With Thanksgiving around the corner, a number of you out there are headed toward that awkward moment at the family dinner in which some relative asks, “So… You graduate next month… You got a job yet?”
The fear of unemployment after college is not without merit, regardless of when you graduate (or graduated) and how well (or poorly) the economy is rolling along. The job-seeking process is filled with awkwardness, anxiety and anguish, a situation I have frequently compared to a bad dating experience.
During that process, a number of things can make or break you. Some of those things are out of your control:
- You lack the experience or expertise for the position.
- The company is looking for something else other than what you provide.
- Some chucklehead on the committee makes a stupid-yet-compelling argument that knocks you out of the pool.
- A ringer ends up in the pool for some reason and thus you find yourself competing against someone like Bob Woodward for a night GA job at the Beaver County Tidbit.
One thing that is mostly within your control, however, is the initial interview phase of the process, in which your potential future co-workers ask you a string of random inquiries based on whatever HR approved for them. We are currently going through this kind of thing here at the U, where we are searching for a colleague in the journalism department, so I’ve gotten kind of a refresher on the questions and answers that work and that don’t.
To help you along in this narrow way, here are a few questions you might hear in that initial phone/Zoom call, what the questions are trying to ascertain and how to answer (or not answer) them:
“What do you know about (NAME OF ORGANIZATION)?”
What they want to know: This is usually the warm-up question outside of “Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?” The goal here is simple: They want to find out if you did any research between when you discovered the job and this phone/Zoom interview. If you are going into a journalism-related field, you damned well better have done some research on this before you get there. Nothing says, “I’m going to be a lousy reporter/editor/PR practitioner/marketer” like the answer, “Oh… I know you have a job opening!”
The Answer: Don’t turn this thing into a 1950s Chamber of Commerce film that includes every tidbit you can find on Wikipedia.
Instead, look for key things associated with the organization itself. In most cases, place post information that matters to them on the “About Us” section of their website. Dig around in there for some elements that can form the broad strokes of your answer. Then, do a decent Google search on the organization, and rely on trade press or recent news pieces. This is where you can find if the agency just won some major award or if the newspaper is currently digging into something particularly shady. Highlight those elements as well, as they show you are looking into not just what they are, but also what they are doing/have done that is impressive.
Finally, look for ways to integrate yourself or your interests into the answer. This will help the interviewer start to imagine you as part of the organization’s story. It can be something like, “I know that you just won the IRE prize for investigative reporting. That series of trash collectors selling rat meat to unsuspecting grocery stores was amazing and I’ve always had a strong interest in big projects like that. I’d love to work with Bill and Sue on their next investigation.”
WHAT NOT TO DO: There are many ways you can screw this up, but here are the two basic ones:
- Don’t do any research and spitball it, hoping for the best. This is usually something people figure out right away and that will almost immediately place you on the “reject” pile. If they think your answer to a question is BS, they’re likely to start wondering what else you BS-ed along the way.
- Confuse the place with some other place you are applying for a job. It feels like the “I, Ross, take thee Rachel” moment from “Friends” for the people on the other end of that interview.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
What they want to know: Of all the possible interview questions, this one has always felt like the stupidest one to me. I wish I had the gumption to answer in one of two ways:
- “Probably stuck here, doing an interview with a job candidate and asking that stupid question of them.”
- “If I knew the future in any meaningful way, I’d be buying lottery tickets, not applying for this job.”
That said, what they actually want to know is if you have any kind of longer-term plan for your life and to what degree you see yourself growing and developing in their organization. Nobody wants to hire someone with no direction or sense of growth potential. To that end, you need to have a way to deal with this question without killing your chances of getting the job.
THE ANSWER: Demonstrate that you see yourself as both present at the organization and growing through your work at it. This can be something like, “I see myself doing both (THING YOU’RE BEING HIRED FOR) and (THING THAT IS SOMEWHAT ASPIRATIONAL, YET ATTAINABLE).” In the case of a reporter, it could be covering the daily grind of political stuff at the city council while doing more open-records reporting. In PR it could be cranking out press releases for clients while looking to develop a more involved strategy for clients across multiple platforms.
Another key here is to show value in areas that are beginning to develop. Five to eight years ago, that would be talking about social media and helping to draw eyeballs to your work by establishing a dominant presence on certain platforms. (Come to think of it, that’s still what we’re hearing people say, so maybe stick with that…) Look at the job description and look at what other jobs in the field are demanding and you’ll be able to paint a picture of someone who helps this organization stay on the “cutting edge” while retaining “bedrock tenets of the field.”
WHAT NOT TO DO: First, don’t give either of the answers I listed above. Second, don’t get too basic or aspirational in your answer.
If you go with the “I’m going to be here doing this job to the best of my ability” answer, they see you as a pedestrian hire who will literally do exactly what is asked of you and nothing more.
