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The Top 10 Ways Companies Conduct Interviews

From weeding you out to making you sweat

By Ron Johnson and Joe Schall

In his acting roles as Joel Goodson and Mitch McDeere, Tom Cruise has encountered the spectrum of interview challenges. On one end is his ill-timed screening interview during a raucous party in "Risky Business" (which ironically lands him an acceptance to Princeton); on the other end are the manipulative interview tactics he succumbs to as a Harvard graduate in "The Firm," where he unknowingly and almost literally signs his life away. No matter what type of job you are interviewing for, schooling yourself in the ten most common interviewing styles will help you to "cruise" right through the process and land that coveted job.

1 Screening: The Great Weed-Out

Screening interviews are usually the first type of interview you will encounter. They are usually short, in-person interviews that take place on site at your college or at a career fair, but at times can even take place over the phone. Many companies use this technique to quickly dispose of lesser candidates and to find viable applicants that they would like to schedule for a more extensive interview. Screening interviews usually result in a quick decisions to either send your resume into the trashcan or to ask you for an on-site interview.

Success Keys: Keep in mind that this type of interview is just a preliminary screening. Your goal should be to get past this initial step and move onto the "real" interview. During a screening you will not have much time to sell yourself or ask specific questions about the position, so it is imperative that you answer questions in a focused, concise manner. Make sure your responses highlight your basic qualifications and what you have to offer the company. Have a professional resume ready to hand over as evidence of your achievements.

Although you probably won't have time to ask too many questions, take advantage of any homework you have done on the company in order to show that you're a knowledgeable, competent candidate. The questions you do ask should establish your interest in the position and probe for more information. For example you could ask the interviewer, "What kind of projects would I be involved in?" or "What would a typical career path be for someone with my background?" Remember to make notes after the screening interview-they will come in handy for helping you prepare for an on-site interview.

2 The Standard One-on-One: It's Just You and Me, Kid

A screening recruiter, human resource person or direct hiring manager typically conducts this type of interview, and it is probably the most common onsite interview approach. Typically this interview lasts about 30-60 minutes and starts with a broad range of questions and then moves to questions that are specific to the particular position.

Success Keys: Handle this style of interview by trying to build rapport with the interviewer. Integrate your knowledge of the company into your answers. It will be helpful to prepare ahead of time for broad interview questions such as the old stand-by, "Tell me about yourself." During the interview you should highlight your background and skills and how they will benefit the position and the company. But remember that this is your opportunity to find out more about the position and the company too-so don't be afraid to ask the interviewer questions.

3 Employer Team: There's Strength in Numbers

The employer team style of interviewing, where numerous people from the company will interview you simultaneously, is growing in popularity. Upon completion of the interview, the group as a whole will decide if you are to move onto the next interview level, are offered a position or sent a letter rejecting you from the position. During this type of interview, the interviewers are looking at how well you can manage stress during a complex communication situation.

Success Keys: Keep in mind that this type of interview allows those who favor you to outvote those who do not, and vice-versa. Therefore, you must attempt to win over everyone. Many times one individual will dominate the questioning, but you should still respond to everyone. Remember to make direct eye contact with everyone present-not just with the person asking you questions. Prepare for questions as you would for a one-on-one interview; you should expect broad questions and remember to educate yourself beforehand with plenty of company-specific information.

4 Candidate Group: Working With the Competition

Another interesting twist on team interviewing is where one interviewer or a team of interviewers brings you and several other candidates in for an interview simultaneously. Questions are then posed to the entire group. This is a way to assess each individual, but also allows an interviewer to find out which candidate exhibits leadership and inspires team effort.

Success Keys: Most companies are looking for an employee who is a take-charge leader but who is also able to work with a team. While these goals may seem incongruent at first, they are not. True leaders will always communicate in a manner that includes others. During this type of interview your goal is to actively participate with your own ideas and integrate the ideas of others in the group as well. During your research, look for clues to company culture and how the company uses teams, and emulate that model during the interview.

5 Case: The Real World, Comin' at Ya

This is a popular interview method favored by Fortune 500 firms, especially for those at the master's level. During the interview, you are given a real-world case-a set of circumstances surrounding a particular work problem-to read and analyze. For example, in manufacturing you might have a case that would require you to discuss product development or work efficiency. You may be given anywhere from just a few minutes to overnight to prepare your response. After you respond, the interviewer will usually ask you questions to assess your ability to quickly comprehend relevant materials and communicate them effectively.

Success Keys: Cases are meant to be complex and difficult to penetrate, therefore, you are not required to know every answer to a case. The interviewer is simply attempting to assess whether you can quickly process information and apply some of the concepts you have learned during your education to the workplace. Always cite relevant concepts or examples from your past classes, jobs or extracurricular experiences, and remember that how you communicate is just as important as the content.

6 Presentation: Can You Think on Your Feet?

In this interviewing style, you are typically requested to prepare a 10-20 minute presentation and deliver it to a team of interviewers. A company will usually ask you to give this talk based on one of three scenarios:

In the first scenario you are assigned an issue to discuss. The interviewers might ask you to speak about the company in general, to conduct a product review, to analyze a market or discuss a soft skills issue.

The second scenario allows you to choose your own topic. You should select a topic that reflects your expertise and relates directly to a company interest.
In the third scenario you will have to discuss your job qualifications-in effect, to present a commercial about yourself. A presentation interview is typically planned days or weeks before a site visit, but you may be given such an assignment on the spot with little preparation time.

Success Keys: If a topic is assigned ahead of time, you will have an opportunity to research and prepare. Make sure your presentation has plenty of concrete points and back them up with examples based on research.

