Move Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors in Your Next Job Interview

job interviewReaching the interview stage of a job search is an accomplishment in and of itself, especially in fields that receive hundreds of applications for each open position. But it’s also starting over again in a new phase of the review and selection process, as you meet with the employer in person, over the phone, or via videoconference.

One of my colleagues from grad school recently contacted me to share an update on her latest job search, including an interview. The conversation led to her expression of “trying to learn how to interview to get beyond the smoke and mirrors … it’s not easy.” It seemed the focus of the appointment was introductions and overviews. She felt short-changed on time, wasn’t allowed to ask many questions, and left the session unsure about how well she “fit” the organization or how the organization was a fit for her. The interview is a two-way street that can take some practice to navigate.

Interview as Stakeholders Meeting

If you’ve been invited to interview, it’s a good sign – one that the company already thinks you are a possible match for what the position requires. Your resume and other application materials were screened and now they want to dedicate some time to move the discussion beyond what you’ve presented on paper.

From the company’s perspective, the goal of your interviewer is to determine how well you meet the organization’s needs. According to Forbes “there are only three true job interview questions.” A hiring employer wants to know:

1) Can you do the job? What are your skills and strengths?

2) Will you love the job? Are you motivated to do the work that needs to be done?

3) Can they tolerate working with you? How will you work with the existing team and within the office culture?

Employers have a lot riding on their hiring decisions. The process can be costly in terms of available resources, and the positions they are interviewing for are open for a reason – they need skilled workers. Hiring candidates without the right skills, motivation, or fit, can mean starting the process over again, delaying projects, etc.

But, you also hold a significant stake in the outcome of the meeting. It’s an important opportunity for you to find out if the company meets your needs as well. While this is not a time to make demands, it is a setting in which you can gather information that is difficult to find in other contexts (i.e., online, via email).

Interview Skills: Research and Preparation

Whether it’s a brief appointment with a single interviewer or a multi-day affair during which you talk with multiple representatives, it’s critical to get to know the employer better though this exchange. As my colleague observed, it’s possible to “learn how to interview” and get the info you need, while also making a positive impression.

There’s homework to be done here both before the interview and after it’s over. You may not have much control over the interview itself, but you can prepare for it in advance to better inform your responses and reactions once you get there. Think about how you might flip the “three true questions” from Forbes as part of your research and evaluation of a hiring company to yield the most relevant data.

Can you do the job?

There are expectations for each position in a company that include things such as skills, experience, and productivity. Start by doing your own research through the company’s website. Look for information related to current projects, as well as any posted details related to job descriptions, teams, and organizational structure, then expand your search to trade publications for more details about the current needs and hiring trends in your industry. Prepare a checklist to guide your research for a specific interview that begins with the following tasks:

  • Conduct a self-assessment of your ability to step into the role immediately and perform the expected duties. Practice responding to common interview questions and develop a few stories of your past accomplishments that focus on key skills in your industry.
  • Look beyond the position you have applied for to see where how it relates to others in the overall organization chart. The bigger picture can lead to a better understanding of expectations and required skills, both technical and transferable. This research can also lead to additional questions you might ask your interviewer for further clarification based on what you’ve already found.
  • Consider the day-to-day requirements of the position. Beyond the specific skills involved, you should also look for information about work environment, work schedules, etc. If you are new to the industry, the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides basic overviews for hundreds of job titles.

Will you love the job?

This question speaks to motivation and interest. What motivates you to get up every morning and go to work? What types of projects would you choose to work on in an ideal situation? Add the following items to your interview preparation checklist, to help you articulate the things that are most important to you:

  • Revisit your career goals. Chances are you entered your online program with goals that were in some way related to employment. Whether you began course work as a professional development activity or to allow a transition into a new field through a formal degree, where are you headed? Think about how the position you are interviewing for fits in with your plan. The position may also lead to career opportunities you hadn’t considered, prompting a change in goals.
  • Identify your work values. Do you want to be creative on your next job? Do you prefer a fast paced office? How important is job stability? These are just a few examples of employment characteristics that can describe what motivates your work. The University of Virginia provides an online work values assessment to help you create a list of your priorities on-the-job.
  • Determine your work preferences. Similar to values, preferences address other aspects of the work environment, such as, location, commuting, time, and co-workers. Use the University of Virginia’s online work preferences assessment to rank what is most important to you.

Can you tolerate working with them?

Determining a good cultural fit can be difficult, but if you’ve ever held a job that wasn’t a good fit, you know how challenging it can be for all involved. How can you tell what the company culture is like before you are hired? Here are a few tasks for your research checklist:

  • Connect via social media. Career counselor Kevin Grubb recommends exploring a company’s culture on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It’s the potential for interaction through these accounts that allows you to ask questions, join conversation, and observe behavior in a non-interview, often informal setting. Connect with employers online to research whether or not “employees at that organization care about the same things you care about” and if “you will get along.”
  • Ask questions during the interview. You will likely be given an opportunity to ask the interviewer a few questions at some point during your meeting. Have items ready that not only demonstrate that you have done your research in advance, but also help you pin down company culture. Two specific questions suggested by recruitment firm director Nick D’Ambrosio are, “Why is there an opening?” and “What would make a successful candidate?”

It’s important to note that the economy is no small factor in your research and planning. In the best of economic times, you might be able to expect multiple job offers and a choice in which one you accept. However, as recently explained in an article on, “during the depths of the Recession, landing a … job was a phenomenal win. If by chance the employer’s cultural values aligned with yours, it was a bonus.” When fewer companies are hiring, fewer options are available. Understand that while the job you are offered may not be your dream job, it could meet your needs and be a step in the right direction.

Leverage Your Online Learning Resources

Take the initiative to connect with previous graduates of your online program who either work for the company you will be interviewing with, or in similar positions with other organizations. Your school’s alumni affairs office can help you identify professionals to contact. Social networking systems like LinkedIn, which announced new university pages just this week, also allow you to search for people who might be willing to talk with you.

Set up an appointment to talk with the career advisors at your school’s online career center. These centers offer services such as mock interviews, counseling, job postings, and career fairs. They may also be able to advise you on different types of interviews and what to expect from employers hiring in your field of interest.

Keep in mind that you can’t accept anything until it’s offered. But you can prepare to make the best decision possible when a job offer is extended. As an online student you are building skills that are critical to a job search. From professional online communication and time management to self-discipline and commitment to reaching your goals, put these skills to use as you prepare for each new interview opportunity.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog