We actually want you to be honest.
I see too many job applicants who approach the interview as if their only goal is to win a job offer, losing sight of the fact that this can land them in the wrong job. Think of it like dating. This means being honest about your strengths and weaknesses and giving the hiring manager a glimpse of the real you, so he or she can make an informed decision about how well you'd do in the job.
We pay attention to the small stuff.
Frequently, I see candidates act as if only “official” contacts—like interviews and formal writing samples—count during the hiring process. They'll send flawless cover letters and then check up on their applications with sloppily written E-mails with spelling errors. Or they'll be charming and polite to me but rude to an assistant. I pay attention to how quickly a candidate responds to requests for writing samples and references, and even how fast he or she returns phone calls.
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We want you to ask questions.
I encounter many candidates who don't have many—or even any—questions when I ask what I can answer for them. Your interviewer wants to know that you're interested in the details of the job, the department, your prospective supervisor's management style, and the culture of the organization. Otherwise, you risk signaling that you're either not that interested or just haven't thought very much about it.
We'd like a thank-you note right away.
E-mail is fine for this and has the advantage of arriving faster, but handwritten notes are still appreciated (and are increasingly unusual so will stand out). And if there are multiple interviews, send a thank-you note each time.
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We're hoping for some enthusiasm.
Commonly, job seekers are too worried about looking desperate. It doesn't look desperate to express your interest in the job or check in to ask about the hiring timeline. However, enthusiasm does cross the line if you are calling more than once a week, calling earlier than the date they said they'd get back to you, sounding like you're eager to take any job as opposed to this one in particular, or appearing as if this is the only option you have.
We need to know your real weaknesses.
Claiming that your biggest weakness is perfectionism and you work too hard is disingenuous. It looks like you're avoiding the question. Candidates who can't or won't come up with a realistic assessment of areas where they could improve make me think they're lacking in insight and self-awareness—or, at a minimum, just making it impossible to have a real discussion of their potential fitness for the job. I want to know about your weaknesses not because I'm trying to trip you up, but because I genuinely care about making sure you're a good fit for the job.
You should address being overqualified in your cover letter.
If you don't acknowledge it, we're afraid that you'll be bored, that you don't understand the position, that the salary will be too low for you. We need to hear things like: “At this stage in my career, having a job I enjoy is more important to me than salary. I have no problem earning less than I have in the past.” Or, “I want to move into this field, and I know that I need to start at a lower level in order to do that.” Or, “I wouldn't take a job I'm not excited about.”
Your resume objective usually hurts you.
Your resume gets tossed when it lists an objective totally unrelated to the position I have open. Really, just get rid of the objective altogether. It rarely helps, often hurts, and always takes up valuable real estate that could be better used to showcase your accomplishments. If you want to talk about your career objective and how this position fits it, use the cover letter for that.
The phone interview is not a casual chat.
While the interviewer wants to get a sense of your personality, a phone interview is still an interview, not an informal phone call with a friend. Don't sound stiff, but don't use the same tone you'd use to talk about your date last night. I've phone-interviewed candidates who I'm pretty sure were lounging on the couch, watching the game with the sound down, and snacking while we talked.
You shouldn't count on our job offer.
Whatever you do, don't let up on your job search, no matter how confident you are that an offer is coming. Things change; other candidates come along; plans for the position evolve or even get canceled. Until you have a firm offer in hand, you have to proceed as if you don't, since ultimately you can control only your side of the process—so keep setting up those other interviews.
We may check references beyond your list.
Simply not listing that person as a reference isn't enough; Reference-checkers can call anyone you've worked for or who might know you, even if they aren't on the list you provide. In fact, smart reference-checkers will make a point of calling people not on your list, because presumably you've only listed the people most likely to present you in the best light.
We don't like being stalked.
When you're searching for a job, enthusiasm is a good thing. But some job applicants cross the line from enthusiastic and proactive to obnoxiously aggressive—and, in doing so, kill their chances at a job offer. You have crossed the line if you are doing any of the following: Checking on the status of your application daily; calling and hanging up when you get voice mail, over and over; cold-calling numerous employees in the same company.
Some of us actually care about candidates.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from job seekers who write to me at Ask a Manager is about companies that don't respond to job applicants: no rejection, nothing. Personally, I think it's inexcusable—throughout the hiring process, but particularly after a company has engaged with an applicant in some way, like a phone interview or an in-person interview. It's callous and dismissive and lacks any appreciation for the fact that the candidate is anxiously waiting to hear an answer—any answer—and keeps waiting and waiting, long after a decision has been made.
You can gain an edge with your cover letter.
Individualize. Yes, it takes a lot longer than sending out the same form letter over and over, but a well-written cover letter that's obviously individualized to a specific opening is going to open doors when your resume alone might not have. These account for such a tiny fraction of applications that you'll stand out and immediately go to the top of my pile. And I'll give you an extra look, even if your resume isn't stellar.
You can be too early to the interview.
Many interviewers are annoyed when candidates show up more than five or ten minutes early, since they may feel obligated to interrupt what they're doing and go out to greet the person, and some (like me) feel vaguely guilty leaving someone sitting in their reception area that long. Aim to walk in five minutes early, but no more than that.
You can leave the subjective descriptions off the resume.
Your resume is for experience and accomplishments only. It's not the place for subjective traits, like “great leadership skills” or “creative innovator.” I ignore anything subjective that an applicant writes about herself, because so many people's self-assessments are wildly inaccurate and I don't yet know enough about the candidate to have any idea if hers is reliable or not.
Your resume should answer one key question.
The vast majority of resumes I see read like a series of job descriptions, listing duties and responsibilities at each position the job applicant has held. But resumes that stand out do something very different. For each position, they answer the question: What did you accomplish in this job that someone else wouldn't have?
New grads need work experience.
I receive all too many resumes from recent grads who have literally no work experience: nothing, not internships, not temp jobs, nothing at all. Find a way to get actual work experience before you leave school. Do internships every semester you are able, so that you have experience on your resume. Paid, unpaid, whatever it takes. If a part-time job of a few hours a week is all you have time for outside of your classes, that's fine. Do that. No one will hire you? Find work experience as a volunteer—that counts too.
We think a lot about your personality.
You might not get hired because your working style would clash with the people you'd be working with. Often, one personality type will simply fit better into a department than another will, and that's the kind of thing that's very difficult (if not impossible) for a candidate to know. Remember, it's not just a question of whether you have the skills to do the job, it's also a question of fit for this particular position, with this particular boss, in this particular culture, in this particular company.
We want you to talk in interviews, but be concise.
There's always at least one otherwise-qualified candidate in any hiring round who kills their chances by being too long-winded. You might think, “Well, some people are long-winded, but it doesn't mean he wouldn't do a good job.” The problem is that, at a minimum, it signals that you're not good at picking up on conversational cues, and raises doubts about your ability to organize your thoughts and convey needed information quickly.
Be honest in interviews, but don't spill about a bad boss.
You're far better off explaining that you're looking for new challenges, excited about this particular opportunity, taking the time to find something right, and so forth. I'm not crazy about advising someone to be anything less than forthright, and I don't normally recommend it, but in this area, the potential for giving an employer an bad impression is just too great to do it safely.