What does an interview look like from the recruiter’s chair? Which answers impress? Which comments annoy? What shoots you dead? Top recruiters, career consultants, and psychologists offer shrewd tips and subtle tricks for moving from “How do you do?” to “When can you start?”
Six tips for the first two minutes
Because nothing matters more than a first impression
- Everyone knows not to be late to an interview. But recruiters say arriving early is just as bad—in fact, showing up even 10 minutes ahead of time may irritate them. Why? You will interrupt whatever they’re doing (“Ms. Jenkins, your next appointment is here”), which can sow a seed of resentment. It also sends a message: You are an amateur, both overeager and over-worried about being late. Arrive no more than five minutes before the interview. If you find yourself there earlier than that, look for a bench outside, read the newspaper, and … floss or something.
- While you’re waiting for the interviewer to greet you, always remain standing. “You don’t want the very first thing the interviewer sees to be you getting your things in order and adjusting your clothing,” says Anne Warfield, president of Impression Management Professionals, a Minneapolis-based career consulting firm whose clients include 3M and American Express.
- Sociolinguists at Stanford University have discovered that what we say accounts for a mere 7 percent of a person’s first impression of us, while our body language constitutes 55 percent. In case they’re right, hold your briefcase or bag in your left hand and keep the right one hanging loosely at your hip, ready to shake hands.
- When speaking with the recruiter’s assistant, use her name. A simple, respectful “Thanks, Denise” could mean a kind word from Denise to her boss later.
- Be prepared for the potentially awkward moment when you and the recruiter walk into a conference room for the interview and there are more than two chairs. If she hasn’t yet taken a seat, rest your hand on one of the chairs and ask, “Is this a good place for me to sit?” If the interviewer has already set up shop, “choose the seat directly across from her,” says Michele Mamet, associate director of university relations at Bristol-Myers Squibb. “If the table is round, sit next to her, but move away so you can look her dead in the eye.”
- The interviewer may well kick things off with the dreaded “Tell me about yourself.” If he asks, you gotta tell him. But since your best overall M.O. is to release information about yourself in strategic deployments throughout the interview, resist the urge to dump it all at once. John Worth, director of career consulting at Darden and a former recruiter at Deloitte Consulting, advises rehearsing a 60-second commercial spot that summarizes your responsibilities at your last job, capped by your reasons for pursuing this position. Begin this last part with the phrase “But what I really want to do is…”
Three rules for breaking the ice
The wrong small talk can hurt you
- Family photos can be great conversation starters—if you choose your comments wisely. (You: “Your mother has a great smile.” Him: “That’s my wife.”) “Making assumptions about the people in the pictures is dangerous,” says Debra Fine, founder of the Fine Art of SmallTalk, a Denver firm that teaches conversation skills to executives at companies like IBM and Wells Fargo. “If a picture is facing you, it’s fair game, but be vague: ‘What a great picture. Where was it taken?’ “
- Think before cracking jokes. “The safest, most effective kind of humor is self-deprecating,” says Albert Chen, executive director of graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep, “but this is one situation where you don’t want to put yourself down.”
- Never talk about traffic, sports, or the weather. You don’t want to be the eleventh automaton that day to say, “Wow, sure is hot.”
Five moves that show you’re a pro
This is no time for subtlety
- Have an agenda. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking the goal is simply to answer the questions that are asked,” says J. Daniel Plants, a VP of mergers and acquisitions at J.P. Morgan Chase. “Sure, you have to answer their questions, but the best candidates know how to steer the conversation where they want it to go.”
- Wanna be an executive? Your first step is to sit like one. Powerful people have no qualms about taking up a lot of space. Sit up straight in the middle of the chair, with one arm on the armrest and the other on the table. You’ll instantly look and feel more confident and in control.
- Tell a story. “There should be a theme that runs through every answer,” says a former McKinsey recruiter. “Maybe it’s ‘I’m creative.’ Whatever your story, tell it clearly and succinctly. Tailor an explanation of your strengths and weaknesses to support it.”
- Admit past mistakes in a way that shows you learned something. “Let’s say you once did something that a client wanted but that wasn’t what your boss wanted,” says Joni Johnston, a psychologist and the CEO of WorkRelationships, a management training company whose clients include Nokia and Ericsson. “Explain that while your instinct was to please the client—a good instinct—you learned that your manager’s wishes are most important.”
