Big Interview co-founder (and chief coach) Pamela Skillings recently spoke with Nikki Waller of the Wall Street Journal to share tips and answer questions on not bombing the interview.
Geared toward college students and new grads, watch the video below to learn how to impress while avoiding common pitfalls so that you land the right internship or job.
Nikki Waller: So you’ve polished your resume, fired up your networking, and you scored a job interview. Now what? I am Nikki Waller, the Wall Street Journal’s Management and Careers Editor. And today, we are going to share tips, talk about strategies, and take your questions on how not to bomb a job interview.
Joining me today via Skype is Pamela Skillings, a top job interview coach and the founder of Big Interview, an online job interview training system licensed by more than 70 universities and government agencies. She has helped hundreds of clients from college graduates to C.E.O.s land their dream jobs. Hi, Pam. Welcome.
Pamela Skillings: Hi, Nikki. Thanks for having me. Very happy to be here.
Nikki Waller: It’s great to have you, too. So for everyone joining in, we are talking about those interviews for your first job. It is a sometimes mystifying time and process.
And so let’s talk about some of the basics. Obviously, we have you here. We’re very lucky. You are a guru in the world of job interviews. And you also are giving us tips that you charge a lot for. So this is a great thing. We appreciate your time. Can you talk about some of the very, very basics. If I’m on campus, I am starting to dip a toe into the working world, what are some of the basics that I have to have in mind and realize as I’m about to begin this process?
Pamela Skillings: I think the biggest thing I see… And yeah, I’m a big geek on the subject. I work with people all day everyday on interviewing. So I say this a lot. This is based on a lot of data. The biggest mistake that I see and, especially, I think, for people who are new to interviewing, people who are still in school, or new grads, soon to be grads, is lack of preparation. And I’m not talking about memorizing answers or being a robot in the interview because that’s too far in the direction.
But I think a lot of people feel like, hey, it’s just a meeting. Yes, it’s not an important meeting, but I have good communication skills. I’m smart. I’ll go in there. I’ll wing it. It should be fine. Right? And most of the time, you could have been a lot better if you’d just done some simple preparation, research, self-analysis, and just thinking about the key points that you want to make. This is an important meeting. You’re going to have limited time, so being strategic about what you want to communicate.
Nikki Waller: I think that’s absolutely right. So if you guys are taking notes, that rule number one from Pam is no winging it or limited winging it. What are some of the ways that people can prepare themselves for different types of interviews, too? I mean, there’s the spectrum of the informational interview. And then there’s also the on-campus sort of coffee interview. And then there’s, of course, the more formal one. Can you talk a little bit about ways that people should prepare and what their expectations should be?
Pamela Skillings: Absolutely. I think there are definitely some points that if you get real comfortable with core questions and topics, it’s going to serve you across the spectrum, whether it’s phone, Skype, on-campus, informational. There are some key points that you need to be really comfortable talking about yourself. And most of us don’t talk about ourselves this way in real life, and that’s why winging it is hard. So regardless of the type of interviewing, there are special things you can do for phone or special challenges based on format. But across the board, I think focusing on the topics, the key questions. And I saw in the pre-session questions that you shared with me, a lot of these coming up, a lot of key themes that I recommend people work on.
So that basic tell me about yourself, that open-ended first question, talking about strengths, talking about weaknesses, talking about your experiences, your behavioral stories. So I think across the board type of interview, focusing on this core elements, and knowing what you want to say. They might phrase the question a little bit differently from interview to interview, but there’s definitely a most common set. And even across industries, they’re definitely going to ask some of the core questions.
Nikki Waller: And what are some of those core questions that everyone should be prepared for?
Pamela Skillings: Well, the first one and the one that I think is probably most important is that tell-me-about-yourself question. Right? And it’s not always phrased exactly that way. Sometimes they say, “Walk me through your resume.” Sometimes they say, “Tell me a bit about your background.” But regardless that’s usually the first question. And I would say a vast majority, 97% of interviews, that’s the first question.
And so you want to be prepared. You don’t want to wing that question. That’s your opportunity. I see that question as an opportunity. It’s awkward if you haven’t prepared for it. I see a lot of people struggle with it. They’re not quite sure where to start or what to include, and how personal versus professional. But if you prepare for it, that answer can set the tone for the whole interview and really help you start strong. It’s basically your elevator pitch. Get their attention right from the beginning and focus on some of the things that you want them to know about you, that you want them to remember about you.
Nikki Waller: I think you’re really smart and really great to bring up the elevator pitch, which is also another way of thinking about the tell-me-about-yourself question.
Pamela Skillings: Yeah.
