As the assistant director in a university office, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing student aides, graduate assistants, and entry-level candidates several times. I actually really enjoy the interview process, but I know that many do not, especially if you’re just setting off on your career and don’t have a lot of experience.
If you make it to the interview process, for the most part, you should know that the hiring committee has already vetted your resume and they probably won’t be asking you that many questions to prove that you really know how to work Microsoft Word (unless that’s in the actual position title!). In my office, we tend to receive over 100 resumes for each position posted, and we generally choose about 10% to have a phone interview, followed by about 3-5 candidates for on-campus or in-person interviews. By the time we get to the interviews, we’ve already mentally checked off who has the skill sets, and now we are looking for the candidate who really fits our office culture, is trainable, and brings an additional set of qualities to the position that will elevate it to our expectations. Normally, out of all these interviews, one or two will really stand out. The rest, while they are certainly qualified, begin to pale by comparison when they make some key interview mistakes.
Here are five interview mistakes to avoid in your next interview.
5 Things To Avoid When Interviewing On A College Campus
1. Being “Too Confident” and Not Reading Your Audience
I interviewed a wonderfully enthusiastic newly graduated student who had finished her bachelor’s and was coming back to school for her graduate degree. She was certainly personable and lively – we would have loved to have someone with her energy in the office. But within a few minutes of her interview, things fell flat and I no longer felt connected with the candidate. This is because her enthusiasm translated into repeatedly multiple times, “You guys want THIS type of person and THAT’s me!” or “YOU guys need THESE skillsets and I can do that!” or “You guys need a person like me!” Firstly, try to avoid saying “you guys” multiple times in an interview – it does slip out sometimes (the English language lacks a plural ‘you’ like so many other languages) but when it’s every other sentence, it makes you sound young and unprofessional. Secondly, the statements that she knew what we needed felt presumptuous. It also reduced the interview to an aggressive sales-type pitch that made us feel uncomfortable.
Take cues from your interviewer. If they seem more interested in casual conversation, they are more interested in finding out if you’re the right fit rather than grilling you about your skillset and there’s no need to beat them over the head with obvious statements. Remember, “show, don’t tell.” You should already know by the position description what type of candidate they are looking for, so before the interview, write down some reasons you fit the bill. Weave these reasons (as stories or examples) into your replies to questions, but there is no need to aggressively state you’re the match they are looking for.
2. Not Dressing Appropriately
If your interviewer gave you a dress code, then follow it. (I once interviewed for a position where the director told me, “Oh, by the way, we are not too fancy.” I realized he was giving me a hint not to show up in a suit. I chose an office-appropriate dress instead and got the job.) If you’re interviewing for a graduate assistantship, most offices will be understanding of the fact you may not own a suit yet. Dress in clean, professional-looking clothing such as a dress shirt, blazer, and pants/skirt. If it’s a Skype interview, at least dress appropriately from the waist up.
3. Talking Too Much
I had a phone interview with a candidate that practically bored me to tears. Every answer he gave seemed to take over 5 minutes and get distracted with tangents. I found myself being resentful that he was taking up so much time – I only had 30 minutes slotted for the phone interview, and I barely got through any of my pertinent questions because he talked too much. Each time he finished answering a question I had forgotten what we had asked because there was so much rambling. Obviously, we want to hear candidates’ answers, and it’s always good to give detailed answers, but make sure you are able to answer questions succinctly. If the answers are too long or rambling, they may appear as inauthentic or as an inability to answer the question properly. Because this particular interview felt like a monologue on the candidate’s side, it came off as pompous I feared that he would be untrainable and wouldn’t be a team player.
Here’s a tip: Imagine how you will answer the question, “Tell us about yourself.” Now, use the stopwatch function on your phone and time yourself giving an answer. You may be surprised how much information you can fit into 30-45 seconds. If you feel you’ve hit all the pertinent points within this time-frame, try to keep all your long answers to this length.
4. Always Have Questions
I still remember many years ago interviewing a wonderful candidate for an entry-level position. I thought she was great, but a colleague said, “You know, I was really disappointed she didn’t have any questions. If it comes between Candidate A and Candidate B, I’d go with the one who has questions.” I’ve never forgotten this reaction.
It’s important to remember that sometimes there are legitimately two or three candidates who truly are all spectacular and who truly would all do the job well. When a hiring committee is faced with choosing between spectacular candidates, they will start to nitpick every single thing in order to give themselves some logic and to get out of the impasse. So you need to really show yourself to be exceptional. Here’re some suggestions of questions that may set you apart. These questions are good for large group interviews at university offices where they clearly will be using you to fill in labor gaps.
– “How is the office structured?”
– “What are some of the projects I’d be working on right away?”
– “I saw you recently announced on your website a big project called ______, I was wondering what that was and if that’s something I’d be involved in?”
– “Who would be my direct supervisor?”
– “Is this position mainly computer-centered or people-centered (interactive)?”
– “When does the position start?”
– “I noticed you said you used to have my position. Is there a typical day and certain tasks that have to get accomplished weekly?”
– “What are some of the other offices on campus you collaborate with?”
5. Not Paying Attention to Clues During a Group Interview
Many of our interviews are actually group interviews (the candidate plus a group of us from the office), although for non-student positions we often have a whole day of interviews with colleagues, one-on-one interviews, or roundtable conversations. It still surprises me when candidates don’t pick up on clues. I had one candidate only look the director in the eye and direct questions to him. Meanwhile, this candidate would primarily work with me and my opinion in the hiring process. I also had another who sent thank you notes to everyone who participated, but it was clear that he had used the staff directory on the website because he sent thank you notes to people who weren’t even in the interview! Here’s a tip: Hopefully the interview leader will have opened by introducing everyone in the interview and explaining their roles. Try to write down their names or notes about their positions so that you remember who was there. If the lead interviewer wasn’t good at facilitating this, make it one of your questions at the end of the interview: “I was wondering if you could explain everyone’s roles and how it would interact with this position.”
When the lead interviewer introduces everyone, pay special attention to any clues. If the lead interviewer says “This is Pauline, she’ll be working very closely with you,” pay attention to that person’s body language. Do they initiate asking you questions? Do they seem invested in the interview? If they are assuming a leadership role in the interview, assume that they have a distinct voice in the hiring decision. On the other hand, never make it obvious that you think certain people in the group are more powerful than the others. It’s definitely true that we ask the secretary how you treated him/her when you walked in. You are making an impression on everyone, not just the decision makers.
If you’re lucky enough to interview for a graduate assistantship, you’ve already set yourself apart with the strength of your resume. We take our hires for graduate assistantships very seriously, as we know how important free tuition is for students! We hire them with the hope that they will be with us for a full two years and that both the office and the candidate can benefit from this partnership.
I hope that these tips help you rock at your next interview!
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