Nail the Interview! Even if You Think You Have No Experience.

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Picture courtesy: "Used with permission from Microsoft."

 Before the Interview.

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This series is specifically for those who are either new to the workforce or are returning to the workforce after having a significant period of time off. But even if you don’t fall into this category, you should find these tips for interviewing helpful all the same.

Okay, so you got the interview. Now what? Chances are pretty good that others are also interviewing for that same job, so you should just assume that the odds are not in your favor. But just because the odds aren't in your favor doesn't mean that you can’t beat them – even if you think the competition has more experience than you.

What do teenagers, college students, and stay-at-home parents all have in common? You've been fooled into thinking that you don’t have any (worthwhile) experience. This is a cruel psychological ploy by others who are competing with you for that same job to get you to doubt yourself. Don’t fall for it! You can ace the interview and this is how.

Think of the interview as a process for which you should start preparing NOW. Luck favors the prepared. Even if you don’t have an interview scheduled, you will eventually, so don’t wait to begin preparations until after you have one written on the calendar. There are many things you should do now to help you prepare for later.

The interview can be broken down into three main parts – Before, During, and After. Tackle each part individually. In this article, I’m going to explaining the first part of the process – what to do before the actual interview.

• Change your mindset. This first part is absolutely critical for anyone who is currently looking for a job, but especially so if you have little to no experience. Do you feel you fall into this category? Well that right there is your first problem! You need to understand that you do have experience; you just don’t know how to articulate it yet. Many teenagers, college students, and stay-at-home parents who are looking to enter the workforce make this same mistake. Now it’s time for you to correct that mistake. Your goal is to be able to talk about your experiences and relate them to the job.

• Identify Your Experiences. Too many people often mistake the meaning of the word “experience” by associating it with only what is considered “professional” experience. In reality, Merriam-Webster defines it as “skill or knowledge that you get by doing something.” Notice it does NOT say skill or knowledge that you get by working in an office. It’s time to identify your experiences. This is where you get out your notebook (or tablet for you tech-savvy folks) and start writing down your list of experiences. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that an experience is not “good enough.” Every experience counts and has value. List them all and save it. We’ll get back to this list later. For example, I’ve written some experiences below.

“Mowing the lawn”
“Babysitting”
“Football”
“Chorus”
“English Class”
“PTA Member”
“Budgeting”
“Scheduling”
“Cook”

• Do Your Research. What are the requirements of the job? You need to be able to explain how your experiences match the skill-set of the job during the interview. This is where you take out the list of experiences and write down the key words you see commonly used in the description of the job. This is important to know because as you review the job’s duties and responsibilities, it will allow you to match your experiences to them. Monster (http://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/recruiting-hiring-advice/job-descriptions/sample-job-descriptions.aspx) is a great site to visit for a list of sample job descriptions. Let’s say you’re interviewing for an Administrative Assistant position (you are just starting out after all!). According to the job description, the skills/qualifications desired are as follows:

*********Skills/Qualifications: Reporting Skills, Administrative Writing Skills, Microsoft Office Skills, Managing Processes, Organization, Analyzing Information , Professionalism, Problem Solving, Supply Management, Inventory Control, Verbal Communication***********

Take a look at the experiences you wrote down earlier. I guarantee you have had experiences that match up to this description. For example, I’m certain you've had to complete school assignments where you had to not only write reports, but also provide an oral presentation on your report to the class. For the stay-at-home parent who is also the Treasurer of your child’s band boosters club, don’t you have to present the treasurer’s report at every meeting? Here’s another example. Microsoft Office Skills. Students, I know for a fact you have had to use MS Word® (and most likely) PowerPoint® to complete school assignments. Stay-at-home-parents, perhaps you use MS Excel® to keep track of your household budget. These are just a couple of examples. I could keep going, but I’m writing a blog, not a book (for now). I hope you get the picture though. Remember, the goal is to come up with concrete examples of how your experiences match up with the skills that the hiring manager is looking for. For example,

“Babysitting = Problem Solving”
“Chorus = Professionalism, Teamwork”
“Booster Treasurer = Problem Solving, Verbal Communication”

• Time to Practice Your Answers. Now that you've matched your experiences with the skills needed to do the job, it’s time to practice for the interview. Yes, I said PRACTICE. Just because you managed to write down some experiences and skills doesn't mean you actually know how to articulate those experiences well to the hiring manager. Not to mention I’m a speech teacher, so what did you expect? You need to come up with some concrete examples that offer substance to your answers to the interview questions. This is what truly makes an excellent interview. For example, if the interviewer says to you, “Tell me about a problem you had to solve,” you need to have a concrete example ready. Don’t sit there with a blank look on your face as you ramble on about being a good problem solver when you have nothing to back it up. So, here’s how to avoid that blank look and rambling answer that will surely not get you the job. Take a look at your list and find an experience where you wrote the skill of problem-solving next to it. Why did you write problem-solving next to that particular experience? Is there an example you can think of that you can relate problem-solving directly to that experience? For example, here’s my answer to this interview question based on my list.

