An interview offers the opportunity for a potential employer to learn more about you. During the interview process, you need to confidently communicate your skills, strengths and accomplishments, and let the employer know that you are familiar with the company and its needs.

A successful interview starts with preparation. Learn about the company, read recent press releases and study the job description to help you figure out: where is the company now, where is it headed and what does the employer want? When you can answer these questions, you will be much better prepared to show how your strengths and skills can help the company achieve its goals.

Confirm the Interview Details
Confirm the details of the interview, including the date, time, address and with whom you will be meeting. If the interview is in a large building, find out the floor or suite. If you are unfamiliar with the office, do a test drive (before the day of your interview) to figure out driving time, parking and the time it will take you to arrive at the office. Include time to make a restroom stop to check your appearance after the drive. Plan on arriving at least ten minutes early to the interview; it is better to relax for a few minutes before going in than stressing because you are running late and can't find a parking spot.

Preparing for the Interview Questions
Another important aspect of interview prep is to practice answering questions the employer is likely to ask. Many employers might ask questions such as:

  • "Why are you leaving your old position?"
  • "What do you consider to be your greatest strength?"
  • "What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?"
  • "Why do you want this position?"
  • "Why should we hire you for this position?"
  • "Where would you like to be five years from now?"
  • "What attracted you to this company?"
  • "What is an example of something innovative that you did to make a difference in the workplace?"
  • "How would you deal with an employee who is consistently late?"
  • "What do you know about this company?"
  • "What was the last project you headed up?"
  • "What is your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?"
  • "If you found out the company was breaking a law, what would you do?"
  • "How do you want to improve yourself in the next year?"
  • "How would you describe your work style?"
  • "If you could have one superhero power, what would it be and why?"
  • "What is your personal mission statement?"
  • "What are your salary requirements?"
There are, of course, thousands of questions that you could be asked during an interview. While it would be impossible to have a quick-and-ready answer to any question an interviewer could throw at you, it is helpful to consider your responses to the above questions. It will prepare you for some of the questions that you will likely be asked, and get you on track to be creative with unexpected inquiries. It may be helpful to role-play with a family member or friend: give him or her a list of questions and practice answering until you are comfortable. Incidentally, there are questions that an interviewer is not allowed to ask, including those regarding your:

  • Age (unless to satisfy minimum age requirements)
  • Birthplace
  • Disability
  • Marital/family status
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion
It is helpful to have some questions of your own to ask the interviewer. After the interviewer has found out what he or she needs to know about you, he or she may provide the opportunity for you to ask questions. If so, make sure you have a couple questions that show you have done your homework by researching both the company and the particular position. Being prepared to say, "Yes, thank you, I do have a couple questions …" demonstrates your commitment to the position, whereas, "Umm…not really" just shows you haven't given the position or the company much thought. Ideas include:

  • "What are you seeking in the ideal candidate for this position?"
  • "Can you give me an example of the type of project I may be working on?"
  • "What resources are available for this position?"
  • "What is the next step in the process?"
You should avoid inquiring about workplace politics, scandals, salaries and anything that does not relate to the position for which you are applying. Don't ask any question that makes you appear lazy or unprofessional, such as trying to schedule vacation days (you don't even have the job yet), how many hours you will be expected to work, if you have to take a drug test, how long you have to wait to get promoted or can you bring your dog to work. Before leaving, do ask for each interviewer's business card so you can send thank-you notes.

Dressing for the Interview
You can make a first impression only once. Be sure that what you are wearing, your hairstyle and your makeup convey the message that you want. If you appear polished and professional you are more likely to be hired than if you are seen as putting forth less effort. You should try to match your outfit to one that is customary for the industry and company. If you are applying for a position in a conservative business, a suit might be the best choice. If you are interviewing with an energetic Internet firm, on the other hand, a trendier (yet still professional) outfit may be more appropriate.

There are very few positions for which sexy interview outfits would be appropriate (really, the only time this is proper is if "sexy" is on the job description). In general, men should keep shirts buttoned and wear a tie, and women should avoid any cleavage, see-through garments or too-tight blouses. If there are gaps between the buttons on a blouse, you should wear a shell underneath so no skin shows. Poorly fitting clothes, whether too tight or too lose, will look sloppy and less professional than well-fitting clothes. A visit to an alteration specialist could well be worth the expense.

