Interviewing Effectively Begins With Recalling Your Accomplishments
by Tom Washington
Knowing your accomplishments and identifying the skills used to achieve each accomplishment is one of the most important tasks of an effective job search. Identifying skills in your accomplishments is perhaps the most important action you can take to prepare for interviews.
The experience of recalling and reliving your accomplishments is a powerful one. Recalling these peak experiences increases one’s self-confidence, allowing possibility thinking to take place. Recognizing your accomplishments and identifying the skills used in those accomplishments is one of the most important tools you will have for selecting the right occupation, and then effectively selling yourself in interviews.
Accomplishments can be big or small, very impressive or rather simple. An accomplishment is anything you 1) enjoyed doing; 2) did well; 3) gained satisfaction from; 4) were complimented for; 5) were thanked or appreciated; or 6) are proud of. Many accomplishments include all six aspects, while some may include just one or two.
Accomplishments often involve solving problems. With some accomplishments you may receive recognition or compliments from parents, friends, or supervisors, while at other times you may be the only one who knows what you did. Some accomplishments are achieved through great effort, while others come easily. Many of your accomplishments were totally enjoyable, and are fondly recalled.
Other experiences are genuine accomplishments, but they may be “bittersweet.” It may be an accomplishment simply because you overcame many adversities. At the time you may have been extremely frustrated. Even thinking about the experience may bring back those feelings of frustration, anger, or hurt. It’s okay to remember the negative parts, but concentrate as much as you can on the positive aspects of the experience. In other words, concentrate on the result.
Accomplishments are best thought of as specific experiences. Most of your accomplishments should be things that occurred during a relatively short period of time. It could be something that occurred from start to finish in 15 minutes. More typically, accomplishments are experiences that occurred over days or weeks. Although some accomplishments may take place over years, those long-term accomplishments can be broken into sub-accomplishments. For example, graduating from college is certainly an accomplishment.
Although you should list an accomplishment like your college degree, step back and consider all of the smaller accomplishments that enabled you to achieve the larger accomplishment. In the case of graduating from college that would include the key papers you wrote and the projects you worked on. Those papers and projects should be listed as well.
Now review the list. Notice how some of the accomplishments are impressive, while others seem rather common and ordinary. That’s the way it is with most people. Many people have four or five rather impressive accomplishments and then it falls off dramatically from there. That’s to be expected.
I received a $600 award from Boeing for suggesting a money saving idea.
I became the first woman engineer in the firm.
I earned my way through college painting houses.
I figured out a faster method of estimating the cost of our printing jobs.
My advertising jingle is credited with increasing sales 15%.
My plan for flextime has really reduced absenteeism.
I increased sales in my territory 39% in two years.
I added 24 customers to my paper route.
Wrote recommendations for a hazardous waste program that were adopted by the state.
I received three promotions in four years.
I became one of the youngest store managers ever in the chain.
I developed a plan to purchase a fleet of trucks to handle our own deliveries. The plan cut our costs by 5% and provided more reliable service to our customers.
Was able to make history and literature interesting to bored kids.
Created the first performance measurements, charts, statistics, and graphs for most functions of the department.
I learned Russian so I could read War and Peace in the original language.
I got a B in chemistry after failing the midterm exam.
I got an A in chemistry from the toughest professor.
I wrote an outstanding paper on the causes of World War II.
I was elected senior class vice president.
I was committee chairperson of the junior prom decorations committee. Some teachers thought they were the best decorations in years.
I planted a garden, fought the weeds, and got 15 bushels of vegetables.
I hitchhiked from Paris through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. (A woman age 23, who traveled alone in 1972)
I planned and built a 400 square foot deck.
I won honorable mention in a county bakeoff for a unique potato salad.
I wrote 25 short stories between 1985 and 1995 and actually got two published.
Bought and redecorated (elegantly but on a small budget) a small condominium.
Took lessons and became an excellent ballroom dancer. Have taught others.
I learned to ski at age 44.
I got third place in a cross-country track meet.
I scored a game-winning basket.
I won first place in a kite-flying contest.
I climbed Mt. Rainier.
I competed in my first 10 K race at age 36.
As president of PTA I increased membership 21%.
I was elected secretary of my local accounting association.
As chairman of fund raising, I raised more money than any other Bay Area Lions Club in 1999.
My team built a very effective irrigation system during my Peace Corps tour.
I administered CPR to a man and saved his life.
After reviewing the list, read the expanded accomplishment on page four and notice how we identified skills. The real purpose of this exercise is to identify as many skills as possible, and especially to identify all of your “hooks.” A hook is a special skill, or a skill described in such a way that it hooks an interviewer. Hooks get remembered. Typically in interviews all you need to do is know your hooks, and be prepared to give an example or two to back each one up. Knowing how to identify your hooks, and then learning how to use them in interviews, will be among the most important parts of your work.