Nikki Waller: And especially as your starting out, I think all of us interviewing for all kinds of jobs struggle with tell-me-about-yourself. It’s something that will be perennially a part of your life. But when you are a college student, when you are just beginning the working world, where do you start? How much detail do you give? And what should your objective be when your entering that question?
Pamela Skillings: The objective there, I think, is to introduce yourself, focus on the professional versus the personal, but a little bit of your personality in there. But basically sum up what you’re all about and why you’re a fit for this position in one or two minutes. Easy right? And I think for students in particular, it’s actually a little bit easier for students and those who have been working for 10 years in trying to figure out what to cram in there. But I do recommend to my clients a three-part model, just sort of focusing on a couple of things. So starting with who I am professionally, and it’s sort of like a big picture professional state. Right? And a lot of people who are undergrads or who are still students that statement is, “I’m currently a senior at university studying blah, blah, blah, blah and recently completed an internship.” So kind of summing up who you are right now professionally. And often for students, that’s kind of the most relevant information that you want to lead off with any way.
And then that second part. So who I am is the first part. Second part is, why I’m qualified. So here is where you bring out a select, kind of bullet points, of what you think are kind of your greatest hits, your most interesting things. And this could be chronological or not. You could talk about your extracurriculars, you could talk about awards you’ve won, academic accomplishments, part-time jobs, internships and being select at the things that you want to focus on that are most relevant.
And then I think it’s wise to wrap the answer up, part three, is why I’m here. And this could be really simple. It could just be, “I’m really excited about this opportunity because I think it’s a great company and an excellent match with my background.” All right? It just gives you a way to make your interests very clear, and also to end answer in a nice, crisp, purposeful way instead of kind of trailing off, which is what some do. They go on and on. Sometimes people start, “I was born,” “I was raised,” “I went to kindergarten,” And then they kind of trail off at the end like, I guess that’s it. I don’t know. Is there anything else you want to know about me? And that just kind of makes you look unfocused and not as confident as if you’re able to really kind of end in a purposeful way.
Nikki Waller: I think that’s a great strategy. And I know we have this Skype, this mythical beast. And so for just a recap, because we had some audio going in and out there, the three big components are number one, who I am and where I am in my life. Number two is why I’m qualified for whatever job we’re talking about. And three is why I’m here, how this connects to your broader life goals. And then a crisp and purposeful finish.
Pamela Skillings: Yes, perfect summary.
Nikki Waller: Yes. Is there nothing about, “In kindergarten I discovered a love for the finger paints?”
Pamela Skillings: Yeah.
Nikki Waller: We got a lot of questions from people ahead of time for this session. More than 120. And I have to say, probably… We looked at this together, a real big chunk, maybe a quarter of them, wanting to know how to answer the questions about, what is your greatest weakness?
Pamela Skillings: Yeah. Some question that is.
Nikki Waller: How do you counsel people to master and answer those responses?
Pamela Skillings: Great. I think this, this also kind of falls in that group of questions that everybody should be prepared for regardless of the type of interview. And for different reasons, I think you want to be prepared to talk about your strengths because, hey, those are your selling points and you want to get comfortable with it, especially if you’re a little bit more modest by nature. And I know I work with a lot of people who are maybe a little more introverted, or they just aren’t people who are comfortable saying, “I’m great.” You know, just because of their personality or how they’ve been raised. And so that’s why I think it’s really important to prepare for that strengths question in advance.
Actually writing down a list of your core strengths, you know, at least five. Force yourself at least five, maybe more. And for each of those strengths, capturing a proof point. I call it a proof point, but it’s either an example that demonstrates our strength from the past, brief example, or sort of a general description of your background and what you’ve done that demonstrates that, if there’s not sort of one example that shows you’re a great team player, for example.
So having those strengths defined, prioritized, and getting comfortable practicing them. And I do feel practice is hugely, hugely, hugely important in addressing all of the things that can go wrong in the interview. It helps you eliminate fillers, it helps you avoid blanking out, nerves, all kinds of stuff. And it also helps you get comfortable talking about what you are in your own voice even if that’s not your comfort zone.
So strengths. And strengths also applies a lot of questions. They may ask it that way. They may ask, “What are your strengths?” They may also ask, “Why are you a fit for the role?” Or “Why should we hire you instead of all these other brilliant people we’re talking to?” All of those are basically asking you, tell me all your strengths. So that’s strength.
Nikki Waller: Awesome. And I think this is good for job seekers of all ages, depending on who’s watching, is to have really close at hand five strengths and a proof point for each that really illustrates. So in the parlance of journalism, you’re showing and not just telling people about your strength.