While that can kill your chances, the aspirational answer will kill them even faster: “I see myself working for (BIG NAME ORGANIZATION) in (BIG NAME CITY) where I’m doing (BIG DEAL STUFF).” Nothing says to a potential employer who is NOT a “big name” that they shouldn’t hire you more than the answer that essentially lets them know you see them as a stepping stone to something better.
Even if the organization knows it’s not a desirable career endpoint and even if you know you want to get in, get experience and get out, this is not the time to make those goals clear. It would be like during that slow dance at prom, when your date asks, “Do you think about us in the future?” and you answer with, “Sure. I figure I get laid tonight, probably date you throughout the next month until graduation. Then, I’m going off to college, where I promise we’ll keep up a long-distance thing until I find a better and hotter option in my res hall.”
“What do you see as your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?”
WHAT THEY WANT TO KNOW: They are trying to figure out if you are in any way self-aware and be honest about it. That said, there are red flags in the honesty that you don’t want to raise (see the prom example above). They want to know how well you know yourself to determine if you actually can do the things you say you can do. They also want a sense of “fit” when it comes to personality and social skill, most of which will be related to this answer.
The Answer: You need to be ready for this one, as I think it’s a keyboard macro that every HR rep has set up on their computer for job interviews. (Control-Alt-DUH, is probably the key combination.) Look for strengths that reflect their needs and your resume, while avoiding the generics. “Hard worker” and “team player” shouldn’t be the core of your argument here. That said, you can demonstrate your value here if you pair something they desperately want with something you excel at in a way in which they can see you in the position.
For example, if on the job ad, the company lists something like “Must be able to work under tight deadlines,” you could say something like, “I think my greatest strength is how well I work quickly under pressure. I spent three years on the night desk at the Smithton Daily Crier, and I had to turn around a lot of late-breaking news, without a lot of information, and make sure it was totally accurate. That experience is something I’ve carried over to my other jobs such as… ” and away you go.
As for the negative, look for negatives that can be trained out of you like, “I haven’t worked in a (large/medium/small) office like yours before, so I know I’d have to do some adjusting” work well, as do things that point to growth like, “I’m not as experienced as people who have been doing this for 10/20/50 years, so I know I have a lot to learn.”
WHAT NOT TO DO: You need to avoid things that overshadow everything else you have said, make you look like psychotic or can’t be fixed over time. In short, you don’t want people to remember you as “That candidate who said they bite their toenails in the break room” person or something. You also don’t want something where people can fear what you’ll be like at work, such as “I’m so competitive when it comes to stories, I’d stab a coworker in the neck to get a scoop.” Remember, your goal is to become an enticing option, not a cautionary tale.
“Do you have any questions for us?”
What they want to know: This always seems like a throw-away question because, in most cases, it comes at the end of the interview and it flips the interview on its head, giving you control of the dice. This question is only partially for you, in that you can get a few things clarified. However, it’s also for them, trying to determine what things matter to you above all else, as well as if you are still interested in this job going forward.
The Answer: You need a couple questions that demonstrate your interest in the position in a meaningful and productive way like, “I noticed you tend to work in teams when it comes to advertising strategies. Would I be integrated into one of your current teams or is there a process for new hires to become part of a newly built team?” That shows a) you know about their processes, b) you have an interest in working there, even after they asked you the previous three questions and more and c) you want them to see you becoming part of the organization.
You can also ask clarifying questions that allow them to expand on things, like, “You mentioned that this job would require me to do daily stories and in-depth pieces. What kind of balance would you want from me in this regard to help best serve the needs of the paper and the readers?” This shows the same kinds of things as above, while also showing that you were listening to them during the interview instead of just waiting to speak.
Other good questions include things like, “What is the time table for the rest of the search?” or “When might I hear from you again regarding the position?” These are simple, but show interest.
WHAT NOT TO DO: This is always up for debate, given the situation, but here are a few things that I know tend to turn me off in a phone interview:
- Salary questions: It’s not that you SHOULDN’T ask this, but I’d argue that if you are on a phone/Zoom interview, it’s probably not the right place for this one. You will obviously want to know the answer to this, but that’s more of an in-person interview question. At this point, they’re still weeding people out, and anything that shatters the illusion that you are just a wonderful person whose sole purpose is to do fantastic things as part of their organization runs a risk here.
- “Serial Killer” questions: At this point, they are still trying to figure out if they like you or not, so questions that open a weird line of questioning can undo a lot of the good you’ve done. Things like, “The ad mentions a background check. Does that look into things that might have happened overseas?” suddenly have me thinking you buried a dead hooker in the sands of Cairo or something. When it comes to prepping out your questions, look at them the same way you read headlines to make sure you aren’t unduly worrying your potential employer. Have a friend or trusted adviser read them over as well for any “vibe” concerns.
- No questions: If you have no questions, come up with at least a few that will reinforce your awesomeness and how wonderful of a fit you would be in the job. Not asking questions can be somewhat of a turnoff for people.
That’s the best I’ve got. Hope it helps!