AS manager of recruitment for General Mills Inc., Jim Beirne interviews anywhere from 500 to 1,000 college students a year. The ones he remembers are the ones who make him remember them.
Take a job-seeker he spoke with a few weeks ago: In mid-interview, Mr. Beirne says, the candidate broke into: ''I'm on a Boo Berry mission. I have to have some Boo Berries. I've gone to four states and they were out.''
The company hasn't finalized its hiring decisions yet, but Beirne was so impressed he sent the candidate a box of the General Mills cereal.
''I thought that was a really good example of passion for our business and genuine enthusiasm,'' he says. ''It showed this person really cared and was interested in our products.''
Want to stand out in an interview? Do your homework, say career counselors and recruiters. ''Lack of preparation is a big turnoff,'' says Beirne, former head of placement at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
''Some people operate under some sort of belief that they will just go in and snow people,'' adds Celeste Baron, director of career management at Maryville University, St. Louis.
Preparation is everything because you're judged on everything - from what you say to how shiny your shoes are to whether you smile at the receptionist. ''I know someone who wasn't offered a position because he had a wild pair of socks on,'' Ms. Baron says. The company viewed him as a ''nonconformist'' who might not be a team player.
''It probably doesn't say the person isn't qualified,'' she says. ''What it does say is that on the day of an interview, if you can't pay attention to the most minute detail,'' what will you do every other day?
Experts give the following advice:
Research the company. For starters, find out everything you can about the organization: Read the annual report, talk with former interns or current employees, read newspaper articles, and check out a firm's Internet home page.
Some key facts to nail down: Size of the company in terms of sales and employees; location of all facilities; major products or services; key people in the company; major clients and competitors; and current stock price.
Research the job. Find out what specific skills the position requires. Then, identify occasions when you used those skills so you can give specific examples.
Being able to give specific examples is key because more firms are using ''behavior-based'' interviewing. This means interviewers no longer ask such questions as: What are your strengths and weaknesses? Instead, they want specifics that illustrate your talents.
''It's one thing to say, 'I'm creative. I'm a leader. I work well in teams,' '' Beirne says. It's another thing to show it. ''Examples of real-life work really stick in our minds,'' he adds.
Two key questions interviewers are bound to ask:
Why should we hire you? (Have three to five reasons that relate to the job requirements.)
Why do you want this job? (Don't say you're not sure. Instead, say what excites you about the position or company.)
Always ask questions. ''The questions you ask can be as important in the way you're evaluated as the answers you give,'' says Richard Fein, director of placement at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, School of Management. He recommends having five or six questions prepared. Several should be about the job itself - What are the prospects for advancement? Do you work in teams or individually? - and the rest should focus on the company or industry.
Forget about the money. Don't talk about salaries, benefits, and vacation unless the interviewer initiates it. You may come across as having a ''me-first attitude,'' Fein says.
Dress for success. You don't win points on how you dress, but you can lose points, career counselors say. For both sexes, the dark suit and starched white shirt or blouse still prevail. Even if the firm has a ''business-casual'' dress code, that's not a green light to pull out the khakis. Also, go light on jewelry and aftershave or perfume.
Watch your table manners. While at lunch or dinner, your host may tell you to relax - don't. You're still under observation, Fein warns. ''Think of the meal as an interview that has some food on the table.'' Don't order the most expensive item on the menu. Order something that's easy to eat and that you know you like.
Respect your competitors. Do not bad-mouth the candidates you are competing against. Look at them as future colleagues, Fein says. If the interviewer asks, ''I have so many good candidates, why should I hire you?'' say the competition is very talented, and then explain why you're qualified.
Write thank-you notes. If you're among the finalists, it could influence a decision in your favor. The purpose is to thank the interviewer for his or her time and to reiterate your interest in the job. Write one to everyone you interviewed with. It should be short and typed on your resume paper.
TIPS FOR MAKING A GOOD IMPRESSION
1. Arrive 15 minutes early.
2. Read company materials while you are waiting.
3. Know the name, title, and role of each person with whom you will interview.
4. With everyone you meet, introduce yourself by name, look people in the eye, and give a firm hand shake.
5. Bring a pad of paper and a pen with you at all times.
6. Identify a few top selling points about yourself.
7. Never bad-mouth anyone or anything, even if your host does.
8. Thank the interviewer.
9. Ask when you can expect to hear from the company.
10. Write a thank-you note to anyone with whom you have had an interview.