Friday, January 14, 2011

What do you mean, practice?

It's easy to say, practice for your interview. But what in the world are you really practicing? And how can you tell you're getting better?

At first practice seems like a paradox here because the best interviews are the ones that are honest and genuine. But at the same time, it's hard to be honest and genuine unless you practice. Why is this?

I remember when I started interviewing for jobs out of college, I was terrible. I hadn't practiced, assuming that I was an intelligent, confident young woman and I'd do just fine. I didn't. I had no specific story to tell. When talking about myself my answers were disorganized and rambling. I eventually learned to interview mainly through trial and error, which meant going on a lot of interviews and not getting the job. Eventually, though, I got better... not in the least due to the help of a roommate who made me sit on her bed at 2 a.m. in the morning and mock interview until she was satisfied with my answers.

It's better not to go about using my trial-and-error method for your college interviews. For starters, you don't have twenty college interviews to waste. So, if you're smart, you'll do it beforehand.


Step 1. Figure out your story. What is a story, exactly? It's the narrative you have chosen to present about your life. Try reading an article about any famous person - and you'll see how the journalist does it. Focus your story around your greatest accomplishments and your areas of personal relevance. Try telling different stories, and ask someone (a parent, a teacher, a friend) to listen to you talk and decide which one sounds best.

For instance: Your uncle bought an overpriced house. As the market crashed, the bank foreclosed on his property. His financial problems inspired you to research predatory lending. You helped him with his personal situation, and then you wrote a paper about it. You won a regional competition, and then enrolled in an advanced economics course at your community college. Now you think you may want to become an economist.

Step 2. Refine your story. Go over your resume with a fine-tooth comb and try to pull out anything else relevant. Maybe you won a debate tournament by giving a speech about the financial rights and responsibilities of citizens. Perhaps you had a summer internship with a real estate agent. Make a list of anything else relevant that you can work in to bolster your story.

Step 3. Pick some sub-stories to include. Your resume will be long and impressive, and you won't want to talk about everything, unless you're asked. Focus on things that are more impressive and more involved. Are you chair of your high school Cancer Society? Did you organize your team's entry into the Science Olympiad? Be prepared to talk about those experiences in a meaningful way. What did you learn from them? Why were they so valuable to you?

Step 4. Practice telling your story even if it's not asked directly. For a good list of interview questions, skim this site. Try to answer every question by incorporating some bit of your story... if the question is about your biggest obstacle, talk how devastated you felt when you heard your uncle was losing his house... and then describe what you did about it. If you're asked what recent current event has impacted your studies - you can talk about exactly the same thing. See? If you are prepared with a set of talking points you want to get across, it almost doesn't matter what the question is, because you have an answer ready for it.

If all of this feels forced and artificial, practice more. You will know when you are happy with your story, because it will feel genuine and you will be excited to tell it.

I love interviews because they help you get to know yourself better. And that's something we could all use more of.

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