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Guesstimation Interview Questions

Posted by James M on December 9, 2008

Guesstimation interview questions are in the same family as logic questions and require a similar type of response framework.  They are used primarily in the high tech and consulting industries.  In this post I’ll try and tackle one of the most famous of these questions: How much does Mount Kilimanjaro weigh?  Remember, these are not trivia questions, but rather questions used to test your ability to make assumptions, simplify complex problems, and maintain a logical framework to problem solving.

Before you waste your time reading my ramblings, you might consider viewing this video from Vault.com.  It approaches this type of question from a sample interview point of view, and gives some very helpful tips.

Thanks Vault!!  Now I’ll try to tackle the Mount Kilimanjaro question with an analysis provided below. I’ve written my equations in numerical values instead of writing them out in English for clarity and simplicity while reading.

How much does Mount Kilimanjaro weigh?

“Oh, wow, a lot?  Ok, well I think I have seen pictures of the mountain and I remember it is suppose to be pretty tall, maybe like 15,000 feet.  So I guess let’s assume it is 15,000 feet tall.  And in the pictures I seem to remember it was pretty wide, it looked wider than it was tall, so maybe it is 20,000 feet from end to end along the base. So to figure out how much it weighs I just need to figure out the volume and then figure out how much that volume weighs.  So I’ll do the calculation in cubic feet and then just multiply by the weight of one cubic foot of rock.

So to make the calculation manageable lets assume the mountain is a perfect cone, basically a cone with these dimensions I wrote down—a radius of 10,000 feet and height of 15,000 feet.  So, let me think.  The formula for a cone is…(1/3)pi*(r^2)*h.  So let’s see r^2 is 10,000^2 which is 100 million feet.  100 million times the height of 15,000 feet is 1.5 trillion feet.  So 1/3 of that is 500 billion.  So 500 billion*pi feet cubed is the mountain’s volume.  Ok, how much does rock weigh?  I remember I helped my dad build a small stone wall by our old house a few years ago, and the rocks were about a foot square and six inches deep.  So that is half the size of a cubic food.  I think they probably weighed about 70 Ibs.  So I can assume the weight of 1 cubic foot of rock is about twice as much, so that would be 140 pounds.  So 140 which is the weight of one cubic foot of rock times 500 billion*pi which is the volume of the mountain is 7X10^13 pi Ibs.  Wow, that is a lot.”

Analysis
So, there are really there components to answering this type of question involving math and estimation.  First, you need to be able to make reasonable assumptions.  Making assumptions is part of any job especially engineering—you have to simplify tasks into manageable parts which involves assumptions.  So if you say the density of rock is 12 Ibs per cubic meter or that Mount Kilimanjaro is 5 miles high, this might indicate to the recruiter that you will have trouble creating grounded assumptions.  Again, the best way to make assumptions is to use reference points.  For example, I mentioned the photo of the mountain I remembered seeing and the stone wall I helped my dad build.

Second, you should be able to do the basic math involved in these sorts of problems.  Yes, the numbers were big in this example, but they involved lots of zeros so it really wasn’t that hard.  In addition, you’ll have scratch paper during the interview.

Third, and most importantly you need to have a chain of logic.  Again, it is not the right answer that is important, but how you talk through distilling the problem to its essence and the steps you go through to get to the answer as you describe it in your opening problem statement.  In reality Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,340 ft and the density of rock is more like 167 Ibs per square foot, but since this isn’t trivia, but about problem solving, the assumptions we made will do just fine.

Well that’s all for today.  If you have any questions or would like free resume consulting, feel free to e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.  Thanks for reading!

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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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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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Common Types of Interview Questions – Overview

Posted by James M on November 4, 2008

In the Common Types of Interview Questions series we will be examining the common types of interview questions, their formats, and the proper way to respond.  There is a lot of information regarding this subject so first, in this Overview post, I’ll outline the 5 types of common interview questions, and then in future posts we’ll go over them one-by-one in more depth.  But rest assured there are specific strategies and formats to help frame your response to all 5 types questions.

