Job Advice for New College Grads

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Archive for November, 2008

Welcome to Job Advice for New College Grads!

Posted by James M on November 28, 2008

This blog is dedicated to students who are about to graduate from college or are seeking an internship, and recent alumni who are still in the process of seeking employment.  Although those applying to graduate school and those further along in their career may find this blog useful, it is primarily designed for college job seekers.

I write this blog because of a strong passion for helping college students based on my own experience when searching for a job.  I have over three years of experience working with college students and have spoken on numerous career panels and at career related events, and have assisted hundreds of students with resume consulting.  In addition, I have been a company representative at career fairs and spoken at corporate information sessions with The Boeing Company where I started my career.

I hope you find these posts useful.  They represent a collection of practical information I have shared with students over the past several years.  Most students find the information extremely valuable and useful during their career search.  If you have any requests for posts, questions, or comments please let me know.

In addition, I would love to give you tailored advice regarding your resume or any other aspect of your career search.  Please feel free to e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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Posted in Career Fairs, Cover Letters, and More | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Interview Questions – What is your biggest weakness?

Posted by James M on November 28, 2008

This is one of the most difficult questions for entry-level job candidates during the interview.  There are some helpful tips about what makes a “good weakness” and an important structural framework that will help you ace this question on the interview.

We’ll work our way backwards on this one.  First, I’ll give an example and analysis of how to answer this question correctly, then I’ll delve more into what a bad answer looks like  and how to get yourself to a place where you can respond to this question in a way that will impress the recruiter.

Example Response
So let’s talk about an actual response to this question and what it might look like.  Let’s imagine that my lack of leadership skills is my weakness of choice and I read a leadership book and did some basic volunteer work to help shore up my weakness.

“What is your biggest weakness?”

“Well, after being assigned a group project in a film production and editing class, I was tasked with leading our group of 5 students to make a short 45-second commercial.  Although we completed the assignment on time, I noticed my leadership skills were lacking.  The group continually looked to me to lead them and I had trouble striking a balance between delegating the work evenly and wanting to do it all myself.  Some sections of the project I spent 12 hours a day doing while other times I delegated so much work I had nothing to do.  In addition, when disputes arose between team members about the direction of the film or a particular type of editing style, I didn’t know how to handle the disagreements and because of the constant fights one person dropped out of our group.

I knew if I wanted to be a successful television editor, a job that involves delegating a lot of tasks, I would need to learn how to lead a team more effectively.  I remembered hearing about a book called The One Minute Manager on a business talk show I was watching a while back so purchased that book and was able to read it in about two weeks.  It gave a lot of great advice, particularly about delegation and giving constructive criticism.

In addition, last month I sought out an opportunity to lead a group of 25 volunteers during a day long park clean up project.  I inspected the park before the event to see what areas might need the most cleanup and talked to the local chapter of the parent organization about useful tips based on past clean up projects.  This helped me get a good sense of the delegation needed before the event even started.  This was an item the book recommended—having a plan for the distribution of work before it comes time to actually parse the project into small tasks.

The day of the event several volunteers didn’t show up so I had to re-delegate a few tasks.  I used the strategies I read about in the book to help motivate the team as well as worked very hard myself to show the team I was committed.  When there were disputes about who wanted to do what job I was able to talk to several volunteers to find a balance of work.  In particular no one wanted to do the “boring job” of pulling weeds so I decided to assign every volunteer a few minutes doing it.  Because the volunteers spent most of the time doing other tasks that they had chosen and each volunteer felt the system was fair, they didn’t mind pulling weeds for a short time.

I have already started reading another book entitled Leadership 101 to continue to learn about the art and science of leadership.  In addition, I signed up to lead another park rejuvenation project early next month.  This project involves 40 people and I’m excited to challenge myself and continue to improve my leadership skills.”

Example Response Analysis
Notice that this answer uses a modified form of the STAR framework I talked about in my Behavioral Interview Questions post.

  • First, I talked about the initial situation that led me to realize that leadership, the weakness I choose for my response, was a problem.  I mentioned the task or project I was assigned and what went wrong.  Notice that I was very specific about the particular elements of leadership I was weak on—delegation and resolving disputes.  The more specifically you answer this part of the question the easier the entire question will be to answer.  For example, depending on who you talk to, leadership might involve dozens of different components. Improving one or two elements of my leadership skills at a time is much easier than improving every the entire continuum of leadership itself.
  • Second, I formulated a realization of career success that involved improving upon the weakness.  Using one of my long term goals of being successful in the film industry I framed an “improvement space” that existed to achieve that success.  It is good to have some motivation for the improvement you have chosen.  There are hundreds of different attributes in a professional career and no one person is strong at all of them.  You should pick and choose the attributes you want to be strong at based on your career goals and interpersonal strengths.
  • Third, I talked about my plan—how was I going to improve on this weakness?  In my case I read a leadership book and then decided to sign up for short leadership position with a local non-profit organization.   Actually doing something about my weakness shows tremendous initiative and gets past the “fluff” that the typical candidate uses in their response.
  • Forth, I talked about the situation where I led more successfully.  What happened this time when those same issues of delegation and resolving disputes came up?  How did I handle them differently and achieve success this time around?  In particular I cited a strategy shift that was informed largely by the information I acquired in the leadership book I referenced earlier.
  • Fifth, I talked about future plans for improvement.  This is really a great way to wrap up the question.  Show the interviewer that although you’ve made some improvements to date, you are taking the initiative to get to a state of excellence with regard to your current weakness.  It also shows a very positive attitude.  Showing a track record of initiative and a positive attitude will get you much further than you can imagine in an interview.

