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Before the Interview

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Much of your success during the interview boils down to how you prepare before it. The thinking, researching, and practicing you do combine to set you up for knowledgeable confidence when you’re actually sitting in the interview chair.

Here are some things to do before your interview to succeed during!

Know the Key Logistical Details and What to Bring

Some pre-interview tasks are far too easy to overlook! Possible results: You’re late for your interview, or you forget something.

So keep the following tips in mind about interview logistics and what to bring:

  • Know the details of the interview and write them down: date, time, length, location, and who the interviewer(s) is/are. If this level of detail isn’t shared with you, be sure to ask! You want as much information as possible to prepare effectively.
  • Get good directions to the interview site. If possible, practice getting there so you won’t be late. Build in time to find a parking spot or to walk from a public transportation drop-off area.
  • Update your résumé and bring several copies with you. Also bring any other documents you’ve been asked to show, such as a reference list or your academic transcript. You may also want to bring examples of your work that are relevant to the position (for example, a social media plan you created at your internship for a public relations job).

Be prepared for the possibility of testing, too. Interviews for some positions include skills tests, proofreading tests, and/or personality assessments.

Know What to Wear

Dress in a way that is authentic to you and your identities, and that is comfortable, neat, and clean. Showcase how you would like to be viewed in a professional setting. 

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on an outfit; perhaps you have items in your wardrobe that are interview appropriate. If not, check department stores for discounts, look in thrift stores, or talk to a CLA career counselor about requesting professional attire from a local agency that partners with CLA Career Services. 

When you’re preparing your interview attire, consult with a CLA career counselor and/or make an educated guess about what’s appropriate by considering your audience. If you’re interviewing with a corporation, for example, you may want to dress more formally in what’s known as “business professional” attire. If you’re interviewing with a nonprofit organization, you may want to dress a little more casual, along the lines of “business casual” attire. 

If you’re in doubt, dress conservatively. It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed, too formal vs. too casual.

You can also check out the University of Minnesota Job Fair Pinterest board, which offers some specific visual examples on how to “dress for success.”

Know Yourself and How You’ll Communicate What You Have to Offer

While the interview is a way for the employer to find the best person for their open position, it is also an opportunity for you to identify—and then communicate—how you can effectively do the job and how you will be valuable to the organization. 

Knowing yourself is crucial to this task. So even though you probably won’t be asked the exact questions that follow (i.e., verbatim), be ready to talk about these broad topics:

  • Who are you? What are your interests, passions, values, talents, competencies, and skills?
  • What is your educational background? What classes have you taken? What certifications are you pursuing, and what research have you conducted?
  • What do you know how to do? You should be able to articulate the experience you’ve gained through jobs, internships, volunteer positions, learning abroad, student group and leadership activities, and class projects.

Remember, too, that you are more than your major. The list of Core Career Competencies you’ve been working on as a CLA student came from extensive discussions with employers. Your liberal arts education is helping you develop these competencies. The interview is the time to tout them!

You will also want to go through each line of the job description and think of examples from your academic, extracurricular, and work experiences that demonstrate the competencies/skills and qualities the employer is seeking. You can even make yourself a quick chart, which might look something like this:

Their Competency/Skill Requirements My Experience
Team player Elected secretary of CLA Business Club; worked with other officers to plan schedule and recruit new members.
Ability to problem solve During an internship at a publishing house, created a method of organizing book proposals by date to ensure we didn’t miss a great new talent.
Communication skills
(oral and written)
As vice president of recruitment for my sorority, developed a plan for RUSH that involved all members; presented ideas in an engaging manner that got the group excited to begin the RUSH process.
Organizational skills
and attention to detail
For the final project in Psychology, conducted a literature review of _____, working with faculty to review more than 140 journal articles; kept notes and tracked progress.

Know the Employer

The biggest mistake interviewees make, according to a survey of employers who hire UMN grads, is lacking knowledge about the organization they’re interviewing with. 

Remember: Most interviewers have been evaluating candidates for a long time. They can thus tell which candidates have done their homework before the interview—and which have not. 

So show the prospective employer that you’re serious about the position and the organization by doing your employer research. Learn more about the employer’s culture, philosophy, and career paths, as well as its history and structure. 

Practice Answering Traditional Interview Questions

It’s impossible to know exactly what questions you’ll be asked in your interview. But the position description offers you a pretty good guide to what key competencies and skills the employer's seeking. 

You’ll be able to uncover even more clues by researching the organization’s industry in depth, and by simply putting yourself in the interviewer’s shoes. (If you were the person interviewing candidates for this position, what would you be looking for?)

Once you’ve made your best-educated guess as to which competencies and skills the employer will likely be assessing in you—keeping in mind that the Core Career Competencies will certainly be among them—write down and practice describing how you have developed them through your academic, extracurricular, and work experiences. 

Here are some of the most prevalent traditional interview questions.

“Tell Me About Yourself”

This is a very common way for an interview to begin. The key here is to stay away from personal topics and instead keep your answer concise. The interviewer doesn’t need to know your life story; only the parts that are relevant to the job. 

So think about what brought you to this interview. Why did you apply for the position, and why are you qualified? You may want to talk about your educational background and the experiences you’ve had in college that are relevant, such as internships and student group involvement. 

This is also an excellent time to mention your strongest of the Core Career Competencies that signify career readiness, perhaps doing so in terms of how others see you (e.g., “The people who know me best say I’m an excellent writer and a collaborative leader.”).

“What Are Your Strengths?”

