Job interview tips
January 10, 2010 4:58 PM   Subscribe

Help me not bomb this job interview.

I have a job interview coming up this week. It's a low-level computer tech position with the USDA, and they are interviewing a number of other applicants.

I have very little interview experience. Is there anything common to federal job interviews I should know? Any general tips? Role-playing exercises to help me get into the right frame of mind? Are there any questions, such as "What's your biggest weakness?" that they will almost definitely ask?

(I know there's a long history of relevant threads, and I'm reading through them as well.)
posted by Number Used Once to Work & Money (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I think it is a good idea to flatly state how much you want the job.
posted by josher71 at 5:05 PM on January 10, 2010

Response by poster: I want the job with the burning passion of a thousand white-hot suns. This won't come off as desperation if mentioned?
posted by Number Used Once at 5:10 PM on January 10, 2010

Advice I got that was very useful:

1) Don't be coy about how much you want the job--let them know you really desire the position (if this is in fact true) and have a well thought out reason why;

2) Freely admit when you don't know the answer to something, or if there's anything they ask you about that you don't have actual on-the-job experience with. Be calm and forthright, rather than an anxious/evasive bullshitter

3) Go through whatever grooming rituals necessary to feel at your absolute top of your game (manicure, shoe shine, lucky sock garters, etc.). Do this even if you are not a high-maintenance person.
posted by availablelight at 5:11 PM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I want the job with the burning passion of a thousand white-hot suns. This won't come off as desperation if mentioned?

If the desire is specific to THAT job, as opposed to ANY job, no, it won't. (See #1 in my list)
posted by availablelight at 5:12 PM on January 10, 2010

I'm interested to hear people's advice on the "your greatest weakness" bugabear. I have no idea how to answer that question in a way that's neither overly truthful (and therefore offputting) nor obvious bullshit ("I'm just so good at things, sometimes it's a hardship!").
posted by threeants at 5:15 PM on January 10, 2010

A friend in a job club (I recently came off a long period of unemployment) had a great answer to "What's your greatest weakness?"
It's excellent - and you could say "chocolate" or "olives" or something else equally benign in this situation. It's excellent because it's funny - and will make the interviewer (and you) laugh - which means they relax, and you've just made a different connection to your interviewer.
As to other 'tough questions', do some googling, and then write down answers to those questions - if they can be stories that also tell more about you, great - but don't make them too long; a short paragraph or so should be enough.
The other way not to blow an interview is to simply answer the questions put to you, and when you're done answering - be quiet. Don't feel compelled to keep talking. I've had job candidates blurt out amazing things in those moments - things that eliminated them as a candidate.
Similarly,don't be afraid to take a moment to think before answering. Not every moment has to be filled with talking.
Also, take a pen, tablet (or notebook) and don't be afraid to take notes.
Be prepared for when they ask you if YOU have any questions - be sure to have some - it will show you've researched the position, and have thought about how you might contribute (if there are questions in that vein), and (IMO) that's how you show you want the job.
Remember to breath.
And the very best of luck to you!
posted by dbmcd at 5:24 PM on January 10, 2010 [9 favorites]

First, good luck with your interview!

As a 14 year HR manager, I could fill the page with interview do's, don'ts, and tales from the trenches- but I think you're going to receive plenty of helpful advice here. Let me offer up just one nugget, it happened to be the first that came to mind.

Ask questions. About the job and the company (or in this case, I guess, the gov't agency) and for heaven's sake, I don't mean ask about the pay, the benefits, and how soon you can take time off for that big trip you've been planning.

I mean questions that demonstrate a real interest in the place, the position- that show an awareness of where you are.

You WILL stand out.

Me: Okay, so we've covered your resume. You must have plenty of questions for me about the position in particular, or our company in general? Anything at all?

Deer in headlights: Uh. No. Uh, not really.

posted by GuffProof at 5:30 PM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

threeants, I think one way to balance the two approaches you mention is to 1) state an actual weakness that's relevant but not a deal breaker and 2) immediately after, give concrete examples of how you have compensated for this weakness. This shows both self-awareness and that you're proactive.