A topic of your choice should have some connection to the work done at that particular company. For example, you could choose the importance of customer service or how quality control is monitored at the company based on your review of their literature. The presentation should also include information about your experience and education tied to the stated company goals.

If you're simply asked to present your job qualifications, try to summarize your education, relevant work experience and match your background and future goals with the company and the position.

Your approach to this can be somewhat creative and entertaining, but it must principally be professional and informative.

If you're assigned a topic on the spot, the focus will usually be something general. Always use a standard presentation format-an introduction, two or three key points and a conclusion. Keep in mind that the company might judge your presentation skills partly by how well you manage the related technology. Make sure you can use an overhead, computer software and computer hardware competently. For a presentation assigned ahead of time, remember to come prepared with backup transparencies just in case a computer hardware problem occurs.

7 Behavioral: What's in Your Past?

This type of interview tends to focus almost entirely on questions relating to what you have done in the past. The assumption is that your past behavior in response to complex challenges will provide an example of how you might behave in the future. Instead of general questions about goals or strengths, you might be asked about how you met specific challenges in past jobs or classes.

Typically, a behavioral question goes something such as, "Tell me about a time you faced and overcame adversity," or "Describe a time you used your communication skills to resolve a problem." You might even be faced with a more challenging question like, "Tell me about how you've coped with a failure in your life."

Success Keys: Remember that underneath the questions the interviewers are trying to figure out how your past behavior will mirror your future actions. Thus, the concern is really about how you might impact the company, not about the quality of your past. Therefore, you must answer questions in a way that is both specific to your past and makes a direct connection to the company's future. For instance, you might open your answer by acknowledging that you know the company values a team approach to solving problems, then recall a time when a student organization you were in successfully managed a team approach.

8 Situational/Assessment: What Would You Do If . . .?

For some interviewers, assessing how a candidate reacts to actual or hypothetical situations helps determine whether or not they are the proper fit for the position. For entry-level jobs, this type of interviewing strategy may include questions such as, "Your supervisor tells you to do something you know will be bad for the company, what do you do?"

Another form of situational interviewing, usually used for mid- to upper-level management but sometimes used for recent graduates, involves the use of corporate assessment centers. Assessment centers provide an in-depth analysis of a candidate's potential through a battery of psychological instruments.

Candidates may also be asked to give presentations, role-play particular job situations and interview with several individuals using a range of interview tactics.

Success Keys: During role-playing or presentations, you may need more information from the interviewers in order to respond appropriately. If possible, prepare yourself by asking questions in to make sure you have enough information. Also, remember that even though the approach of using hypothetical questions or role-playing scenarios may seem a bit silly, you must respond in a serious, mature, professional manner. The interviewer is undoubtedly serious and may even assess your physical reactions to the questions.

This type of interview is really testing your knowledge and support for the best interests of the company. Find out ahead of time what traits the company values and gauge your responses to reflect those traits. A big issue for many new hires, especially younger ones, is a misunderstanding of their relationship with their direct supervisor. Can you show support for the company and the boss even when the situation becomes difficult or confusing? In your response to the scenarios, remember to balance your own convictions with the possible outcomes for the company.

9 Multiple Levels: Time to Play Musical Chairs

This interview approach typically takes place at a site visit where you interview with employees at several levels in the company. You may interview with lower-level administrative staff, individuals that you might work with directly and senior managers. This interview style is a great way for a company to test how well you would work with (and get along with) people from a broad range of levels within the company.

Success Keys: All previously discussed interview success keys apply in this situation, plus a few others. It is critical to remember that a poor interview with any of the people you meet with can knock you out of consideration. Give each interview your best effort, showing just as much respect for all the employees regardless of their level in the company. Administrative support staff members are typically concerned with how you approach working with people under you, and they will likely have a different perspective on company operations than the management.

The people you will be working with will typically want to discuss job specifics-they may outline day-to-day duties and expectations. They will attempt to discover if you're likely to accept staff input and see your coworkers as valuable partners.

Senior managers will analyze your ability to fit into the big picture at the company. Do you understand the company's mission and will you fit into the company's culture? Frame your answers with the interviewers' individual roles in mind, and be prepared to ask questions, especially of the lower-level staff and your peers who might be eager to share an "insider" perspective.

10 Stress: How's Your Anti-Perspirant Holding Up?

This can be one of the most disconcerting interview approaches. The "stress" interview is when one or more interviewers bombard you with questions that not only challenge you mentally but personally. This stress test is designed to see what you're really made of and how you react under pressure. When two individuals do this type of interview, it may even resemble the good-cop/bad-cop routine, where one party seems to be taking your side while another challenges you. Remember, the interviewers have nothing against you personally-they are simply trying to see if you have what it takes to perform well on the job.

Companies hiring for positions of great responsibility where the individual's mettle is tested on a daily basis, typically take this approach.

Success Keys: First recognize this for what it is-a test-and do whatever you can to maintain your poise. The second you lose your composure you are probably finished as a potential employee. Answer honestly and don't let the interviewers put words into your mouth. For instance, if an interviewer suggests you didn't really accomplish what you said you did, simply reiterate your accomplishment and move on. Treat each question seriously even if they seem a bit strange. In addition, pay attention to your own body language. Don't take an aggressive posture just because the interviewer is doing so. Sit still, don't fiddle with anything, exude a relaxed but focused attitude and look them right in the eye.

Ron Johnson teaches leadership and communication in Penn State's College of Engineering and Smeal College of Business Administration. Joe Schall teaches professional writing in Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.


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