What it really means when they ask ...

Your eyes meet as you enter a fluorescent-light-filled room. Palms start to sweat as the stranger behind the desk smiles and asks: "Why do you want to work for our company?"

That's just one of the Top 15 questions used by US employers to screen job candidates, according to Jobtrak.com, an employment Web site in Los Angeles.

But what, exactly, are they driving at? Basically, the same few details, expressed in different ways, says Ken Sproul, a Toronto-based career counselor and psychology professor who has helped thousands of job seekers over the past two decades. Mr. Sproul, who runs a career Web site (www.asktheinterviewcoach.com), tackled Jobtrak's 15 questions:

Tell me about yourself.

Interviewers form a fairly firm judgment about you within seconds. A good beginning puts the interviewer on your side and she is more likely to be forgiving if you encounter difficulties later. A bad first impression usually sticks. The key is to go to the interview with five or six selling points you want to emphasize about your experience, training, and personality strengths. Keep going until the interviewer wants to stop. It's not your interview; don't try to control it. Pause after each selling point and then continue if appropriate. Don't squander this question by simply reprising your resume.

Why do you want to work for us?

Discuss what you can bring to the success and prosperity of the organization, not about what you personally want from the association.

What do you know about us?

Your answer to this question reveals just how much you really want this job. There's no excuse for not researching the company using company reports, library services, or the Internet.

What unique qualities or abilities would you bring to the job?

You need to find an opportunity at the interview to sell your personality strengths, and this question fits the bill. Your personality strengths are comprised of your self-management abilities (e.g. self-starting, punctual), and your people-relating skills (cooperative, outgoing).

What are your major strengths and weaknesses?

This is a stock question that many applicants are actually prepared to answer. Unfortunately, they are often too glib, smug, or cute, and they turn off the interviewer. Try being real.

Think of a real weakness. Then apply what I call the the SIR strategy: specify, illustrate, and relate. For example, specify by saying, "Well, I've always been a bit nervous speaking in front of groups." Then illustrate: "Last summer, I joined Toastmasters and it was amazing. We prepare and deliver speeches to fellow members. I feel much better about this now." Finally, relate: "I don't suppose there will be too many opportunities for public speaking in this job but it's something I want to be more confident about."

How long do you plan to stay at our company? Where do you see yourself in five years?

The truth is people change jobs and you really don't know how long you will stay with the company. However, you may have a moral obligation to assure the interviewer that you are aware of the cost of recruiting and that you plan to provide value for their investment. On the "where do you see yourself" question, steer clear of job titles or positions. Focus on where you want to be in terms of skills and competencies - leadership skills, administrative skills, technical skills.

Tell me about a time that you failed at something, and what you did afterwards.

This question is a variation of the 'weakness' question. The important thing here is to accept responsibility for your part in the failure. If it was a personality conflict, focus only on your contribution to the failure and what you learned as a result about interpersonal effectiveness.

Describe a time when you worked on a team project. What was your relative position on the team? Were you satisfied with your contribution? How could it have been better?

You may never be asked this question, but it points to the importance of recalling concrete work/learning situations. You want to be thinking about a project that reveals a job competency or personal strength relevant to the position you are applying for. The "How could it have been better?" question is an invitation to show that you are self aware regarding your career-related strengths and weaknesses.

Why did you choose your school and course of study?

Just don't say because your friends were going there. You may well be pursuing a career that is not directly related to your program of study. Indeed, regardless of your program of study, much of higher education is about helping students develop better analytical skills, communication skills, and a broader appreciation of human society. You can't go wrong by identifying these aspects of your education. Banks often hire graduates in sociology or psychology over business students in recognition of this.

Think back to a situation in which there was a conflict you had to resolve. Tell me how you resolved that conflict.

The interviewer wants to anticipate how you will handle conflict on the job with fellow workers, clients, and authority figures. Remember, focus on your own contribution to both the conflict and its resolution.

Tell me about a project that you had either at work or school. Describe how you managed it and what was the outcome.

Think about situations like this prior to the interview and then tailor your response so you emphasize skills and strengths most relevant to the position you are applying for. You want the interviewer to think of you when he thinks about the position.

What do you do in your spare time?

This is not an idle chit-chat question. If your job is sedentary and your hobbies are chess, the Internet, and watching movies, the interviewer is gathering an impression of your health and perhaps your energy level. Identify hobbies that reveal you to be a well-rounded person. But don't make it up. An acquaintance of mine once fibbed that he was a golfer. He was baffled when the interviewer asked him his handicap.

What salary are you expecting?

Ideally you know the going rate for the position. One way to deftly deal with this question is to throw it back at the interviewer by saying: "I imagine you have a range in mind; perhaps you can tell me what that is." It's quite fair for you to do this and the interviewer will respect you for it.

What other types of jobs or companies are you considering?

Keep it simple here. There's no reason why you should be considering other jobs or companies at this particular moment. Emphasize how much you want to make a contribution to the company.

Have you any questions for us?

Always have questions. Common ones involve asking about how the position became available, what sort of training is involved, inquiring after something you've read about the company to show off your company knowledge, when a hiring decision will be made. Many applicants fail to show interest in positions they would dearly love to obtain. At the end of the interview make your interest clear.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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