Monday, June 6, 2011

the secret to standing out in the interview process

In the last 9 months, I have gone to about 8 interviews. Of those, I received offers from 6 of those places, one of which was offered to me on the spot following my interview.

Not to toot my own horn here, but toot toot! I tend to excel at interviews. A lot of people ask me for advice when it comes to interviewing, but it is very, very simple.

There are three main components that enable you to get the internships/jobs/positions you want.

1. A good resume (this is what gets you that interview)
2. A good cover letter (essentially, an elevator pitch in written form)
3. The interview

For me personally, I've spent a lot of time and energy crafting a very thorough and professional resume. I've had scores of business professionals look it over and rip it apart, until I believe it's in the best shape it can be. This was really important for me, because so far, my experience hasn't been totally relevant for the positions I've been applying for (mostly financial internships).

I needed my resume to look the best it could so that I could get a second look. The average HR person really only spends somewhere between 10-30 seconds looking at your resume. You have to make sure you make a good impression on paper in that short of a time.

In general, I feel that I can articulate myself well on paper, so the cover letter is essentially a summary of my background, experience, and why I think the company would value me. I know, pretty standard.

In the interview process, I think I've really hit on a winning combination. My ratio of interviews to offered positions is abnormally high, so I would like to think that it gives my theory some sort of validation! (Try it out for yourselves and let me know how it goes.)

First and foremost, you need to be competent for the position you're applying for. You can't fake talent. Let's just get that out of the way. But even if you have just an average level of competency in the skills required for the position, you can still stand out by simply having a lot of humble confidence. What I mean by humble confidence is this: have a firm handshake, look them in their eyes, speak clearly and confidently, but with a smile and a keen interest in your interviewer as a person. I cannot stress the last point enough.

In a corporate setting, people have to wear suits and sit at a desk and act professionally, all day long. They work with coworkers, not their girlfriends (or bros). They can't just talk about anything they want to; their talk revolves around the company and the job. Furthermore, hiring managers have to hear people talk about themselves and the company in interview after interview. It is very rare that interviewees will turn the table around and ask questions to get to know the interviewer. The simple connection on a human, personal level seems almost intimate given what they're accustomed to. In the workplace, individuality is stifled. By astutely perceiving what they're passionate about and politely inquiring further, they feel like you see them as a whole person. It's acknowledging that who they are is so much more than just their job.

That's what makes you stand out. Establishing a personal connection with your interviewer is invaluable! It's refreshing for them. Sure, some people receive offers because technically, they're simply smarter and more experienced. To be transparent, my GPA isn't all that great. I know that there are candidates who are much more qualified for positions than I am. But I'm still getting job offers. It's much easier to make a personal connection than to ensure that you are the best qualified of all the candidates, since you don't know who else is applying. But by assuming that you are average, it's easy to believe that you probably aren't the smartest/best qualified.

Another component that I think is as almost as great of importance is showing initiative. I talk about The Storybook Ending, and how it came to be. I talk about this blog. I talk about EPICONOMICS, which is a 3-part seminar series on personal finance tailored for college students that I concocted because I wanted to help my friends understand their money. Just show that you're capable of self-motivation, however it looks like. It could be hosting dinners every week to try out new gourmet recipes. It could be starting a YouTube channel to showcase your musical ability. These are your natural passions, so you will naturally begin to get excited when you share about what you've done. Once you see your interviewer as a complete person, they start to view you as one, too. Their job is simply one facet to their lives, so that's how they think about you, too. You don't need to be the most qualified candidate. Just give them something to show how you fulfill the necessary requirements, and your natural passion for your hobbies will convince them that you'll be a highly motivated worker.

It is amazing to me how underrated personal connections are in the corporate world. This is not to be confused with networking which is, in general, an over abused process which doesn't bring to mind much depth. By contrast, when you begin to treat a person like they're of immense worth, it's met with curiosity and respect. And they will remember you for it.

One of my favorite stories:

During my second year of college, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I breezed through the questions until I read the last one: What was the first name of the janitor that cleans the school?”

Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times, but how could I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank.

Before the class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our grade. “Absolutely,” the professor said. “In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.



  1. Sarah, did I ever tell you that you have the gift of writing? I loved the last story you shared too! :)

  2. Dang, I love that teacher! Can't believe I didn't know of this hidden gem til now!

  3. oh wow! that's amazing and so true! now i will make it a point to pay more attention to people i come across with. :)

    <3, Mimi