- Obey the rule of three. Have three points to drive home and an anecdote to support each one. If you’re applying for a sales position, maybe the points are: “I’ve sold before,” “I have great contacts,” and “I understand this business.” “This may seem obvious,” says the former McKinsey recruiter, “but you’d be surprised how many people come in with zero structure to what they’re saying. If you’ve thought ahead about what you want to communicate, an interviewer notices.”
Three signs you’re losing control …
… and three ways to get it back
- If a recruiter asks more than once whether you have any questions, chances are she’s already formed an opinion about you and is trying to wrap it up. “Ask for a glass of water,” says Jackie Johnson, manager of MBA recruiting for the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. Dramatic? Perhaps. “But it’ll help you collect your thoughts,” she says. It also creates the impression that the interview has a first half and a second half. Shine in the second half, and you’ve got a chance. “I’ve definitely had people who I wasn’t sure about at first but who made a strong comeback,” says Johnson.
- Should you draw a complete blank, ask the interviewer to rephrase the question. “People are scared to ask this, because they think they’ll look stupid,” says Johnston. “That’s not true. And even if you do understand the question, you’ll have a moment to collect your thoughts while they rephrase it.”
- “There’s a time in every person’s interviewing process when they’re rambling along and they suddenly say to themselves, ‘I have no idea where I’m going with this,’ ” says Gail Wasserman, a former VP of public affairs at American Express and managing partner at the Maloney Group, a New York management consulting firm. “Pause. Check in, and say, ‘Have I answered your question?’ “
Seven things recruiters hate and why they hate them
- Taking notes during an interview is fine, but keep your pen holstered unless absolutely necessary. Excessive scribbling indicates an inability to think on your feet. “When I hire somebody, I’m looking for them to be able to represent me at meetings,” says Wasserman, “not take dictation.”
- Shoes that aren’t shined. Details matter.
- Interviewer: We’re opening a new office in Charlottesville.
- Some candidates have their rap so well practiced that instead of responding to specific questions, they churn out prepackaged answers, no matter what the interviewer asks. “It’s frustrating when people don’t answer the question because they didn’t listen to it,” says Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Mamet. “Don’t just pull out your favorite response. It’s easy for us to tell when it’s rehearsed.”
- “Never swear during an interview,” says a former Goldman Sachs recruiter. “I can only assume you’d do it in the first meeting with a client, too, and I can’t take that risk.”
- Answering questions the way everybody else does. “If I ask, ‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ don’t say, ‘I pay too much attention to detail,'” advises Mark Golin, a VP and creative director at AOL. “People don’t realize that the recruiter has done this 400 more times than they have. If you stop and think about that, your answers will change—they’ll become what they should be: unique.”
- There’s standing out from the pack because you’re unique, and then there’s standing out because you blare your trombone louder than everyone else just to make noise. “I was once scheduling a second interview for lunch, and I suggested a restaurant,” remembers one media executive. “The candidate said, ‘No, I don’t like the food there.’ I could tell he wanted to rebuff my choice just to prove he could. The interview was over before it started.”
Candidate: Oh, I’ve heard it’s great there.
Interviewer: Really? I’m from there. What have you heard about it?
Candidate: [Pauses. Starts to cry.]
If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. “If I mention that travel is a big part of the job, and someone immediately says that they love to travel, well, I hate that,” says Rob Britton, a PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant. A pointed follow-up question will show you’re simply spitting out what you think he wants to hear.
Tactics for the last 30 seconds
How to leave them begging for more
- When the interviewer utters these five words, “Do you have any questions?” (and he will), don’t make one up on the spot just to ask something. Prepare two good questions about the position or the firm—the answers to which cannot be found on the Web site. A great final question leaves a great final impression.
- If you don’t, in fact, have any questions, spare yourself an awkward moment by saying, “Do you have any unanswered questions about my qualifications?”
- Take a business card. Obvious, right? Sheryl Colyer, director of global human resources at Citigroup Asset Management, says the worst mistake candidates make when sending thank-you notes is misspelling the name of the interviewer.
- Four out of five MBAs recommend a stiff Stoli and tonic after any interview.