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How to Ace a Job Interview

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Military spouses and other family members face the prospect of sitting down for a new job interview several times in their lives. Every time there’s a Permanent Change of Station, it means quitting the job you’ve got, heading off to an unknown city and trying to convince someone there to give you a job. For personnel transferring from military to civilian life, a job interview can be nerve-racking – sometimes it’s been 20 years since your last job interview, and sometimes the only job interview you’ve ever had was the conversation you had with the recruiter many years before.

In the course of researching for this article, I did a cursory Google search of the title of this article, and some other related terms, and brought up some very interesting results. One site promised me “88 Tips and Tricks for Job Interviews.” Another few that I looked at had articles that were five or six pages long. Every one of them left me intimidated. I mean, I’ve had a job interview or two in my life, but I’ve been on active duty now for years. Have interviews transformed from the cordial meetings I remember into a harrowing cloister of trials?

I don’t think so.

I don’t consider myself an expert on just about anything, but I definitely feel like I know a thing or two about job interviews. That’s because I used to perform about ten of them every week, for weeks on end, during the 2008 presidential campaign and in 2009, when I worked for a political outfit following the election. The work I was doing had a high turnover and was constantly recruiting people who could talk and raise money for campaigns and causes. I definitely learned how to give an interview; I feel qualified, therefore, to write about how to ace an interview.

I don’t think I could give you 88 tips and tricks if I tried; I also think you should never go in to a job interview thinking that a “trick” is going to help you. However, I will give you 5 solid principles to get right. If you get these in place, you’ll be ahead of three quarters of the other people applying for that job. Without further ado:

1. Know something about the company you’re applying to join. Every employer knows why you’re sitting in that chair. You don’t have a job, or you hate the one you currently have, and you need to work. Especially in today’s economy, even the bosses at your local Subway have more applicants than they could possibly hire, so standing out from the pack is especially important. The single most important thing you can do to differentiate yourself is to do your homework. It doesn’t take much – there’s such a thing as Google, these days, and even a few phone calls to the receptionist, a friend or relative who works or worked for the company in the past or anyone willing to talk to you about the position you’re applying for can give you the edge you’re looking for. Being able to discuss some details about the company, its mission and its approaches can give a manager a sense of confidence in you from the get-go, because it shows you’re self-motivated and serious about working at that particular business – not just showing up at the interview because your Mom kicked you out of the basement for a day, or because you just need a job, any job, and anything will do.

2. Follow the basics. And here are the basics: Dress nicely. Arrive early, and bring your own pen. Have a good, firm handshake, remember the interviewer’s name (and use it!) and remember to smile a lot, make eye contact, ask a lot of questions, stay engaged, friendly and humorous. That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? It isn’t: Be someone you would want to work with, but be yourself. Don’t let yourself get anxious or scared of the process. Whoever is interviewing you puts their pants on one leg at a time, just like you, and will appreciate you being human and being yourself. You won’t be able to fake a personality for years at a company, so make sure you’re authentic from Day One. You don’t want to get hired at a place you can’t be yourself.

3. Don’t ramble, and be deliberate with your answers. The whole long and short of an interview: They ask questions, you give answers. So make sure the answers you’re giving are the best possible answers. When you’re asked a question, take a second to think before responding. It’s better to have a short, concise answer to a question than to just start spouting whatever comes to mind. You’re not playing Mad Libs with the interviewer – you’re selling him or her on the prospect of hiring you.

4. Stress your experience, and be honest. If the interviewer brings up something that’s familiar to you, or that sparks an instant connection in your head to experience that you’ve got, don’t hesitate to throw it out there. It might be only tangentially related to the job you’re applying for, but employers need, more than any other kind of person, employees that are teachable. If you’re able to synthesize your past experiences to help you better understand new tasks being thrown at you, you’re a better candidate than most of the other folks he or she has already spoken to. If you don’t have a particular skill they’re looking for, don’t try and B.S. your way through it. Just memorize this little phrase: “I don’t know, but I will find out.” They are seven of the most powerful words in the English language. Keep your credibility sacred, especially in your professional life. No one will ever get mad at you for not knowing something – but they’ll get mad at you for pretending to know something you don’t, entrusting you with it, and then watching you make a flaming wreck out of it.

5. Follow up in the proper manner. The first thing you need to do when you get home is send your interviewer a thank-you note. If you had two interviewers, send two thank-you notes. If you know that the hiring process is going to take long enough, send the note through the snail mail – it’ll give some time between your interview and the arrival of your letter, and will freshen their memory of you when they receive it. If the hiring process is set to go a little faster, set a calendar appointment for the next day and shoot them a (short!) e-mail thanking them for the interview. Don’t volunteer any new information or try to “remind” them of anything – if they need anything, they’ll reply to your e-mail. Also, remember that it’s appropriate to call and check up on a position once, perhaps between ten and fourteen days after the interview, but don’t bug them. Persistence is always crucial, but not being annoying is even more important.

That’s it. 5 little principles to get right. If you’re planning on interviewing for, say, the local Mini-Mart or slinging drinks at the local bar, these principles will get you through the interview in no time. If you’re interviewing for a position in the CIA, you may need to learn a little more than these 5 – but these 5 principles will still be at the core of what you need to do to get that desk at Langley.

What did I leave out? Let me know in the comments what made sense to you, or what principles or tips helped you out at your job interview.