For instance, "I can sometimes get too focused on unimportant details, which can slow down my progress - to avoid this, I create personal deadlines for myself/use x, y, or z tool to keep the big picture in mind."
posted by Knicke at 5:32 PM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

While it wasn't for a government position, I spent all last week interviewing folks. Those that made the best impression were reasonably animated (as opposed to sitting absolutely still or waving their hands manically) and engaged.

When given a chance to ask their questions, the best question posed by an interviewee was "Now that you have had a chance to interview me, are there any reservations that you have about hiring me?". I was honest, and she addressed my concerns pretty well and has ended up being a top candidate.

I also had someone express how desperate they were for the job - it didn't over-ride some other issues, but it did push them ahead of those that didn't seem to care.

Always be well-groomed but dress appropriately. You want to be the best dressed person in the room but not so far ahead of the others that you look like you could never be comfortable in their work environment.

As for weaknesses, I generally don't ask that question, but when asked, I'll give things that can be a weakness if not properly managed, and then point out how I work to manage it. (ie. I tend to get caught up in details, but while I was completing my Master's I realized that there are times where done is better than perfect.)
posted by scrute at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

The right answer to the greatest weakness question is "over-attention to detail" or some such guff. Your failing must be something useful. Knicke pretty much nails it.

The bacon answer might be okay in these post-ironic days, but it might also mark you as at-risk of dying on the job from hypertension.
posted by scruss at 5:43 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do as much research as you can about the job in advance, including the people who will be interviewing you (if you can find that out.) That way, when you ask questions, you can target the questions and it will be very obvious that you're prepared and highly interested in the job.
posted by Happydaz at 5:59 PM on January 10, 2010

posted by jgirl at 6:03 PM on January 10, 2010

Richard Nelson Bolles publishes some very good resources for job seekers, including this short guide to interviewing. I love that all the questions that most interviewers ask you really boil down to 5 basic questions:
1. Why are you here? What is it about this place that attracted you?
2. What can you do for us? What do you have to contribute to what we do?
3. What distinguishes you from 19 other people who can do this same job?
4. Will you fit in? Will you get along with, or irritate, all my other employees?
5. Can I afford you? Never do salary negotiation until – in the second, or third interview – they have definitely said they want you. Always let the employer name a figure first.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:16 PM on January 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

Specifically about government positions (state or federal): Usually they are asking questions from a list of prepared questions. They will ask every candidate the same questions. If they ask you a question about something you think you already covered when answering a previous question, answer it again. It seems really annoying, but they have to ask you all the questions and they have to have answers to all of them. Its ok to say something like "like I discussed before" and then go on to say the same thing...but you have to say it again to have you answer applied to that question.

Yes, this is silly, but its good to know its coming so you aren't frazzled when it seems like they are looking for things you think you already covered.
posted by mjcon at 6:18 PM on January 10, 2010

Are there any questions, such as "What's your biggest weakness?" that they will almost definitely ask?

I don't know why everyone's trying to answer "What's your biggest weakness?" for the OP. I don't think the OP is asking for answers to that. The question is what questions are almost sure to be asked. "What's your biggest weakness?" is not one of them; people know how trite it is and how rare an honest answer is.

More likely questions are:

- Why do you want this job?

- Why do you want to live in this city? (if you don't already live there)

- What was your experience like / what did you learn at [job or school on your resume]?

- Do you have much experience in the kind of work we do? Why do you think you'd do a good job at it?
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:30 PM on January 10, 2010

Always let the employer name a figure first.

I completely disagree with this.

But I completely agree with the rest of Multicellular Exothermic's list.
posted by bwanabetty at 8:43 PM on January 10, 2010

I think the weakness questions need context. So here's how I'd answer honestly, usefully and contextually. It would probably take me about 90 seconds to 2 minutes to say this:

I use the term 'weakness' as a skill a needed for a particular job, that doesn't always come naturally, though I know it's important to get the work done. I also know when I ask this question of an interviewee, it's in the context of knowing how I as a supervisor or colleague can support them in their job.

In that context, as I've learned about the responsibilities of this job, I think my answer is 'making sure everyone's on the bus' - that is, that everyone understands and has bought into whatever goal we're trying to reach.

