Remember the subtle stuff but don’t forget the basics

It’s easy to obsess about the difficult interview questions. You know the sort of thing:  “What’s the most awkward situation you’ve ever dealt with?” (Tempting to answer, “I’m in it right now. How am I doing?”).
But don’t forget the simple rules of interviewing. It’s a form of kabuki theater (stylized, formal theatre to the uninitiated), and you shouldn’t really try to bend or, heaven forbid, break the rules. It’s probably the first time the potential employer will have met you and if you do anything too out-the-ordinary, they’re going to start worrying, “Whatever will they do/wear/say when they have the job and feel more at ease to be themselves?”
Here are some basic rules: Blog me back if you think I’ve missed out anything important. Or of course if you disagree…..
  • Do your research on the company. Asking a private equity company what their traders specialize in will not get you the job.
  • Always be positive about your boss, colleagues and the company you work/worked for. Of course, this may take some fancy footwork if your supervisor and colleagues had horns growing  out of their heads but emphasize how much you learned there.
  • If you’re alone in the room and the interviewer walks in, stand up and offer your hand for a firm but not paralyzing handshake.
  • Look the interviewer in the eye. You’re not dealing with tigers that’ll get spooked and attack you for staring too hard. Shifty-looking, staring at the floor, is not a good  interview look. If you’re a shy, prefer-computers-to-people expert, get over it! Practice with shopkeepers, neighbors and bus drivers.
  • Dress in Interview Uniform. That usually means a suit and tie for chaps, suit (skirt or trousers) for women. If you don’t have a suit, wear something conservative, neat, clean, ideally in dark colors. Shirts and blouses should be neutral colors e.g.  white, light blue, ecru.  There are exceptions to this rule, e.g. in the fashion industry. If you have a question about a particular interview, blog us.

Tough questions. Forget other people’s advice – listen to mine!

You know they’re going to ask the stinkeroonie questions and you half prepare for them. Or you come up with what you think is a reasonable answer but no-one has told you whether it was good or bad  — an interviewer will never say in feedback, “It was your answer to my favorite ‘weakness’ question that made me reject your application.” So what’s a candidate to do?

What is one of your worst weaknesses?
Horrible question. The point is, you shouldn’t give them one. I mean, you want the job. Why give them ammo not to hire you. But they’ve asked you a question so you have to say something. Here’s the way round it. Tell them something they already know. They probably only know you at that point from your resume so have a cold hard look at it.
·         What’s on it that shouldn’t be? Too many jobs? Tackle it head on and say, “I’m steadier than my resume would lead you to believe. But circumstances (they’ll all be specific to you, just keep it simple) meant I couldn’t stay at one job for 10 years as I’d have wanted. And on the upside, I have learned a lot of different management styles, ways of running a business. I’ve learned a lot from my 7 jobs in 16 years.”
·         No 4 year degree? “Yes, but I didn’t have the money/time and as the years rolled by, I was too busy earning a living. A regret, but I have years of excellent work experience instead.” Or “I have 30 credits left, I’m wanting to finish them online, just to show that I finished the degree. But I honestly think my years of experience prepare me better for the work environment.”  
·         What isn’t on it that should be? No private equity experience? “Yes, but I have instead my ….whatever your experience is… and I do believe my scheduling skills/knowledge of complex travel arrangements/personal work transfer to many industries.”

And the horrible answer would be: I’m too much of a perfectionist/I can’t say no/ I get impatient with mistakes. WRONG. Because what if the future employer piles on the work? You have to be able to do it perfectly without getting overtired, making mistakes, by not prioritizing correctly, working too much overtime. And “impatient with mistakes”? Well…you may just be stepping into a viper’s nest where some of the other staff specialize in mistakes. The should-have-been-future employer won’t take the risk that you’ll cause friction.

Are there other difficult questions that have you stuttering? Let me know and I’ll try to answer them.

Be specific. Generalizations can become meaningless.

Your resume is your chance to highlight your skills but you only have limited space (one page or two, doesn’t matter). What can happen is that job candidates sum up their skills SO generally that, in effect, they’re meaningless… “Excellent interpersonal skills”, “excellent communication skills”, “detail oriented.” Nearly everyone writes at least one of those on the resume but where’s the proof? And how to prove that you’re more detail oriented than the others? Prove it by giving examples! The resume with specified accomplishments has more chance of standing out from the competition and getting you in front of the company interviewer than a generic cookie cutter version.  
  •  “Excellent computer skills” becomes e.g. “the Department’s go-to person for PowerPoint
    presentations/Excel pivot tables”.
  • “Strong work ethic” becomes e.g. “always willing to work the extra time to meet the monthly deadlines”.
  • “Detail oriented” becomes e.g. “was asked by the CEO to organize a Christmas party for 140 Lithuanian crop dusters”.
  • “Excellent writing skills” becomes e.g. “wrote Training Manual for Cold-Calling for Sales Staff”.

Interests/activities/hobbies on a resume?

Should you write interests/activities/hobbies on a resume?  
Not if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. However, it does add to the picture of who you are and can increase the likelihood of securing an interview.
Interested in sports? It can mean you want to be fit, or that you like to win, or you enjoy playing in a team, or you do it because you like the socializing afterwards. Maybe it got you a scholarship at college. All of this is good, so why not write that you like baseball/tennis/water polo/running/synchronized swimming?
All other interests are relevant, too. Charity work, church activities, hanging out with your family and friends, reading, music, crochet…all good. I had a candidate say, “I go sailing for the socializing afterwards. Is that a terrible thing to admit?” Absolutely not. Another candidate was a pharmacist with an entrepreneurial streak. He had been the Under-16 National Greek Ski-ing Champion. So THAT was an early clue, right there on his resume, that he would perhaps be a driven personality who wanted to succeed. As indeed he did.
Hobbies round out the picture of who you are. You may have interests that are similar to your job e.g. you’re a staff accountant who teaches mathematics to under-privileged children. You may have an interest totally dissimilar to your job e.g. you’re a trader who grows orchids in your spare time. All of it makes you YOU. Who you are can be just as important to a company as your being able to do mailmerge.

Lay-out of a resume

One page? Two pages? European-style 6-pager with a photo?
  • One or two pages is fine. The days of the one v two page arguments are long gone. US resumes are never more than 2 pages. Well, occasional exceptions. Academic resumes are a special case, too). European-type c.v.s are just not the norm here, and tend to freak out HR Departments. And freaking out HR Depts is not the point of sending resumes.
  • Do not add a photograph. Not relevant, and possibly illegal for potential employers to use the information. Don’t do it.
  • Do not write age, marital status, number of children on your resume. See reasons in point above…Don’t do it.
  • Bullet points versus prose to describe responsibilities? Up to the mid-‘90s, it could be either but this is 2012 and prose looks old-fashioned. Bullet points just look crisper and make the highlights easier to read.
  • Education at beginning or end of resume? Up to you…Mind you, if you have less than a 4-year degree, I’d recommend leaving it to the end. There’s nothing wrong with NOT having a 4-year degree, of course, but common sense perhaps says it’s not the first thing you want potential employers to notice.
  • Don’t use exotic fonts. Some of them look like old-fashioned typewriter fonts (e.g. Monotype Corsiva isn’t even given as a choice in Outlook). Although you want your resume not to be too cookie-cutter you want it to stand out in an up-to-date professional way.