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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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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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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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How To Win Big At A Career Fair

Posted by James M on November 3, 2008

Career fairs are one of the most under utilized parts of the job hunt and one for which many soon-to-be graduating job seekers under prepare.  A typical student might stop by for an hour or so between classes, browse the vast array of company booths, and escape with a plastic bag full of free stuff.  If they are industrious they may stop by a booth or two and drop off a resume.  Career fairs, however, are a great opportunity and one that you should put time and effort into.

If you have never been to a career fair, rest assured it is pretty straight forward.  There are booths staffed by representatives from various companies.  Sometimes they are from the college recruiting division, but they may be volunteer employees from some other division or in some cases the hiring managers themselves.  The number of employers varies between career fairs.  Some are more specialized such as Management Consulting or Forest Resources fairs that may only have 10 companies, while others are larger, more general fairs that could have 50-100 companies.

Career fairs are often under emphasized by students, however this is a mistake.  Career fairs represent your first face-to-face interaction with a company, often times by a representative who will be interviewing you or making a hiring decision.  In addition, these fairs offer a terrific opportunity to gain insight into aspects of a company that are impossible to find online.

Today, I’d like to talk about some of the tricks of the trade and give you some practical tips to help survive a career fair:

Make a good first impression
Treat a career fair the same way you would treat an interview–dress the part, research the company, sell yourself.  Because the atmosphere may seem more laid back don’t forget you are interacting with company representatives, many of whom are in the Recruiting or HR departments and are often the same people who do on- (and off-) campus interviews with new college hires.  It is not unheard of for a company to conduct interviews at a career fair if they spot top talent.  I have even heard of a couple of cases of companies making offers at a career fair.  You heard right.  So be on your best behavior and don’t fall into the trap of treating a career fair as a casual affair.

Dress the part
When finding a job, “dress the part” usually means you should wear a suit (for men) or pant suit or similar attire (for women).  This is not always the case if you know the dress code of a particular company is less formal, but since at a career fair you will be interacting with a wide variety of companies you need to dress to the highest common denominator.  Trust me, it makes a really bad first impression if you stroll in with jeans and sandals on, so do yourself a favor and change out of your casual school wear before hitting up the fair.

Ditch the bag
To me nothing looks tackier than a man wearing a suit who has on a backpack.  The same goes for a women in a pant suit or wearing a skirt.  Here you are in a nice, clean, pressed, professional outfit and you are hauling around a dirty, heavy symbol of the fact that you are still not part of the working world.  Do everyone a favor and ditch your bag.  You’ll look infinitely more professional and, once you liberate yourself from your bag, will feel much more free and confident.  And as a practical matter, hanging on to a 20 lb backpack for 3 hours while you’re walking around nervous as hell about getting a job isn’t my idea of fun.  So what should you do with your bag?  This easiest and most obvious choice is to swing by your house and drop it off.  If you feel you don’t have time (maybe you have an evening class after the career fair or are worried about traffic), think of other creative solutions–ask a friend to hold on to it, leave it in a classroom or lab that you know will be occupied by trusted colleagues, or see if your school’s career center will hang on to it for a few hours.  Whatever you do, leave the bag behind, you wouldn’t bring it to an interview, you wouldn’t bring it to work, so don’t bring it to a career fair.

Research the company
Do your research about a company before you go to the career fair.  If you ask simple questions a career fair, the kind that anyone can find an answer to on a company website, you are really wasting your time (and not helping your chances of impressing the recruiter).  Go above and beyond, ask questions that probe details about a company that you won’t be able to find on the internet.  It is quite impressive to college recruiters when you show your knowledge about a company early on in the job search process.

After you do your research, I would make a sheet of notes for the top 5 or so companies you are interested in, take these note sheets to the fair, and review each one just before talking to the respective employer.  Facts you might write down are key attributes the company is looking for in an employee, any specific job openings you might have seen on the company’s website, perhaps a (very) brief history of the company, the company’s CEO, recent sales, reminders of any important news stories. This information will help guide your discussion and really impress the representative if they happen to ask “Are you familiar with our company and products”, which is a very common question.

Customize your resume
This is really a nice touch.  At the very least you should update your resume’s objective by mentioning the company by name.  If you already know the position you are applying to make sure that you mention that as well.  But most importantly, instead of using a generic resume, make sure it matches the company’s values and desired skill set of the position you are applying for.  We’ll have a very large and in-depth discussion on resumes later.

