Help me improve my interview skills.
July 30, 2007 1:03 AM   Subscribe

Help me improve my interview skills so I have a better shot at getting an internship this year.

I know that I'm very well qualified, but this past year it just seemed like I couldn't get a internship. It doesn't help that many less-qualified people I know seemed to have gotten them. I am an engineering (chemical, specifically) student at a top engineering school, and I will be a junior this year. I have a high GPA. I am talented in areas other than engineering. I have leadership experience like whoa and a long history of community service.

However, I cannot seem to get this across in an interview, mostly because I stumble on a few questions. And I really do need an internship this year if I have any hope of getting hired for real, because I don't have time to do academic research or anything like that during the school year.

My biggest problems usually come with questions having to do with weaknesses, risks and failures. I don't really understand what they're trying to get at with the weaknesses question. I've been told that you're actually supposed to give a strength disguised as a weakness, but I have trouble thinking of things like that. My real weaknesses include being socially awkward and things of that ilk. How am I supposed to come up with things that don't make me sound like an antisocial freak? One I've come up with is "I love to challenge myself, so I sometimes wind up taking on too much." That's about it, though.

I can't really think of very many risks I've taken. I don't like taking risks and try to avoid them as much as possible. Also, I have a hard time thinking of failures. I don't want to come across as arrogant, but I really cannot think of any major failures in my life. The only failure in recent memory was nearly failing my first math exam freshman year. I've not really had any major life-messups nor failure to complete projects or assignments.

I know that none of you know me or anything about my personality, so I am asking for ways I could think of this stuff or even examples that you would use in an interview of your own.

Any resources, such as your favorite books or websites, would be greatly appreciated.
posted by liesbyomission to Work & Money (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The weakness question *is* horrible but actually there's a very simple way to answer it. Don't go for 'I'm no competitive' or 'sometimes I work too hard' - these are still weaknesses, and they'll think you're lying, or obsessed. Simply mention a fairly benign (work) problem you used to have and how you solved it. Some examples:

"I used to have a problem with time management, but I went on a very useful course which taught me how to write down how long everything was taking me and set deadlines and now I'm really good at organising my time."

"I used to e-mail people instead of talking to them face to face so I made a point of thinking 'is this email really necessary?' each time I began to write one. I found that at least half my e-mails weren't necessary, I talked to colleagues a lot more, it saved time, and my communication skills really improved."

In short, mention the weakness briefly, belabour the improvement, and they'll come away with a positive impression.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:32 AM on July 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

The failure question isn't meant to see where you've really screwed up in life and judge your percent success rate. The question is about how you handled it. Did you lock yourself in your room sobbing for days when you failed that match exam? Or did take a makeup exam, learn how to go to office hours, change your study habits, etc... Failing a math exam is a perfectly valid anecdote to answer that question with -- you don't need to have a "major failure" like failing out or being arrested or anything -- but make sure you have the "... and this is how it was all okay" ready to go, because that's the part that matters.

Similarly, the "risks" question isn't your opportunity to impress them with your skydiving hobby or anything -- it's for them to see how you handle uncertain situations. If you avoid risks like crazy, this is particularly important for you to find a good answer for. As an intern, they won't give you lots of rope to hang yourself with, but when you're interviewing for full-time positions next year you need to come up with something because real people with real jobs will have to take real risks. Turn this into another opportunity to highlight your positive qualities -- maybe you say how you've changed the way you handle risk and uncertainty over time, or that you're still learning from a particular experience. Maybe you see something about the internship you're interviewing for that will give you an opportunity to take a risk/deal with uncertainty/grow in some fashion.

Do you have any sort of career counselor at your school who would be helpful to you? It sounds like your primary issue is not a lack of information with which to answer the questions, but rather understanding why they're asking the questions they're asking. It might be good for you to sit down with someone with hiring experience willing to go through a "mock interview" with you -- maybe this is a career counselor, or a family member in the business world. But find someone and bang out a few ready-made answers, then learn how to make them sound thoughtful instead of overly rehearsed. But you do need to practice this.

Good luck!
posted by olinerd at 4:00 AM on July 30, 2007

Ditto everything olinerd said. I conduct interviews and I can assure you we all roll our eyes at the 'strength disguised as weakness' answer. Giving a real weakness and how you coped (or cope) with it is much better.

Also, one thing I've noticed far too many people doing: using 'you' instead of 'I'. What I mean is that I'll ask for an example of how they handled something in the past and they start saying "well, you just put a plan together..." Keep the focus on yourself and things you've actually done. 'I did this,' 'I said', etc.

The mock interview is an excellent way to prepare.
posted by mattholomew at 4:55 AM on July 30, 2007

Having interviewed lots of people, and PLENTY of interns/recent college grads, I can tell you the most common mistake younger people make is thinking that they're on an equal playing field with the interviewer, and that they're there to interview each other. When you have more experience and a job you already like, that's definitely the case, but at this stage in your career, you are unknown, unproven, and unseasoned. This is not your chance to ask questions about flex time or working from home or signing bonuses or healthcare plans. Ask all those questions AFTER you get the offer and then decide if you want to work there.

Essentially, you need this summer of experience a lot more than the hiring manager needs some dope following them around taking up their time with dumb questions all summer. (This is not my thinking, but it's often the thinking of the usually inexperienced manager forced into interns as a way to increase their management skills.) The best interview answers will show this person that you l don't need to be babysat, that you know how to work hard, and that nothing is beneath your attention.
posted by pomegranate at 6:27 AM on July 30, 2007

Wow, there were lots of typos and dangling prepositions in my earlier post. Shouldn't post pre-morning caffeine...