A poor response to this question
Now let’s look at a response to this question from a slightly humors angle.

“What would you say is your biggest weakness?”

“My biggest weakness is that sometimes girls are jealous of me because I’m just too pretty.”

Yes, that is a bad answer, but maybe not for the reasons you think.  Yes, it is bad because it is conceded and uninspiring (albeit a joke in this context), but, even worse, being exceptionally pretty is not a weakness.  Neither is being a perfectionist.  Let me repeat that.  Being a perfectionist is NOT a weakness.  If the average HR representative had a dollar for every time someone said their biggest weakness was being a perfectionist or their biggest strength is working with people, they’d have enough money to retire and take up sailing.

Answering “weakness” questions this way is insulting—to yourself.  It shows that you have very little, if any, self-awareness.  That’s right I said it!  We all have enough actual weaknesses without needing to take a positive characteristic and put a negative spin on it.  Moreover, these answers are cliche, overused, and boring.


What makes a “good weakness”?

Ok, so now let’s look at the constituents that make up what you might call a “good weakness”.  In other words a weakness that actually challenges you in your life and passes muster with a recruiter during an interview.

  • First, it should be a weakness that has actually given you problems in the past.  You need to be able to tell a story (as we saw in our example response) about how this weakness has inhibited you, so having a vague sense about what you would like to improve isn’t enough.  You need concrete examples, so spend some time thinking about group projects, internships, volunteer experience, etc. and try to think of some situations where you didn’t perform up to par and what characteristics of yourself contributed to that.
  • Second, it should be a weakness that you have actively worked to improve.  This is really the key part of your response.  If you can really delve into this “improvement space” if you will, you’ll hit the ball out of the park on this question and leave a fantastic impression with the recruiter.
  • Third, you’ll need an example of how things worked the next time you were put in the same situation. There is sort of a before-and-after type dichotomy at play here.
  • Lastly, if you are a non-traditional applicant to a position you may want to consider mentioning your lack of experience in a particular area as your weakness and describe how you’ve mitigated that gap.  For example, say you are an art major applying for an investment banking job.  The obvious weakness would be your lack of a rigorous financial background.  So you can talk about how you took some finance and accounting classes, how you joined the finance club, how you read the Wall Street Journal regularly, etc.  Doing so will help to kill the “elephant in the room”, namely why in the world an art major is cut out for investment banking.  It is better to tackle these non-traditional applicant situations head on rather than assuming you are on equal footing as more traditional candidates.

How to mitigate and improve a weakness
To really set your response apart, you’ll need to show that you’ve actively tried to mitigate the weakness you described.  First, you should think hard about the conscious and subconscious steps you’ve already taken in the mitigation process.  Perhaps you did some soul searching and concentrated extra hard on a particular characteristic the next time you did a group project or sought a different position with your volunteer club to help fill a knowledge gap.

If you haven’t begun to work on your weakness yet, no need to worry.  It is never too late to start working on self-discovery and self-improvement.  After spending some time thinking hard about what some of your key weaknesses may be it is time to start improving upon them.  Depending on how much time before your job search commences you may be able to do any one of the following:

  • Take additional university classes to cover any knowledge gaps you may have.
  • Join a club at school or in the community that focuses on a particular area of study or soft skill.
  • Consider volunteer opportunities.  They are likely the fastest and most efficient ways to shore up key weaknesses such as leadership and teamwork.
  • Do some independent research.  Depending on your school, major, and available professors, undergraduate research can often be set up on short notice and tailored to cover specific gaps in your knowledge or skill sets.
  • Consider simple things such as subscribing to publications, newspapers, reading online journals etc.  Sometimes it is the simple initiatives we take that set us apart.
  • Take community classes.  Public speaking, organization, leadership and many other courses are often available at community colleges in the evening or from various community organizations.
  • Consider student government.  Many school’s student government and other school sponsored organizations offer really great chances to quickly gain valuable soft skill experience.

Note that you don’t need to be 100% complete with this process by the time of your interview.  If your weakness is public speaking a simple story about how you have enrolled in a public speaking class offered by Toast Masters, given your first intermediate length speech and received positive reviews will do wonders.  Because we are allowed to be somewhere in the process of improvement, I wouldn’t worry too much about having a short time line.  All you need is to show the initiative to improve yourself and one simple example of your improvement thus far and you have competed the ingredients needed to do fantastically well in your response.

Also note that you need to walk a thin line—after a certain amount of improvement a weakness ceases to be considered such and can actually be thought of as a strength.  That is not the type of situation we are looking for here.  We are looking for you to be somewhere in the process of shoring up the weakness.

Wrap-up
Well there you have it, everything you need to do to hit the ball out of the park on this question in the interview.  You really only need a couple of weeks to get from square one to a completed series of story points for this question.  Just spend a little bit of time thinking about your weaknesses and take a few steps to mitigate it either on your own, by getting involved with your university, or seeking out a community organization.  Along the way you’ll gain a lot of insight and experience that you can use elsewhere in your interview.

