How to Ace that Interview!

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Job interviews are stressful for even the most seasoned of professionals. They make the most confident of people nervous, queasy and nauseous. Perhaps it’s the whole mystery and ambiguity of it all – most people don’t know what to expect, how to prepare, how to act with people they’ve never met or how to set themselves apart from other candidates all within a short timeframe of an hour. I’ve had my fair share of interviews over the years and while I don’t consider myself an expert by any means (trust me, I’ve had my fair share of interview fails and cringe worthy stories), I’ve developed a way of preparing for interviews that works fairly well for myself. What I’ve learned from my interview experiences – both good and bad – is that your success in landing a job is 90% preparation and 10% execution. So just how do you prepare? Let me explain.

1) Know yourself and what you want. Only apply to positions and companies that mean something to you.

While it might sound cliché, this is in fact very important. When you’re applying for jobs, apply to companies or roles that you are truly passionate about or that will help you grow and learn professionally. When you’re not passionate or truly motivated to work for an organization or in a specific role, it really does show and come through in an interview. Do yourself and your interviewers a favour – don’t apply to positions or companies you don’t really care about. You deserve better than that and so do companies.

2) Invest in an interview outfit and clean up your online presence.

While this might seem obvious, it’s so important it deserves mentioning. Invest in a pair of dress shoes, a business suit and a leather interview portfolio. It’s sad to say but we live in a day and age where first impressions are everything – you might be the best candidate for the job and the most diligent person applying, but a pair of scuffed dress shoes, a wrinkled shirt or an overall look that’s just too casual might give your interviewers the impression that you just don’t care.

That being said, you should also take some time to clean up your online presence. While your Facebook friends might be impressed with how you celebrated your best friend’s birthday last week, it may not look so good to a potential employer. Review your privacy settings on your social media accounts. If you choose to leave some of your social media accounts open, make sure that what you’ve left public is tasteful. Also take some time to review your LinkedIn profile if you have one. Make sure it’s up-to-date and well-organized. If you can, ask former colleagues, professors or employers to write recommendations that you can use on your LinkedIn account. It won’t hurt to ask, and you can almost be sure that a potential employer will have a look at it.

3) Do your research about the organization, the role, your interviewers and the type of interview. Schedule your interview at a time that works for you. Reach out to your network for help.

If you get a call for an interview, first and foremost, take pleasure in that achievement. Landing a coveted job is much more difficult today than it ever was before. Clearly something in your resume and cover letter helped you stand out from many other candidates that also applied. When you get that call, remember to ask who you’ll be interviewing with (get their name and position), where it will be and the format of the interview (behavioural, situational, case-based, etc.). Make sure to also schedule the interview at a time that works best for you. If you’re a morning person, try your best to schedule your interview in the morning when you’re on your A-game. True story: back when I was graduating from university, I had a few interviews with competing accounting firms – let’s call them “X” and “Y.” Long story short, I kept telling “X” accounting firm why I’d be such a great candidate for “Y” firm. This happened several times throughout the interview. It was only part way through the interview when the Partner interviewing me stopped me mid-sentence to correct me when I realized my mistake. Needless to say I was incredibly embarrassed and flustered – I obviously didn’t get the job. Why did this happen? I’m a morning person, and I made the mistake of scheduling the interview late in the evening thinking I’d have all day to prepare. That clearly backfired on me. While I was mortified at the time, it makes for a funny story today. I’ve learned my lesson, and have since always made a point of scheduling interviews in the morning when I think most clearly.

After you’ve scheduled your interview make sure you do your research. Read up on the organization and any recent news articles on it – consider using a Google alert to help you with this. Read up on its history, how it’s performing currently and what kind of press it’s been getting. Also take some time to research the department or group that you’ll be working in so that you have some context of your role and work before the interview. Make sure to spend some time researching about the industry and some of the organization’s major competitors so that you have a solid background going into the interview. I also recommend researching your interviewers – chances are they’ll be doing the same thing with you, so it might be worthwhile to see if you can find a short bio on them on the company website or by having a look at their LinkedIn profile. This all builds context and a solid background for you, which in turn builds confidence and credibility in the actual interview.

If you can, reach out to your own networks for help. When I got a call to set up an interview for my current job, I was thrilled but didn’t really know what to expect during the actual interview. However, I was able to leverage the network of connections I made over the years. Before my interview, I connected with a classmate from university that already worked at my current employer and he was able to give me some very helpful interview tips. Without his help, getting through the interview for my current role would have been a lot more difficult.

4) Prepare, prepare, prepare!

It goes without saying that nothing worthwhile in life comes easy, and that includes getting the job of your dream. Preparing for an interview requires a lot of hard work, so I’d start as soon as I get the interview call.

