There are two primary interview types that you will encounter during your job search—the informational interview and the employment interview. The informational interview—initiated by the job seeker—is a valuable networking tool used to explore job opportunities. Employment interviews are initiated by prospective employers to assess your ability and weigh your strengths and weaknesses with other applicants. The person with acceptable qualifications and the ability to impress the interview panel gets the job.
Even under the best of conditions, interviews are often intimidating, and going to an interview without knowing the “rules” can be downright frightening. Understanding the interview process will help you throughout your career and just knowing what to expect will improve your mental stability as well. Before dis-cussing interview specifics I’ll introduce you to the interview process through an associate’s true story. I changed the names to protect their privacy.
It was May 1969, and our main character — let’s call him Tony — had recently been discharged from the Army. He decided to continue his college education and enrolled at a university in Pennsylvania. Shortly after Tony’s discharge, he went on an informational interview — more on this type of interview later — at the Tobyhanna Army Depot, looking for any available position within his chosen electronics field.
He was informed that no opportunities were currently available; however, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) might be looking for someone with his electronic background that he could submit a “package” to the Office of Per-sonnet Management (OPM) in New York to determine his qualifications. That application package was nearly 100 pages thick. It questioned every aspect of Tony’s back-ground and knowledge. He completed the “package,” made a copy for himself, and mailed it off to this thing called OPM, not knowing what to expect. Months later Tony received a letter from OPM advising him that he was qualified and an employment interview (more on this later, too) was scheduled with the FAA. He was given a phone number and told to contact the FAA for the exact date, time, and location for his interview. The interview would be in just three weeks. Tony was as excited as he was nervous. What was the FAA? What did they do? What were they looking for? Shouldn’t they be calling him rather than vice versa? Lots of questions — few answers. How did Tony prepare for this interview? What was the outcome?
In 1969, information was not nearly as available as it is today. The Internet was a figment of our imagination and learning about the FAA was not easy. A trip back to Tobyhanna helped Tony find out some basic information about the FAA and what the different General Schedule (GS) levels were. Apparently they were just like ranks in the service and determined your salary and status. Tony then pulled out the copy of his “package” and began to study what he had submitted. Finally, he wrote down some key questions for which he needed answers. Here are his questions:
Tony then called the number and scheduled his interview for January 10, 1970 at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) — whatever that was — on eastern Long Island, N.Y. He made sure he got clear directions on how to get to the location and that he knew the full names of those he was to contact upon arrival. He then went back to reviewing his package and determined how he would answer questions testing his knowledge of all the skills he had listed. He also identified what he would take along with him. Since the ARTCC was nearly 200 miles from his home, Tony took along a friend, Frank — nice to have someone you know for moral support on those long drives — a change of clothes (since Tony didn’t know the exact nature of the positions available, he chose a suit and tie for the interview — better to dress up than to dress down, he surmised) in case there might be a delay and the interview would be postponed, a copy of his “package” and a notepad with his questions written on it. Apparently Tony had also been a Boy Scout and knew that being prepared was the key to any successful venture.
The big day came, and Tony arrived at his destination about 30 minutes prior to his interview. Nancy, the receptionist, greeted Tony and his friend at the entrance, showed them into the facility and told them where they could freshen up. She showed Frank to the cafeteria and said he could wait there for Tony.
Tony straightened his tie, brushed out the wrinkles, splashed a bit of water on his face and then took a seat and waited for his interview. Nancy was very helpful and conveyed a sense of informality and ease. Tony noted that this wasn’t a “stiff upper lip” kind of environment and that the atmosphere was relaxed. Clearly a very professional environment, but most of the staff seemed comfortable, relaxed and joked easily with one another. Tony noted these behaviors on his pad and thought, “I could like working here.”
As he was reviewing his notes and questions Tony was taking slow, deep breaths, and silently repeating a positive affirmation to himself, “I was successful in my interview because I was prepared and confident.”
Nancy’s phone broke the silence. She listened for a minute, said okay, and hung up. She motioned to Tony and said, “You can go in now. Val is ready for you.” “Val?” asked Tony. “Mr. Lawrence,” said Nancy.
Val greeted Tony, extended his hand and announced, “Hi, I’m Val Lawrence. Welcome to the FAA.” During that handshake, Tony introduced himself and said, “Mr. Lawrence, I’m glad to meet you and really appreciate your taking the time to interview me for this position.” “Please call me Val,” was the response. “Have a seat,” Val said. As Tony sat down, he noticed that Val had a copy of his “package” on his desk.