If you have any questions about any aspect of your job hunt or would like a free in-depth resume consultation, I invite you to e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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Types of Interview Questions – Logic Questions

Posted by James M on November 23, 2008

Microsoft made logic questions famous in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and many other companies have since adopted them, although their use has declined slightly in recent years.  This brand of question is generally reserved for engineers, although it is not unheard of for it to be included in interviews of applicants for other types of positions.

Two of the most famous logic questions are:

  • Why is a manhole cover round?
  • How would you build an alarm clock for deaf people?

There are many variations of logic questions and entire books and websites have been dedicated to tackling them.  In this post I’ll give you two examples of how you might answer this sort of question.

One of the best sites I’ve found for lots of examples of this question type, as well forums discussing the answer, can be found here.

After reading this post you may want to consider reading the “sister” post about guesstimation interview questions.  This branch includes such famous stumpers as “How much does Mount Kilimanjaro weight?”  To read this post now click here.

Please note that these are not trivia questions—that is you are not expected to actually know how much Mount Kilimanjaro weighs for example.  The important skill to demonstrate while answering is your train of thought and the logical steps you mentally go through.  Unlike behavioral questions where you can take a minute to compose yourself before you answer, it is essential that you begin sharing your thoughts out loud immediately after you hear the question even if you are just in the process of wrapping your head around the problem.

I think this is best shown by example, so allow me to do my best.  I’ll write this in a free flowing casual style with minimal attempt to use exact grammar.  The goal is to replicate a process similar to what you would probably end up saying if you were in an interview:

How would you build an alarm clock for deaf people?

“Hmmm, let’s see.  If you have to wake a deaf person up obviously a sound would do no good.  So what are some ways I normally get woken up that aren’t sound?  Um…I guess you could have an alarm clock that pokes a person, but that is difficult to implement.  One time I got woken up by having water dumped on me so you could spray some sort of liquid on them, but that gets messy.  But on the other hand it might work, let me write it down and maybe come back to it later.

I remember when I was a kid I had a bed pad that gave me a small shock if I wet the bed so maybe something like that would work.  Like a pad of some kind, but shocking someone might suck.  But I’ll write it down anyway as an option.  What else could a bed pad do?  Let’s see…oh it could like vibrate maybe.  Actually, I have seen beds that vibrate in movies.  Yea, it might be good to have some sort of bed that shakes, but now that I think about it that is expensive and limits the type of bed one could have.  Ok, so back to the bed pad idea, only instead of shocking, it would vibrate.  It would lay on top of the bed but underneath the sheets.  It could vibrate when the alarm goes off and this would wake up the deaf person.  But I guess it would still be useful to have a bedside type clock that they can look at during normal circumstances to view the time, or if they have guests over.  So the vibrating bed pad and bedside clock could be one unit and be attached by a chord.  But that might be annoying and dangerous if there is a chord that you could trip over.  Um…maybe the bed pad and clock unit could actually be separate but communicate wirelessly.  So the bed pad would have a small receiver in it, and when the clock unit alarm goes off, it can send a signal to the bed pad and tell it to vibrate.

So I think that would be the final design.  A bedside clock that functions very similar to a traditional bedside clock, with the added feature that it can send a wireless signal to a bed pad that would then vibrate to wake the subject up.”

Analysis:
So as you can see the answer is a very free flowing thought process type response.  First, I went through an initial description of the problem in my head—alarm clocks use noise as a wake-up mechanism, but if you are deaf this wouldn’t help you wake up.  Second, I started brain storming ways you might wake someone up based on my own experience of getting woken up.  It is key to use some reference points for the assumptions, estimations, and solutions you create.  If you have a eureka moment in an interview and come up with an answer it will do you no good since the interviewer won’t be able to evaluate the thought process you used to create the solution.  That’s why it is so important to talk out loud and use your own experience to formulate a solution as you work through the problem.  Third, I talked my final bed pad solution out, thinking about what would and wouldn’t work and why that was the case.

Again, there really is no “right” answer to this type of question.  Maybe you want to have the deaf person wear an electronic bracelet that emits a small electrical shock to wake them up, maybe you want them to wear a watch that vibrates, maybe you want to spray them with a small mist of water, maybe shine a very bright light on their face—there are a million different answers.  The important thing is to find something that makes sense to you, after all it is you and your ideas that are being interviewed.

If you have any questions about this post or need any other guidance in your job search, feel free to e-mail me at: collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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Interview Questions – “Do you have any questions for me?”

Posted by James M on November 18, 2008

At the end of every interview the tables are turned and the interviewer will ask, “Do you have any questions for me?”  Let me give you a hint—you do.

I do?  Yes you do.  And let me tell you why.  First, asking questions is a terrific way to find out information about the company.  An interview is your chance, a one-on-one opportunity, to find out for yourself everything you wanted to know about the company of your dreams or at least the company of your daydreams.  The other research you do—the career fairs, the company website browsing, the inside info you get from friends—should synthesize the questions you ask at the interview not take their place.  Companies are like people in that respect—there is always more information to discover and more questions to ask.

