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The Interview Process: What you need to know to turn an interview into a job offer

You've made it far enough through the recruiting obstacle course to have been granted an interview. Depending on the level of formality at the company you may now feel as if you'd been granted an audience with the Queen or just the opposite -- that you're dropping by for a chat. But even if it's a very formal procedure, try to remember that recruiters are employees of organizations just as you hope to be -- they aren't royalty; they're just doing their jobs.

Unlike in the previous process where weeding out was the priority, when it comes to the interview stage it is almost the opposite. By this time recruiters are hoping that you won't be weeded out. During interviews recruiters aren't looking for reasons to throw you out. On the contrary, in interviews recruiters are looking for reasons to hire you. They've already seen your resume and approve of you in writing. You obviously have the basic skills and education to meet their needs.

They've gone to a lot of trouble to get you into that interview chair, and they're really hoping that you'll be the one: the one who will fit in; the one who won't disappoint; the one who will solve their immediate problems of finding good employees.

And you probably have a lot more power in the process that you realize. In addition to the recruiters evaluating you to see if you fit in, you should be evaluating the company and deciding if you fit in.

Barbara Spencer Hawk says in What Employers Really Want: An Insider's Guide to Getting a Job, "Many job seekers believe employers hold all the cards, but in reality, your fundamental power base is equal." She notes that "While the employer is evaluating your skills, personality, and potential to fit it, you're doing the same...You must decide whether you fit, then determine whether you even want to try. (p. 167)"

The Process
A job interview can be held anywhere from a business office to a campus interview room to a hotel coffee shop. Some interviews last about 20 minutes and consist of a one-on-on conversation between single candidate and a single recruiter.

Other interviews take all day and involve numerous candidates, a battery of tests and a team of recruiters. And in some hiring processes, there are two or more interviews with different combinations of recruiters, tests and facility visits. Hopefully you will be informed of the process up front so that you can be prepared. But if not, try to imagine all the possibilities in advance. If you can ask the person contacting you about the process, do so.

Another consideration is the telephone interview. More and more companies are using telephone interviews as a final screening process before in-person meetings. If you receive a call from a recruiter and it involves more than, "Can you come in for an interview on Tuesday at 10 am?" then it's probably a telephone interview, whether the recruiter announces it or not.

If the recruiter asks if you have a few minutes to chat -- you're probably on the verge of a telephone interview. If you really aren't prepared or you don't have the time for a long conversation, it might be better to postpone. Explain that you were just on your way out the door to a dental appointment and ask that he call back at a specific time, or offer to call him at a set time. Once underway, the same rules apply to telephone interviews that apply to in-person interviews.

The following questions will help you be prepared:

Do you expect to have more than one interview with suitable candidates?
Will interviews be one-on-one or will I be interviewed by a panel or team?
If a team, can you tell me who will be on it?
Will there be testing?
If so what kind of tests will be administers and will it be individual or group testing?
How long will each interview or test last?
What should I bring with me?
The more information you have, the more comfortable you'll feel with the process. Try to avoid surprises. For example, if you know that the interview is just one in a series, you won't have your hopes up of being hired on the spot.

And if the opportunity doesn't arise for you to ask questions of your recruiter, try calling the human resources department. Explain that you are coming in for an interview and ask if someone can explain the process. If anyone asks why you want to know, just say you want to make sure you schedule enough time for the interview process and bring the right items with you. And while you have them on the phone, double check the spelling and pronunciation of recruiters names if you aren't sure.

How You Really Get Hired: the Inside Story from a College Recruiter breaks down a typical preliminary or screening interview into four steps.

The warm-up (4 minutes) involves greeting, establishing rapport, explaining the structure of the interview and verifying information from your resume.

The second step (15 minutes) is to evaluate your strengths and liabilities using open-ended, probing or closed questions to determine if a match with the company exists.

The third step (8 minutes) is for offering information to you about the position, the company, any training programs and answering any of your questions.

The final step is the closing (3 minutes) in which the recruiter explains what happens next and gives you some printed material (company brochures and the like) to take away (p.65).

Presentation and First Impressions
By the time you arrive you should already know as much as you possibly can about the company. Combine that with what you know about the interview process, the power you have and you should be able to relax. If not, don't worry. Interviews are stressful situations and everyone, including the recruiter is aware of the pressure that's on you.

It should go without saying that you'll be dressed in proper business attire suitable to your professional and industry. Interviews almost always require a suit or at least a sports jacket-look for both men and women.

Dress the part of the position you want at it's most formal. Even if the position requires casual wear when on the job, what would someone in that position be expected to wear if making a presentation at a conference? If you don't know, find out. Ask people you know in the industry or visit a conference attended by your future colleagues to see what they are wearing.