A lot of interviews these days are behavioural based where employers try and guage how you handle yourself in certain situations. They might ask you about how you handled situations where there were disagreements among the team, where there were tight deadlines, or where you showed strong initiative and leadership skills in order to complete a task. I’d start off by noting down situations from recent years where you showed strong leadership, teamwork and problem solving skills. Having a variety of 8 to 10 different situations should be enough – but make sure they highlight very different characteristics. Research sample behavioural type questions, and practice answering these questions using the situations you recalled. This is best done using the STAR method, where questions are answered in a specific format (first explain the [S]ituation or context of your answer, explain the [T]ask that needed to be done, then explain the [A]ction that YOU took to solve or rectify the situation, and finally explain the end [R]esult). It might even be worth your while to practice with a friend or relative.

Make sure you also have an elevator pitch about why you’d be a great candidate for this job, know your own personal strengths and weaknesses (it may come up in an interview!) and review your resume once again so that you’re able to answer any questions about it with ease. I recommend also having some references ready, just in case you’re asked in your interview. 

5) Make sure to do a last minute check the night before. 

If you’ve prepared well, the night before is not meant to be a heavy preparation and cramming session. It should really be a night to relax and go over your notes about potential answers to questions and research on the organization. The evening before, make sure your outfit for the next day is ironed and ready. Ladies, if you’ve got nail polish on, make sure it’s not chipped! If you’re not familiar with the location of your interview, spend some time looking at a map and figuring out how to get there and how long it will take to get there. Make a mental note of what time you should be ready for the following day in order to get to your interview on time. Print extra copies of your resume, cover letter and references and keep them in your portfolio. And perhaps most importantly, get a good night’s rest! 

6) Be confident, be articulate, be yourself and you’ll do fine.

When the day of the interview comes, the most important thing to remember is to be yourself. Arrive on time (I like to arrive 15 minutes to half an hour before the start of an interview), make sure your cell phone is turned off, and when greeted at reception, give your interviewers a firm handshake. Before the start of the actual interview, exchange pleasantries – ask how they are doing, make a remark about the weather (it’s a lot warmer these days!), or ask if they have any plans for the weekend if it’s upcoming. Make sure to smile, and let your personality shine through. It sounds cheesy, but interviewers want to hire someone who’s personable and likeable, someone who they can imagine as a co-worker. While I myself am an introvert and not entirely comfortable around people I don’t know, I do try to make a concerted effort to make small talk. It’s worth pointing out that most people have excellent internal BS-detectors, so be genuine.

During the actual interview, be conscious and mindful of your body language and posture. Sit up straight, don’t play with your hair, and if you have a bad habit of shaking your leg like me, get that under control. Perhaps most importantly, remember to be sure of yourself. You have prepared hard, so there is no reason why you can’t do well. Having been selected for an interview means that they already like your professional background, it’s now just a matter of selling yourself. Take your time answering questions, no one expects you to answer questions without giving it some thought. Also, if you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it, but try and put a positive spin on it.

7) Make sure to leave a good impression!

Towards the end of the interview, make sure you try and leave with a good impression. Always have some questions ready to ask your interviewers. Remember that this is also your opportunity to see if this company is a right fit for you. Make sure to have some well thought-out questions to determine whether this company and the position you’re interviewing for align with your career and professional development goals. I personally like to ask my interviewers what they like about the organization or why they’ve stayed with the organization for however long they’ve been there. I also like to ask whether there are opportunities for advancement and growth within the company, but these questions can revolve around anything you feel is important.

Before you leave, make sure to shake hands with your interviewers and thank them for their time. If you don’t already have it, ask them for their business cards, and remember to send them a thank you email within a few hours.

8) Take time to reassess. 

Self-reflection is an important part of developing and growing, and so it goes without saying that this is a necessary step when it comes to improving your interview skills. Whether you got the job or not, take time to step back and reflect on how well you handled your interview. How do you think it went overall? What did you do that you think you did well? Were you asked any questions that you weren’t expecting? How do you think you could improve for the future? If you can, see if you can get formal feedback from your interviewers (a lot of people do this these days!). Most of all, take pride in your achievement if you get a job offer, but don’t worry too much if you don’t either. This interview will, if nothing else, make you a better, stronger and more confident interviewee for the future.

Contributed by Thaksa Sethukavalan.

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Thaksa is currently CTPA’s Director of Finance. She completed her undergraduate degree at the Schulich School of Business at York University and specialized in accounting. During school, Thaksa was actively involved and held executive positions on the school newspaper, the Women in Leadership joint MBA/BBA student club, as well as the Schulich Accounting Society. Upon graduation she started full time with Deloitte LLP in its audit practice and obtained her CPA, CA designation. After 3 years with Deloitte LLP, she moved to the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario where she currently works. Thaksa will be starting her Master of Finance degree at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in September 2015. In her free time she enjoys reading the news, catching up with close friends and baking (or at least trying to).

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