Real World Interviewing Skills

In June, the Caltech Alumni Association hosted a webinar on interview techniques with Serena Santillanes, founder of Career Journeys, Inc. and career-development counselor. Alumni in attendance ranged from recent graduates to experienced professionals looking to better understand the interview process and hone their skills. With a primary focus on behavioral and situational questions, Santillanes offered helpful advice for every stage of the interviewing process. From résumé to follow-up, this webinar offers unique insights for anyone interested in the important role of interviews in career advancement and strategies for success.

Here are five key takeaways.

Before the interview:

1. Use the job posting to your advantage.

The job listing often outlines exactly what skills and traits the interviewer is looking for. You can use this to target your message to a particular employer at every point in the job-hunting process: from your résumé, to the interview, to follow-up. Often the posting will even give you insight into what types of questions will be asked, and with the right preparation, you can have answers ready to highlight why you meet the company’s expectations and needs. For example, if the job posting lists "project management" as one of the requirements, you should expect questions about your management and leadership experience and also be ready to talk about how you've handled related issues in the past.

2. Broaden your research.

Once you’ve researched the company you're interested in, Santillanes suggests you also "research yourself" to see how well you would fit on the team. To research yourself, scrutinize your past experiences and pick out particular skills and accomplishments that would make you an asset in this particular role. Explore how your own work abilities and habits would help you thrive within the new company's specific culture, then prepare a succinct and targeted pitch. Answer the interview questions within that context. More than demonstrating a knowledge of hard facts about the company, this demonstrates an understanding of the work environment and a willingness to succeed within it.

During the interview:

3. Interviews are for finding a good fit.

Unlike a test, the interview process isn't just about making sure you have the necessary skills and understanding to fulfill the basic role. Managers who are hiring will want to get a sense of how you'd fit on the team, how easy you are to work with, and whether or not they want to spend 40 hours a week working with you. To this end, many questions are behavioral or situational, designed to explore how you might handle incidents or issues likely to arise within the available role.

On the other side of the table, the interview is a good opportunity for you to ask questions about the company culture, structure, and work flow. Think about what you need to be productive at work (e.g. mentorship and training opportunities, open-door policies, etc.) and ask questions to determine how well those needs will be met. Focusing the discussion on what you and the company each need to achieve success in the position, rather than outside perks or benefits, gives the best indication of your ability and willingness to perform the job well.

4. Use the SAR approach: Situation, Action, Results

When faced with a behavioral or situational interview question, stay on message by using the SAR approach: Situation, Action, Results. Outline the situation briefly, describe the actions you would take (or have taken), and explain the results of that action. Using this as a guideline ensures that you will hit the main points the interviewer is interested in—and is also a helpful tool to keep from rambling or getting lost in your story.

After the interview:

5. Follow-up sets you apart.

Following up after your interview with a thank-you email or phone call will set you apart from other interviewees. It takes only a few minutes of your time, reminds the interviewer that you are interested, and shows that you are grateful, courteous, and professional. Thank-you notes are surprisingly rare, and that makes them an easy and quick way to differentiate yourself as a job candidate.

Are you ready to hear more? Listen to the full presentation on YouTube!

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