The second reason you want to ask questions is a more strategic one.  Imagine you are on a date at your favorite Italian restaurant with the cute guy or girl you just met at the hip-hop club downtown while you were dancing over Whiskey Sours and the thumping base of Ne-Yo’s “Closer”, my current favorite song.  You just spent 45 minutes asking about your date’s background, their goals, their dreams, found it all very interesting and were yearning to share your life.  And then all of the sudden they raised their hand for the check, threw down a 20 spot, said “Nice talking to you” and walked out.  How would you feel?  Probably horrible—off balance, like you wasted your time and there would definitely be a sense that they weren’t that into you.   The same holds true during interviews.  Not asking a question will signal to the interviewer that you aren’t really that interested in the company they represent.  So you’ll want to ask thoughtful questions to convince them otherwise.

So without further adieu let’s talk about some common categories of questions you might want to ask and give a few examples of each.

Get them to talk about themselves
One of the best kinds of questions to ask are those about the experiences of the recruiter in the context of the company you are interviewing with.  Research has shown that when the interviewer talks about themselves they will perceive a better overall experience about the interview and are more likely to remember you.  I highly recommend asking at least one question about the interviewer not least because it is a very effective way to gain some real insight into what an insider sees as the opportunities and challenges of working at a particular firm.

Here is a short list of questions to get you started:

  • What do you love about this company?
  • What career path did you take at this company to get to your current position?
  • Why did you choose to work for this firm over other options you had?
  • What are the biggest challenges a new employee would face when working for your organization?

Ask about the position
Depending on the amount of information available on a company’s website and what you are able to acquire at a career fair, there is a wide range of information you may (or may not) know about the position you are applying for.  For that reason it may be worth your while to ask some questions about your target position.

Some possible examples might be:

  • What is the typical career path of this position?
  • What do employees in your company like about this position?
  • What challenges do employees in this position face?
  • What skills make a successful candidate?
  • What sorts of projects might I expect to work on in this position?
  • What sort of travel opportunities does this position entail?

Ask about something you learned about at the career fair or from another employee

Another great set of questions to ask are those that delve into information you discovered at a career fair or from another employee at the company.  You can get can get massive bonus points if you take the initiative to use your school’s alumni network, career services office, Linked In (a website dedicated to networking), or some other means to contact a current employee.  When framing this question at an interview you may want to mention that you talked to a past employee who said XYZ and you wanted to compare and contrast that view with that of the interviewer.

Ask about something you researched
One way to demonstrate the research you have done while at the same time gaining insight into a company is by asking a question that builds on information you have already acquired.  Perhaps you read a news article about a new product a company is coming out with, a new office that opened abroad, or a new environmental initiative the company started.  But be careful, don’t ask a question that might be taken as being obscure or irrelevant, as this might be seen as you simply showing off how much you read the Wall Street Journal.

Looking at recent news articles about some large companies I might ask these questions:

  • I was reading about Jacob Jinglehimmer Smith, the new CEO your company recently brought on, and I was wondering how his hiring might affect the key values and direction of your company?
  • Because of the economic crisis, I have been reading that many companies are shifting some key elements of their corporate strategies.  Is your company doing the same, and how might that affect the day-to-day work of employees.
  • I was reading an article recently that was detailing the aging work force in the aeronautical industry.  What kind of knowledge transfer best practices do you have in place to make sure that young employees have an opportunity to learn from the experience of the older work force before they retire?

Alternatively, you might have looked on a company website during your research effort.  Looking at the home page for a company, I might ask these questions:

  • While looking on your website I noticed there is a full time leadership development program available for new hires.  I was wondering what that program looked like on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis and how it interfaces with other entry-level positions?
  • I noticed on your website that there are mentors available to help advise some employees as their career progresses.  Do all new employees get a mentor and what sorts of issue does the mentor help address?
  • I read recently that your company was listed in Forbes Top 100 Diverse Companies in the US.  What opportunities are available for me to help get involved in promoting the diversity initiatives of your company?
  • I saw work-life balance mentioned briefly on your website, but I was unable to find details.  What sorts of mechanisms and best practices are in place to promote work-life balance?

Ask about something that came up during the interview
During the interview the employer often times mentions something that interests you.  It might be a company sponsored rotation program in the finance department or the fact that the analyst position you’re applying for usually leads to a consulting position within two years.  This is a great time to ask any follow-up questions you might have.

Other common questions
There are many other common questions that people are often curious about asking and here are just a couple:

  • Do you have any hesitations about my application?
  • What’s the next step?

In fact you should always ask what the next step is if it is not explained by the recruiter.  Otherwise you risk days or week of nervousness wondering who is suppose to contact you in what amount of time for what kind of next application step.

What shouldn’t I ask?

Most of this falls into the common sense category, but the main concern I hear students inquiring about during career panels is whether it is OK to ask about salary or benefits during an interview.  Opinions between recruiters vary on this topic, but I recommend  that you don’t ask about salary or benefits during a first interview, although this may be appropriate during later interview rounds.

How many questions should I ask

I would recommend asking 3-5 questions.  It is good to keep track of how much time is left in the interview and read the interviewer’s body language to get a sense if they are getting antsy.  Also, keep in mind the time of day.  Before lunch the interviewer may be hungry and at the end of the day they will probably be tired, but again watch for specific body language.

Questions strategy

Now that we’ve talked about some typical types of questions and given some examples, it is worth taking a few moments to discuss some strategy behind asking these questions.