1.  Behavioral Questions

This is the most common type of interview question and regardless of your major, career choice, or position you are applying for, you will invariably face many of these questions in your interviews.  Behavioral Questions include such famous examples as “Please tell me about your biggest weakness”, and “Tell me about a time you led a team to complete a task.”  Luckily, there is a sure fire structured response to this question type which we will discuss later in this series.

2.  Situational Questions

These questions are relatively uncommon, but include theoretical questions regarding ethical situations or circumstances where you are juggling many activities at once against a fast approaching deadline.

3.  Logic Questions

This format was made famous by Microsoft and is mainly, but not always, used during engineering interviews, especially in the computer science or creative design fields.  These questions have been waning in prevalence in recent years, but you’ll still want to read this post if you are applying for an engineering position or at a company that has branded itself as “innovative”.

4.  Case Study Questions

This type of question is usually restrained to consulting jobs especially strategic and management consulting, and involves analyzing a theoretical or real-world business situation or problem faced by an organization and coming up with a solution or set of actions to resolve the situation.

5.  Field of Study Questions

This is the term I have given to questions regarding questions which “test” your knowledge of a given target subject, and is most prevalent during engineering interviews.  For example, someone applying for a mechanical engineering position may be given a problem where they have to calculate mechanical or static forces acting on an object.  The point, therefore, of this family of questions is to “test” your knowledge of the field you studied in college to insure you have the background and quantitative skills to learn a new and complex trade and begin contributing to a company soon after hire.

Note that these 5 types of questions could appear in a variety of settings.  For example, there could be one or more interviewers or interviewees involved in the interview at one time.  The interview duration could range from 30 minutes to several hours.  The interview may be over the phone, on-campus, or at a local or regional company office.  Despite these variable the types of interview questions being asked will not change nor will the strategies used to answer them.

Ok, well there you have it, the 5 common types of questions you will see as a new college hire.  There are other more advanced types of questions used for experienced professionals and a few types of “exotic” questions that you are unlikely to ever see, but if you can understand how to answer these 5 types (especially the Behavioral Question family as it is by far the most common)  you will be well on your way to having a great interview and wowing your target company.

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Interview Questions – “Tell me about yourself.”

Posted by James M on November 4, 2008

“Can you tell me a little about yourself?”

This is one of the most deceiving interview questions you are likely to get.  It’s deception lies in its simplicity and our tendency to answer as we would if asked by a stranger on the street–we talk about where we’re from, what we majored in, and perhaps what we like to do in our spare time. But the interviewer is really trying to get a sense of who you are in professional terms:  what your goals are, what your passions are, and what skills you can bring to the organization.  In short they are trying to determine what is called “fit”–the way you “fit in” to their organization, what you can do for their company and to some extent what they can do to help nurture your career so you will continue your growth and contributions.

So let’s take a look at a structured way to respond to this questions.  As I said before, most students can not escape the tendency to tell a narrative.  For that reason, I suggest blending a short narrative introduction to get the ball rolling with a strong argument about your “fit” coming in the second half of the response. I recommend using the following story points as a framework:

  1. A short (a couple of words) introduction about your home city
  2. A short description of why you chose the college you attended
  3. A short description of why you choose the major that you did
  4. A description about how you learned about the company and the position
  5. A description about why you are excited about the company
  6. A description about why you are a good fit for the company and position

I want to emphasize that this is just a framework.  It is a way to allow you to tell a story, ease into your answer, build your confidence, and give your response structure.  Feel free to substitute other narrative bullets in for the first three if you’d like.  The most important part of your response, the part you can’t substitute, are the last three bullets.  Also, notice you should spend the majority of your time talking about these last three subjects.  To give an example of how these story points might be combined in the real world, let’s look at an example response:

“Hi, Nice to meet you.  First, can you tell me a little about yourself?”

