How to Prepare for an Interview

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Whether applying for a job, or for a scholarship (yes, even here! J ), an interview shows up in the way of your desire to get what you applied for. Scholarship interviews are included in the application process in the programs administered by the Soros Foundations (Open Society Network) and are also used by most American universities, at both undergraduate and graduate level. What's an interview about? Well, being invited to one means you look good "on paper" (your application documents are all right) and that you made it over the first part of the application process. It also usually means that you're in a "now or never" kind of situation. Hard but true, screw the interview and you're out, no matter how fine your application is. This is why you definitely SHOULD PREPARE before the interview. Before going any further, please note that the rules and recommendations below apply for both scholarship and job interviews, unless otherwise stated.

If you're after a job, an interview is normally expected if your application awakens the employer's interest. In the case of scholarship applications, if interviews are part of the application process, than this is normally stated in the application details you receive together with your application form. The part below deals with what you should do if you receive an invitation to an interview, both before, during and after it.

Before the interview

Preparation before an interview IS A MUST. Before stepping the interview room, you should document in detail about the program you are applying to, the kind of question you expect to be asked, how much the interview will last, etc.

While an interview is clearly a testing situation, and you should be prepared accordingly, you're not facing the Inquisition there. The goal of a Western-style interview is to put you in the best possible light. The interviewer wants to get an impression about what kind of person you are, to complete the image s/he has from the application documents with things that cannot be put on paper. Therefore, you should expect a formal, but relaxed atmosphere, in which you will do most of the talking.

First, try to read as much as possible about the company/scholarship program you have applied to. If you haven't done this yet, this is a proper time. If it's a company, find out exactly what they do, how successful they are, what is their market position, what they and others think about their corporate culture, what somebody with your job does there, how a usual day looks like. If it's a scholarship, look at what subjects you'll study, how many will they be, how much freedom you have in choosing the subjects, how your work will be assessed, professors, the size of the department, student/faculty ratio, accommodation, extracurricular activities, cultural life. In short, try to get an as exact as possible image about what you'll do if you get the scholarship/job. Write down whatever is of interest to you, what is not clear, or what you'd like to find out more about. During the actual interview, there's almost always a time when it's your turn to ask question and you'll want to have some useful questions to ask.

Second, re-read the announcement. Examine the requirements, think of reasons and examples that prove you can meet those requirements. Very probably, you'll be asked questions about that during the interview. Attention: don't exaggerate, you'll seem overqualified, and don't lie: it may sound paranoid, but you never know how will "they" J be able to double check what you say. Look at the job/scholarship description: what recommends you for that thing? That's another probable question. In some interviews, the question will be even more direct: why are you the best for that place? You'd better have some answer here. And be convinced you are the best: it will show during the interview, and help increase your chances. Attention: there's always a thin line between self-confidence (the good thing) and arrogance (should we say, obviously, a bad thing J).

Third, try to find out how much the interview will last, who's gonna be your interviewer, even, if possible, what topics are of most interest to him/her and will show up during the discussion. Of course, that is easier to do if you get the invitation by phone, but there's always a second option: do some digging in their website, some useful material may show up, or get in contact with persons who have been through the interview before you.

Fourth, there are a few common questions which show up in almost any interview. Prepare answers for them and ask a second opinion on those answers from a friend. While specific questions appear in each interview, take a look at the list below - you'll meet some of these questions for sure:

1. Why are you good for... what recommends you for...?
2. Mention 1 or 3 personal qualities/downsides.
3. Why this program/job?
4. In what way do you meet the requirements for...?
5. How do you see yourself in five years' time/ what is your career plan?
6. Tell us about a situation where you have proven to be a leader/innovator/person with initiative.
7. Don't you think you are too young/too old for...?
8. How are your studies/your background fit for...?
9. For a scholarship interview: How will you use what you learn later?
10. How does this scholarship/job meet your future plans?

We're sure you'll be able to think of a few other, more particular questions that fit your situation and are likely to show up during the interview. Fin answers for those as well. When you're done with all this answer finding, have a rehearsal or two. Get a friend who will play the interviewer and ask you questions. Do this in an atmosphere as interview-like as possible and, of course, in the language in which the interview will take place.

Here's some hints on how to answer the questions above:

1. Link the requirements of the position to your background, showing how your previous experience and knowledge will help you manage this task successfully. Interviewers look for a clear progress from one task to the other, in your past, in order to show growth potential. Be sure you can prove that with examples.
2. Enumerate those of your qualities relevant for the job/scholarship you want to get.
3. While the downsides have to look like downsides, show they have some kind of potential of turning into something positive that can become and advantage in some sense. Here's an example: stubbornness is something bad, perseverance is something good, but can you tell the exact difference? Guerrilla troops on the side of war winners are partisans, those on the side of the losers are terrorists. This kind of game should you play with your minuses and their potential of turning into something positive.
4. In general what makes you good is your background and particular interests and knowledge, all of which match exactly the requirements of the job/program. Even more, your personal characteristics and your pleasant way of being make you a more valuable candidate. This is the message you have to get across.

