Interviewing 101

Tuesday Dec 19th 2000 by Laura Buchwald
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Surviving the interview process with ease--from getting the inside scoop to answering trick questions to avoiding interview faux pas.

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The more seasoned we get in the workforce, and the greater and more varied our qualifications, the higher the stakes become for a successful interview. With an advanced degree comes increased expectations from recruiters. "They expect much more from you after two years in business school than they do after four years of undergrad," says Max Fleming, who holds an MBA from the University of Rochester's William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration and now works for a major investment bank. "Fortunately, they train us well in school."

Most business programs offer elective workshops and seminars on interviewing. Fleming attended seminars on how to interview for different industries--some traditional for an MBA, such as investment banking and consulting; others less typical, such as publishing and high tech. One workshop was based on the premise that different demographics of recruiters expect different things from interviewees. Students were trained in how to interact specifically with male recruiters over 50, female interviewers in the same range, and so on.

The region in which a school is located will often determine the types of industries for which it prepares its students. According to Emmett Bradley, a graduate of Stanford Business School, on the West Coast "there is an increased focus on going to work for a start-up or on starting your own business. This is a function of the environment in Silicon Valley, and the trend has shifted astronomically in this direction over the past four years." As a result, at Stanford there is almost a backlash against investment banks and consulting firms, once perceived as the ultimate goal for MBAs. "It's a cyclical thing," Bradley explains. "In the late '80s, the investment banks were generating the most enthusiasm. In the '90s, it was the consulting companies. Now it's the high-tech industries."

Recruiting Recon

Recruiters who interview on campus follow a couple of different methods for doing so. The more exclusive approach is the closed schedule; companies such as McKinsey will buy a school's resumi book and select candidates they are interested in meeting. Other companies, or those in newer industries such as high tech, will hold interviews in a more open forum; students find out what the different companies' interview schedules are, and drop off their resumi for consideration.

Be in the Know

Joe Fitzpatrick, a graduate of an Ivy League business school, works for a large investment bank and often interviews candidates for his firm. The differences between interviewing for a job at the MBA level are marked, he says. "[With an MBA,] there's a specific level of knowledge that you are expected to have. You are expected to know the basics about the company, and to demonstrate this knowledge through the questions you ask your interviewer."

Margaret Victor, a fund-raising consultant who helps nonprofit companies with their recruiting efforts, agrees: "Do your homework. Research the industry, the company, the specific position." According to Fleming, there are many ways to go about researching: read press releases, trade magazines, the company's annual report. "I got very lucky with my current job," he says. "The day before my interview, my [future] boss was on the cover of Forbes. There was a three-page piece on where he's taking the business." Fitzpatrick adds, "The Web has become an excellent pre-interview research tool. Web sites provide a lot of good information for job hunters."

If the company is privately held, and information is difficult or impossible to come by, Fleming suggests, "Call the company beforehand and try to speak with somebody who works there. Private or public, it's a good idea to speak with people inside the company." The Internet could also prove valuable in either case--check out the company's own site to glean information.

How do you do this? As at most schools, Stanford's career center maintains an extensive list of alumni contacts for graduates looking to network; the database is searchable by industry, company, region, and various other criteria. It's an invaluable tool for gathering information about and making contacts at specific companies you'd like to work for.

For more in-depth, technical articles, subscribe to MBA Jungle. Copyright 2000, Jungle Interactive Media, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

"You want to look more for the story behind the company," says Fitzpatrick. "This is far more important than any information you'll find in the annual report. The more people from within that you can tell your interviewer you spoke with, the more informed you'll seem. Your goal is to try to understand the industry from an insider's perspective, to have a working knowledge of the company's structure and of the different jobs within the company--not just the one you're applying for."

"People love to talk about what they do," advises Victor. "When I was exploring career paths, I would often try to find someone within an industry or company that I was interested in, and just come right out and ask for informational interviews, making it clear that I had no expectation of a job. Once that's clear, most people are happy to be frank about the pros and cons of either their profession or their company." Make sure you act as if the informational interview were a real one, though; no matter what anyone says, you are being evaluated in these situations, and if the interviewer likes you, he or she may very well pass your name along to someone else.

Ask the Right Questions

Asking intelligent questions during interviews shows that you've done some homework and demonstrates your interest in the field. Pamela Anderssen, art director of a large publishing company, says, "The more questions candidates ask, the better I feel about the interview. Ask questions about everything--the industry, the competition, the latest trends that are relevant to the company." Fitzpatrick agrees, "Questions are the most important part of an interview. I like interviewees to feel free to interject at any time with questions. But it's crucial that they not be generic; they should reflect your knowledge of the business you'd like to join."