“I volunteer as treasurer for the chorus boosters club at my kids’ high school. The club decided to use a website that provides a way to publicly track not only the club’s finances, but each individual student’s finances also. This is especially important when the chorus is fundraising for a trip and each student is responsible for raising a certain amount of money. However, just like any computer program, unless you've used it for a while, you can run into problems. And that’s exactly what happened to me. I found that the balance I kept in the checkbook was not matching the balance I kept using the online program. I went over the expenses and deposits several times to make sure I didn't make an error, but still couldn’t figure out why the balances didn't match. As far as I could tell, I did everything correctly but I knew I somehow must’ve made a mistake. I needed to solve this before reporting the balances during the next meeting, but knew that the other officers knew even less than I did about this new program. And as the treasurer, I had a responsibility to get this right for the students and the parents. I can’t just guess how much a student needs to raise to be able to go on the spring trip. I found a contact on the website and called the organization directly and explained my problem. The staff was very helpful and actually went with me step-by-step over the data until we found the error. And as I suspected, it was my error. But I learned what caused the error and how to correctly input the data for the next time. I had all of the fundraising deposits correctly recorded in time for the meeting.”

Notice how I wrote out my answer completely? Does this mean I need to memorize my answer? Absolutely not! But it does give me an opportunity to come up with a good, concrete example that I can use to answer the interview question. It also gives me an opportunity to PRACTICE out loud how I would like to answer this question. This is the most important thing you can do to prepare for the interview. Provide specific examples to help support your answer to the questions and practice the answer out loud. If you can do this for every question, then I promise you will do great in your next interview. Start practicing now and write out answers to these common interview questions for teens (http://jobsearch.about.com/od/teenjobinterviews/qt/teeninterview.htm) by Alison Doyle, job search and employment expert, as well as these other common interview questions (http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2011/01/24/the-10-most-common-job-interview-questions) by U.S. News & World Report.

• Dress for Success. You don’t have an interview scheduled yet, so you haven’t bothered worrying about what you’re going to wear. So what right? What’s the big deal eh? Well, I’ll tell you the deal. What if you got a surprise phone call today for a job you applied for weeks ago and they want to see you at 8:00 am tomorrow morning? It would be such a shame to have to pass on an opportunity over something as stupid as not having an outfit to wear. Shame on you for allowing it to happen! And if another person can make it to the interview because they’re prepared and you’re not, then they deserve the job more than you do. Period. You should have at least one outfit hanging in your closet that you can put on at a moment’s notice to show up for an interview. Teenagers, college students, and stay-at-home parents are no exception. You will not be excused from the expectation of appearing professional at the interview just because of your age or station in life. I don’t care if you’re 16 and in high school, or if you’re a sophomore in college, or if you just gave birth to a baby. Do not show up to the interview looking slovenly and unkempt. Leave the excuses at home where they belong. You want the job? Then dress like it!

Now, it’s important to note that there are different expectations for what’s acceptable for teenagers versus the older folks. For the teens, you have many options to look professional, but still look your age (http://jobsearch.about.com/od/teenstudentgrad/ig/Interview-Attire/). Twenty-somethings, I hate to break it to you, but yes, you fall under the older folk’s category. After all, you are considered adults now. And for the adults, Jacquelyn Smith, writer for Forbes, has some very good examples of what you should and should not wear to the interview (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/06/20/how-to-dress-for-your-next-job-interview/). Just remember that in the end, choose something that’s age-appropriate as well as work-appropriate.

• Gain More Experience. Although now it should be clearer that you do have lots of experience you can draw upon in order to be able to provide good, concrete examples to help answer the interview questions, you should continue to gain even more experience. Here are some ideas on how to keep moving forward.

o Teachers. Your teachers are a great source when it comes to gaining new experiences! If you’re a student, ask if your teacher is currently working on any projects that you could volunteer to help with. You’d be surprised at how many teachers out there would jump at the chance of having an assistant! Perhaps you could help design or update a website, create a spreadsheet using Excel the teacher could use to more easily track grades, create and maintain a Twitter feed or Facebook page to send out class announcements and answer student questions.

o Network. It’s not too early to join the more professional social media sites like LinkedIn (http://linkedin.com/) or to start attending meetings at the Chamber of Commerce. Just remember your goal is to make professional contacts, but don’t treat this as a “do-for-me” scenario. Always have something to offer in networking situations. Again, find out if there are any projects that you could volunteer to help with. Even check with the Chamber to see if you could volunteer for it! Perhaps you could help out with the next big event. But once you make the offer, don’t get picky. I don’t care if they say you can help with clearing tables and taking out the trash. You thank them for the opportunity and happily do it. It’s a foot in the door and another opportunity for even more networking.

o Volunteer. Another great way to get more experience is through volunteering to help various nonprofit organizations in your area. In my area, United Way Hands On Savannah (HOS) connects volunteers with more than 200 organizations and schools in the Savannah area as well as its surrounding counties (http://www.handsonsavannah.org/). You can look up opportunities by agencies for a more long-term commitment or you can look up opportunities by events for a more short-term commitment. I guarantee there’s no better way to gain experience that you can match to specific job skills and qualifications than through volunteering for an organization or for a certain cause.

o Be a Leader. Finally, if you really want to make an impression, don’t just volunteer or join a club for the experience alone. If you’re still in school, compete for the lead in the school play or audition to be section leader in the band or the chorus. If you’re a parent, don’t just join the PTA or the boosters club. Be an officer or a part of an executive committee. Go beyond participation to just gain the experience. Be a leader and show that you are more than just a participant; you are not just a good fit for that job, but you are a good fit for that organization.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series that will cover what you should do During the Interview.
By Jennifer Furlong

Jennifer Furlong has 20+ years’ experience in the communication field and is a communication and public speaking lecturer at various colleges in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. in Communication with a focus on Public Relations and an M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her hubby, two teenagers, three dogs and two cats. You can read more of her work at her website http://www.communicationtwentyfourseven.com and follow her daily Tweets at @speechteach912 on Twitter.

 

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