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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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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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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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