-Open Ended Phrasing

First, you’ll want to frame questions using open ended phrasing.  For example, say you are curious about how much travel is required for the position.  You wouldn’t want to say, “Will I get to travel?”.  The reason is two-fold.  First, the question is phrased such that the response is a “yes” or “no” when in reality you want to give the interviewer some room for explanation.  Second, you don’t want to bias your questions such that the interviewer gets the impression that you are just trying to get hired so that you can travel.  A more open ended way to ask the question would be, “What kind of travel opportunities are available?  Another quick example: you wouldn’t want to say, “How long will it take me to get promoted” as that will signal that you aren’t really interested in the job you are being hired for but only moving upward.  Instead, you might phrase this question as, “What does the typical career path for this position look like?”

-Positive Phrasing

Being positive in an interview is extremely important, so try to avoid negative phrasing in your questions.  Instead of saying, “Are there any sucky parts to working here?”  a very brash phrasing indeed, try asking, “What are the biggest challenges a new employee might face in your organization.”  Interviewers really look for, and appreciate, a positive attitude during an interview as this is a sign that the same demeanor will carry over into the workplace.

– Never ask without researching first

You should never ask a question without first researching the information to see if it is available from a company’s website.  There is no better way to give a bad impression to a recruiter than wasting their time by not doing basic research to prove you have more than a passing interest in their firm.

-Ask relevant questions

Don’t show off, phrase all questions in a way that makes them relevant to your potential position.  Note that this could include company wide changes in strategy or company values and initiatives.

-Memorization of Questions

This is a helpful tip for most students because many people, myself included, can get pretty nervous during interviews.  Having to suddenly think up a question on the spot can lead to a variety of poorly chosen and poorly phrased questions.  For that reason, I would come into the interview with about 3 or so questions memorized, that way if you panic, you’ll have some questions to fall back on.  In practice, you’ll probably have some questions in mind anyway before stepping foot into the interview.   If you find yourself completely unprepared in the interview and have no questions memorized, remember you can always ask about the interviewer’s experience in the company and what their career path within the company has been.

OK, well that’s it for today.  I’d love to know what questions you’ve found to be successful in an interview.  So leave your response by posting a comment below.

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Negotiating Salary

Posted by James M on November 14, 2008

Aaah, the ever popular question: to negotiate or not to negotiate.  Every time I speak to students at workshops and career panels the issue of salary negotiation inevitably arises.  It seems to be all the rage to “win” a negotiation by squeezing every penny out of a potential employer and get away with “one-upping” them, not to mention getting a healthy ego boost. I will never understand the mindset behind this desire and it is one I discourage.

I usually discourage negotiating salary for several reasons.  First, and most practical, employer salaries are not created out of thin air nor are they somehow made up on the spot.  They are based on a wide range of data including geography, median salaries in the industry, and the financial health of the company itself.  Companies very rarely, if ever, are trying to “put one over on you” by making an offer unreasonably low.

By not accepting the job in favor of negotiating, you risk having the company rescind their initial offer or, potentially worse, creating a sour and awkward beginning to your new career.  Moreover, as a matter of principle, there’s much more to a job than money—trust me.  As a high-level executive at Boeing once told me when I started my career there, “sometimes you’re overpaid, sometimes you’re underpaid, but by the end of your career everything usually balances out.”  Rather than focusing on negotiating, I would recommend working exceedingly hard after you begin your career and making your employer see what you are worth first hand.  Money always follows success regardless of industry or position.

There are a few limited circumstances where negotiating might be reasonable for an entry-level candidate. The most obvious is if you have multiple offers and the salary or some other tangible benefit really is the deciding factor.  For example, if you already have an offer from Company A for $55,000 a year and Company B offers you $50,000 a year, it is reasonable to discuss with Company B that, although you are excited about the possibility of working for them, another company has offered you a higher salary and unless they can match it you’re afraid you’ll have to respectfully decline their offer.  However, think long and hard about situations such as this.  Giving up $5,000 in salary starts to seem like a bargain if you get stuck working long hours in a job you despise.  In my opinion you are better off making a decision based on “fit” and work-life balance and ignoring the salary (within reason).

Other situations where negotiating may be reasonable might include the case where you clearly have a select set of skills and competencies that a normal entry-level candidate lacks.  This may occur for various reasons including work experience acquired before you started your university study (or perhaps if you took a year or more off during college to pursue a career), or if you have some extraordinary academic qualifications such as a dual degree in engineering and finance, for example.  Even in these situations however, I would proceed with caution.

If you do decide to negotiate your salary or other benefits I recommend doing so with facts and data.  This means doing a lot of research about the company and typical industry salaries and their associated experience level and making a strong quantitative argument about how you stand out from a typical candidate based on this information and what your target salary would be.  In addition, it goes without saying (but I’ll do so anyway) that you need to negotiate in the most cordial way possible and retain any contacts you have at the negotiating company if the negotiation breaks down and you decide to go elsewhere.

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Types of Interview Questions – Behavioral Questions

Posted by James M on November 14, 2008

Behavioral questions are by far the most prevalent type of interview question you will encounter as a new college graduate.  A “Behavioral Question” is the generic term given to questions that ask you to talk about yourself—your experience in school and at previous companies, your leadership ability, and your strengths and weaknesses.  Behavioral questions include some of the most famous interview questions around.  You have probably heard about many of them, or already faced them if you have interviewed for an internship or entry-level position.  Some representative examples include:

  • Can you tell me about your greatest strength?
  • Can you tell me about a time where you had to lead a team?
  • Can you tell me about a time where you were faced with an ethical dilemma and how you dealt with it?