After a few minutes of small talk about Tony’s trip and the like, Val said, “okay, let’s get started.” Tony agreed and asked if it would be okay if he took some notes during the interview. Val agreed and began to describe the FAA and what the work entailed. It was clear that Val had read and become familiar with Tony’s background and qualifications. He asked numerous specific questions concerning the data Tony had listed in his “package” and even asked about some specific pieces of equipment that Tony had worked on while in the Army. As Val described some of the functions required for the positions available, Tony took notes on terminology, industry-specific acronyms and other items with which he was not familiar.
During the interview Tony asked for clarification on all the notes he had taken. After about an hour of this give-and-take, Val took Tony and Frank on a tour of the facility. This tour answered numerous questions and Tony began to see what would be involved with the job and to realize this would be a great place to work. When they returned to Val’s office, Fred, one of the supervisors, was waiting for them. Val introduced them and told Fred of Tony’s qualifications and that he might be a candidate for employment. Fred pointed to a piece of sophisticated-looking electronic equipment in the corner of Val’s office and asked Tony if he knew what it was. There sat a small piece of waveguide with a small dent in one side. Tony had worked with lots of waveguide in the Army and had noted that in his package. Clearly, Fred was not just a casual observer in this process. It was obvious that he, too, had read Tony’s “package” and this was a serious test. Tony realized that any dents in waveguide made it inoperative and said, “Hmm, looks like a piece of broken waveguide to me.” Fred said, “Well I’ll be damned!” nodded to Val and left. Tony realized that he had passed the test.
Val shook Tony’s hand, and said, “I don’t know what the outcome will be right now; however, I think you will fit in here just fine. Someone will get back to you within two weeks and let you know.”
Tony thanked Val again for his time and for the tour and asked if he should call if he didn’t hear anything within those two weeks. Val said, “Sure, but don’t worry, you’ll hear from us.”
Tony and Frank left the facility and returned home. A week later, Tony received a telegram from the FAA offering him a job starting at the highest pay grade for which he qualified. On February 16, 1970, Tony began his career with the FAA. On June 3, 2006, he retired from that same FAA.
As you read through the remainder of this section and learn more about the interviewing process, refer to this story and see how Tony addressed the concerns and challenges of the different types of interviews. Then ask yourself, “How would I respond to these challenges? What would my questions be?” Once you find and document those answers, you, too, will be prepared for whatever comes your way, and using your newfound information and skills, you will be able to find a long and successful career as did Tony. Good luck!
The first step is to call agencies in your area and ask to talk with a super-visor who works in your specialty, e.g., administration, technical, computer operations, etc. If an immediate supervisor isn’t willing to talk with you in person, ask to talk with someone in the human resources department. Briefly explain to this individual that you are investigating government careers and ask if he/she would be willing to spend 30 minutes talking with you in person about viable federal career paths with the agency.
If you’re uncertain whether or not your job skills are needed by an agency, contact the personnel or human resources department.
If an informational interview is granted, take along a signed copy of your employment application or federal résumé and a cover letter describing your desires and qualifications. The informational interview will help you investigate available employment opportunities in many diverse agencies. You will need to identify persons to interview through the methods mentioned above. You don’t have to limit your informational interviews strictly to supervisors. Any individual currently employed in a position you find attractive can provide the necessary information. The outcome of these interviews will help you make an objective career decision for specific positions. There is one key element you must stress when requesting an informational interview:
When asking for the interview, make them aware that you only desire information and are not asking for a job.
This should be brought to their attention immediately after requesting an interview. Many supervisors and employees are willing to talk about their job even when no vacancies exist. These interviews often provide insight into secondary careers and upcoming openings that can be more attractive than what you were originally pursuing.
Place a time limit on the interview. When contacting supervisors, request the interview by following the above guidelines but add that you will only take 20 to 30 minutes of their time. Time is a critical resource that must be respected and used wisely. When going for the interview you should be prepared to ask specific questions that will get the information you need. The following questions will help you prepare:
Experience and Background
How would you rank these items with respect to their importance concerning a position with your agency?
If an interview is not granted ask permission to send a resume for their prospective employee file. In many cases agencies do not have direct hire authority. However, if upcoming positions open they can notify you when the job will be advertised. Positions created through these methods bring aboard highly desirable employee prospects under future competitive announcements.
Certain agencies do have direct hire authority. To determine if an agency has this ability you must contact their regional HR or personnel department. Send direct hire agencies a cover letter and application (federal style resume) for the prospective employment file. Office addresses and phone numbers can be obtained by calling local agency offices and asking for the address and phone number of that agency’s regional office. You can also find out this information by reviewing current job announcements for your area that you will find on OPM’s USAJobs site.
