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The Interview: Be Prepared

Advise & Career

Be Prepared For Your Interview

Let’s assume that you’ve heard of a great opening that fits both your interests and abilities. You dig out the résumé, put together a cover letter, and you’re ready to fax it over to Human Resources. Right? Or is there something wrong with this picture?

Launch a research campaign

If you are an aware job seeker you will first begin a research campaign designed to significantly improve your chances. Don’t send out a cover letter or resume before you know anything about who’s going to  reading them and what their needs are. Tailor that letter and that resume to the specific interests of the company, and you have a huge advantage before you even set foot in the door.

What kinds of things are important to learn about the company? First, you will want to find out their “corporate personality”, their style. Each firm is different, and these sometimes-subtle differences can have a strong influence on their hiring practices. You might also want to get a handle on their benefit package, salary options, and promotion policies.

It’s helpful to get information on your prospective position, too. How long has it been open, why did the last person leave, how much turnover has there been? If it’s a new position, you might want to know why it was created, what specific need will be met, or problem being solved. Was it a controversial decision to create the opening? This can really influence hiring decisions.

Discover the hiring process

Another area of interest for your research project: what is their hiring process like? You might want to know who will interview you first, how many interviews you are likely to have, and who makes the final decision. Any information you can get about these key players will be incredibly helpful.

Now, having mapped out your agenda, how do you go about getting all this helpful information? A good early step to take is to go to the corporate headquarters. Start by walking around the lobby; buy a magazine or a cup of coffee, read the directories and get a feeling for the atmosphere.

See how people are dressed. Do they look stressed out and rushed? Are people relaxed; are they kidding around and greeting each other? Can you see differences in dress and behavior that might correlate to different levels of management?

Be sure to take advantage of any public opportunities such as tours, open houses, workshops, etc. With this legitimate reason to be there, be sure and watch what goes on as carefully as you can. In addition to people watching, observe the office layout; how they divide up their space tells you a lot about a company.

Casually look at bulletin boards or notices. Visit Human Resources and pick up an application, or a brochure on their benefits package. If it’s a really big company, you might need to make a few trips before you’ve soaked up as much as you can from this kind of expedition.

Use the Internet

Next comes information gathering through the Internet and library. Check out their website, follow the links and get a feel for how they use this resource; are they comfortable with the web, do they keep their site up, how sophisticated are they in their approach?

What about the company’s history? How long have they been around? Have they been through a growth spurt of rapid expansion that may have had a big impact on their functioning? Who is their primary market? What are their goals and objectives for the future? Do they have a Board of Directors? If so, who’s on it? How big are they now, and how big do they want to be?

Many companies have a public information department that can give you material dealing with these issues. If not, it may be on their web site, or in the library. Look through old newspapers or magazines; you can find announcements and articles that flesh out a sketchy summary of who they are and where they came from.

Financial checks

Next do some basic financial checking. Read their prospectus, look up their Annual Reports, and see how they are evaluated by financial reporting sources. Would you buy stock in this company? What are their assets, how secure are they? Which departments are doing well, which ones are struggling? Any information about possible mergers, purchases, layoffs, or expansion plans gives you a better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Make that call

The phone is a valuable tool that gives you information while you get to stay anonymous. Pretend to be interested in talking to the CEO; you won’t get him, but you’ll chat with a lot of secretaries on your way from the switchboard to his office. Be friendly, make some small talk, see what you can find out about the top levels and their accessibility. Leave a fake name but no number; just say you’ll try again later.

Compile a list of who’s who in your prospective department and Human Resources as well. You can say you need names and titles for a mailing list, if that gets you the access you need. While you’re getting referred from department to department, try to be as chatty as possible; remember that what you’re really after is information.

Follow up on any openings. If the secretary comments that a certain department head is on an extended leave, ask a few casual questions: “I hope they aren’t ill,” or “Who’s handling her work while she’s out? I bet they’re overloaded.” One or two good conversations with a bored receptionist can tell you volumes. Try calling at lunchtime, when a replacement is likely to be covering the phones; he or she may be less “loyal” and more willing to chat.

“Confide” in the HR receptionist; don’t tell them who you really are, but mention that you are thinking of applying at the company. If you’re friendly and sound a little nervous, she might help you out by giving some tips on who does the interviewing and how the process works. If not, don’t push; she’s probably busy and you may have caught her at a bad time. You can always call back.

Time to reflect

Next, take some time to sit back and assess what you’ve learned. Are their any gaps? Have you put together a pretty clear picture, or do you still have questions? There may be a lot of general information, but if the specifics about “your” job or department are still missing, it’s time for a final step.

Step out of the shadows

Up until now, your campaign tactics have kept you anonymous. Now, however, it’s time for direct contact. Send a letter to one or two department heads or vice-presidents in the field you’re interested in. Without mentioning any specific openings, say that you’re interested in the company and would like an appointment to talk about what’s happening in his area.

This kind of meeting is usually easy to arrange. It can lead directly to a job offer, or an invitation to future interviews; however, that’s not your primary goal. Here’s your opportunity to fill those gaps in your working knowledge of the company.

Without being too direct, try to steer your conversation into your areas of interest. Most people love to talk about their work and their involvement in office politics; be a sympathetic listener. You know enough about the organization by now to ask the right questions; use all that information to find out what you want to know. You can also use this meeting to get to talk to other company employees; ask for introductions if none are offered. The more people you’ve met, the better off you are.

Return to your resume

The campaign is over; now you need to put the information you’ve gathered to good use. Rewrite your resume, aiming it at the specific needs or preferences you’ve uncovered. Stress those areas of expertise that match up with weaknesses in their current personnel; and if you’ve uncovered any sensitive areas, don’t go there.
Your cover letter can now be directed towards a specific person, maybe even someone you’ve already talked to. Write to them, refer to your meeting, if any, and keep it as specific as possible.


Finally, when you get to the interview, you are in a great position. Use your knowledge to ask relevant questions and to give the impression that you will be a real asset to the company. Anything you’ve learned in your meetings or your phone chats can be brought out here; show the interviewer that you’re sympathetic to the organization’s problems and needs.

Your research has taken a lot of time and energy, but the results are well worth it. By taking the initiative, you’ve greatly improved your overall chances of getting hired. Just because you know what you’re talking about, you have a clear advantage over the other, uninformed job seekers who will be knocking on the same corporate door.


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