Pamela Skillings: Exactly.
Nikki Waller: And practice that over and over and over again. And I think you make a good point about practice. It’s a hard thing to do and it can feel a little bit silly, but it’s often the differentiator between who gets the job and who doesn’t.
Pamela Skillings: Yeah. And it can solve a whole set of problems. And I see it every day because I work with people over the course of a couple of months. And even within one coaching session, the difference between the beginning and then having practiced a few times in terms of projecting confidence, knowing what you’re talking about, remembering the key points, and dealing with little nonverbal things.
When you’re nervous and you’re wondering about what you’re going to say next, those nonverbal tics come out, right? You’re avoiding eye contact, or you’re shifting around, or you’re doing other things, these little habit that come up. So yeah, I’m a huge, huge believer in practice. And actually, that’s a big part of what Big Interview is. It’s got a lot of information on there, too. But we do have a tool where people can practice with their webcam and in the privacy of their own homes, so that it’s not quite so awkward. Of course, you can totally practice with a friend or a mentor, but you can also practice on your own now. Technology makes it possible to avoid some of that awkwardness if you want to just do it by yourself.
Nikki Waller: So Pam, what’s your great weakness?
Pamela Skillings: Okay. So this one also is very important, and for different reasons. This is still comes up surprisingly often. You know a lot of people will say, this is an old school question. It’s such a cliché. It doesn’t make sense to ask because everybody’s prepared for it. But so many companies still ask this question. So you need to be prepared for it, just like you need to be prepared for any other potentially tricky or negative question. So that might also be included if you’ve got a gap on your resume, or a low G.P.A. or something of that nature. You want to practice any of those in advance. And so I recommend everybody be prepared with a weakness to talk about.
And the biggest mistake I see made here aside from saying you have no weaknesses at all, which is definitely not the right move, but I also see people, you know… There’s some advice floating out there going out there about turning a negative into a positive where you say, “I work hard,” “I’m too committed,” “I’m too good looking,” whatever. Right? Nobody buys that. Maybe it worked once, you know, 10 years ago for somebody, but nobody buys that anymore.
You do have to pick out a real weakness, you know, something that you could work on. And it’s important to pick what I would say is a good one. So one that’s not a red flag. So if you’re interviewing for accounting and you say you hate math, that’s going to be a problem, right? You want to pick something that is relatively mild related to job at hand, and also that you can definitely improve in. It’s not some inherent fundamental flaw, it’s something that you can and are working on.
So mention it briefly, describe it briefly. And then, really important, kind of the biggest thing to do here, is talk about how you’re already working on this. You’ve already taken a class. You’ve already worked with your mentor. You’ve already taken on a project to get more experience in this area. This shows that you’re self-aware enough to know that, hey, yes, you do have weaknesses. And you’re also someone who’s driven to improve yourself. So identify your weakness and you’re already working on getting better.
Nikki Waller: So to recap because, again, we have a little bit of an audio hiccup there. You got to pick a real weakness. I know Pam does a lot of interview coaching as The Wall Street Journal. I talk to a lot of hiring experts and I also interview people myself for jobs. And we are on to you if you are saying that you work too hard or sometimes you care too much about your job. That doesn’t cut it. So find a real weakness, but not something that will also have the interviewer calling the security guard midway through the interview.
Pamela Skillings: Yes.
Nikki Waller: So the next most popular question that has come up, I think, is that answering… I think this is especially hard to do when you are on the precipice of graduating college. Answering the question of where do you see yourself in five years or 10 years when so much you are just thinking, I want a paying job after college and that is my life’s most cherished goal right now. How do you answer the long-term question?
Pamela Skillings: Yeah, this is one of those questions, too, I guess like weakness in some ways that, yeah, nobody knows where they are going to be in five years. Right? It’s absolutely not something that anyone could answer with complete accuracy. So why do companies ask this question? And that of course gives you some insight into how you should answer it. Because if you can get into the head of your interview with all of these, with any questions, if you can’t understand why they’re asking this, it’s going to help you figure out a smart answer.
And so the reason they’re asking you, where do you see yourself, whether its five years, 10 years, whatever, is because they’re trying to get a sense of your goals and your plan for your career, and make sure their decision fits into that. They want to make sure that you’re serious about this career. And that if they hire you, and they spend the time and effort and budget to bring you on board, to train you, etc., that you’re not going to leave in six months because this is not really what you want to do, you just kind of want the job. Right?
Now, of course, sometimes that’s the situation, but you want to make sure that you’re not advertising that, and that you’re coming across really identifying that this is something, if hired, you could see this being a long-term position for you where you could learn, and grow, showing that you could be a reliable, low risk hire basically.
