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For most new job seekers, the candidate selection process is incredibly opaque. Although some companies offer feedback on interviews, this is usually a half-hearted collection of vague generalities. Comments such as “the applicant pool was very large,” don’t tell you anything, and positive feedback such as “you were very friendly,” tell you something that you knew already. To be quite frank, these comments simply sugarcoat the fact that you were not the candidate of choice. This doesn’t mean that you couldn’t do the job – chances are you wouldn’t have been interviewed if that was the case – but it does mean that you failed to demonstrate to your interviewers why you were the best option.
Throughout college I interviewed successfully for several positions, yet it took my transition to the other side of the interviewing table to realize the glaring mistakes that most applicants make. Recently, I was charged with hiring two analysts to work in my office, and the deluge of resumes that landed on my desk made it seem as though the task would be epic. On paper, most applicants look the same. It is hard to value the worth of one entry-level resume over another since first-time applicants usually don’t have stellar work experience to fall back on. Once the interviews began, though, a few of the applicants emerged as being far superior to their competition.
It is with this experience in mind that I have pinpointed three simple areas where interviewees either excelled or fell short. These are: being familiar with the company, having an understanding of the market or industry, and preparing intelligent questions. In just a few hours of Internet research, you can have a good grasp of all three of these facets to a good interview, which will improve your chances of being considered a candidate of choice.
My first point should be glaringly obvious, but it is surprising how many people go into interview with little or no background on the company that they want to hire them. You don’t need to spend a lot of time in this area, mainly because your interviewer should give you an overview, but 10 minutes on a company website can go a long way. As a rule, you should know the basics: the company’s core function, their mission, who is in charge, and what has been said about the company in the press recently. With a few minutes of poking around you should be on your way, and interviewers will be impressed if you have a comment about their latest deal or newest product. Our profiles of entry-level employers are a great place to start. Also, read our article on How to Use Google to Find a Job – it will tell you how to find information about the company that your interviewer probably doesn’t even know. The more research that you do at the onset, the less time you’ll waste with employers who you know will not be a good fit for you.
Secondly, before your interview you should be blitzing the web for any market-relevant news stories. Most experienced interviewers will want to test your knowledge of what has been going on in their industry. Answering a current events question incorrectly or with an “I don’t know” won’t break you, but nailing it will definitely win you points. If you are planning on doing any finance interviews in the near future you can almost bet on a question about the sub-prime mortgage crisis. It is ok if you don’t understand everything about an issue, and, to carry on with the same example, sub-prime is a difficult topic. Yet, knowing the basics and asking clarifying questions shows that you have the initiative and you are eager to learn. If you have narrowed your job search to a single industry, find the authority web sites and blogs for the given market and subscribe to their RSS feeds.
In the course of your company and market research you are bound to formulate some questions. Going into your interview you should be ready with questions both about the company and its role in the industry. As long as you don’t know the answer, no question is too simple to be asked, and the worst question is none at all. If you are at a loss, questions about the work environment and the company strategy are usually safe, and the interviewer will feel comfortable answering them. Do not ask questions that are out of your depth just because you read something online. Don’t try to sound too smart. Instead, show that you are genuinely fascinated by the company and the industry by asking provocative, but simple questions. Don’t forget to follow-up where necessary, it shows that you actually wanted an answer and weren’t asking a question just for the sake of asking a question. Now that you’ve shown that you should be the candidate of choice, give your interviewer the chance to prove that he or she represents an employer of choice.
Following these steps doesn’t guarantee you a free pass in your interview, but it will certainly bring you several steps closer to that coveted offer letter. Just remember that if you haven’t done the research, someone else has, and with the wide availability of information on the web, there is no excuse for being uninformed. To be the candidate of choice in today’s competitive marketplace internet research is no longer an option, it is a necessity.
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