Ask the Expert

The College of General Studies’ nearly 25,000 alumni are an impressive bunch, working in nearly every field imaginable: health care, advertising, film, law, education, ecology, politics, and more. In our “Ask the Expert” series, we ask individual alumni to share their expertise—from the practical to the peculiar, and everything in between—with Collegian readers. In this installment, we tap the expertise of San Francisco-based executive recruiter Naomi Kaplan (CGS’95, CAS’97).

How can I nail a job interview?

Yawn in the elevator—it’ll relax you. This and other great tips from an experienced recruiter.

By the end of a successful job interview, you’ve demonstrated that you have the skills and experience to be a tremendous asset to your prospective employer. More importantly, you’ve convinced potential new colleagues that you’ll be a great person to have around the office—that you aren’t the least bit annoying and that you’ll get along with everyone. How did you accomplish all that? You followed these 12 tips, which I’ve developed through years of advising anxious job seekers.

Naomi Kaplan

Naomi Kaplan is the founder of Kaplan & Partners, a staffing firm offering personalized recruiting services to law firms and corporate legal departments in the San Francisco Bay area. She thrives on finding her candidates jobs they will love just as much as she loves her own. (Photo by Nina Kaplan)

Before the interview:

1) Celebrate. Hooray! You’ve landed a job interview! Someone looked at your résumé and thought, “I’d really like to meet this person.” On paper, your background and skills match up with an opportunity you find fascinating. That alone is a huge accomplishment. I encourage my candidates to feel as optimistic and excited about their interviews as possible. I know they’ll get the job when they’re over-the-moon excited—and when they can effectively bring that positive energy with them on the day of their interview.

2) Do your homework. Take time to research your prospective employer and every single person who will be interviewing you. While you certainly don’t want to mention that you thought one of their status updates was funny, you can mention during the course of conversation something from your interviewers’ professional backgrounds that you relate to or find especially impressive.

3) Write it out. I encourage my candidates to write out answers to common interview questions. (Google “common interview questions” for an adequate list.) Preparing answers to difficult questions will help you stay calm and focused on the day of your interview. My candidates struggle most frequently with the seemingly benign, “So, tell me about yourself.” This is not an opportunity to tell your whole life story. Nor is the interview a free therapy session. Instead, this is an opportunity to explain to your interviewer why you’re sitting in their office. For example, I might say “I began my career as an attorney but quickly realized that recruiting is much more gratifying to me. I’ve been in this field for the past six years and my clients adore me. I decided I wanted to meet with you because your company….”

As you’re crafting your answers, make them as specific as possible. If you’re asked, “What are your greatest strengths?” don’t just respond with a list of adjectives because that doesn’t tell your interviewer anything real about you. Define what you mean by “responsible,” give an example of how you’ve been amazingly responsible in the past, and then discuss what you were able to achieve with your amazingly responsible self. Writing out your answers ahead of time will help you come up with smart things to say, and (more importantly for some of us, ahem) help you to keep your answers concise.

4) Prepare smart questions. How can you demonstrate that you’re assertive and that you’re genuinely interested in a job? Ask lots of thoughtful questions. Go into your interview prepared with a list of diverse, courageous questions. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen candidates make is avoiding talking about potential red flags they’ve identified. Was there something about the job description that worried you? Have you heard you might be replacing a person who walked on water as far as everyone you’re meeting with is concerned? If you’re serious about rolling up your sleeves and taking on this job, then these issues should be raising important questions in your mind. Ask those questions.

The day of the interview:

5) Look (and smell) your best. Dress professionally (rarely will a candidate go wrong in a well-tailored black or navy suit), don’t wear any cologne or perfume or smoke something that might make you smell disgusting to someone whose nose works differently than yours does, and turn your cell phone off.

6) Be early, but not annoyingly so. Arrive 15 minutes early, not 30 minutes early or 2 hours early. Interviewees arriving more than 15 minutes early is a huge pet peeve of a lot of my clients who feel pressured into rearranging their schedules when they hear a candidate is waiting for them in the lobby.

7) Calm yourself. If you start to feel anxious in the car or in the elevator on your way up to the interview, force yourself to yawn a few times to regulate your breathing. Another tip for alleviating anxiety: When you’re seated in the lobby, keep both of your feet firmly planted on the floor. Keep them that way throughout your interview if you can. And try to remember that anxiety is just the evil twin of exuberance; give yourself permission to feel excited.

8) Be friendly. As you walk in the door, remember that your main goal is to go in there and make some new friends. Every single person you meet with (and this absolutely includes the receptionist) is wondering if they’re going to like you. And you should be wondering if you’re going to enjoy their company too. So be genuine, polite, warm, and open with everyone you meet. And think about your body language: don’t cross your legs, do not cross your arms under any circumstances, and maintain healthy eye contact.

9) Mirror. Be acutely aware of your interviewer’s energy and body language so that you can practice something I call mirroring. Here are some examples from previous experiences: If your interviewer greets you with, “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry if I’ve kept you waiting! My baby barfed on my blouse this morning and it took me forever to change and get out the door. What a crazy morning!” you want to match her energy, but in a genuine way. Feel free to share a similar story about your cat spitting up on your sofa just before a dinner party was about to begin (for example). Note that you always want your story to be shorter. And pay attention to your interviewer’s body language as you’re speaking. If her eyes drift away from you, if she keeps glancing at her clock or her computer… wrap it up! If, however, you meet with someone who is incredibly formal and starts the conversation with a terse “Why do you want to work here?” you will want to stay on your toes and refrain from telling any cat-vomit stories. Pause before answering each question to gather your thoughts—which should be easy, because you’ve already practiced what you’re going to say!

10) Keep it conversational. If at any point your interviewer sighs deeply and says, “So, do you have any questions for me?” know that you have not done your job. You’ve bored your interviewer and haven’t been engaged throughout the meeting. To avoid this deadly situation, do your best to treat the interview as a conversation, asking your thoughtful questions along the way rather than saving them until the end.

After the interview:

11) Email your thanks. Email personalized and thoroughly proofread thank-you notes to every single person you met with if you were able to get their business cards (yes, separate emails for each person). Email is preferable because the recipients can immediately reply and give you a sense of where you stand. Also—I have to mention this because it’s happened to so many of my candidates in the past—do not use an email address that is overly creative or vaguely inappropriate.

12) Be patient. Companies can, and often do, take up to a month to extend offers. (Yet once you receive an offer, most employers will require a decision from you within 72 hours.) If you don’t get the position you were hoping for, know that something better is waiting for you. The more interviews you do, the sharper your interviewing skills will get. And the more interviews you go on, the more likely you will be to find a place that is truly a good fit for you. Best of luck!

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