Through talking with people at the company or with second-years who have already met with the recruiter you're interviewing with, try to anticipate the types of questions you're likely to be asked. "You should know the standard interview questions," advises Victor. "But you don't want to give canned answers--'I'm a people person.' What does that even mean?" Come up with some original responses to the questions you know you'll probably get. A little bit of forethought can make all the difference.

The more experience you have in the field for which you are applying, the more targeted the questions are likely to be. Liza Goodman, a high-tech public relations director, is "constantly amazed by people who have job experience but have trouble answering basic questions about their work. I ask interviewees for an example of a product or campaign that they've successfully pitched--an obvious inquiry for someone in this field--and people are thrown by this."

No matter how well you anticipate an interviewer's questions, you'll probably come across the "curveball," a completely out-of-nowhere--and at times not entirely ethical--query that a recruiter might throw your way. "I interviewed with a white-shoe real-estate firm in Chicago," Fleming recounts. "My interviewer asked me to name my favorite beer. I think he was determining if I was a Budweiser drinker or a Chimay man--I went with Heineken."

Other curveball questions might be a bit more cerebral. The point of the exercise from an interviewer's perspective, according to Fitzpatrick, "is to see how candidates handle themselves under pressure. I ask questions that require thought. I'm not looking for the right answer as much as for how the person processes the question and comes up with an answer." Fitzpatrick usually asks simple probability questions, such as "What's the probability of rolling double-sixes with a pair of dice?" "This is not high-level math," he says. "I was an English major in college." In Fleming's experience, interviewers often ask intricate questions about the banking industry and the direction it will take in the future. "They're testing how quickly you can think on your feet," he explains. "This is not generally information that you'd need to know in your job."

Never Let 'Em See You Sweat

The higher your degree or job level, the more people you are likely to encounter during an interview process. For his current position, Fleming was given a back-to-back interview, consisting of six to eight meetings in a row, with five-minute breaks between interviewers. Tiring but practical: "It's a time issue," he explains. "It makes the most sense for the company to try to bang it all out in one day." Less common is the lunch interview, which is generally one of the last steps in the process, a final meeting that is more about personality than preparation. "The lunch interview is less about what this person can do from a business perspective as it is about determining whether this is someone who we want to represent our company and to interact with clients," Fleming continues. "You'd never get a job based solely on a lunch interview. But you want to be prepared." Always bring a few clean copies of your resumi in the event that you meet more people on an interview than you had anticipated.

Being prepared is only one-half of the equation. Sit up straight. Smile. Don't fidget. But nothing is ever simple--it's also possible to seem too relaxed. "I know someone who casually put his hands behind his head during an interview," warns Fitzpatrick. "The interviewer felt that he seemed too comfortable; you want to convey confidence, but a certain amount of humility is important."

So is politeness. Though Fleming advises that job hunters try their best to avoid human resources, this is not always possible. Fitzpatrick explains, "You might find yourself interviewing with someone junior to you, or in an unrelated area, but you always want to give off a professional and respectful impression." This includes the way you speak about your current or past employment situations. Victor's number-one rule is "Never bad-mouth anybody. Nothing dissuades me from hiring someone as quickly as a negative attitude." Even if your interviewer takes on an intimate, chatty tone, tread lightly where your opinions are concerned.

To complement your well-honed poise, humility, and congeniality, pay attention to your attire. "Dress for the job you want, not for the one you have," says Fitzpatrick. This is one area in which less is definitely more; avoid anything marginally flashy, and, Victor warns, "watch the perfume."

Close the Deal

So you've done your research, you've worn the right clothing, you've asked provocative questions and delivered insightful answers, and when your interviewer thanked you for your time, you felt confident that this would not be your last good-bye. What's next? Yes, you knew it was coming--the all-important thank-you note. Says Fitzpatrick: "Follow up immediately. If you wait longer than a week to send a thank-you note, the effort is wasted." As your mother probably drilled into you, thank-you notes should be handwritten, and like your attire, your stationery should be neat and professional.

"Write your thank-you note on nice paper--nothing tacky or gold-trimmed--and make sure that your handwriting is legible and your name is clearly written," Fitzpatrick continues. "You should be specific about when your meeting was. A lot of people come through here, and it's easy to lose track." Victor adds, "This can be your most important writing sample." Should you place a follow-up phone call, clarify up front who you are and why you are calling, and inquire as to whether or not this is a convenient time for your interviewer to speak with you.

While the interview process can be daunting, it is not a mystery. It's also not an exact science--no matter how well prepared and appropriately dressed you are, your success may ultimately depend on something as elusive as the rapport between you and your interviewer. So while there is no surefire route to acing an interview, your knowledge of the industry, enthusiasm for the job, and common sense will take you far. //

Laura Buchwald is an online writer and editor in New York City. She can be reached at lauraliane@aol.com.

For more in-depth, technical articles, subscribe to MBA Jungle. Copyright 2000, Jungle Interactive Media, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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