5 Keys to Out-Shining the Competition in an Interview

Job ApplicationEvery year, I participate in mock interviews with college students who are getting ready to graduate. It’s an excellent program that provides students with an opportunity to polish up their skills and gain valuable insight before beginning their job search. Here are five useful tips for anyone who might be prepping for that big interview.

Authenticity is Key

A few years ago, I interviewed a student I’ll call Mark. His handshake was firm and practiced, and he looked me in the eye while he spoke. It was obvious he’d taken seriously the coaching he’d received. I began our mock interview, not with one of the prep questions provided to me by the professor, but with a question of my own.

“Do you like Girl Scout Cookies? Have you ever noticed how Girl Scout cookies are such a coveted item since they’re only available once a year?” I asked. “It’s kind of genius marketing.”

There was a long pause before he replied, and when he did, his tone was angry. “What are you talking about? I’ve spent hours preparing for the questions you’re supposed to be asking me, and that isn’t one of them.”

And with that answer, he told me everything I needed to know about what kind of employee he would be. I didn’t need any of the pages of questions in front of me; I’d found out what I needed to know only one minute into our interview.

If you’re prepping for a job interview, practicing typical questions is a good exercise. But as a prospective employer, I don’t want to hear your canned, practiced answers that have been carefully constructed to share a story about some ‘failure’ which eventually turns out to be a good thing which magically saves the day. What I really want to see is authenticity, how you think and who you are when you’re speaking off the cuff. An employer will value someone who can quickly recover from an unexpected curve ball and continue playing as if nothing unexpected happened.

I start many of my interviews with seemingly random questions, especially when it is for a role that is going to require a great deal of improvising or thinking on one’s feet. I well remember another such interview with this same line of questions with a young lady we’ll call Sherry. She impressed me with her response. Not only did she share her favorite cookie, but Sherry seized the opportunity to demonstrate her own understanding of marketing by providing her thoughts about using limited supply as a marketing tactic. She took the curve ball I threw at her and hit a home run.

Filter. Filter. Filter.

Of all the mock interviews I’ve conducted, I think one of the most memorable was with a young man I’ll call Joel. He was brilliant, but his arrogance made it difficult to conduct the interview. Joel interrupted me halfway through several of my questions, too impatient for me to get to the question mark at the end of my sentence before sharing his wealth of knowledge. He stated strong negative opinions about several topics, and he even went so far as to tell me that he was too smart to take an entry level job that would be boring. Whether you are applying for a position where you will be the face of a company or for a role with a large amount of solo work, you still need to be sensitive to what you share in an interview. While I have come to highly value the traits of honesty and transparency, being honest is not the same thing as being brutally honest. After sitting through intense design sessions that resulted in a higher quality end product, I most definitely value being direct and not letting feelings get in the way of the integrity of a project. But when advocating for a specific outcome or sharing opinions, be careful that your opinions don’t come off as insults. An arrogant employee will destroy a team’s ability to be collaborative or creative, so make very sure you don’t give a future employer cause for concern by how you share your thoughts during an interview.

Attitude Outweighs Grades

This may come as a surprise to some, but employers are sometimes far more interested in your hands-on experience and attitude than whether you graduated with every award possible. I interviewed one young man who, on paper, looked like the best candidate to land the job after the interview. He had an impressive GPA as well as a long list of honors and awards he’d accumulated over his eleven year stay at the university. He’d taken a heavy load of course work and collected several degrees in the process. I scanned through his entire work history and couldn’t find evidence of a single job outside of the academic world. When I mentioned this, he brushed it off as unimportant. As the founder of a startup, I rarely check a student’s GPA, because it is only an indication of how well a student has learned to “color inside the lines” of academia. I’m not saying grades don’t matter, but when given the choice between an individual with no work history and stellar grades and an individual who can do a great job at several things and is willing for some of the more menial tasks required? The latter will likely win when they come up against someone who does a superior job at one thing and one thing alone.

Aim Higher. A Lot Higher.

Another question I often ask interviewees is about their vision of the future. “If every ideal opportunity presented itself to you over the next five years, and every door opened that you could dream of opening, what would you be doing if I met you five years from now?” I am amazed at how often the responses are so limited. Not every individual, or position, for that matter, requires someone who has the drive and ambition to want to be the next leader of the free world, but when I interview a potential employee who doesn’t see the possibility or who doesn’t have the desire for growth, there is a good chance that the individual will be complacent and unmotivated in their position. Employers want to hire individuals who are motivated to improve, so don’t be afraid to dream a bit bigger if you tend to play it very safe.

Do Your Research. It Matters.

While it is to be expected in a mock interview setting that students will likely not know anything about what I do or what my company does, it is surprising how often a potential employee walks into an actual interview with little or no knowledge of what our company does. It takes a matter of a few minutes to look up a company, browse their website, and read up on the bios of the leading members of that company – and particularly the details of the person with whom you are interviewing. LinkedIn is another excellent resource to gain a bit of background about the person who will be deciding your fate during a job interview. If someone can’t be bothered to take a half hour to learn more about our company and about the position they are seeking, it is quite likely that this same lack of effort will follow on any project they’re given as an employee. When a potential employer gives you the opportunity to ask any questions you might have about their company, make sure you’re prepared. It matters.

Acing the interview, especially when there are numerous applicants for the position you want, is about far more than just your qualifications on paper. After you’ve polished your resume and submitted your application, your work is just beginning. Do your research, keep the negativity in check, be ready for the unexpected and display good attitude – and you’re sure to out-shine the competition.

Also published on Huffington Post and LinkedIn Pulse

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