A good job interview starts long before you're face to face

By now, there probably isn't a church mouse in this country who doesn't know that it's important for a job candidate to maintain eye contact with the interviewer and to dress in a businesslike manner.

The considerable attention given to the job-hunting process - through adult-education courses, books, and the media - has upgraded the interviewing skills of applicants dramatically. Yet, despite these advances, there are still a number of mistakes made in job interviews, including:

Failing to do research about the company in advance of the interview. Interviewers often refer to activities the company is undertaking - whether establishing new manufacturing plants or offering new products or services. Much of this information is discussed in the company's annual report, if it is a publicly held company. All you need do to obtain a firm's annual report is call or write the company and request one.

In addition, valuable information about many public and private companies is available in directories in your local library. Libraries also maintain files of newspaper stories about prominent local companies.

An applicant who demonstrates knowledge of the company's activities is sending the message that he or she possesses initiative and is willing to work hard during the job-hunting process. Here again, the interviewer can safely assume that the individual will behave similarly toward his or her assignments in the position under discussion.

Not having questions prepared in advance. If there is one inevitability characterizing the job interview, it is that at a certain point you will be asked, ''Do you have any questions?'' Many applicants do not prepare for this by thinking of questions before the interview and writing them down so they can refer to them at the right moment. This serves two purposes:

* It reduces the risk of your leaving the interview and forgetting to ask a crucial question, the answer to which may influence your decision to accept.

* It enables you to communicate an important message to the interviewer: that you planned ahead for this important meeting by thoughtfully preparing pertinent questions. The interviewer will infer from your action what your work style will be - that you are well organized and possess good planning abilities. These skills reduce delays and errors in business, saving time and money. By having your questions written down in advance, you will reassure the interviewer that you can contribute to the company's profitability.

Failing to negotiate a higher salary than that included with the offer. This mistake often stems from an uneasiness people have in discussing the value of their services, as well as a limited understanding of the process by which salaries are established. This is unfortunate, since a higher salary is often achievable.

By the time an offer is extended to you, usually two or three people in the organization have decided that you are the most desirable candidate. What you should also realize is that job titles usually have salary ranges, not specific single figures, and companies try to hire applicants in the bottom third of the range. So employers do have the latitude to raise job offers and will often do just that if it will induce you to accept.

There is an interesting factor operating here, too: People will judge you according to the way you show you value yourself. By asking for an improvement in the salary, you will be showing that you place a high value on yourself. This will validate the company's good judgment in making you the offer in the first place and will often make them even more eager to win you as an employee.

Not sending a thank-you note. Virtually every time I have suggested to a client that he or she send a thank-you note, I have been met with a look of surprise (one man even said it was a ''sissyish'' idea). I like to explain the importance of the thank-you note by hypothesizing two applicants who are identical in every way - appearance, credentials, responses to interview questons - except that one of the two follows up the interview with a thank-you note. If you were the employer, which applicant would you hire? You would probably choose the courteous applicant.

The key point is that you should think of ways to distinguish yourself from your competitors. Because it is a relatively rare gesture, a thank-you note will accomplish this objective. It will also allow you to state formally why you believe you're the best candidate, as well as mention some important information supporting your candidacy - information you may have omitted during the interview.

The spines of even the most seasoned job applicants are chilled by the prospect of the interview, because so much rides on its outcome. In fact, even interviewers find the event a bit nerve-racking. After all, their hiring decisions could have a significant effect on the company's profitability and will reflect on the interviewer's judgment - and, consequently, his or her standing in the company. By thoroughly preparing yourself for the interview, not only will you be making it easy for yourself (who doesn't feel more confident and relaxed when well prepared?), you'll also be making it easy for the interviewer - to decide on you as the best choice.

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