The questions start the moment you sit down: Tell me about your ability to multitask. What's your biggest weakness? Why are you interested in this organization? How would your boss describe you?
In just a few minutes, the bell rings and you get up, shake hands and move on to the next round of question-answer with yet another potential employer.
Welcome to the world of speed interviewing, where a five- to 15-minute interrogation may determine whether you're the lucky person who gets the job.
In today's competitive market, where there are typically five applicants for every opening, speed interviews are increasingly the norm. Employers and job seekers talk as fast as they can—on the phone, at job fairs and networking events, in offices and warehouses.
"In this flooded job market, employers use speed interviews to weed out people quickly," says Heidi McLaughlin, assistant director of the Dual Career Network at the University of Iowa. "They're looking for red flags—gaps in work history, patterns of short tenure, lack of relevant experience—in the résumé in order to wade through a large amount of résumés in a short time." Those who survive the cut typically get a full-length interview.
What employers are often watching for is an applicant's ability to think fast, speak clearly and concisely, and demonstrate competence and confidence, which are valuable traits for clerk or CEO alike. Little time is wasted on small talk.
Applicants headed to traditional interviews have always been wise to think out answers in advance. But with speed interviews, there's particular need to prepare; the time is so constricted that there's no recovering from a bad answer. Every sentence needs to be crafted to advance your case, so you need to be prepared to answer the most difficult questions.
McLaughlin, a job and career transitions coach, suggests that job hunters attend community networking events or professional meetings and practice a mock interview with a partner. If possible, videotape the interview to see whether you're rambling.
It helps if you're a natural extrovert.
"You've got to show enthusiasm, even over the phone" says Mark Sienko, 50, of Ypsilanti, Mich., who's been looking for a project manager's job since July and recently practiced speed interviewing at an Ann Arbor, Mich., nonprofit group. He finds it easy to be upbeat, except when the interviewer is running straight through all the basic HR questions without even a minute of rapport building. Most interviews go well, he says. "Straightforward questions get straightforward answers."
"The big thing," he adds, "is to come in prepared. If you come in nervous and not prepared, they're going to know it and you'll be out."
Frances Bolles Haynes, coauthor of 101 Toughest Interview Questions, suggests that applicants write out their answers and practice them. Time your answers, she says, and have your practice interviewer stop you when time is up.
"A good rule of thumb is to talk for about 20 to 30 seconds," then allow the interviewer to ask follow-ups, Haynes says.
If an interviewer interrupts you, it's a signal you've gotten off track, says Heath Boston, a manager with Manpower of Southeast Michigan. "Make your responses exact, straight to the point and brief …. Less is more."
Boston, who interviews 40 to 200 people a week for various non-medical jobs at hospitals and rehab centers, says the first 30 seconds of an interview are crucial. You need a firm handshake, eye contact and professional attire. "Reek of confidence" and professionalism, he says.
Even when time is tight, provide specific answers that show achieved results. If you're asked about leadership skills, for example, you might say, " 'I led a team of 14 people in rolling out a marketing plan that ended up bringing the company increased sales of $600,000,' " says Marky Stein, a career and life coach in Campbell, Calif.
"The overall question that every employer is asking in an interview, no matter if there's three questions or 25 questions, is 'Why should I hire you?' with the emphasis on the you," says Stein, author of Get a Great Job When You Don't Have a Job.
A final tip: If a speed interview is going to be by phone, don't pick up if you're not in a good place and frame of mind. Take the call when you're behind the wheel in traffic and you may come away with a traffic ticket for talking while driving instead of a job.
Vickie Elmer, who writes about business and careers, blogs at Workingkind.com.