Anyway, I was thinking about a few more points. When I was interning (I'm also an engineer) I didn't really understand why the people I was working for were hiring interns. However, now I'm on the other side. It's important to understand exactly what you're being interviewed for:

1) Interns are profitable. Whatever they're paying you, they're billing you out at a much higher rate. You will make them money. They are not competing for you (as pomegranate says -- you need them, not vice-versa) and whoever they hire will make them that same amount of money. Prove to them that you will be fun to work with (smile! joke around a bit! be interested in the projects they show you!) and useful to them on a technical level.

2) Interns are for recruiting. Companies put their time and resources into interns to generate good will among you and your peers. Pitch something about what you're looking for eventually in a full-time job and how the position you're interviewing for will help prepare you for it -- and make sure you're saying something along the lines of what the company does.

3) Interns are for teaching employees to manage (also as pomegranate said). They're going to stick you under some young person they want to test out -- show yourself easy to manage and that you'll make them look good. Be independent, deadline-oriented, and willing to learn from your manager. Don't be needy or appear arrogant.

As I said earlier, they "why" of the interview questions is a lot more important than the "what". Practice!
posted by olinerd at 7:12 AM on July 30, 2007

My real weaknesses include being socially awkward and things of that ilk. How am I supposed to come up with things that don't make me sound like an antisocial freak?

I hire, so here's my insight into this question. Some of what I say is also gleaned from an HR course I took recently.

What employers are asking about when they ask about weakness -- even if they themselves don't know it -- is your level of self-knowledge. They want to see whether you know your own assets and liabilities, have a basic degree of confidence, and are able to rationally assess your own value and performance. They are on the lookout for people with overinflated egos, or who are uncritical of themselves, or who show that they don't take work seriously. This ties in with what pomegranate says: someone who says they really don't have any weaknesses would be a red flag to me that they can't acknowledge and combat weaknesses, and that they may be out of touch with themselves. You have said your weakness is being "socially awkward;" well, that is a workplace liability, and you need a plan to combat it. So try something like "I'm very focused on my work and I can be a bit on the shy and quiet side as I think about my projects. But I really enjoy being part of a team. For instance, at my last job, I volunteered for the event planning group so I could meet and interact with people outside my department."

In short: admit your real weakness, which you really do know, and have a solution at the ready that shows you can make a plan to solve your own problems.

How do you handle risks? Try "I'm not a seat-of-the-pants person; I'm cautious and I care about quality. I like to make sure all the groundwork is done before embarking on a project, and predict any pitfalls I can foresee. For instance, recently I took a trip to [place] where I'd never been before. I researched the air terminal layout and train maps ahead of time, and made arrangements for an orientation tour the first day." Something like that, that shows that you handle risk by managing and minimizing it. Which it sounds like you do.

Tell me about a time you experienced failure and how you responded. "Because I'm planner and really feel better being prepared, I've been lucky not to encounter any major failures. However, freshman year, I nearly failed my first math exam. You can imagine how much that worried me, especially because my career field depended upon skill at math. So I looked at my study habits and time management, thought of some ways to adjust to the new environment of college, made an appointment with the professor, and improved my performance. On the next exam I got a 95."

Obviously I don't have the exact details of your life, but you see the trajectory. Just understand that your interviewers want to see good self-knowledge and problem-solving; that's why they ask about these low points. Let's face it: they also want to see how you'll handle a difficult question. If you get flustered and mumbly, they may not be confident that you'll be easy to manage in the workplace.

But it sounds to me as though you have plenty to work with. You might want to sit down and make a list of every project you've done in any setting, from school to scouts to volunteer to club activity to building your uncle's backyard shed, and see which ones can evolve into a good risk or failure story. In an interview you need to tell stories about yourself, specific illustrative examples. And though the stories need to be true, every story needs to have a happy ending - a problem solved, an achievement made, an improvement demonstrated. The employer is looking not only for your 'wins,' not for a list of bragging points, but for how well you understand, approach, and solve problems and how well you learn from them.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on July 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

There's a lot of good stuff upthread. Since you also asked for books, etc, I wanted to pass along a resource that has been useful to me: "The 250 Interview Questions You'll Most Likely Be Asked." It really covers the gamut of possible questions and sets the stage for how to answer them to your experiences. I think it sort of guides you through the process, but I've never done it step-by-step. I mostly just use it to figure out the types of questions I think will be asked and practice answering them. I'm sure there are a lot of web resources on interviewing as well, including this Metafilter post.

Also, practicing your answers is a good way to avoid stumbling in the future. I agree with olinerd's recommendation of a mock interview. Good luck :)
posted by ml98tu at 3:04 PM on July 30, 2007

Indeed, there's a load of good stuff upthread. In the end, I agree with most everything that's been said, but want to provide you with a few resources to take it to the next level.

1) You're an engineer, think about the interview dilemma just like you'd think of any other engineering problem - obviously it's how your mind works best. Think about the environment, the variables you can and cannot control and what actions you need to take to get the outcome you want.

2) Think more about the risks you've taken. If you don't feel like you've taken any risks, take some - make them calculated, but take some nonetheless. Doing so will also make your failure count go up which is a good thing. You'll learn from failing and have good interview banter to boot.

3) Practice, practice, practice. Chances are you've had enough experience to have a successful interview. Otherwise you wouldn't find yourself in one. You just need to practice more interview questions. This site has loads of interview questions - sorry there are a lot of sales-related questions there that you'll have to wade through but there are lots of relevant ones there too.

I think you'll find that after practicing a lot of questions, you tend to rely upon the same experiences to illustrate various things. When you start to enter this mindset, you're very close to being ready for any interview.

Hope this helps.
posted by stuboo at 7:23 PM on July 30, 2007

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