Have a spiel

Have a 20 second introduction about yourself.  What you are majoring in, what interests you about the company, how your skills match the position.  When you go up to a booth at a career fair, shake the employer’s hand and give your spiel.  Because you will inevitably memorize your spiel, you’ll really need to watch yourself so it doesn’t sound robotic.  I’ve heard many a perspective employee come by and sound like Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (I just realized I am dating myself with that movie example, but it’s a classic you should pic up and watch anyway).  Try with all your might to make your spiel sound organic like you just came up with it on the spot.  You should even practice this in front of a mirror.  Be ready to abandon your spiel at the drop of a hat, it is there to get things moving. Sometimes a perspective employer may ask you a question–“Hey how’s it going, have you had a chance to check out this cool new product we brought with us as a demonstration?”  If the initial conversation gets going without you using your spiel then great!!  As you go about your discussion it is still key that you work in important pieces of information such as your knowledge about the company, why you want to work for them, and what skills you bring.

Also, note that it is best, like all your interaction with a particular company, to tailor your dialogue to the specific employer of interest. Here’s an example of what you might say:

“Hi my name is Lisa, I’m a Communications major graduating in June.  I had an internship last summer with Northwest Broadcasting Incorporated and I really enjoyed working in the video editing department the most.  While looking on your website I saw you have openings for Editing Assistances and I really think my experience at NBI as well as my strong academic background would make me an ideal candidate.  I was wondering if you could tell me more about the Editing Assistant career path.”

Yes, I know people don’t actually talk like that in real life, but I think you get the point.  You have to find the words, tone, and pacing that are natrual for you.  But remember, show your passion, show your knowledge, and sell yourself.

Be engaging
It is really anticlimactic when a student walks up only to mumble with their eyes staring at the resume in their hands.  Be confident!  Be interested!  Ask questions!  Far too many students speak in monotone voices and seem only casually intersted in what company representatives are telling them.  Yes you are nervous, but let your passion for the company and your excitment to find a job show.

What if I don’t know about a particular company?
If you are caught off guard and don’t know about a company you happen to see that looks interesting, don’t waltz up lazy and uninterested.  Trust me, this happens all the time, especially to smaller companies with less name recognition and this lacadizical attitude is really offputting.  Be bold and confident!  Tell the recuriter you were passing by, found the booth interesting and would like to know more about the company.  Work in the generic version of your speil and be yourself.

Don’t start with your top choice

This is a more subtle and often overlooked tip.  Most people who attend a career fair are eager to start talking to representatives from their short list of companies.  That eagerness in conjunction with the fact that most people are often nervous and a little awkward when first attending a career fair often spells disaster.  You want to put your first foot forward when speaking to companies at the top of your list.  So do yourself a favor and start with companies that aren’t on your list.  Work out your introduction, get a feel for the pacing of the interaction and what sorts of questions work well.  Listen to other students talk to employers and get a feel for what does and doesn’t work for them.  After you have your nerves worked out and you’ve hit your stride, then go up and talk to your top companies.

Ask Questions!

Unless your uncle works for a particular company, a career fair is probably the best place to have face-to-face interaction with a company employee.  Really take your time and leverage all of the valuable information you can get there.  Here are some questions you might ask during the career fair:

  • What do you look for in a successful candidate?
  • What are the biggest challenges to a new employee?
  • What is the structure of your interview and hiring process?
  • What is your favorite part about working at the company?
  • What was your career path with the company?
  • What is the typical career path for a [insert your position of interest]?
  • I noticed that [insert product] is launching later this year, will there be any openings to work on that project?

You can also ask follow-up questions about information you found online such as information about:

  • A particular opening you saw online.
  • An entry-level employment program such as a Rotation Program or Leadership Development Program.
  • The main location of particular work group’s offices.
  • Company diversity programs.
  • Company work-life balance.
  • Corporate citizenship practices.
  • The list goes on…

This list is by no means the final word on questions you might want to ask.  It is merely presented to give you some examples of a few good questions and to get your juices flowing.  You should prepare questions that are interesting to you and relevant to the goals of your job hunt.  Remember, you have a limited time with each employer so pick and choose a short list of your highest priority questions and ask them in order of importance to you.  If you don’t get a chance to ask all your questions you’ll have another chance during the interview process.  Also remember that many of the questions you ask will come naturally as part of your dialogue with the recruiter.

I hope that this discussion has highlighted the importance of the career fair in the job seeking process and given you the tools you’ll need to be successful.  If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below.

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