Sunday, September 23, 2012

Acing the Phone Interview!

Phone interviews are very common in the environmental field. Often, this is because candidates are not local and in some cases, if there are a lot of applicants, phone interviews are used to narrow down the field of candidates. Most of my career opportunities have involved a phone interview – I’ve probably done 50 or more phone interviews, and I’ve held hundreds of them.  So what makes for a great phone interview?  Here are my tips to help you navigate through this process:

Minimize Distractions
Print it Out
Use Technology to Your Advantage
Take Your Time
Dress the Part

Minimize Distractions. Selecting a place to make the call is critical.  I once did a phone interview in a borrowed rental car at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – that was a challenge! If you have distractions during the call, best to mention them to the interviewer(s). In the interview I mentioned, the interviewer was very understanding. Had I not mentioned my situation, there would likely have been some awkward moments that went unexplained -- phone interviews mean that sound is important! Try to use a land line to minimize drops and static. Avoid anywhere there are pets, people, or other things that can distract you (or bark in the background). Turn off call waiting and if your computer is nearby, silence sounds, such as email notifications and other “dings.”  Personally, I prefer using either a headset or Skype, so that I can mute the call at will. And do keep a glass of water nearby, in case you need it (but no eating, chewing gum, or pacing)!

Print it Out. Whenever I have a phone interview, I set up a card table (do people still have those?) next to my computer desk. On this table, I arrange my papers for the interview. I print out the resume submitted, position announcement, any documents I submitted in the application process (cover letter, special qualifications statement, transcript, etc.), and my list of training/courses completed.  I also write down a variety of standard interview questions and any that I can think of from the job announcement and write short bullets under each as a reminder of how I intend to answer them. I spread all of these out on the table in a logical way, usually covering most of the table’s surface. That way, I can look at them without rustling papers – that would not be something the interviewer(s) should be hearing. It also eliminates forgetting your answer when you’re really nervous!

Use Technology to Your Advantage. One advantage of a phone interview is that you can do it in front of (or nearby, in my example) a computer.  Open just a few windows on your computer – one being the company or agency’s website, Google or a search engine page, and any other relevant pages. Not too many, though! Close email windows and shut down any program that is running that might be distracting. This way, you can do quick searches online if you need to! Of course, if you do this, you need to have a mute function available, so no one hears you typing!

Take Your Time.  One of the biggest mistakes in a phone interview is rushing. Take time to respond to a question – don’t rush to fill in every pause. Since you cannot read body language or get other non-verbal cues, sometimes asking a question will help you better understand what they are asking you and it buys you a little time, if you’re struggling to think of your best answer. Make sure your answers are direct and clearly spoken. Always try to give concrete examples of things that you’ve done – don’t answer with “yes” and “no” and leave it at that. Don’t (!) drone on and on – answer the question directly, and then use a verbal cue to signal when you’ve finished your answer, so the interviewer(s) know you’re done. That verbal cue can be a summary sentence, or just using tone to indicate that you are at the end of your answer. Practice doing this, if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Ending an answer well is the sign of a great (and confident) interviewee!

Dress the Part. I know this sounds a bit over-the-top, but years ago I received this advice. I tried it…and it worked! There was definitely a difference between doing a phone interview in fuzzy slippers and a nice outfit. Somehow, it put me in the right frame of mind for the interview, and it will do the same for you. Maybe a 3 piece suit is not necessary, but sweatpants are out! 

Smile.  Like dressing the part, smiling when you talk is important. Most of us know when someone we’re talking to on the phone is smiling – you can hear it in their voice. Likewise, interviewer(s) know that you are comfortable talking to them if they “hear” you smile. Remember that it’s difficult to see the human side of you on the phone, so consider how you will convey your personality, values, and work ethic to the interviewer(s). You may want to call someone you trust and do a “mock interview” on the phone. They can point out any habits that are distracting and help you put your best foot (or voice) forward!

Over the years, I’ve come to think that a phone interview can actually be easier than an in-person one, IF you are well prepared for it. While the challenge is always the lack of eye contact and body language with the interviewer(s), the plus is that you can have all of the information you need at your fingertips!

Happy interviewing!

Dr. Carol A. Pollio

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why Writing a Stand-Out Cover Letter Is So Important!

Several incidents in the past few weeks have dramatically changed how I view cover letters.

First, a good friend of mine recently applied for a job where I work. He had been out of the environmental field for 15 years. He did not submit a cover letter, which would have explained that he took this time away from his career to care for his children, who were quite ill at the time. He could have communicated that, now that they are grown, he is able to return to his passion and career of choice. But, instead, the Selecting Official (SO) mentally filled in the blanks with negative information.  To be fair, the SO didn’t out-and-out reject him, but it tainted the process and made for a challenging, uphill battle for my friend.  My thought was, “this could all have been avoided with a great cover letter!”

The second thing that changed my mind was an email I received about the importance of cover letters when competing with lots of applicants for the limited jobs we’re seeing in our slow economy. While I had thought about my cover letter more as a summary of my skills and talent, I had not thought about the challenge faced by career changers or those returning to the environmental field after a long gap. So, here are some helpful hints for creating a stand out cover letter:

  • Show Enthusiasm

  • Share Your Philosophy

  • Explain Gaps

  • Explain Why You Are the Best Candidate in the Crowd!

Show Enthusiasm. I know that we always hear that our enthusiasm should come across in our cover letters, but there’s more to this than just using “happy words.”  If you are changing careers or face stiff competition, you need to demonstrate very specific enthusiasm that not only shows your specific interest in the company or position, but also differentiates you from all of the other candidates – in other words, express yourself!  Being generally enthusiastic won’t make you stand out the way a very specific statement will!

Share Your Philosophy. A cover letter is a great place to share your philosophy. Employers want positive attitudes, but be sure to direct your positivity and share it in a way that speaks to your character. For example, if you feel strongly about lifelong learning, leadership development, or some other area of interest, share it. 

Explain Gaps. As I mentioned earlier, I recently had a friend apply for a position after he had been working outside of his chosen career field for quite a long time. He took that career diversion to care for an ill family member. The selecting official was not able to get past the idea that something was wrong with him – in the absence of information, people make up their own “stories” to explain the unexplained. If you have a gap in experience, or are changing careers, it might be best to briefly explain it in your cover letter. Had my friend done this, he would have provided his own “story,” it would have kept the selecting official from “filling in the blanks.”

Explain Why You Are the Best Candidate in the Crowd! Companies are receiving several hundred applications for each job vacancy. Competition is intense!  Use your cover letter to demonstrate why you are a “better fit” than others. Do your homework on the company or agency for which you wish to work. Use that information and the keywords from the vacancy announcement to briefly state why your background meets their needs. If you are a student without relevant experience, highlight your academic achievements and any experience you have that might translate well to the desired experiences listed in the announcement.  Don’t be afraid to be bold and speak highly of yourself and your accomplishments – who else will, if you won’t? And, remember that your competition will be bragging, so being too humble may hurt your chances!  Don’t over sell yourself, but don’t undersell yourself, either.

Let me know if these insights are helpful and good luck on your job hunt!

Dr. Carol A. Pollio
Director, Capstone EcoServices
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