The job interview has always been a crucial part of the hiring process. But in today’s intensely competitive labor market, it couldn’t be more key. For every open position, expect to find an army of qualified, and even overqualified, candidates starving for work in a country with 9% unemployment. If you’re lucky enough to make it to the interview stage, you’ll need to be at your best to seal the deal. You can’t just rely on your resume. “Absolutely, the interview is more important than ever,” says Shawn Boyer, founder and CEO of snagajob.com, a site geared towards hourly workers. “They are harder and harder to come by. You need to do your best to differentiate.”
No pressure, right? But if you’re looking for work, or have an interview lined up soon, there’s no need to panic. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Research, research, research. Your online footprint is out there, for all to see – hello, beer-chugging Facebook picture. Similarly, these days it’s easier to find a wealth of information about the company you want to work for. So be an online sponge. Read blogs where the company, or industry it competes in, is a focus. Check out that company history timeline on its website, and become a fan of its Facebook page. Know the background of the executives you’re going to meet with, and be prepared to talk about the company’s successes. “Companies are not as forgiving as they were in the past,” says Lenroy Jones, associate director of the University of Kentucky’s James W. Stuckert Career Center. “They always wanted candidates to know about their businesses, but understood, for example, that college kids might have extracurricular activities that kept them too busy. Now, they don’t hope that you are knowledgeable. They expect you to be.” (More business stories on TIME.com: The 25 Best Financial Blogs)
Ask questions. Since you’ll be entering the interview with so much knowledge about Company X, you should be curious to soak up even more. So when the interviewer offers you a chance to ask questions about the company or the specific position, never pass. “I just got out of an interview where the candidate did not have any questions, and said that they were all answered during the interview,” says Boyer. “That’s a lame answer, not just to me, but to a lot of employers.” Remember, in an era of enhanced competition, a little slip-up like failing to ask good questions could cost you the job.
Stay away from Facebook friendship. During the interview, you feel like you’ve really connected with Viv, your potential new boss. You really want the job. You’ve got a good vibe. You’re feeling so good, you’re just going to go right ahead and “friend” her on Facebook. No!!!! You’ve crossed a line. It’s fine to follow her on Twitter. All of her musings there are open to the public, and she’ll probably be psyched that you’re interested. Definitely do that. But Facebook friendship is more awkward. Viv now has to decide whether she wants to let you into her online circle. You don’t want to appear high-maintenance before being offered the position. “Things that are annoying in person are annoying online,” says Charles Purdy, senior editor and career expert at Monster.com. “You can follow somebody’s career in the newspapers. But don’t ask him to invite you to his birthday party.”
As for those gaps in your resume … Don’t fret about them. Employers understand that it’s been a brutal market, and that you may have spent significant time without work. “You’re not the only one in that boat,” says Michelle Dollarhide, senior talent acquisition partner for Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, a public relations firm. Be able to explain your situation in two or three tight bullet points: my entire division lost jobs in a layoff, demand for the product dried up in the recession, etc. “Don’t ramble on, making excuses, and talking bad about your prior employer,” says Boyer. And discuss what you’ve been doing to keep your skills fresh, and your mind active, during unemployment. Community work, for example, tells a good story. Says Boyer: “Employers want to see that you’ve done something other than sitting at home watching Dr. Phil.”
(Specials: Jobs: Some light at the end of the tunnel.)
Overdress – even online. Yes, more workplaces are business-casual these days. That should not give you license to dress down in an interview. “Always, always wear at least a coat and tie, and preferably a suit,” says Boyer. “Most people know that, but I’ve heard plenty of stories to the contrary.” This rule also applies to digital interviews. More companies are using Skype and other video-chat technologies to talk to potential employees. “Look professional, even from the waist-down,” says Purdy. Hey, what if the phone starts ringing incessantly, and you’re forced to stand up? “And please,” says Purdy, “take the dog out of the room.”
Be a closer. First impressions are always important. But last words stick too. With job competition as tight as it is, every second of the interview counts. “Close it out,” says Dollarhide. “Ask about the next step in the process. Show that enthusiasm until the end.” And send those follow-up notes, either through email or an old-school, hand-written letter.
Your future is riding on it.
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