I enjoy taking brainstormed ideas and turning them into tangible plans, which is why this program planning job is so attractive. But there have been times when I've ended the brainstorming discussion prematurely, because I was concerned about our timeline, or the conversation felt 'done' to me, and it's always, always been a mistake. The brainstorming part is when people first buy into the vision and contribute, and every time I've failed to allow enough time and space for that conversation, I've had trouble implementing the plan every step of the way.

So now, at the start of a new project, I begin by sharing the goals and the timeline, and build in a set amount of 'brainstorming' time. And no matter how much I want to move to plan design during that brainstorming period, I don't as long as one person on the team has another idea to discuss.

I still feel that tension - and I probably always want to into the planning phase quickly, even though I intellectually I know those pre-planning discussions are important. That's why I would describe that tendency not so much as a weakness, as a period where I have to remain aware of this tendency, or I'll just speed ahead.

I've also found it useful when supervisors prompt me (when I'm reporting to them) with the question: 'And is everyone (still) on board?' If I was the selected candidate, I would find it helpful if you asked me this question as well. Because in the end, I know it's the best it way do my work efficiently and effectively.

And for me, this really is true. But I think it's true for a lot of people who like to plan, or at least, it becomes more noticeable when one considers that most people like to brainstorm ideas, but stall out when it comes to implementing them.

Is it TMI? Possibly. But as a job seeker, I actually want to know that if I truly understand the scope of the work responsibilities, and I'm self aware about my professional abilities, can self assess what support I need to get your job done - very well done, in fact - and ask you for what is seriously minimal but incredibly useful help, you're not going to ding me for that.

I think this is part of the basis of a supportive work environment.

So, in sum, I think at times it helps to pick an issue that is actually an issue, but only if you go further, and explain to me how you handle that issue in a way that isn't 'Well, I just suck at X' or an 'I took a class and now I'm the best at X in the group!' answer. If I am supervising you, I know there's some shortcoming somewhere, and you've saved me about 6 months of work if your response is more, "It's X, and here how I manage it, and why I know it's important, and here's how you can help (...not do it for me/carry me, but professionally support me as I manage it and get this job done so you can focus on your own work)."

But to do that, you really have to be able to assess in the interview what exactly the tasks are they want you to do, and be self aware about where you have issues. That can be tough. Which I think is why people default to answers that answer nothing.

Anyway, best of luck in your interview. Pick out some lucky socks and wear them!
posted by anitanita at 11:22 PM on January 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

A good idea is to early on state that you are nervous. Just smile and say "I'm a bit nervous" (this only works with young people and junior positions). This is both disarming and cuts you some slack. Good luck.
posted by mattoxic at 3:51 AM on January 11, 2010

A friend in a job club (I recently came off a long period of unemployment) had a great answer to "What's your greatest weakness?"
It's excellent - and you could say "chocolate" or "olives" or something else equally benign in this situation. It's excellent because it's funny - and will make the interviewer (and you) laugh - which means they relax, and you've just made a different connection to your interviewer.

Well.... This might work if he's never heard that schtick before. But as it has already reached The Office (UK version), it's quite possible that he has. Possible more than once.

Granted, it's a really stupid question, but going funny with it can be dicey. Try to have a serious answer ready in case the interviewer doesn't look to have a sense of humor
posted by IndigoJones at 7:24 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you don't know how to answer the "greatest weakness" and questions like it, go buy Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions. Despite the title, it's actually rammed with interviewing tips, from the colour of suit to wear to where you should look. Read it, and you'll be way better prepared.

For instance, threeants: "greatest weakness" doesn't mean "greatest weakness that you can't handle" -- it just means "weakness". The way to answer is to turn it into a positive by saying how you deal with it. So you can say something like "my greatest weakness is that I can be so focused on getting all the details right I can miss overall progress towards the larger goals. To handle this I schedule weekly meetings with my team so we can track our progress and co-ordinate our schedules".

(They also have to be tailored towards the job you're going for. That answer would be a bad idea for a strategic planning role where the big picture is vital, for instance, but you could flip it round.)
posted by bonaldi at 7:36 AM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I never ask the "greatest weakness" question, since it almost always produces BS answers like "I work too hard" or "I pay too much attention to detail". I usually ask "What was the biggest failure you had at your last job?", which forces the applicant to come up with a concrete example, and describe how they recovered and/or took steps to prevent it from happening again.
posted by benzenedream at 2:11 PM on January 13, 2010

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