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The Art of the Interview

By Alexandra Levit

First-hand tips for making a slam-dunk first impression at the company you want to work for

Your resume has made it past the slush pile in your company of choice and the HR Manager has invited you in for an interview. Pat yourself on the back - you've gotten yourself noticed and have made it past the toughest part of the job search process. All you have to do now is nail the interview. Relax! This is not as hard as you think. Play your cards right and you'll have an offer in hand in no time.

The key to stress-free interviewing is to prepare, but not too much. You want to do just enough research so that you know what to expect and can speak intelligently on the points related to your job function. It helps to jot down a few "wow 'em" facts about the company that you would never know unless you did your homework. Don't spend so much time on the company's website, though, or you'll end up sounding like an encyclopedia in the interview.

It's in your best interest to find out as much as you can about the person or people interviewing you so that you arrive at the meeting with some preliminary information about who you're dealing with. A Google search might prove helpful in this regard. Determine in advance what type of interview you'll be having so you aren't caught off guard. Will the meeting be one-on-one, or will you be sitting in front of a panel of executives? Will you be asked to consider a real-life business problem? Will any type of written or computer test be required while you're on site?

If your past experience can be demonstrated on paper, I recommend putting together an interview portfolio. A portfolio is a three-ring binder in which you can include anything that highlights your business achievements and shows your level of commitment to previous positions. For example, I'm a marketing communications executive, so my portfolio includes press releases and business plans I've written, magazine articles I've contributed to and print advertising campaigns I've helped develop. A neat and professional portfolio can be an excellent tool to refer to during an interview. Most people don't bother to create one, but it speaks volumes about your ability to package yourself.

While it's a good idea to be conversational during an interview, be careful how much personal information you divulge. There is never a good reason to bad-mouth your previous employer, even if everything you say is justified. While he is listening to your sob story, your prospective employer is thinking that in a year, you will be sitting in front of another interviewer complaining about HIS company. Don't be fooled by an interviewer that seems compassionate. Remember, the two of you are not friends and the interviewer's first loyalty is to the company he's hiring for. If you are asked why you left a job, answer with a neutral statement like "I was spending more time on the train than I was at work" or "I wanted to gain experience working in a different industry."

Many companies have their human resources representatives conduct interviews, but you should try to meet, or at least speak with, the person who will be your official manager. The reason behind this is pretty simple. If your personalities clash or if you have fundamental differences in the way you work, you need to know immediately so you can determine if you want to pursue the opportunity further. I'm not saying that one conversation will accurately reflect how your boss will act on the job, or that problems won't arise later that were impossible to predict. However, if you hate the person on site, you should consider if it's a smart move to work for her.

While you're interviewing, you should also talk to existing employees at the company, preferably in your department. Tactfully learn as much as you can about the corporate culture, or the working environment and the politics of the organization. Think seriously about whether you could fit in, because you won't be able to have a happy and fruitful career in a company that makes you uncomfortable or doesn't meet your individual needs. Get a sense of the overall mood and morale of the employees and listen carefully to what they say…and don't say. If you think that every employee is going to sing the company's praises just because you came up from HR, you might be surprised. I interviewed at a technology company that really impressed me until two of my potential colleagues told me to leave "before I got sucked in." I didn't take the offer, but I might have if I hadn't taken the time to get the insider view. Here are some other things to keep in mind as you go through the interview process:

Before the Interview:
* Familiarize yourself with basic interview questions like "tell me about yourself" and doozy interview questions like "what is your worst quality?"
* Assess your own skills and career path in the context of the position.
* Brainstorm three to five of your most important business accomplishments and practice succinctly communicating the challenges and results of each one.
* Think of some appropriate questions of your own.
* Be careful not to memorize your comments so they sound canned.
On the Day of the Interview
* Dress in neat, formal business attire.
* Don't arrive too early or too late.
* Carry a nice briefcase that looks worn, but not too worn.
* Begin every meeting with a strong handshake.
* Speak confidently even if you feel like hurling from nervousness.
* Avoid talking nonstop without taking time to listen sincerely.
* Refrain from saying anything negative.
* Pay attention to nonverbal cues - yours and the interviewer's.
* Take a moment to think if you don't know an answer immediately.
* Let the interviewer bring up the topic of money first.
After the Interview:
* Handwrite thank you cards to everyone you spoke to.
* Follow up with human resources for a status on your offer.

Alexandra Levit worked for a Fortune 500 software company and an international public relations firm before starting Inspiration @Work, an independent marketing communications business. She's the author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World (Career Press 2004; This excerpt was reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from THEY DON'T TEACH CORPORATE IN COLLEGE © 2004 Alexandra Levit. Published by Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ. All rights reserved.

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