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Ditch the Cell Phone, and Other Essential Interview Tips for Twenty-Somethings

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Would you answer your cell phone during a job interview? For a business professional, this isn't even a question. But imagine our astonishment when an otherwise presentable and talented young man began an interview with us by casually plopping his cell phone on the conference table. We kept glancing at each other and the cell phone, wondering if it would ring and, if so, whether the young man would actually stop the interview to answer it.

Fortunately for the young man, this was just a coaching session. We met with him while doing pro-bono coaching work with Students Rising Above, (SRA), a nonprofit organization that helps low-income and recently homeless students attend and graduate college. We really enjoy helping these extraordinarily hard-working young people achieve success. But the young man with the cell phone and other twenty-somethings like him made us realize they needed a lot of help!

Here's what we were able to teach them that helped them land jobs. These tips may help some special twenty-something in your life:

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1. Ditch Your Cell Phone - Cell phones should be out of sight and turned off. We were prompted to share this because more than one student casually placed their cell phone on the conference room table during an interview. The signal this sends (no pun intended) is that they're not focused 100% on the interview. If it does ring, they should apologize and quickly turn it off -- without checking to see who called.

2. What to Say - An interview is the best opportunity to sell themselves. Even if their work history only includes summer jobs, what they did in those positions counts. We found that students tended to provide minimal information about their previous jobs saying things like "I just answered the phones". As we probed we found out that the calls being handled were much more involved -- dealing with vendors on past due invoices and prospective students (for those who worked at a college). This stronger answer was more representative of what one student did and more positively positioned her. If they did filing, have them discuss how they organized a filing system, or improved the efficiency (one student physically moved the files to a central place so that more people had access to them.). They should expand on whatever experience they've had so that the interviewer gets a sense of how they approach their job.

3. How to Shine - They should fully describe whatever company is on their resume, for example, "I worked for company X, which is headquartered in San Francisco, has 100 employees and about $200 million in sales". That's going to demonstrate that they have an understanding of the broad picture of the company. Also, they should be able to give a solid answer to the question, "Why are you interested in working here?". Examples are, "The company is in an industry that I love" or "You have an impressive client list which means there are a lot of smart people here who I can learn from.".

4. Tell Us About Yourself -- The open-ended questions can often trip up students/recent grads. The best way to handle this question is to right up front say what they are interested in - "I'm interested in the law and here's why". They can follow this up by discussing the classes they enjoyed and why.

5. What to Ask -- Most twenty-somethings know that they should have a question to ask at the end of the interview. Make sure the question's a good one. Relate it to the company. An easy thing to do is to check out the company's website beforehand and read the last few press releases. If the press release is about a new product, ask "How many new products do you typically launch in a year?". Then follow-up with "Is that typical for your industry?". Another good question is "Which areas of the company are growing?" that might help the interviewer think of hiring the student for that department.

6. How to Answer "the Weakness" Question -- A weakness at this early stage in a career should be a reflection of inexperience, not ineptitude. Students are often stymied by this question, as they are unsure what their true weakness might be. When asked this question, one student blurted out "communication", which turned out to be untrue. He then suggested "time management", although this had never been addressed in any previous job. He was making up answers because he thought he had to come up with something. They should figure out an area they really need to work on and position it as making an improvement. For example, they might answer, "What I believe I can improve upon is my efficiency. I need to think more about the process before I start.".

7. Say What You Can Do -- If the interview is not with a specific job in mind, have them give examples of what they can do for the company. This could be working in the mailroom, helping accounts payable, getting sales materials printed up. These are all entry level activities -- in different departments -- which may prompt the interviewer to think of how this person could fit a need they have.

8. Be Enthusiastic -- This is advice for kids of all ages. Have them show enthusiasm about the job, the company and the people they've met so far. They should be appreciative of the time spent in the interview and let the interviewer know they're excited.

9. Get a Business Card -- We set up an interview for the son of a friend. After the interview we asked the son who he had met with and he couldn't remember any one's name. He had no information with which to email and thank the interviewers. At the conclusion of the interview, have them ask for the person's business card. This way they can thank the interviewers and let other people in that company know who they've already met with.

10. How to Close -- At the end of the interview have them thank the interviewer and ask "What do you think would be the next step?". The interviewer might say they'll get back to them or might say something like they're not really hiring right now. If that's the case, have them get from the interviewer a referral to another person in the same industry. That company might be hiring.

What most of us take for granted, twenty-somethings are learning for the first time. The quicker they can get up to speed the more successful they'll be in their interviews. A good interview leads to a job, which leads to money, which leads to their own apartment, which leads to freedom for the recent graduates and their parents. 2009-07-17-i.p.emsmile.gif

Do you have a twenty-something interview story to share?

Fred & Gladys
Whelan Stone
Executive Search and Coaching
Authors of GOAL! Your 30 Day Career Plan for Business & Career Success