Accessories should be carefully selected. Interviewers will notice your jewelry, watch, hair ornaments, shoes and handbag. A large purse stuffed with water bottles, gym clothes and a stack of books looks sloppy. Likewise, unpolished and worn out loafers or a wrinkled shirt might make your interviewer think you either don't know how to dress appropriately, or that you just don't care.

When in doubt, dress conservatively. For men, this might mean a navy or deep gray suit, a white shirt, a quiet tie and dress shoes (such as black lace-up shoes with a shine). For women, this means a matching skirt or pantsuit with pantyhose, closed-toe shoes, and tasteful makeup and accessories. It is sometimes helpful to ask a friend what they think about your outfit. Both men and women should avoid using any perfumes or colognes. And, it should go without saying, turn off your phone before entering the interview.

Body Language
Body language, from your posture to how you hold your arms, affects how the interviewer will perceive you. Sitting up straight in your chair while leaning slightly forward, and engaging your interviewer with eye contact and enthusiasm lets them know you are confident and interested. Conversely, crossing your arms tightly across your chest and leaning back in your seat makes you appear unapproachable. Here are a few body language dos and don'ts:



Do

  • Make eye contact, smile and give a confident handshake (purses/briefcases in left hand so right hand is free to shake).
  • Remain standing until invited to sit.
  • Sit up straight and lean slightly forward.
  • Keep an interested expression, maintaining eye contact.
  • Use positive gestures such as nodding, agreeing and smiling.
  • Keep your arms and legs relaxed and quiet.
  • Speak directly to the person who asked the question and give brief eye contact to each member of the interview team.
  • Look away to give privacy if the interviewer must attend to other business.
  • Shake hands with and thank everyone at the end of the interview.
Don't

  • Fidget
  • Rub your neck, back, hands or the arms of the chair.
  • Touch or rub your face.
  • Sit with your arms tightly crossed.
  • Slouch in your chair.
  • Lean towards the door (you will look like you can't wait to get out of there).
  • Drum your fingers or shake your leg up and down.
  • Stare blankly at the interviewer or off in space.
  • Roll your eyes.
  • Look at your watch.
Telephone Interviews
Many companies will conduct telephone interviews if distance is an issue, to save time, or to determine if they would like to schedule an in-person interview with the candidate. While much of the preparation is the same as if you were headed to a face-to-face interview, there are a few special considerations:

  • Use a landline whenever possible to avoid signal loss. You don't want to ask, "Can you hear me now?" during an interview.
  • Turn off call waiting.
  • Select a quiet place with no distractions.
  • Do not eat, chew gum or smoke.
  • Keep a glass of water handy.
  • Have your resume, cover letter and notes in front of you. This is an "open book" interview so take advantage and have well-organized index cards or notes to reference.
  • Listen, focus and take notes.
  • Stand up (or sit up straight) and smile. You will likely sound more energized and enthusiastic.
  • Dress up. You will feel (and sound) more professional than if you are in your jammies.
Thank-You Letters
It is appropriate to send thank-you letters to each interviewer the day after the interview. This follow-up shows the employer that you are interested in the position (and that you have good manners). An email thank you may be appropriate if you have an established history of email correspondence with the interviewer. You might also consider an email thank-you if the company is making its hiring decision quickly. Otherwise, mail a hardcopy thank-you. The letter is intended to thank the interviewers for their time and to show your enthusiasm.

If the interview was fairly informal and you developed an immediate rapport, a handwritten thank-you may be appropriate. For more formal interviews, typed thank-you letters are recommended. As with all correspondence, find and fix any spelling, grammar or usage errors. Check the names, spellings and titles of the interviewers (this is why you asked for each person's business card during the interview).

If you are printing and mailing (or emailing) the thank-you letter, use the standard business format, putting a colon after the interviewer's name and leaving a space between paragraphs. The first paragraph should thank the interviewer for meeting with you and to show your enthusiasm for the position. The second paragraph can be used to reiterate how your skill set makes you a good fit for the position. If necessary, you may add an additional paragraph to mention something that didn't come up in the interview but that you feel the interviewer should know. In the last paragraph, thank the interviewer again and state that you look forward to hearing from them.

Follow-Up
You've provided a stellar cover letter and resume, nailed the interview and sent your thank-you letters. If you are still interested in the position and haven't heard anything in a week, you can make a follow-up call to your interviewer or the Human Resources department to find out if they are close to making a decision and when you could expect to hear something. You can reiterate your interest in the position.