Because these questions are so common I will address specific behavioral questions in individual posts, but for now we’ll talk in general about the method used to answer these questions.

Fortunately for us there is a very effective method used to respond to this type of question called the STAR framework.  This method takes on the talking points of telling a structured story to discuss a situation you faced, how you handled it, and what the outcome was.  STAR stands for Situation, Target, Action, Result.  Let’s talk about each of these elements in more depth.

Situation – What is the situation you faced?  The situation is very closely tied to the specifics of the Target discussed below.  If working in a team or as an individual on a school project the situation would be the very basic elements of the class that assigned the project and information about your group members.  If you are discussing an internship it would be information about the company and your position within that company.  The situation could even be a weakness or strength you discuss if faced with a question regarding one of these attributes.  A strength or weakness discussion would usually be focused in a situational context like that stated for the school assignment or internship project.

Target – What were you tasked to do?  If this were your school project the Target would be the required outcome of the group assignment.  The same goes if you are discussing an internship and a project assigned in a paid position.  If discussing a strength this would be a situation where you utilized a strength effectively.  If discussing a weakness this would be the target outcome for improving this weakness and what benefits you believe improving that weakness would have in a professional setting.

Action – This is the meat of your response where you talk about the discreet steps that you and/or your group took to accomplish your Target outcome.  Again, if you are discussing a group assignment you would discuss facts such as how the team delegated the tasks.  What task you were assigned.  How you went about accomplishing this task both as an individual and within the framework of the team.   Any difficulties you encountered and how they were resolved.  What you learned from the project.  These same talking points would be applicable if you were discussing an internship project.  If you were discussing a strength you would also use similar points to discuss a situation where your strength was utilized.  If you were discussing a weakness you would talk about the steps you went through to address your weakness and improve upon it.

Result – This is a discussion of the outcome, either successful or not, of your Target.  It is also where you would address anything you might do differently if assigned a similar project again.  If discussing a group assignment you would talk about the end product you and/or your groupmates produced.  What did you and your team think of the final product?  What did the class think about the result?  What did your professor think?  If you had some other customer such as a small business or non-profit, what did they think of the product?  Would you do anything differently if you had to do the assignment again?  If you are discussing an internship project you would talk about what your coworkers and manager thought of the end result.  You would want to put extra focus on any cost or time savings or any other measure of efficiency that might have resulted.  Talking points about a strength would be very similar to those of the school project with a focus on how your specific strength contributed to the desired outcome.  A discussion about a weakness would end with some words about how your steps to improve your weakness have resulted in improved performance and what additional steps you might take to further improve this weakness.

Stay tuned for specific posts addressing common types of behavioral questions.

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Resume Tips – Discussing Number of Hours Worked

Posted by James M on November 14, 2008

Today’s resume tip is a very simple trick to help shore up your resume’s “Experience” section as well as your overall application.

The trick is simply to add the number of hours per week (or per month) you worked for those jobs you held while attending college.  For example, if you had a job for 6 months during your junior year of college, you would add an extra bullet under this particular piece of work experience.  This bullet would say something very simple like:  “Worked 20hrs/week.”

So your work experience section for this job might look something like this:

Stone Gardens Rock Climbing Gym                Nov. 2007 – Present
Kids Class Volunteer
Seattle, Washington

  • Taught a group of 12 children ages 7 to 13 basic climbing terminology, safety procedures, and technique
  • Monitored general behavior and safety of kids while in the gym environment
  • Time commitment: 15 hours per week

This particular sample job may or may not be placed on your resume depending on its applicability to your target position.  For this example let’s assume you are applying to a community outreach position where part of your job is mentoring children, so this work experience would definitely be applicable.

So why would we add the extra bullet detailing the number of hours worked per week?  Well, for one thing you are giving scope to your experience as I discussed in a previous post entitled “Resume Tip – Use Numbers.”  In short, working 5 hours per week is different than working 15 which is different still than holding a full-time 40hr per week position while attending school.  By providing this valuable information the recruiter will have some basis with which to evaluate the rest of your application, most importantly your GPA.  For example, I would argue that earning a GPA of 3.5 with no college job at all, while commendable, is not nearly as impressive as earning, say, a 3.2 GPA while working 35 hours per week.  So adding this piece of information helps to put your overall application in perspective and acts to give you a “pass” for performance that might be slightly lower than it would have been otherwise.

One last note.  If, by working during college, you were able to fund a significant portion of your college education (which includes living expenses other than tuition that might normally be covered by a loan) you should also mention this on your resume.  This can be either in the Summary of Qualifications section (which I’ll blog about soon) or by adding a bullet to the applicable job in the “Experience” section of your resume.  Here is an example: “Funded 60% of living and tuition expenses from Dec. 2006 to May 2008.”  This statement will have very broad implications for your overall application and will show a potential employer a variety of skills such as the ability to work independently, strong responsibility, multitasking, and, perhaps most importantly, the willingness to work very hard to achieve an important goal.

Although it may seem like a small thing, many recruiters I’ve talked to attest to the effectiveness of this tip.

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Resume Tip – Use Numbers

Posted by James M on November 8, 2008

One of the most important tips I can give to new college graduates to make their resume shine is to “use numbers” to your advantage.  This is especially true for the “Experience” section of your resume.  What do I mean by “use numbers”?  Well, I think this is best illustrated by an example.