Nikki Waller: Fantastic. I think that’s a really smart answer to that question. And then another question that has come up is… And after this we will be taking… Thank you guys for sending in questions live as well. We’ll be answering some of those questions in just a moment. But also, there is the giant elephant in the room with some of this, which is money. Everyone’s interested in it, but when do you talk about it and how?
Pamela Skillings: Well, my recommendation is usually, wait to talk about it as long as you can. As in any negotiation, anything that involves money negotiation, the person who named the number first is going to be at a little bit of a disadvantage. Right? So unfortunately, you don’t have all of the control when you’re going to a job interview, so you may not be able to put them off indefinitely. And no, you definitely don’t want to refuse to answer the question. One way I think works pretty well to sort of deflect a little bit maybe at the beginning is that they ask you what kind of compensation are you looking for. Saying something along the lines of, “Well, you know money is not my top consideration right now. I’m really looking for the perfect fit, so I would be open to a competitive offer.” Right? I love the phrase competitive offer because it shows that you’re a little bit flexible, that you are deflecting.
But it also shows that you’re not going to sell yourself for cheap, that you believe you’re worth being paid fairly, of course. So I think that’s kind of a nice way to try to deflect. And sometimes it works and sometimes they will press you and say, “Well, no really. What are you thinking?” And so you do want to be prepared. You do want to do your research, and kind of get a feel for what’s the market rate for this type of position. And there’s a lot of places you can go. Places like Glassdoor, and Payscale.com, and Salary.com, where you can do a little bit of research and get a feel for what the range in your city, for the title, type of company. And that at least you gives you a range.
You can speak to the range and say, “Well, you know, based on my research, here’s what I’ve seen the range to be, and so that’s kind of what I had in mind.” So keeping it still fairly general. And ideally you want to wait to have a real hardcore negotiation on money until they love you so much, and the offer has been extended, and they want to bring you on board, then you have much more leverage to start to get into specifics.
Nikki Waller: Excellent. So that magical phrase is ‘open to a competitive offer’ and also having a sense of the range, which is really… We have gotten a lot of questions both live and pre-game about the questions that you should ask. And I think that it is great, as a career editor and an expert, I’m really excited that people are wondering what questions they should I ask because I think that interview serves really a dual-purpose, which is one, as an employer I want to know about you. But also I want to know that the job candidate have a sense of what the company does, and how this job isn’t about you, but how you are going to help the company move forward. So how do you strategize questions to ask that can show that to the employer and then also give you real information?
Pamela Skillings: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, the questions that you ask, they tell a lot to the employer. It’s not just about, okay, I have to ask a question. As Nikki said, it shows if you’ve done the homework and also it shows if you’re interested. You know, you’re interested and you’re smart, that you ask good questions in general. So I think part of it has to do with doing your research in advance. And I think that’s important to do anyway, doing some research on the company because you’re going to want to use it.
Another very important question is, why do you want to work here? Why do you want this job? You definitely want to prepare for that one. And so doing that research will prepare you for those types of questions and also to be able to ask smart questions at the end of the interview. So taking a look at recent press releases, recent mentions in the press of the company, interviews with their executives, information about their products, their marketing campaigns, sort of depending on what division you’re interviewing for. So ask something based on recent news about the company or recent initiatives is great so you kind of know the space… And you know, it’s not always possible, right? So it’s good to have some general questions prepared in advance, just in case they address that question or you need more.
So it’s good to have general questions prepared as well, just in case. But you want to steer clear of anything that seems too self-serving especially early on. Right? Anything about vacation, when am I’m going to get promoted? Do you pay for relocation? Anything like that, avoid, avoid, avoid especially during the first couple of rounds. Wait until you’ve got some leverage, like with the money, to start talking about that.
Any questions you ask, even the general ones should be about showing your interest in the company and interest in doing a great job if you are hired. So things like, what do you think are the biggest opportunities for this department over the next six my months? What do you think are the changes happening in the company right now? What do you see…? Stuff like that shows that you’re already thinking about doing a good job. So those are the kind of general questions that can work really well.
Nikki Waller: I agree. I think those are excellent points. And as someone who has been a hiring manager and is one, do follow her advice. These are great questions. And someone actually has asked from the audience how what we’re hearing today matches up to my interview experience at the Journal before I was hired.
Pamela Skillings: Interesting.
Nikki Waller: Yeah. Happily, I was hired not right out of college at the Journal. So that’s seven years ago and I think everything that we’re talking about today holds totally true. Especially that we’re just talking about understanding where the company is at and where it wants to go. Especially because I join the company in a digital position, I was able to ask a lot of questions about what they thought as some of the obstacles, and what were some of strategic plans in the next several months that would help the Journal get where it wanted to go. And asking those questions also allowed me to sort of sell myself in that context, too.
