Selling Yourself In Job Interviews Reaps Rewards For College Students
by Tom Washington

Enthusiastic. Strong communications skills. Focused. Full of potential. Prepared. These are the desired qualities consistently emphasized by college placement directors and campus recruiters.

Selling these qualities is not difficult, but it does take time and effort. Through practice and by studying the art of interviewing you can sell yourself and avoid the following classic blunders committed by students.

  • Two minutes into the interview an IBM recruiter was asked what the letters I-B-M stood for. Although courtesy dictated at least a ten minute interview, in reality it ended right there.
  • A student was asked what he knew about the company he was interviewing with. After stammering for a moment the recruiter asked if he had read the company literature which had been sent to the placement center. After admitting he had not, the recruiter stood up and said, "This interview is over."
  • A graduate was interviewing with Castle and Cook, the food conglomerate. The eager student studied everything he could about the Bumble Bee Tuna division, only to learn at the interview that he was meeting with the Dole Pineapple folks instead.
  • An Annheuser Busch recruiter took a candidate to lunch. The candidate ordered Coors instead of an Annheuser Busch brand.
  • A candidate was taken to the cafeteria for lunch by a subordinate of the hiring manager. The candidate was rude to the cashier and word of it quickly got back to the manager.
  • A student interviewed on campus with a major regional bank. When asked, "How do you see us in your career?" he replied, "Well I'd really rather work for [a competitor] because they're only two blocks from my home."
  • Another student interviewing with a savings and loan was asked why he was interested in the position. His reply, "Because it's available."

Of course most students never make such glaring errors, but it is a reminder that you must know the etiquette and principles of interviewing.

According to Robert Thirsk, former Career Planning and Placement Director at the University of Washington, successful interviewing begins with a thorough review of yourself. He asks students to carefully assess themselves. "First, they need to clarify their interests. Second, they need to assess their technical and transferable skills. Third, they must be clear on their values and hold to those values. Fourth, they need to know what motivates and inspires them. And fifth, they need to know their short-term and long-term goals."

Thirsk concludes, "If students have done a good assessment, they will not only interview more effectively, but they will make better career decisions as well." Victor Lindquist, former Director of Placement at Northwestern University and author of an annual survey of major employers, states that his surveys reveal that poor communications skills is the number one cause of rejection. As he puts it, "Students need to recognize that they are not really interviewing, they are making a sales presentation."

Truman Bell, College Relations Coordinator for Exxon, confirms Lindquist's analysis. He ranks communications and interpersonal skills as one and two on his list of important attributes. As he points out, selling your interpersonal skills is merely another aspect of communications. Bell especially looks for evidence that a student can get along with coworkers and clients.

Energy And Enthusiasm

Howard Figler, author of The Complete Job Search Handbook, and former placement director of the University of Texas at Austin, emphasizes the two E words – energy and enthusiasm. According to many studies, demonstrating a lack of energy and enthusiasm is among the top five reasons for rejecting candidates. These are two qualities that every college student should be able to sell, but many fail to.

Figler points out that many students feel they have little to offer. Their attitude is, "I'm young and inexperienced, what can I offer an employer?" Figler would like to see students turn that attitude around to, "I'm young and energetic!" He adds that just that simple change in attitude can drastically improve how employers will perceive that person.

Employers seek enthusiastic people who really want to get involved with their jobs. In an interview you should project a genuine enthusiasm that includes enthusiasm for the job and its duties, enthusiasm for your future boss, and enthusiasm for the company. The best way to appear enthusiastic is to genuinely be enthusiastic.

For Truman Bell of Exxon, a lack of enthusiasm is one of the biggest turnoffs during an interview. Figler adds that it is easy to appear enthusiastic if your research reveals that the job and company could help you achieve your career goals.

Enthusiasm is demonstrated throughout an interview and begins with active listening. Really listening to the interviewer shows respect as well as enthusiasm. Show the interviewer that you are totally attentive to everything he or she has to say.

Showing enthusiasm does not require wild gyrations of the hands or raising one's voice, but it does require good voice inflection. Those who speak with an expressionless face and a monotone voice may do so out of nervousness, but an employer will interpret it as lack of enthusiasm.

I encourage my clients to perform a quick enthusiasm check every five minutes during an interview. If they realize their enthusiasm has slackened, they begin to take corrective action. If you have begun to slouch in your chair, sit up and lean slightly forward. Then, at the first opportunity to speak positively about yourself, speak slightly louder and faster, punctuate some of your words for effect, and use some hand gestures. You cannot stay at a peak level of enthusiasm throughout an interview, so reach those peak levels when describing strengths and valuable experiences.

One of the best ways to demonstrate enthusiasm is to tell the employer at the end of the interview that you genuinely want the job.

By all means avoid sabotaging yourself. Many people lose their enthusiasm, consciously or subconsciously, as soon as they discern some negative factor about the job. Don't fall into that trap. Consciously maintain your enthusiasm throughout by concentrating on those parts of the job you would like. Only when you have an offer in hand, and all of your questions have been answered, do you really know if you want the job. Lowering your enthusiasm level, however, essentially guarantees that you will not get the offer.