WRITING ABOUT ACCOMPLISHMENTS
a) List the experiences as they pop into your mind. Don’t filter them out, just list them. They do not need to be “knock your socks off” types of experiences. Try to list 40 or more, but list at least 30. Once you get started listing them, one accomplishment will trigger another.
b) Include at least two accomplishments from each five-year period of your life since age ten. This acts as a reminder that many of your top skills began to develop early on.
c) Include at least ten work-related accomplishments, with at least three coming from your current or most recent job. If you’re frustrated in your current job it’s easy to assume there haven’t been accomplishments, but there have been. Sometimes it takes a little more effort to identify them. Remember, an accomplishment is merely an experience where you did something well or got satisfaction from it.
d) You have dozens of accomplishments. Don’t screen them out because they seem insignificant. Each positive experience that you’ve had reveals something about you—your talents, your personality, your interests.
e) By the time you list your twentieth accomplishment, go back over your list to see if you have identified the top 12 accomplishments in your life. If not, make sure that in your remaining 10-15 accomplishments, those extra special experiences are included.
f) Determine your absolute top twelve lifetime accomplishments. One way is to decide which have had the greatest impact on your life. Another way is to ask yourself which ones will reveal the most skills. Some accomplishments are quite important to a person, but there aren’t a lot of skills to be identified. Sometimes a slightly more modest accomplishment is better to write about because it may reveal more about you and your skills. Select some because of the variety they will supply. They may reveal a different side of you or enable you to see a set of skills that are somewhat different from the other accomplishments.
g) With six of your accomplishments write 200-300 words, the other six 100-200. If you get on a roll, feel free to continue writing until you’ve said all that you want to say. For some people that might be 400 words or more.
h) Use the SHARE (Situation, Hindrances, Actions, Results, and Evaluation) method for writing about each accomplishment, Begin by describing the Situation. Give some background. What were the circumstances? What were the problems or Hindrances you faced? How did you analyze the situation? Describe the Actions you took, followed by the Results. Finish with your Evaluation, particularly the skills you demonstrated in the experience. Write as completely as you can and give enough details so any reader would have a good understanding of what you did. If the accomplishment is job-related, avoid acronyms or any technical jargon.
i) Describe your role. Many accomplishments are achieved through a group effort. You can still claim it as a personal accomplishment; simply concentrate on what your role in it was.
j) Describe the result. Every experience, every project, has a result. The fact that you are calling this experience an accomplishment means it had a positive result. To describe the result, think about what your goal was. Did you achieve it? One of the best ways to think about results is to consider what you did, and then add the words, “which resulted in.” An example would be: “I trained all year for cross-country, which resulted in my placing sixth in the state, the highest finish ever for someone from my high school.”
k) Quantify your accomplishments whenever possible. It may mean estimating, but that’s fine; you, and whomever you choose to show your accomplishments to, will be the only ones to see them. Did your accomplishment increase productivity at the office? If so, how much? 10%, 40%, 65%? As a manager, did you decrease turnover? If so, how much? As a committee leader for a volunteer organization you may have increased membership, attendance at monthly meetings, or revenue from fundraisers. (for more on SHARE (pages 30-33, ends just before Results Sell You)
a) One of the most important things you’re going to do now is identify the skills you used. Identifying skills is important, and is probably the most challenging part of this assignment.
b) The best thing to do is study the sample accomplishment to see how skills and qualities are identified. Skills are important, but personal qualities and characteristics are just as important. As a skill you might say, “produce highly effective marketing plans.” As a quality you might say, “extremely reliable,” “work well with people,” “hard worker,” or “able and willing to take on greater responsibility.” In actuality, these characteristics are skills.
c) Identify skills and qualities using phrases. Again, study the examples. In almost all cases a phrase has more impact than a single word. “Persistent” is a good word, but it doesn’t have the same impact as, “I never give up until the job is done right.” “Organizing” doesn’t have the same impact as “Effectively plan and organize projects and obtain high quality results.” Use words like excellent, effective, effectively. Words like that remind you that you didn’t just do it, but that you did it well.
Below are actual examples of accomplishments along with the skills that the client and I identified together. Read each of them to get a sense of how it will all come together.
Able to bring consensus in areas that had been chaotic
Achieve the unachievable
Effectively get people to review a concept objectively
Get people to value consensus and to be willing to compromise
Effectively organize large educational seminars
Excellent at resolving disputes among diverse interest groups
Excellent at marketing programs and getting excellent attendance
In three years beginning in 2001, I held a volunteer office with the Rocky Mountain Ski Instructors Association. I was elected to this position by the association’s 3,000 ski instructors to reorganize and simplify the current methodology used for teaching skiing.
This had long been disputed because there were so many systems of teaching and a widespread misuse of terminology. This became a critical issue because state licensing and certification was necessary for ski instructors to teach on U.S. Forest Service land at state ski areas.
To accomplish this I organized several large educational seminars each year to educate both candidates and certification examiners on a simplified American teaching system. As many as 500 people attended these two-day events. Many hours were spent in various levels of committee meetings disseminating information and resolving disputes among these diverse interest groups. A result of these efforts, a unified ski teaching method was developed.