During the interview

The evening before the interview travel to the actual place of the interview, especially if this is not a route you know well. See what transportation you need and how much time is necessary - add some more if you'll have to travel during rush hour. One of the worst things you can do at an interview is to be late. Arrive a few minutes later and wait outside, rather than later. Still, punctuality will look best.

On the day of the interview, bring with you a copy of all your application documents (not recommendations, of course J ), and an updated CV. The interviewer will very probably not accept new documents and have its own copy of those files, but you never know when an extra copy is needed during the discussion.

DRESS FORMAL. Even if you're one of those lucky programmers about whom nobody really cares how they dress when go to work, still wear a suit during the interview, or at least matching trousers and blazer, and of course, a shirt and a tie. Have your mom or room mate check they go fine with each other J. In many cases, the interviewer will be less formally dressed then you. Never mind, you're the one expected to make a good impression, s/he's trying to look relaxed and not stress you. If you feel/think you look too stiff, unbutton your blazer during the interview, but mind your appearance and position on the chair all the time.

The discussion will usually start with some informal chit-chat, meant to warm the atmosphere and to make you look less stressed. Smile when you enter and while saluting. Enter the game of chit-chat, while remaining polite and relaxed. The serious questions will start arriving soon. Towards the end of the interview, you will probably be asked if you have any questions of yourself. Remember, you have those prepared already. At the very end, as the last question you have, ask for feedback on your performance. Not only because it looks damn good J in the eyes of the interviewer, but also because you wanna know what you did fine and what not, and what could you do better next time. Don't expect any hint towards a decision in your case. You will never get one, if you have to deal with a professional interviewer. S/he has some other interviewers to conduct and review before reaching a decision. Never mind what you think about your performance, stay polite, relaxed and self-confident until you walk out the door. Your impressions don't necessary coincide with those of the person taking the interview and therefore you should play your chances until the very end.

Here's some dos and don'ts during an interview:
1. Try not to dominate the discussion by speaking too much or too loud. Let the interviewer have the initiative but when talking take enough time to make your points clear. Also pay attention in order to avoid a dominant body-language.
2. Don't criticize colleagues, friends, competitors for the same thing, current university/workplace, etc. The reason you should get what you're after is because you are very good at it and not because the others are bad. Criticism will decrease your credibility: what will keep you from criticizing the same position you are now after?
3. Don't bring financial aspects into discussion yourself. In the case of scholarships, the sums are fixed and clearly stated from the beginning, there's nothing to negotiate. As for jobs. Don't ever be the first to call a wage, even if you are directly invited to. Avoid politely and see what the employer thinks you're worth. If you ask too little, you might end up underpaid, if you ask too much, you may not get the job.
4. Unless there's a scholarship for minorities or disabled persons, don't bring personal aspects into discussion. The interviewer cares less about where you sleep, and more about what you know and can do.

In some cases, the interview will not look at all like what you have imagined. This is the case mainly with job interviews and it materializes into two most often situations. Either the interviewer sits back relaxed in the chair and says: tell me about you, never to make a word for the next 30 minutes, either s/he's straight forward, putting pressure on you, not letting you answer, sometimes going as far as being disrespectful and talking down to you. We personally wish you this never happens. Still, interviewers are people themselves, not always perfect for the job. In other cases, they think they're more professional if they do so - that's especially the case with the second alternative, the more difficult one. Or, the job you're about to take requires somebody that does not go under that easy, and it is all a test about how well do you manage in conditions of pressure. No matter what the case is, you should not lose temper and remember you are still very well prepared for the interview. Bring in front what makes you good for the job, mention your qualities, your background, your knowledge, bring examples. Stay polite and try to state when you answer is finished. If it's a test, that's how you'll pass it. If the interviewer is an asshole turned Master of All Knowledge when confronting you, ask yourself: do you still want to work for the company that hired such a person on such a job? After all you're good and unless this is not 100% the chance of your life, you can do better anyway. But do this after the interview; during it there is a time for making your best, staying polite and as relaxed as possible. And above all, these are rare cases that we hope you'll never meet.

After the interview

If you have the e-mail or mail contact of the interviewer, write a "thank you" note. That's a good occasion to:
1. thank the interviewer for his/her time and the interesting discussion you had.
2. Make him/her remember you better than the other 20 people s/he met that day.
3. Outline those things that, even though mentioned during the interview, did not make it to the front line of the discussion, but are still an advantage for your application. This is a bad moment, however, for bringing in new arguments: it will make you look unfair.
4. Remember the most important elements that make your application so valuable.

You should do that on the day of the interview, and in not more than 3-4 paragraphs.

The interview would not be such an stressful event, should you have the occasion to go through, say, 200 of them. Since this is not the case, intensive preparation will have to do. So do it carefully, it might be this interview that will get your future started.



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