverbal behavior. Look the interviewer in the eye, sit up straight with both feet on the floor, control nervous habits (cracking knuckles, drumming fingers, etc.), and smile as you are greeted.

Don't be afraid of short pauses. You may need a few seconds to formulate an answer. The interviewer may need time to formulate an appropriate question. It is not necessary to fill up every second with conversation.

Interview Tips

Plan to arrive for your interview 10-15 minutes prior to the appointed time. If you are earlier than that, go for a walk, brush up on information about the organization, go to the bathroom, or sit in the lobby preparing for the interview. Arriving too early may confuse the employer or create an awkward situation. By the same token, arriving late creates a bad first impression. Ask for directions when making arrangements for the interview.

Carry a portfolio notepad or at the very least a manila file folder labeled with the employer's name. Note: this is generally not expected of persons interviewing for executive positons. Bring extra resumes and a list of questions you need answered. You may refer to your list of questions to be sure you've gathered the information you need to make a decision. Do not take notes during the interview.

Be prepared to market your skills and experiences as they relate to the job described. Work at positioning yourself in the mind of the employer as a person with a particular set of skills and attributes. Employers have problems that need to be solved by employees with particular skills; work to describe your qualifications appropriately.

In many career fields, the lunch or dinner included during the interview day is not only employer hospitality, but a significant part of the interview process. Brush up on your etiquette and carry your share of the conversation during the meal. Often social skills are part of the hiring decision.

After the interview, take time to write down you impressions, remaining questions and information learned. If you are interviewing regularly, this will help you keep employers and circumstances clearly defined.

Follow-up the interview with a thank-you letter. Employers regard this as evidence of your attention to detail, as well as an indication of your final interest in the position. Reconfirm your interest in the position.

Interview Styles

Many employers are well-trained to interview potential employees. Others, however, may not be skilled in the art of interviewing. Maintain your professionalism and use effective interviewing techniques, whatever the skill level of the interviewer. Interviewers adopt different techniques for each interview and it is valuable for the job seeker to recognize these styles in preparation for interviews.

Directed - A directed interview has a definite structure. The will usually have an agenda and a list of specific questions.

Nondirected - A nondirected interview tends to be less structured. The interviewer may ask broad, general questions and not take charge of the interview.

Stress - A stress-styled interview is not as common as other interview styles. It is used to determine how the applicant reacts under pressure. There are many possible forms of stress interviews, which may include timed and problem-solving tasks.

Group - A group interview is one where several candidates are interviewed at once. this style is often used to determine how candidates interact as team members, or may be used if the organization hires in large numbers.

Panel - A panel-style interview involves more than one interviewer questioning a candidate. While similar to the directed interview, it is necessary to establish rapport with each interviewer. Direct eye contact is extremely important.

Questions Often Asked By Employers

1. Tell me about yourself.

2. What are your long-range and short-range career goals and objectives, and how are you preparing to achieve them?

3. Why did you choose your career?

4. What do you consider to be your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?

5. How would you describe yourself? How would you current supervisor describe you?

6. How has your experience prepared you for this position?

7. Why should we hire you?

8. How do you determine or evaluate success?

9. In what ways do you think you can make a contribution to our organization?

10. Describe a situation when you had to use your creativity to the fullest to complete a project.

11. Describe your most rewarding (or difficult) work experience.

12. If you were hiring for this position, what qualities would you look for?

13. What led you to choose this line of work?

14. How do you work under pressure?

15. Describe the ideal job.

16. Why did you decide to seek a position with this organization and what do you know about us?

Behavior Descriptive Interviewing

Traditional interviewing and hiring methods center on the education, qualifications and experience of the candidate. If an applicant meets the educational requirements, appears to have the experience and personal characteristics, and responds as expected to traditional interview questions, this candidate is judged qualified for the position.

The problem is that traditional methods merely elicit responses that address credentials, opinions and feelings. Rarely will traditional interview questions prompt the candidate to tell the interviewer about actual performance on the job, or about job experiences and accomplishments in specific situations. Answers given by candidates do not focus on what a person actually did in a specific situation on a previous job, how it was done, and under what circumstances it was done. As a result, traditional interviewing does a poor job of helping employers predict how a candidate will behave in specific situations. This poor predictive ability has been proven repeatedly in many research studies.

In summary, a recent review of all published research (over 150 studies) on interviews found one-on-one unstructured interviews averaged only 19% predictive accuracy.

Structured panel interviews only rose to 35% accuracy. Research-based behavioral interviews, however, achieved an accuracy of over 80% - a four-times improvement. Even the three single studies that directly compared Behavior Description with traditional interviews found an uncorrected accuracy of 72%. This represents the highest hiring accuracy found in science and the best chance organizations have today to build a strong human-resource base.

The best predictor of future performance is past performance in similar circumstances. More specifically:

  1. The more recent the past behavior, the greater its predictive power.
  2. The more longstanding the behavior, the greater its predictive power.