Think of three strengths you have (especially in the framework of the Core Career Competencies) that are relevant to the position, and come up with specific examples of when you’ve used these strengths to accomplish something that matters. 

For example, you might say that your top three strengths are:

  • Written communication, as evidenced by the concise memo you wrote for your internship supervisor, summarizing a recent book proposal.
  • Organization, as shown by your ability to maintain a 3.8 GPA in a busy semester of 18 credits, a 15-hours-per-week internship, and a leadership position in a student organization.
  • Problem-solving, which was apparent when you led the development of a process for attracting and recruiting new students to your sorority.

“What Are Your Weaknesses?”

If you’re asked to give a weakness, focus on something you’re trying to improve. Pick a skill versus a personality trait, and talk about what you’re doing to get better at it. 

For example:

While I’m confident in my ability to present to a group, I’m not as skilled in different presentation tools. I am currently challenging myself to not use PowerPoint for my next three presentations, and to instead use new tools such as Prezi, or rely on different visual aids.

One cautionary note: Make sure the skill you decide to talk about is not one that is essential to the position you’re seeking!

A Few Other Traditional Interview Questions

  • “Why do you want to work for this organization?”
  • “What five adjectives best describe you?”
  • “Why did you choose this career? your major?”
  • “How do you work under pressure?”
  • “Describe your work ethic.”
  • “What did you like most about your previous job? least?”
  • “Describe your work style. What work environment best suits you?”
  • “What are your short- and long-term career goals? What are you doing to achieve them?”

Practice Answering Behavioral-Based Interview Questions

In behavioral-based interviews, you’re asked to give real examples of times you have displayed the Core Career Competencies, related skills, and personal traits the prospective employer is seeking. 

The interview questions themselves usually start with phrases like:

  • “Tell me about a time when you had to …”
  • “Give me an example of when you needed to …”
  • “Describe a situation where you …”

Because you don’t know in advance the questions you’ll be asked, you’ll need to study the job description closely to see what specific competencies/skills, abilities, and traits the employer is seeking, particularly in the context of the Core Career Competencies. Think of examples of times you have demonstrated these characteristics.

Then practice responding to each anticipated question, using what we call the STAR format: Situation-Task-Action-Result.

  • Situation: Set up the situation you faced by describing the context (the who, what, where, when, why, and how).
  • Task: Explain the task you (not the group) had to complete or the problem you had to solve.
  • Action: Describe the actions you took.
  • Result: Explain the result. Quantify the outcome if possible. 

Here’s an example:

Describe a project for which you faced multiple deadlines, and talk about how you handled it.

Answer

Situation: “Last fall, I took the initiative to apply for grants to fund a professional speaker for a CLA event. It’s often difficult to get grants for event funding, and it’s important to meet various grant deadlines.”

Task: “I researched grant options and found several possibilities. Each had a different deadline and a different window of time for which the money could be used.”

Action: “The varying timelines required me to create a small database, which I organized by grant deadlines, purposes, and the windows of time they could be used. I used this database to help me apply for the appropriate grants at the appropriate times.”

Result: “The primary grant came through, but a smaller grant did not. So I quickly helped find a last-minute event sponsor, then updated the PR materials and budget accordingly.

“In the end, the event was successful on multiple levels. We expected about 50 students to attend; 60 showed up. Also, we were able to provide honorariums to additional speakers.

“It was a fun project—one that required me to organize, problem solve, meet multiple deadlines, and make decisions.”

As you get better at answering interview questions this way, you will find that the STAR approach is actually quite empowering. It gives you a specific method for responding, which boosts your confidence and improves your performance.

A Few Examples of Commonly Asked Behavioral-Based Interview Questions

  • “Tell about a time when you took the initiative to do something that needed to be done, even though it wasn’t your responsibility.”
  • “Tell me about a situation where you had to collaborate with people to achieve a goal.”
  • “Tell me about a mistake you made and what you learned from it.”
  • “Give me an example of your organizational skills.”
  • “Tell me about a situation where you had to resolve a conflict with another person.”

Prepare Some Questions of Your Own

Employers expect you to have questions of your own during an interview, it demonstrates your curiosity and sincere interest in the role. Asking questions also helps you form your own opinion about whether the position and organization are a good fit for you. 

Beyond questions that pertain directly to the position description and the organization that you want to know more about, these are some general questions you may want to also consider asking: Here are some potential questions you can ask. (Important note: Wait until you receive a formal offer before you ask any questions about salary or benefits). 

Questions About the Position

  • What are some of the key projects for this role? 
  • What kind of training will there be for the position?
  • What do you think is the most challenging part of the job? The most rewarding?
  • What opportunities exist for professional growth and development?
  • Will travel be required?
  • What does the supervision of this role look like?
  • Does this position require a lot of individual work, group collaboration, or both?
  • How is successfulness in this role defined and measured?

Questions About the Organization and Work Culture

  • What is the work environment like? May I see the area where I would be working?
  • What changes do you foresee in the department/organization over the next couple of years?
  • What do you enjoy most about working here?
  • What makes your organization different from similar organizations or competitors?
  • What is your organization’s biggest challenge?

Questions Related to the Interview Process

  • What are the next steps in the interview process and hiring timeline?
  • Will you have second interviews, or will you base your decision on this one?
  • Is there anything else you’d like to know about me?
The CLA Career Readiness Guide covers interviewing and a host of other career-related topics in depth. Access it online, or pick up a copy in CLA Career Services or in one of the CLA Academic Advising offices.