It is hard to imagine the diversity of jobs needed by most agencies. Don’t exclude any agency in this process. Most agencies hire a broad spectrum of skills and professions. When going for the interview, dress appropriately for the position applied for. You can expect numerous rejections while pursuing these methods. Don’t become discouraged. Good managers, in industry, as well as the federal government, are always on the lookout for qualified employees. If you present yourself in a professional manner, demonstrate a good work ethic, and have the appropriate educational background, you will make a connection. Persistence pays off when dealing with the government. Many promising candidates give up prematurely before giving their efforts a chance to work. You must realize that it may take some time for a desirable position to become available.
Most government job openings are first advertised within the agency, and current employees have the first chance to bid for a higher-paying position. If the job can’t be filled in-house it is advertised in the private sector by the Office of Personnel Management or in certain cases by the agency itself. These are the jobs you will be bidding on. The reason for going to the private sector is that no qualified in-house bidders applied for the available positions.
There are several different types of interviews you may encounter. You probably won’t know in advance which type you will be facing. Below are descriptions of the different types of interviews and what you can expect in each of them.
NOTE: Many agencies have initiated quality-of-work life and employee involvement groups to build viable labor/management teams and partnerships. In this environment, agencies may require the top applicants to be interviewed by three groups. There are generally three interviews in this process, one by the selection panel and the other two by peer and subordinate groups. All three interview groups compare notes and provide input to the selection committee.
The interview strategies discussed here can be used effectively in any type of interview you may encounter.
Prepare in advance. The better prepared you are, the less anxious you will be and the greater your chances for success. There is an old saying in the real estate business that value is determined by three things: location, location, location. In interviewing, it’s preparation, preparation, preparation.
One very important consideration in your preparation is the role that stress plays in these situations. They say that public speaking is the most stressful situation for the majority of people. Well, interviewing for a career position is a close second, so let’s talk a bit about stress and what you can do to ensure that stress works for you rather than against you.
Some level of stress will keep you focused and alert, while chronic stress can be a killer. Having those “butterflies” in your stomach is not a bad thing. If you feel they are getting the best of you, try some of Tony’s techniques:
Research the federal department and agency. The more you know about the agency and the job for which you are applying, the better you will do on the interview. Get as much information as you can before the interview.
Take along extra copies of your resume and other appropriate application forms in case the interviewer ask for them. Make sure you bring along the same versions that you originally sent the agency.
Arrive early at the interview. Plan to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early. Give yourself time to find a restroom so you can check your appearance.
It’s important to make a good impression from the moment you enter the reception area. Greet the receptionist cordially. Be confident, positive and make eye contact. Introduce yourself and identify why you are there. If you shake hands with the receptionist, provide a firm handshake (don’t crush his/her hand). Use appropriate salutations, e.g., Miss Johnson, Mr. Smith, etc. You never know what influence the receptionist has with your interviewer. With a little small talk, you may get some helpful information about the interviewer and the job opening. Remember, you only get one chance to make a positive first impression. Most people — not just interviewers — form their impressions about new acquaintances within the first 30 to 60 seconds of their initial meeting. Use this minute wisely. If you are asked to fill out an application while you’re waiting, be sure to fill it out completely and print the information neatly.
The job interview is usually a two-way discussion between you and a prospective employer. The interviewer is attempting to determine whether you have what the agency needs, and you are attempting to determine if you would accept the job if offered. Both of you will be trying to get as much information as possible in order to make those decisions. Ask your interviewer if you may take notes. (I’ve never heard of anyone who got a no to this question.) This lets your interviewer know that you are interested in learning and connecting with the process. You will certainly hear some terms or conditions with which you are not familiar. Rather than interrupting your interviewer, jot them down so you can ask the appropriate questions at the first available opportunity.
The interview that you are most likely to face is a structured interview with a traditional format. It usually consists of three phases. The introductory phase covers the greeting, small talk and an overview of which areas will be discussed during the interview. The middle phase is a question-and-answer period. The interviewer asks most of the questions, but you are given an opportunity to ask questions as well. The closing phase gives you an opportunity to ask any final questions you might have, cover any important points that haven’t been discussed and get information about the next step in the process.
This phase is very important. You want to make a good first impression and, if possible, get additional information you need about the job and the agency.