“Well, I was born and raised in Seattle and as a high school senior I knew I wanted to attend the University of Washington because of it’s strong engineering department and my passion for technology.  While taking prerequisite classes in the engineering department, I discovered I have a strong interest in computers and the way they interact with humans to create the user experience, this led me to a major in Computer Engineering.   During my junior year a representative from Microsoft came to speak with us about theZune portable media player and the technology behind it.  Of course I had heard of Microsoft, but the Zune was completely new to me.  After going online and investigating the company further, I discovered that Microsoft has a User Experience team that works with various departments within the company to help create user experiences across a wide range of products.  Because of my strong passion for user experience centered design, the knowledge I have in the software development life-cycle I gained last year as an intern at Adobe, and my ability to work well in a team as shown by my involvement in student government, I would be able to start off as a contributing member of the user experience division.”

I want to point out a couple of things.  First, notice how quickly I moved from my opening, “I was born and raised in Seattle”, to telling the interviewer about why I wanted to work for Microsoft.  By the third sentence I was already talking about a company representative coming to speak at the school and how excited I was about it.  This should show you that it is possible to create a coherent narrative while still quickly moving to the meat of the response.  Second, notice that even as I was setting up the background about why I went to the University of Washington I was already mentioning my passion for technology.  In doing so, I was able to show the interviewer that technology has been something important to me for several years (at least since high school), as well as set up a recurring theme of passion for technology.  I later elaborated on this “passion for technology”, first stating that it brought me to the University of Washington, second that it encouraged me to apply to the Computer Engineering program at the school, and third by talking about how it led me to apply to this particular position.  This set up my closing where I used this passion, as well as some other experience I had, to talk about how I would be able to start contributing to the company right away.

I know what you might be thinking–I’ve cheated.  I created “The Perfect Candidate” for this position with all the right skills and experience which made answering the question easy.  What if I didn’t have all of that other experience–that internship with Adobe or that position with the school’s student government.  What if I wasn’t even a Computer Engineering major.  Could I still make a case for myself?  Let’s assume I am applying to the same job, I still have an interest in technology, only this time I am a Marketing major with no additional work, volunteer, or leadership experience.  How could I possibly respond in that case?

Let’s try answering this interview question again, using our standard structured story points and the new candidate background information I mentioned above:

“Well, I was born and raised in Seattle and as a high school senior I knew I wanted to attend the University of Washington because of it’s strong engineering department and my passion for technology.  However, while taking prerequisite classes in the engineering department, I started to feel removed from the human element which I never knew was so important to me until it was missing.  This led me to pursue a degree in Marketing which is very focused on examining the way people think and perceive information in order to create the most effective advertising campaign.  I never lost my curiosity for technology however, I still regularly read a variety ofblogs and news articles about the latest products being brought to market and the technology behind them.  So it was natural for me to investigate careers with Microsoft, a company that is at the forefront of technological innovation.  When I started the job hunt I was on the Microsoft website one day and found some information about your User Experience team that works with various departments within the company to help create user experiences across a wide range of products.  I was immediately hooked.  Although, I’m a non-traditional candidate for this particular position, I think my background has the potential to strengthen the diversity of the User Experience team.  My insight into the way people perceive information that I gained from my marketing education as well as my broad knowledge of the latest consumer technology products being developed will add a useful counter point to the members of the team which have a computer engineering background.”

Not bad huh?  Notice that I was able to come up with a strong and compelling answer despite the fact that I didn’t once mention internships, work experience, volunteer positions, or even school projects.  What did I mention?  Again, I made my passion for technology a theme, this time highlighting the fact that, although I didn’t pursue a degree in a technical field, I still stayed involved and up-to-date on technology.  Because of my lack of experience I was forced to find another creative way to show that I was still passionate about the strong technical aspects of the position.  I was also able to turn what seems like a weakness, a degree in Marketing, to my advantage by highlighting themes about my education and what I can bring to the table that is unique from other candidates.

Are you starting to see how creative and relevant all aspects of your life can be in marketing yourself during the interview.  Anything you’ve done is fair game to bring up if you can find a way to make it fit coherently within your responses and show the interviewer how it is a strength for the particular position you’re applying for.  And I really challenge you to think about these aspects of your life, especially if you are nervous about your qualifications for a particular job.  Again, I think you’ll see that preparation–in this case reflection and creativity–can help you overcome any perceived shortcomings in your qualifications.

Well that’s it for today, as always let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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