Potential

Recruiters universally stress that they try to determine a candidate's potential for success within their organization. All agree that the best evidence for future success is past success, and their interview questions are geared toward that. Jodi DeLeon, College Recruiting Manager for Microsoft says that potential is critical. "We want evidence of drive, goals, ambition, and focus. Students should know what they want to do and how they will get there. They should know what is interesting to them. If their grades were not great, but they were a teaching assistant, a volunteer, or involved in extracurricular activities, that helps a lot."

DeLeon looks for a person's ability to show why that experience will pay off for Microsoft. She encourages students to draw on past experiences and to show what was learned from those experiences.

DeLeon recalls one MBA intern who landed a permanent position in marketing by drawing on his past work experience in finance. By demonstrating strategic thinking when dealing with financial issues, he convinced the hiring manager that he could effectively apply that strategic thinking to marketing.

Focus

Recruiters consistently mention the importance of focus, having goals, and knowing where you want to go. Susan Hansen, Director of College Recruitment for Macy's states, "We want people who are focused – people who have set goals and have achieved goals." Focus for Hansen does not mean that you've wanted a retailing career since junior high, or even that retailing is the only field you're pursuing, but it does mean having direction. That's why the self-assessment process recommended by Thirsk is so important.

Preparation

Recruiters agree that they want candidates who are prepared for the interview. At a major university recruiters expressed concern that too many students failed to read the company literature. Counselors began emphasizing the importance of reading the literature, researching companies, and preparing for interviews. Recruiters now say their students are among the best prepared anywhere in the country.

Adequately researching a company goes beyond reading the company literature. It includes reading annual reports and online tools found at libraries including Infotrac, eLibrary, Factiva, PowerSearch, and ProQuest to gather information on your target firms and the industries they are in. These resources each have the complete text for articles in thousands of magazines, journals, and newspapers. Studying industry trends and learning about the competition will help greatly. The Industry Outlook Handbook is a good place to begin your industry research.

Recruiters also agree that they dislike over preparation. Some students respond with over rehearsed, trite, passionless answers. Hansen, of Macy's, has a ready response. "If a person seems too rehearsed, I'll throw the person a curve with questions the person could not possibly be prepared for." She keeps throwing the curves until their answers become more genuine.

Those who have done a great deal of research often strive too hard to convince the interviewer that they've done their homework. The right approach is to weave your information into the interview, rather than beating the interviewer over the head with your vast knowledge.

Researching an organization is important because it demonstrates respect for the interviewer, it helps you to ask better questions, and it demonstrates that you are a person who always does a little extra. The interviewer is not interested per se, in the fact that you memorized earnings for the past five years or can quote its current stock price.

By all means do not make the mistake of the young woman who asked what IBM stood for, or the young man who failed to read the company brochure, but do not try to impress the employer with your storehouse of knowledge. If you've done your research, they'll know.

As Tim Collins, Manager of College Relations at Boeing puts it, "Coming unprepared is like coming empty-handed. If you are really serious about working for that company, you must be prepared."

Describe Real Experiences

Employers learn the most about a candidate when specific experiences are described during interviews. For example, an interviewer might ask, "Do you work well under stress?" A typical response from an engineering student would be, "Well, here in the engineering department we're always under pressure to complete assignments and I've stayed up late many nights in the computer center completing a project." That's an okay beginning, but it shouldn't stop there. The person should go on to add, "There was a project last quarter which was particularly difficult."

The person would then proceed to describe this experience vividly and concisely, relating some of the difficulties that were encountered and how they were overcome. A great story would be one where a glitch occurred three days before the assignment was due, requiring many extra hours at the computer center to fix it. When done well, the interviewer will be absolutely convinced that the person handles stress well.

Truman Bell looks for people who can get along with others. This is best demonstrated by describing an experience where you became the de facto leader of a group, or when you motivated a team of people to achieve more. Collins, of Boeing says, "Relay your strengths eloquently by describing experiences."

Some companies actually require you to provide examples. Dan Hodge, University Relations Manager with a major telecommunications company, says, "We look for leadership, interpersonal skills, and communications skills. We ask for examples. For leadership we would ask a student to describe opportunities the person had to be in charge of a group."

In the case of such companies that require examples, the interviewer won't go on to the next question until you have provided a specific example. The challenge is to not only come up with an example, but to select the absolute best example possible. When told vividly, the interviewer will be convinced you have that particular quality, and will recognize other special qualities about you as well.

According to DeLeon, Microsoft recruiters are not likely to require examples, but that's what they want. As DeLeon puts it, "We want to see if the person can think deeply without our having to probe. Many people just give surface answers."

As Victor Lindquist and others are quick to point out, interviewing is about selling yourself. Certainly you will want to sell the technical abilities you've gained through work experience or your education, but most importantly you are selling you. You are selling your work ethic, your ability to work well with others, your ability to persuade, and many other personal qualities.

A CFO with a major telecommunications company once confided to me that while hiring dozens of people, he had never hired the "most qualified" candidate. While quickly adding that he always hires highly qualified people, there has always been one person who showed a little extra personal spark. That's the one who got hired.

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