Make a good impression. You only have a few seconds to create a positive first impression which can influence the rest of the interview and even determine whether you get the job.
The interviewer’s first impression of you is based mainly on non-verbal clues. The interviewer is assessing your overall appearance and demeanor. When greeting the interviewer, be certain your handshake is firm and that you make eye contact. Address your interviewer by name and thank him/her for the opportunity. Your initial conversation might go something like this: “Thank you, Miss Henderson, for taking time from your schedule to interview me. I am very interested in learning…(more about your company, this position, etc.)…and how I might be able to help you achieve your goals.” Wait for the interviewer to signal you before you sit down.
Once seated, your body language is very important in conveying a positive impression. Find a comfortable position and relax. Lean forward slightly and maintain eye contact with the interviewer. This posture shows that you are interested in what is being said. Smile, nod, and use active listening skills appropriately. There are numerous books available in local libraries on active listening and it would be advisable to do some research in this area. Some of the most common, and most effective, of these skills are quite simple. Saying “uh-huh,” “yes,” “I see,” “interesting,” and other acknowledgments let your interviewer know that you are hearing what he/she is saying and are staying “connected” with the flow of the interview.
The use of paraphrasing, at appropriate times, also lets your interviewer know that you are truly hearing what is being discussed. Paraphrasing is another active listening technique where you repeat what you just heard, but put it in your own words. For example, your interviewer may mention that their organization has its technical training facility in Oklahoma City. You might respond with, “So, I heard you say that based on my skill level, I may have to attend some technical school training courses at your Oklahoma City location?” This may also generate some additional questions concerning things like the length of training courses, travel reimbursements, etc. Show that you are open and receptive by keeping your arms and legs uncrossed. Avoid keeping your briefcase or your handbag on your lap. Pace your movements so that they are not too fast or too slow. Remain relaxed and confident.
Get the information you need. If you weren’t able to get complete information about the job and the agency or department in advance, you should try to get it as early as possible in the interview. Be sure to prepare your questions in advance. Knowing the following things will allow you to present those strengths and abilities that the employer wants.
When to ask questions. The problem with a traditional interview structure is that your chance to ask questions occurs late in the interview. How can you get the information you need early in the process without making the interviewer feel that you are taking control?
Deciding exactly when to ask your questions is the tricky part. Timing is everything. You may have to make a decision based on intuition and your first impressions of the interviewer. Does the interviewer seem comfortable or nervous, soft-spoken or forceful, formal or casual? These signals will help you to judge the best time to ask your questions.
The sooner you ask the questions, the less likely you are to disrupt the interviewer’s agenda. However, if you ask questions too early, the interviewer may feel you are trying to control the interview.
Try asking questions right after the greeting and small talk. Since most interviewers like to set the tone of the interview and maintain initial control, always phrase your questions in a way that leaves control with the interviewer. Perhaps say, “Please tell me a little more about the job so that I can focus on the information that would be most important to the agency.” If there is no job opening but you are trying to develop one or you need more information about the agency, try saying, “Please share your insight as to where the company is going so I can focus on those areas of my background that are most relevant.”
You may want to wait until the interviewer has given an overview of what will be discussed. This overview may answer some of your questions or may provide some details that you can use to ask additional questions. Once the middle phase of the interview has begun, you may find it more difficult to ask questions.
During this phase of the interview, you will be asked many questions about your work experience, skills, education, activities and interests. You are being assessed on how you will perform the job in relation to the agency objectives.
All your responses should be concise. Use specific examples to illustrate your point whenever possible. Although your responses should be prepared in advance so that they are phrased-well and effective, be sure they do not sound rehearsed. Remember that your responses must always be adapted to the present interview. Incorporate any information you obtained earlier in the interview with the responses you had prepared in advance and then answer in a way that is appropriate to the question.
The following are some typical questions, with possible responses:
Question: “Tell me about yourself.”
Reply: “Briefly describe your experience and background.” If you are unsure what information the interviewer is seeking, say, “Are there any areas in particular you’d like to know about?”
Question: “What is your weakest point?” (A stress question)
Reply: Mention something that is actually a strength. Some examples are:
“I’m something of a perfectionist.”
“I’m a stickler for punctuality.”
Give a specific situation from your previous job to illustrate your point.
Question: “What is your strongest point?”
“I work well under pressure.”
“I am organized and manage my time well.”
If you have just graduated from college you might say, “I am eager to learn, and I don’t have to unlearn old techniques.”
Give a specific example to illustrate your point.
Question: “What do you hope to be doing five years from now?”