Your goal is to project a professional polished image. And remember that you need to be professional from the moment you arrive until after you leave - to everyone you encounter along the way, including receptionists. Anything that happens can (and probably will) make it's way to whomever is making the hiring decision.

The first few seconds are extremely important in any personal meeting. In employment interviews this is even more so because of the time constraints and what's at stake. So be punctual. Don't risk being late for anything. If you are too early (an hour or more), go for a cup of coffee. If you arrive somewhat early (30 minutes), go in and announce yourself to the receptionist and ask if you should sit and wait or go away for awhile. But always arrive at least 10 minutes before the appointed time.

When you meet the interviewer, use a strong handshake, smile and make eye contact. Remember that you are trying to develop a positive rapport as quickly as possible. Don't sit until your interviewer sits or asks you to sit.

If you don't have a briefcase, then use a folder or some other professional-looking case to hold extra copies of your resume, a list of references (that can be handed over as is on request), a note pad and pen. If you don't take notes during the interview, be sure to take some immediately afterward so you remember all the details for follow-up.

Use body language to convey energy, enthusiasm and don't slouch or slump in the chair. Don't cross you legs; keep them together with feet flat on the floor. Sit slightly forward in the chair. Don't fuss with your hair or clothes, or let your eyes wander all over the room.

Interviews are about communication. If your communications skills are poor, then you may not make it through this stage of the recruiting process. The Interview Kit by Richard Beatty recommends that you be expressive (alive, animated speech), articulate (words clearly pronounced), concise (not too wordy or rambling), focused (to-the-point) and direct (straightforward, not evasive) in an interview (p.16).

Try to relax and be friendly not too stiff. Don't be afraid to show that you have a sense of humour -- although telling jokes is never a good idea. But feel free to laugh in a light moment. Don't be surprised if the interviewer engages in small talk. A good interviewer will realize that you're probably nervous and try to break the ice. Sometimes interviewers are just as uncomfortable with the whole process as you are and need to ease into it, and sometimes, interviewers use small to gage personality. Whatever the situation, go with the flow.

When it comes to the formal portion of the interview, listening carefully is crucial. Don't give an answer until you're sure of the question. If you aren't sure, ask for clarification. Repeat the question back to the interviewer, "Do you want to know?" or "Do you mean?" If you can't answer the question, say so. Don't try to make up something on the spot. An honest decline is better than a completely wrong answer. Take your time and think your answers through.

If the interviewer seems to not understand your response, or misunderstands, rephrase your answer or substantiate it with a clear example. Be honest, but avoid negativity when possible. If you must answer a question negatively, try to put a positive spin on it or use enthusiasm to offset it.

What Employers Really Want advises, "Acing the interview isn't about delivering the one right answer to any particular question. You must exhibit professional polish and marshal your communications skill.You must engage the interviewer's interest and attention, yet remain attentive, thoughtful, and focused. (p.167)"

Be prepared to ask questions of your interviewer. If you don't, it may appear that you haven't been paying attention, don't care about the position or don't know enough about the company to form questions. Prepare some questions in advance. If they get answered in the interview before you can ask, jot down the answers. When asked if you have any questions, mention the ones you had and note the answers already given. Try to come up with a few questions directly from information given during the interview to show that you are paying attention.

In Career Success: The Canadian Guide, author Shannon Whelan advises: relate your skills, listen carefully, ask questions, observe the interviewer, admit it when you don't know something, convey the message that you want to make sure the job and the company are right for you (p.80).

Always end an interview with a thank you. Chances are the interviewer will close the interview with an explanation of what will happen next, so respond accordingly. If the interviewer says, "We'll be in touch, " ask if you can have some idea when. If you truly want the position, express this at the closing, noting how the interview has strengthened your interest in working with the organization. Ask for a business card and offer yours if you have one. Avoid asking about salary or benefits in a first interview.

Recruiters often complete a formal evaluation sheet after interviews (or during). Ending on a positive note may mean that the recruiter completes the evaluation while still carrying that positive feeling about the meeting.

Marlene Bryan writes in "Job/Work Interviews" on the University of Waterloo's career website that you can evaluate your own performance after an interview by asking yourself the following questions: "What points did I make that seemed to interest the employer? Did I present my qualifications in the best manner possible, giving appropriate examples as evidence? Did I pass up opportunities to sell myself, to demonstrate the work I do, and to show how profitably I could do it for both the organization and myself? Did I talk too much? Too little? Was I too tense? Passive? Aggressive? Did I find out enough about the employer and the job to help in making a knowledgeable decision?"

When evaluating your performance, keep in mind the following from "Why is the Interview Important?" an Internet article on the Campus Access website: "The main goal is to come across politely and sincerely, promoting yourself as someone who would be an asset to their company as well as fusing well with the existing order."

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