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Fred Ball: Killer Interview Skills for Recent Grads

Job interview advice for graduatesWith graduation season upon us, across the country grads are waking up from their celebrations and realizing that they still face the monumental task of finding work in one of the toughest job markets for young people in years. To find a good gig, they'll need all the help they can get, and their underfunded university career-counseling centers can only help so much.

Enter career coach Fred Ball. He's an interviewing expert who has given seminars at top schools including Brown, Columbia and Duke, and his latest book Killer Interviews: Success Strategies for Young Professionals offers targeted advice for those just starting out in their careers. Recently he spoke to Entry-Level Rebel about woefully under-prepared grads and the complete interview process -- from preparation to the final question.

Many students these days have completed internships by the time they graduate, so they have some interviewing experience. Do students come out of university well prepared for their first proper job interviews?
Unfortunately, the college career-counseling offices are woefully underfunded. Even at very good schools the ratio of students to counselors is 1000-to-1 or 1500-to-1. When you have those outrageous ratios, the only thing that person can do is help the student get a resume together. Then it's pretty much fly on your own. There is a real missed opportunity to understand the relationship between how much you prepare and what your interview behavior is really going to be like.

So how do grads prepare? Do you have any tips on how to package or present internship, classwork or volunteering experience as relevant to a paid position, for example?
When I sit down with somebody, I say to them, sit here and really define for me the major accomplishments that you had in that internship. It may only be a couple of things, but quantify it. Go further. Dig deeper. Tell me how this was really good for the organization you were working for. Even experienced people don't do a great job with that.

The key is to really drill down and get to the concrete accomplishments?
You bet. The bottom-line results quantified.

So you'd definitely recommend interviewees come prepared with numbers?
It doesn't always have to be numbers. To give you an example, I worked with a woman who was an editor at Time, Inc. She was the person who coined the phrase "trophy wife," and she became highly successful because of that one thing. Now is that quantified when you say, "I coined the phrase trophy wife"? Sure it is. Also, if you won an award, or an honor, or someone recognized you somehow. It doesn't always have to be numbers, although numbers make it easier.

Imagine you're a grad who has quantifiable accomplishments prepared. You've scored an interview, and you're sitting there in the lobby. What should be going through your head? How should young people mentally prepare for an interview?
When you're sitting outside that interview, you want to be sitting there in an outfit that make you feel great. Make sure you have the necessary materials, and leave plenty of time so you're not putting all kinds of pressure on yourself by being late.

What else can you do? Your resume should be a document that you can look at in final preparation two minutes before the interview. Remind yourself to be ever mindful of manners when this person comes out to interview you. Tell yourself, "I'm going to respect them. This is the interviewer's interview, not my interview."

That raises the question of soft skills like body language and demeanor. Is there anything in this area that you think job candidates often overlook?
In the beginning of an interview you want to be focused on the interviewer's questions and what information they need. You don't want to be thinking about what you want to talk about. And that's not easy to do.

You've got to do that in the beginning, but the world doesn't want "yes people" who are not going to challenge things. So do you need to follow the interviewer's lead? Yes, you follow the interviewer's lead until you start to get a feeling that the interviewer is comfortable with the dialogue and believes that you're following what he or she wants to do. As you reach that point, the interviewer is more willing to give you an opportunity for dialogue. You build a partnership not by just answering questions, but by eventually leading that conversation toward dialogue.

At the end of the interview, ideally do you want to be able to show more of your personality?
Yes, but you can't do that right off the bat unless you get the sense that the interviewer is totally comfortable with herself and totally comfortable in an interview situation. Suppose you're not with that kind of interviewer. Suppose you're with the kind of interviewer who's used to more of a militaristic style -- they're in control and you're not. I hesitate to use the word psychology but that's really what you're doing -- reading when the situation is open for dialogue.

When you do get to the phase of the interview where you feel comfortable with your interviewer and things are more open, is that a good time to start asking questions to determine if the company is a good fit for you?
The issue with that is that most companies, even for young people, have multiple interviews or a series of interviews. And it's important, as a young person, to remember to be really careful with your own due diligence. In the first interview, the interviewer is in "buy" mode and you're in "sell" mode. You have to be very careful that you don't start going into "buy" mode if , in fact, that first interview is a screening interview.

How would you advise that someone determine when is a good time to start asking those sorts of questions?
You feel your way toward it, but the longer you give the company to fall in love with you in the beginning, the more leverage you're going to have on the back end to ask your questions. If someone really likes you, you can tell that, and you will get your opportunity then. Even in the first interview, usually when you get to the end of the interview, the interviewer will ask if you have any questions. There's an opportunity to at least start, but be careful in that first interview. You may have 15 questions, but you may have an opportunity to ask only one or two. The more you do your job in the sell phase so they fall in love with you -- in a business sense -- the more they're going to give you an opportunity to do your agenda later on.

(Image of interview chair by David Davies, CC 2.0)

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