Companies may take weeks and even months to select the right candidate for a position. It is helpful to remember that this lengthy process is not just difficult on you - the company is probably very anxious to complete the hiring process and get someone qualified into the position. If you really want the position, you will have to be patient while the company interviews all the candidates and makes a decision.

Handling Rejection
If you hear back that you did not get the job, it may be acceptable to call and ask why they chose another candidate over you. While this can be awkward, it shows the company that you are willing to learn, and it may help you with your next prospect. If you decide to make this call, be careful to sound like you want this to be a learning experience and that you are interested in self-development - not that you are accusing them of making a mistake or questioning their decision-making abilities. You never know what jobs may open up in the future, and an interviewer may remember you if you handle the disappointment with grace.
Send thank-you notes to the HR department and to your interviewer. Thank them for their time and consideration, and mention that you would appreciate being considered for other positions (if this is true).

Getting an Offer
If you do get an offer - congratulations! Before jumping in, there are a few steps that you should take care of:

Clarification
If there is something you don't understand about the position or the company, now is the time to ask. For example, if you are not sure what your daily schedule will look like, or how many hours you will be working, you should ask in a professional manner.


Offer in Writing
It is important to get the offer in writing so you can confirm exactly what the company is offering and what you can expect. The written offer should include the job title, the annual salary, and details regarding the benefits package, including if the company will help with any relocating expenses.


Negotiate
If you feel that a higher salary or more comprehensive benefits package is appropriate, you can try to negotiate at this point. If you have already verbally agreed to the salary/package, however, it may be inappropriate to ask for something different.


Start Date
It is important to know when the company expects you to start. You may have to give your current employer two weeks' notice, or you may need time to relocate.


Decision Time
Ask when they will need a decision from you. Most companies will be happy to give you a few days or a week to make a decision. Consider it a red flag if the company demands an immediate response.


Instincts
You may be 100% sure that you want the position. If, on the other hand, you're just not sure about it, you will have to figure out what's holding you back. Trust your instincts: if something doesn't seem quite right, it could be a red flag.


Negotiating the Offer
Negotiating for better terms can be uncomfortable or downright awkward, but it can be essential since future pay increases and bonuses will be based on this initial salary package. It's easy to understand the financial merits of a better pay package; however, it's important to consider how valued you would feel with the current offer versus a negotiated package or deal that would make you love your job. You may be in a better position to negotiate if you are a highly qualified/skilled candidate or if the company has been trying to fill a position for an extended period of time. You can research your market value by using salary survey tools such as those on www.glassdoor.com, www.payscale.com and www.salary.com.

Even if the company is not in a position (or not willing) to offer more money, you can still negotiate for terms that would improve your overall package including more vacation time, flextime, comp time, relocation expenses, company car, expense accounts, better benefits, onsite day care and commuting cost reimbursements.

No matter what you ask for during the negotiating process, it is important to be polite and professional. Employers are more likely to consider your proposal if it is done on the grounds of "look at what I can bring to the company" rather than "look at what I deserve."

Declining the Offer
You may decide not to accept the offer for a variety of reasons. If so, you should call, email or send a letter (base this on the type of correspondence you've had so far with the company) as soon as possible to let the company know your decision. Regardless of the method of delivery, it is important to be professional and courteous. Thank them for the offer and say/write a message such as, "After careful consideration, I have decided this position is not the best fit for me at this time…" or, "I have accepted a different position that I feel is more in line with my skill set and career goals." Since you never know what the future holds, it is in your best interest to be gracious, diplomatic and polite.

Accepting the Offer
Even if you accept the offer over the phone, you should write a formal acceptance letter that states:

  • Your appreciation for the opportunity
  • Your acceptance of the job offer
  • A review of the salary and benefits
  • The start date
The letter should be professional, and include your name and contact information. Send the letter as soon as possible. As with all correspondence, find and fix and spelling, grammar or usage errors. Now it's time to get ready to start your new position. Learn more about the company, its officers, its product lines and its corporate culture. Plan out what you will wear during the first week of work. It's best to start with conservative outfits until you see what is appropriate (and what is not). Make sure everything is clean, pressed, in good repair, and fits appropriately. Visit an alteration specialist to improve fit if necessary. Plan your route to work and figure out parking; you'll want to be early to show your enthusiasm and commitment. Arrive well-rested and excited to learn about your new company, coworkers and position.

Next: The Complete Guide To Job Searching: Conclusion »

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