Reply: “I hope I will still be working here and have increased my level of responsibility based on my performance and abilities.”
Question: “Why have you been out of work for so long?” (A stress question)
Reply: “I spent some time re-evaluating my past experience and the current job market to see what direction I wanted to take.”
“I had some offers but I’m not just looking for another job; I’m looking for a career.”
Question: “What do you know about our agency? Why do you want to work here?”
Reply: This is where your research on the agency will come in handy.
“You are a small/large agency and a leading force in government.”
“Your agency is a leader in your field and growing.“
“Your agency has a superior reputation.”
“Your agency has a vision to provide superior service to its customers through teamwork and collaboration, and that matches my value system perfectly. I know that I can help you ensure that vision is a reality.”
You might try to get the interviewer to give you additional information about the agency by saying that you are very interested in learning more about its mission, vision, philosophy, goals and objectives. When researching each prospective employer, find out this information, write it down and take it with you to the interview. Then keep it in your files for future reference. This will help you focus your response on relevant areas.
Question: “What is your greatest accomplishment?”
Reply: Give a specific illustration from your previous or current job where you saved the company money or helped increase profits. If you have just graduated from college, try to find some accomplishment from your school work, part-time jobs or extra-curricular activities.
Question: “Why should we hire you?” (A stress question)
Highlight your background based on the company’s current needs. Recap your qualifications, keeping the interviewer’s job description in mind. If you don’t have much experience, talk about how your education and training prepared you for this opportunity.
Question: “Why do you want to make a change now?”
“I want to develop my potential.”
“The opportunities in my present company are limited.”
Question: “Tell me about a problem you had in your last job and how you resolved it.”
Reply: The employer wants to assess your analytical, teamwork, communication and other necessary skills to determine your suitability. Think of a situation you encountered at a previous job. If your work experience is very limited, think of a personal situation. This should be a situation where you experienced a successful outcome. Describe clearly but briefly what you encountered, then describe the steps you took to resolve the problem, implement the solution, create the process, or whatever other action was required. You may need to think about this for a minute or two. This is an important question and you should prepare for it well in advance of your interview so you are not caught off guard.
Some Questions You Should Ask
During the closing phase of an interview, you will be asked whether you have any other questions. Check your notes and ask any relevant questions that have not yet been answered. Highlight any of your strengths that have not been dis-cussed. If another interview is to be scheduled, get the necessary information. If this is the final interview, ask when the decision will be made and if/when you may call. As you are leaving, shake hands with your interviewer, make solid eye contact, thank the interviewer by name and say goodbye.
During an interview, you may be asked some questions that are considered illegal. It is illegal for an interviewer to ask you questions related to gender, age, race, religion, national origin or marital status, or to delve into your personal life for information that is not job-related. What can you do if you are asked an illegal question? Take a moment to evaluate the situation. Ask yourself questions like:
Then respond in a way that is comfortable for you.
If you decide to answer the question, be succinct and try to move the conversation back to an examination of your skills and abilities as quickly as possible. For example, if asked about your age, you might reply, “I’m in my forties, and I have a wealth of experience that would be an asset to your company.” If you are not sure whether you want to answer the question, first ask for a clarification of how this question relates to your qualifications for the job. You may decide to answer if there is a reasonable explanation. If you feel there is no justification for the question, you might say that you do not see the relationship between the question and your qualifications for the job and you prefer not to answer it.
You are not finished yet. It is important to assess the interview shortly after it is concluded. Following your interview you should:
Send a thank-you note within 24 hours. Your thank-you note should:
Dear Mr. Adams:
Thanks for taking the time to meet with me this afternoon. I enjoyed the interview and I am excited about the possibility of working for the Treasury Department. I believe that my military background, education, and work experience in law enforcement will be beneficial to your criminal investigation unit. I look forward to hearing from you, and if additional follow-up interviews are necessary just let me know the place and time and I will clear my schedule to attend.
As we agreed, I will call you next Thursday if I don’t hear from you beforehand.
If you were not told during the interview when a hiring decision will be made, call after one week. At that time, if you learn that the decision hasn’t been made, find out whether you are still under consideration for the job. Ask if there are other questions the interviewer might have about your qualifications and offer to come in for another interview if necessary. Reiterate that you are very interested in the job.
In the final analysis, the agency will hire someone who has the abilities and talents which fulfill its needs. It is up to you to demonstrate that you are the person they want by submitting a comprehensive and thorough application package and by doing well in the interview. Don’t leave the interview to chance. Proper preparation can mean the difference between success and failure.