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01/29/2013 11:27 am ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

The Job Interview: Questions To Ask... And What To Avoid

By Farah Miller

Here's what you need to know to land a job interview and an offer in the 21st century.

When You Apply

  • Be ruthless with your résumé. Cut anything that's fluff or doesn't pertain to this particular job you're applying for. Include only skills you are proficient in. You do not want to be learning Photoshop via YouTube on your first day.
  • Avoid cover letter cutesiness. If the employer requests a cover letter, make sure you have one. People will tell you to be unique. People are right -- however, this does not mean using the following as opening lines: "Greetings! How are you today?" "Experience. Isn't that what this industry boils down to?" "Writing [or accounting or banking] is not what I want to do... it is who I am." "I'd love to contribute to your company in any way. It'd be amazing for my career!"
  • A cover letter is not about cheerfulness, and it's not even about your career. It's about what you can do for your future boss. Mention the skills referenced in the job description and provide specific examples that show you possess them. Agonize a little bit over choosing the right words. This part of the process isn't supposed to be easy.
  • Reread the posting. Now go over it again. Why? Because it is a test. For example, you want to demonstrate enthusiasm, so even though the listing says to mail a résumé, you track down the hiring manager's contact and email it over. And... you just failed. Maybe he didn't provide an email address because it's the Great Recession; he doesn't have an assistant. You've just turned your future boss into your secretary, who then has to open the attachment, print it out and add it to the stack. Except he probably won't do that -- especially if the posting said, "Ideal candidate pays close attention to detail and follows direction well."

At The Interview

  • Turn off your cell phone.
  • Leave time for 21st-century building security. Especially first thing in the morning and at lunch. You don't want to be 10 minutes late because there was a line at security.
  • Really, double-check. Is the phone off?
  • Take notes. It's not awkward. It shows you pay attention and, even better, that you will take notes later. So, really, take notes.
  • Memorize specific examples of what you've done. Here's why: The hiring manager says, "We're looking for someone to write responses to requests for proposals quickly." You say, "I've written tons of responses to requests for proposals!" The very next question will be, "Great! Can you tell me about some of them?" Make sure you can. Specific examples make you more believable -- and memorable.
  • Think about your next birthday. Any candidate who is in her 20s should not start a sentence, "Many years ago..."
  • Here's the plan for the last question thing: Have one. Scratch that. Have a bunch, in case the interviewer answers yours. Again, this is a test. You know this question is coming; the manager knows that you know it's coming. He's looking to see if you've prepared. Here are some to keep in your back pocket: What projects are you most excited about? What are the biggest mistakes you've seen employees make? What's the best thing the person in this job could do to shine?
  • Avoid the following questions: Do you have any freelance positions available? Do you know anything about this other role that your company is hiring for? How soon are people promoted? (Though it is okay to ask where the person who left went.)

After The Interview

  • Send a thank-you note. Some people like them old school, with honest-to-God stationery; others prefer email. What do all bosses agree on? They like to get them, especially ones that are specific and follow up on something discussed in the interview. If a boss mentioned a problem and you know a possible solution, this is one more opportunity to prove how right you are for this spot.
  • Further contact: No texting. A week or two later, you can email. Once. Most hiring managers are understaffed and hellaciously overworked. It adds up to longer waits for offers and answers. If you haven't received a response a month after your last email, you can send another one saying you are still interested. Whatever you do, don't express impatience or passive aggressiveness. Yes, it's rude to keep people waiting (or not give them an answer), but if the spot is still open -- due to a project that exploded or Biff in HR getting stuck in Newfoundland -- a remark like "I guess you're really busy or you would've contacted me" will not help you.

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