So that’s the other great upside of asking this kind questions is that you can say, well, that’s awesome that you guys want to grow this part of the business because I have this experience doing this or an internship doing that, or in my classes, I have worked on projects that look at this, and I think I have access to some of the best and most precious information on these points. And then actually, I didn’t want to ask you, Pam, this kind of thing around here, but is it a good idea to talk about your coursework in interviews, or does it make you seem less experienced than you really might be?
Pamela Skillings: Well, I definitely think it’s fine to talk about your coursework. You know, you have to kind of use good judgment about what’s relevant. I also think it’s important if you do have work experience, or even internship experience or part-time type of work. I think it’s important that you have some stories and examples from that experience as well, and it’s not just about your coursework. Even if it’s extracurriculars where you’re kind of got in a non-academic world because they kind of see can this person work in an office? And it’s a little bit different than functioning in an academic environment.
But I do think it’s great if you had a team project that was part of a course. Often, those can be great examples to share showing teamwork, problem solving, and other things. So I definitely wouldn’t shy away from it, but just make sure you’re not underselling the work experience because, you know, sometimes early on in college, our work experience isn’t that exciting, and we don’t think its that impressive. But it is good to be able to talk about your ability to work in that kind of environment.
Nikki Waller: Great. And we have about five minutes left. So there are a couple of quick things I want. Let’s do a really brief answer to this question because I think it is so interesting. How does a candidate best prepare for a job interview in a foreign country or for a preposition in a foreign country?
Pamela Skillings: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that obviously raises additional challenges, right? So here, research is even more important. Because, yes, depending on the country, the interview process and the interview expectations can be different. And a lot of it depends. Is this a U.S.-based company with offices abroad? Is this a company based in a particular country? It might change the culture that you’re walking into in terms of who you’re speaking.
So doing your research is the key, you know, a lot of Google action, reading up. But do what you can to tap into your network, your professors, your career services center, anywhere that you can go, to find out, is there someone you can talk to who’s worked in that country or who can give you some more insight into how to prepare. Because, yeah, you want to make sure that you are able to translate your American experience, and also that you’re prepared for any difficult questions or different approaches that could come out.
Nikki Waller: Excellent. And for the last part, I really want to talk with you about follow-up. I think one of the best ways to bomb a job interview is after you’ve left the room. So we’d like to help people to avoid that. Can you talk a little bit about the best ways to follow up after a job interview, how to do the thank-you notes. And then also, how often can you check in with people before you’re a pest? What’s the right way to do that?
Pamela Skillings: Yes, it’s always tricky to figure out. There’s a lot of metaphors between dating and interviewing, and that’s one of them like, okay, how long should I wait to call? And what if they don’t call me back? And you know, all that kind of stuff. So I guess the first point about following up, absolutely, you need to send a thank-you note. And I’m a big believer in sending an email thank-you note right away. Right? Within 24 hours. It shows that you’re excited. It shows that you’re prompt, that you respond quickly. And so I think having a quick email thing. It can mean you can also send something by mail, a handwritten note. And yeah, we can talk about when that might make sense. But I think you always want to send an email thank-you note immediately.
And it can be very simple. You want to thank them for their time. You want to reiterate that you had a great experience. And then you do want to refer to something personal that you remember from the interview, something they told you that was interesting, and ideally, link that to…. I’m so excited to hear about… And I really think that my background… With this company would be a great fit for you. I bring my experience doing ABC into the campaigns. So being able to address some of that, something personal, something specific, if you can.
And then wrapping up by further expressing your interest, I’m really looking forward to hearing from you. Please let me know if I can answer any question. Something along those lines. It can be pretty simple. You don’t want to overwhelm them with a huge block of text that they probably aren’t going to read it anyway. But if you keep it fairly short and personal and make it clear that it’s not just a form note, I think that’s probably the best thing.
Nikki Waller: Excellent. All these are very, very wise words. We are just about out of time. Thank you everyone for joining us today. Hopefully you are merging with a sense of how not to bomb a job interview. And even better, we hope that you are feeling more equipped to succeed at a job interview and ace it on all fronts. Thank you to everyone for joining and thanks for your very smart questions. And thanks especially for Pamela Skillings of Big Interview, one of the best interview coaches in the game. Pam, thanks for joining us.
Pamela Skillings: Thank you. It was a lot of fun.
Nikki Waller: All right. Thanks, on behalf of The Wall Street Journal. And good luck out there everyone.