A Behavior Descriptive approach to interviews focuses on past performance. By focusing on past performance, employers greatly increase their ability to predict whether a person will be the "top performer" the organization is looking for.

The following are examples of Behavior Descriptive interview questions:

1. Tell me/us about a situation in which you were responsible for overseeing a major capital facilities project. What issues did you face in planning, financing and siting the project? How did you resolve them? How did you go about managing the project once approved? What problems arose on the project and how did you handle them?

2. Tell me/us about a situation in which you were expected to make a professional recommendation to a board about a major policy action, and you were aware that several of the board members had diverse and conflicting opinions about the course of action to take. How did you go about formulating and communicating your recommendation?

3. Describe a difficult budget decision you were required to make? How did you go about analyzing the issue and making a decision?

4. Tell me/us about the most difficult personnel action with which you have been involved. What were the issues? How did you respond? What resulted from your actions?

5. What actions have you taken over the years to assure that your workforce was representative of the community at large?

6. Thinking back over the past few years, in which situation did you make the best use of your technical or problem-solving skills? Please describe a specific challenge that brought out the best in your skills.

7. Tell me/us about the most difficult citizen you dealt with last year. How did you respond?

8. Think about a time when you noticed the early warning signs of an emerging issue or problem. When did you first notice the problem? What was the first thing you did to correct the problem?

9. Describe a situation in which you needed to solicit the cooperation of others in order for a project to succeed, but you had no "authority" over the persons involved. How did you go about gaining cooperation?

10. Describe the budget process you have found most successful in your past work? What was your part in making it a success? What obstacles were encountered and how did you resolve them?

Since Behavior Descriptive interviewing is becoming more popular and commonplace among employers, you should prepare answers to possible behavior descriptive questions such as those listed above.

Other Important Interview Tips

Perhaps the most important things to remember in the interview process are these three items:

1. Be Prepared. Know the job and the employer. Do your home work.

2. Emphasize success. People want to hire a winner. Show them you are one.

3. Show interest. Employers want to know you are interest in them. Show interest; act enthused. Be positive.

Before the interview, you should learn everything you possibly can about your prospective employer and the people conducting the interview. You should arrive at the interview with a good understanding of the particular requirements of the position, knowledge of the issues currently facing the organization, and insight into local politics. Use personal and professional contacts, contact the recruiter directly, explore issues likely to be covered in an interview.

Do extensive background research. Source materials include budget and financial reports, city charters, annual performance reports, bond official statements and local newspapers.

Plan and rehearse your "verbal resume." You will almost always be asked , "Please tell us about yourself," so be prepared with a good response, tailored to the job at hand.

Prepare a written list of likely interview questions and job requirements. See the List above for examples. Prepare key points you need to make to demonstrate your specific accomplishments in each area.

Although you may not be given much time to ask questions of the interviewer, prepare to do so. Ask good questions. If you are asked what questions you have, and you don't have any, the interviewer may get the impression you haven't done your homework, or aren't seriously interested in the position. Prepare your questions in advance and phrase them to demonstrate your insight and ability to handle the position. Often, the most successful applicants are those who simply out-work their competition.

The single best indicator of future performance is past success. City Councils, City Managers, and other hiring officials want leaders and achievers in their organizations. As such, your interview performance must convince the decision makers that hiring you adds value to their organization.

Develop your verbal communications skills. Having great management or technical skills and a strong record of accomplishment is not helpful if you can't verbally convey you successes.

Answer questions directly. Then elaborate with examples. Choose examples that highlight past successes and relate it to the projects or issues that interviewer is facing, but avoid excessively lengthy responses. Remember, interviews are time-limited, so use that time to focus the interviewer's attention on your strengths and successes.

Public administration at all levels is a difficult, demanding job. Successful performance requires dedication and high energy. You should recognize the interview as your best opportunity to display the energy, initiative and commitment that you will bring to the position when hired. Be sure you are really interested in the position,. It is a waste of your time and the employer's for you to interview simply for practice or as part of a "fishing expedition". If you can psychologically commit yourself to the job, withdraw as a candidate.

Don't forget to ask for the job. Don't beg, but do tell the prospective employers that you want to work for them.

Dress appropriately and professionally. For men, this means a dark suit, white shirt, conservative tie, polished shoes and a neat haircut. For women, muted colors are usually best, conservative dresses or suits, minimal jewelry and subtle makeup.

Use humor appropriately. Don't go out of your way to get laughs, but a little bit of light humor can put everyone at ease.

Be aware of your volume and animation. Speak clearly and audibly; avoid rigid postures and "stiffness."

Use names. Remember the names of the interviewers and use them. People like to hear their names. As Andrew Carnegie said, "The sweetest sound in any language is the sound of your own name."

Maintain eye contact. This shows self confidence.

Finally, relax and enjoy yourself and the process. Tell the interviewer, with both your words and demeanor, that you appreciate the opportunity the interview presents.

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