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Do Your Homework to Get Work

Knowing how to answer these frequently asked questions will help you ace your next job interview.

You've sent out résumés and applied for numerous job openings. If you're fortunate, you've received acknowledgements, and a long period of silence has followed.

Suddenly, finally, it comes—an e-mail or phone call: "Can we talk about your interest in the job?"

Perhaps no call provokes as much elation and anxiety as an invitation to interview. In today's challenging economy with rising unemployment, just receiving an interview is a cause for celebration. Sure, this is the call all job hunters await anxiously; but now what should you do?

Handling the Initial Phone Conversation

Employers may want to speak with you on the phone before inviting you into their offices. Their calls may be simply to confirm your interest and to schedule an in-person interview, or they may give you a rigorous screening interview.

If the employer wants the initial interview to be over the phone, don't feel obligated to launch right into the conversation unprepared. You don't want the recruiter to think you've been sitting waiting for a call. It’s perfectly fine to say, "I don't have the time for a lengthy conversation right now, but I am available later today or tomorrow morning." 

Use the time you've requested to prepare some questions. When you call the employer for the first time, be prepared to ask the following:

1. What about my application prompted your interest?

2. Who will I be speaking with during the interview process? (Get the name, title, address, phone, and e-mail of either the person calling or the person interviewing.)

3. How much time will I need for the interview?

4. Will there be tests or on-the-job trials? (Some positions require tests on editing, design, or working business equations, for example.)

5. Where and when will the interview take place?

6. What's the appropriate attire? (Always dress up, even if someone tells you that the company has a casual dress code.)

7. What is the interviewing and screening process?

8. What should I do to prepare?

If you are working with a recruiting firm, your contact at the firm will probably tell you about the interview request. He or she will be your "middleman" in dealing with the employer. Working through a recruiter can speed or impede the job-application process. Sometimes a firm can make your search more frustrating than if you had handled the arrangements yourself. That’s one of the downsides of working through a recruiter. Still, be sure to ask the same questions of the recruiter that you would of someone from the employer's office.

The Interviewing Process: What to Expect

Interviewing varies widely, based on industry, occupation, employer, and position. Generally, the higher paid the job, the longer and more rigorous the selection process. Below are some general expectations, based on type of position, that you can have for the interviewing experience:

1. Hourly Wage Positions (administrative, clerical, manual-labor, skilled-trades, personal service, or technical positions): Be prepared for a "screening" interview over the telephone followed by an interview in person at the employer's facility. The interview could include skills, capability, and personality tests. You may interview with a human resources recruiter, your potential supervisor, and possibly coworkers. You probably won’t have to do follow-up interviews.

2. Salaried Positions (professional, senior technical, sales, supervisory, or managerial positions): Expect lengthier phone screenings and interviews, including second and/or third follow-up interviews at later dates. There could be some testing for knowledge and skill levels, and there is an increased likelihood of personality testing. You could encounter panel interviews with two or more people on the employer's side of the table. This could be for efficiency or to gauge your ability to speak to a group.

3. Higher-Paid, Salaried Positions (senior professional, upper-management, or executive positions): Expect rigorous, lengthy, and repeated interviews spanning several visits. There is not likely to be any skill- or knowledge-testing, but there is a higher likelihood of personality tests to gauge your "fit" with the culture and style of the employer.                       

Interview Preparation
Before going to the interview, learn everything you can about the employer, the position, the people you will talk to, and the employer’s industry—including the major competitors in the field. Use the Internet to read about these topics. Go to the employer’s Web site and study every page. You will likely pick up some information, even language, you can talk about in the interview. Recruiters are impressed when you have obviously made an effort to learn about their companies.

Prepare questions to ask during interviews. Focus on positives, such as, "Will I be able to use the wide range of my abilities in this position?" or, "I see from your Web site that you encourage internal advancement; would there be opportunities for me to grow with you?"

Personality Tests
Some employers use standardized testing to evaluate applicants' personalities, personal attributes, and even behaviors. (At the extreme, some employers use handwriting analysis.) There are often no correct answers to these tests. Be honest, be yourself, but most important, think what answer the employer would prefer. I’m not suggesting you misrepresent yourself, but given a choice, give the most socially acceptable answer.

Interview Day
When the big day arrives, focus on the basics, including the following:

1. Rest: Get plenty of rest and eat well before the interview.

2. Dress for success: Be well groomed and well dressed. If you had been considering it, now is the time to buy a new suit or outfit. If you look sharp, you'll feel more confident, and you'll impress interviewers.

3. Be prompt: Get there early. Never be late or merely on time.

4. Bring an interview notebook: Prepare a small, three-ring binder that includes your research on the employer, extra résumés, and your questions. Don't go in with a big bag, briefcase, lunch bag, newspapers, or other "stuff." Single-minded, efficient, and organized are the character traits you want to convey.

5. Bring examples of your work: If appropriate, bring a portfolio of your work and some copies you can leave behind.

6. Connect with the interviewer: Open the interview with some small talk to get at ease with the interviewer. Ask about his or her background; that can be very flattering.

7. Eating and drinking during interview: If offered a beverage, it's most polite to accept (and it slows things down a little). If you’re invited to lunch for an interview, pick something easy to eat (pass on the finger food), and never, ever order an alcoholic drink.

8. Get the names of your interviewers: Don't leave the without getting at least the name and title of everyone you've spoken to, even people you've briefly met. Better yet, ask for each person's business card as you are wrapping up a conversation with him or her.

9. Find out what comes next: At the end of the interview, ask about the expected time frame and when the team expects to make a hiring decision. Also mention that you're available for follow-up interviews.

The Tough Questions
Older job seekers are often anxious about age-related questions. Despite your best effort to come across as age 39, it's time to face the music. My advice? Be proud of your age, your lifetime of achievement, and your wealth of capabilities. At the same time, be prepared for the classic unsettling questions:

Do you think you're overqualified? In response, don't get huffy! Explain why you want the job and why you would not jump to a more challenging or highly paid job. Focus on your capabilities, knowledge, skills, and achievements.

How old are you? It is legal to ask  this question, provided age is a legitimate factor for the job. Answer it plainly and with pride. The same advice applies to the more subtle, "When did you graduate from school?"

Why do you want to work? This is a popular question. Tell the recruiter precisely why you are motivated to secure the job. State the number of years you plan to work (ideally, your answer should be, "at least five to seven years or longer").

Why are you unemployed? Be ready to answer this. Among the best answers are the following: "I am looking for growth," "our company had a staff reduction," "I took an early retirement package," or "I want to do something new." If you were fired, answer truthfully but carefully.

What pay are you looking for? Answer along the following lines: "I am sure you have a pay structure and that you are concerned about internal equity. I am confident that if you make a reasonable offer, I will be inclined to respect the proposed salary." If the interviewer repeats the question, tell him or her your lowest acceptable salary. The alternative is to say, "I believe it is premature to talk about payment."

Are you in good health?  This is an illegal question. If you have a visible, chronic illness or disability, let the interviewer draw his or her own conclusion. At the same time, focus on showing your motivation, stamina, and energy.

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