Let’s say you had a college job working at McDonald.  Now I’m not ragging on McDonalds, but quite frankly many people would be ashamed to put this job on their resume and assume it has no applicability to the outside world.  Moreover, they would not know how to translate their job responsibilities onto paper.  But let’s take a look at some positive things you might be able to say about the job using quantitative measures where possible:

  • Serviced over 200 customers per day
  • Handled customer complaints and resolved them in a professional manner
  • Handled cash and credit transactions of up to $1500 per day
  • Swiftly responded to food orders servicing customers at a rate of 40/hour

So simply by adding numbers to an otherwise “average” job you have shown in real world terms, that you can work in a fast paced environment, handle customer complaints, and work with large amounts of money (which in-turn demonstrates your ethics).  This isn’t merely dressing up a mundane job to make it appear inflated or more important than it is.  That is not the point.  The point is to reflect back on the subtle lessons you learned during your experiences and to scope them using a valuation. Without using a numeric measure to scope your experiences the recruiter has no way to determine and evaluate the relatively responsibilities and scope of your previous positions.

Let’s illustrate these concepts further by looking at what I think is a pretty common example of a student resume.  This one is for a student position that we actually had as part of our student government at the University of Washington (one of my good friends actually held this role).  It was a paid position managing the student body elections.  Here is an example of what a typical student might put on their resume.  It isn’t bad, but it could use some help as well see in a moment:

Work Experience
Associated Students of the University of Washington
Jan. 2003-June 2003
Elections Committee Chair

  • Managed a committee and elections budget to conduct the successful completion of the University of Washington student body elections
  • Spoke in front of large groups of students and moderated several candidate debates
  • Worked on an advertising campaign that included posters, fliers, newspaper ads, and forums to target student voters
  • Managed several voting booths and booth staff during election days

Now let’s pretend you’re an employer, what key questions might you have?  Well you might want to know several things:

  • How big was the budget you worked with?
  • How large was the committee team which you managed?
  • How many student voters were target by the election?
  • How many students attended the forums which you moderated?

Now why might they have these questions?  Well it’s simple.  If you are a recruiter and trying to evaluate a candidate managing a budget of $500, is quite different than a budget of $10,000.  Managing a team of 3 people is different than managing a team of 30.  Speaking in front of 50 people is different than speaking in front of 1,000.  I think you get the point.  What you are doing, is taking a statement that in effect means nothing–“I managed a team”–and make it means something–“I managed a group of 5 team members.”  So by using numbers you help the recruiter scope your past experiences.

I want to point out that bigger numbers don’t always imply a job that was “more important.”  Sometimes speaking in front of 10 people is harder than speaking in front of 200.  Managing a smaller team has some unique challenges that are present with larger groups.  Don’t be afraid or embarrassed if your scoped number seem insignificant to you.  If you managed a team of 2 other people or a budget of $400 then great!!  Say so!!  It isn’t the numbers themselves that are important it’s what you learned from the experience.

Now let’s apply the new found lessons we’ve learned and try adding quantitative values to our example above:

Work Experience
Associated Students of the University of Washington
Elections Committee Chair
University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Jan. 2003-June 2003

  • Coordinated the successful completion of the 2003 student body elections while managing a committee of 6 people and a budget of $5,000
  • Increased the number of candidates by over 40% and voter turnout by 4.3% (1615 total votes) over the 2002 totals
  • Moderated 2 one-hour debates of 18 candidates with over 150 students in attendance
  • Worked on an $2,000 advertising campaign including, posters, fliers, newspaper ads, and student forums to target 15,000 potential student voters

Much better!  See that all of those questions that the recruiter might have asked have been answered.  Obviously, some jobs are easier to create these scoped values for than others, but if you think hard and push yourself to be creative you can create a Experience section that “pops” with scoped values of your work.

Noticed also that I showed the results of the election.  This is a bonus tip for the day—if you worked on some sort of study or evaluation then try to discuss the impact of the project after completion or implementation.

Alright, that’s today’s tip.  Try incorporating this method into your resume and let me know the results.  Until next time.

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Resume Tips – How to write an effective Objective statement

Posted by James M on November 7, 2008

Writing an effective Objective certainly isn’t rocket science, but there is an art to writing one.  Traditionally, the Objective has been an area included on the resume for logistical purposes.  That is, it doesn’t advance your candidacy for the position as much as it serves as an informational indicator to the company about what position you are applying for.  However, in recent years there has been a movement among career consultants pushing the idea of using the Objective as yet another way of marketing yourself.  In today’s article I’ll give you three very practical tips about how to make your Objective “pop” as well as several examples using these techniques.

First, I’ll give a few examples of effective Objective statements and then I’ll go into the reasoning behind their structure.

Objective Examples
Here are a four example Objectives using the set of tools we will learn below.

Specific position statement, generic company statement, specific skill statement:

I am seeking a position as a market researcher in a growing, environmentally conscious company that will utilize my knowledge of quantitative methods and analysis.

Specific position statement including job number, specific company statement, specific skill statement:
A position as a Level 1 Software Engineer (Req. #234SE1) in the BCA division of Boeing that utilizes my programing internship experience and strong C++ background.

Generic position statement, specific company statement, specific experience statement:

An entry-level position with the National Wildlife Reserve that utilizes my passion for wildlife and my deep breadth of forest exploration gained during 6-months of South American travel.

Specific position statement, specific company statement, specific experience statement:

A position as a business analyst at Deloitte and Touche that uses my quantitative skills gained during engineering coursework as well as my real-world leadership experience acquired as a member of the University of Virginia Student Senate.

If you need even more examples of Objectives, About.com has a great career section including a whole page of example Objectives you can view here: http://jobsearch.about.com/od/sampleresumes/a/sampleobjective.htm

Ok, now let’s talk more about some general tips to help you write your Objective.

Be Specific
When you write your objective you should be as specific as you can regarding both the company you want to work for and the position you are seeking.

For example, don’t just say you want to work for “a premier social networking company”  say you want to work for Facebook.  And don’t say you are seeking an “entry-level position”, instead you would want to say you desire a “position as a business analyst.”

In the end you should have several resumes, each tailored to one of your top companies.  There are two exceptions to this specificity rule.  The first is the case where you cannot find out specific information about a company.  Perhaps you know you want to work for a local non-profit, but because it is small and newly established you find it difficult to determine what positions are available.  In that case you would write a specific statement about your target company and a general statement about your target position.  The second exception is that you should always carry several copies of your resume with specific position statements, but generic company statements to hand out during a career fair should you find an unknown company that strikes your fancy.

Add a Requisition Number
Most large and medium sized companies use what are called job numbers or requisition numbers to manage their employment pool.  If you know you are interested in a particular position and you know the job number you should also add this information in your Objective. This is especially relevant if you are applying to a position on-line.


Create a Skill Statement

A skill statement is a short sales pitch in your objective that describes a few of your skills or qualifications that apply to your target position.  If you are applying for an engineering position you might tout your quantitative skills.  If you are seeking a job in a subcontract management division you might discuss the leadership experience you gained while leading a community park rejuvenation project.

As always if you have any questions about this post or would like help writing your specific Objective statement (or need any other help with your job search such as tailored resume advice) you can e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and good luck!

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Resume Tips – How to deal with a low GPA

Posted by James M on November 6, 2008

One of the biggest fears many graduating seniors express when attempting to find a job is the all important GPA.  And there is no denying that your GPA is one of the top factors influencing recruiters during their selection process.  As well it should be, it is a strong indicator of the amount you have learned in college and the amount of work you put in.

That being said, your GPA is not the only factor affecting your candidacy and there are plenty of examples of people who have lower than desired GPAs who get great jobs by supplementing their grades with other experience and taking the time to market themselves well.  So how do you put a positive spin on a low GPA?

Well there is a little trick and today I’d like to share it with you.  But first I’d like to digress briefly.  The first piece of advice regarding your GPA is to actually put it on your resume.  I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve seen without a GPA listed. With few exceptions (such as a school grade no disclosure policy) I think it is a real mistake not to list your GPA under the Education section of your resume.  It is extraordinarily unlikely that you will make it to the offer stage with your target company without them finding out your GPA at some point along the way.  They may ask during the career fair, during one of the interview rounds, or they may ask for your transcripts as proof of graduation before you are hired.  So why not just put it out there so you can start to have the discussion about how you are more than your grades?

Ok, on to the trick I mentioned above, which is to actually put down two different GPAs on your resume.  Let me explain.  The first will be your cumulative GPA for all of college up to that point.  But it is really the second GPA that does the work for you.  This second GPA should be a logical grouping of classes that has a calculated GPA higher than your cumulative.  For example, it may be all of your senior year classes.  It may be upper division classes in your major.  It might be your major GPA itself if it is significantly higher than your cumulative.  Or it may be the GPA of a specialization within your major that is often part of the curriculum at many schools.

So let’s look at some real world examples of groupings you might use as they would be listed on your resume:

Senior-level Accounting GPA
Mechanical Engineering Major GPA
Comparative Literature Specialization GPA

So after choosing a grouping the process becomes pretty easy.  You just get a copy of your transcripts and calculate the GPA of the grouping you choose.  If you don’t know how the calculation works at your school, you can often find it in the academic handbook.  So after you have decided on a grouping and done the calculation you might get a line under your Education that looks like this:

Cumulative GPA: 2.54; 400-level Accounting class GPA: 3.18

So finally let’s put it together and see what your Education section might look like on your resume:

Education
Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
University of Washington, Seattle, WA
December 2007
Grade Point Average: 3.05
Senior level engineering class GPA: 3.44

What you are doing is really two-fold.  First, you are giving a visual indication of solid academic performance.  And man whenever I see this dual GPA method I just love the way it looks!

More importantly you are indicating to the employer that you have a deep understanding of some target subject or set of classes, in the example above, in senior level engineering coursework.  This also shows the recruiter that your academic performance got better with time and that you were able to hunker down towards the end of college.  For that reason, my advice would be to try and create a grouping from the second half of college.   Choosing from the later half of your college career demonstrates improvement with time and involves more relevant classes that have occurred more recently.

For an additional tip on dealing with a low GPA check out my post entitled: “Resume Tips – Discussing Number of Hours Worked.”

Well I hope you find this little trick useful.  Most students I share this with get really excited about the chance to show a positive side of themselves and this trick really does help.  If you have any questions about this post or need tailored advice to your specific job search, including free resume consulting, please e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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