Your Guide to the Spot-on Job Interview

There Are Five Interview Stages. Here’s How To Ace Them

Jan 02, 2019
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Job interviews typically follow a certain formula with five key stages, says Maryland Smith’s Patricia Reich. And understanding the formula can be a great advantage.

“In the interview conversation, I find it critically important to understand what moment you are in and what the interviewer is trying to get to in that moment,” says Reich, who as assistant dean and executive director of the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business is a master of the job interview. “That’s why I have assigned five stages to the interview process.”

Each stage has its opportunities and potential pitfalls. Navigate them well, she says, and the job will more likely be yours.

Stage 1: It’s the icebreaker, she says. Someone meets you in the lobby, you shake hands, make eye contact and you offer what Reich calls “the all-important smile.” There’s a bit of small talk, about the weather or your journey to the office – Did you find the office OK?

“It’s small talk, and that may continue as you walk toward that person’s office,” Reich says. “...but really you are getting the rhythm of one another, finding out about voice and cadence and energy and style. It’s very brief but huge because it sets the first impression – and there has been so much research about the importance of the first impression and how challenging it is to reverse it.”

How to ace stage 1: Be fully present. Keep the conversation buoyant and keep it going. Be positive and brief in your responses. Ask a few light questions yourself and be a good listener. Contribute to the energy exchange and help create rapport.

Stage 2: “If you are lucky,” Reich says, “this is the stage when the interviewer takes a couple of minutes to tell you about the job. That gives you a chance to get comfortable in your seat, so you are in listening mode.” And it gives you some vital insights about the rest of the conversation. “This is an opportunity to find out what’s important to that interviewer,” Reich says. “What do they choose to say first? How are they using their tone to emphasize certain aspects of the position? What things are they repeating?”

When you get to the next stage, those insights will be important. They’ll help you decide which themes of your career experience you want to thread throughout the interview. “This will allow you to select the things that are really going to connect with what’s important to this person.”

How to ace stage 2: “You are absolutely paying rapt attention,” she says. “You are listening at the deepest level, so that you are understanding the meaning underneath the words and there is no way you are going to forget what they are saying.” Some people like to take notes at this stage. That’s OK, Reich says, but she advises that candidates try to maintain regular eye contact and she recommends raising a light question or two at this stage, “just to keep that conversational volley in play.”

Stage 3: “It’s the widest, deepest part of the interview – the interrogatory. This part is about you.”

In this stage, the interviewer is going to ask all of those important questions. It often begins with “Tell me about yourself.” It often progresses to scenario questions. Reich calls these the “Tell me about a time when” questions. “That’s the part of the interview that people get really nervous about. They worry ‘What are they going to ask me about?’ And ‘What if I don’t have the right answer?’” she says.

“It’s the longest part of the meeting and it is exhausting. It is exhausting for the interviewer, because they are managing the questions and they are trying to catalog your responses in a way that is fair to you. And it’s exhausting for you, because it’s make-or-break, right? What you say here is either going to qualify you or it’s not going to qualify you, or at least it feels that way.”

How to ace stage 3: “Actually if you do your research ahead of time and if you have had a chance to speak to other people in the organization – maybe alumni who have worked inside the organization, maybe even in that same role – you can actually anticipate about 85 percent of the questions and be ready for those. Good interview content is story based, so your catalogue of accomplishment and learning stories can be crafted, practiced and honed well ahead of time.”

Stage 4: The Q&A. This is the stage when the interviewer will ask, “Do you have any questions for me.” The risk in this stage, she says, is that you will be so exhausted from stage 3 that you will actually draw a blank and will default to saying, “You know, I think we’ve covered everything.”

At this, Reich breaks her encouraging, professional demeanor, and makes an error buzzing noise. “Don’t do that!” she says. “What that says to the interviewer is that you weren’t prepared, that you don’t have a point of view, or that the conversation just isn’t that important to you.”

How to ace stage 4: Great questions matter. As you do your research about the organization, write out at least seven well-structured questions, and have them ready. You won’t have time to ask all of your questions, but you will have an ample supply of great questions, if indeed some have already been answered. Be sure that you are asking for information that is specific to the insights, expertise and wisdom of your interviewer - and never waste a question on information you should have gotten already from the web site.

“The other thing about stage 4, that is sometimes hidden, is that in the back of the interviewer’s mind, they are still processing your answers from stage 3, and they are deciding during this time period, how to close the conversation. And that can range anywhere from ‘Thanks very much,’ to, ‘You know, it wasn’t in our schedule today, but I would really like you to meet another important person in this organization, if you have another 15 minutes.’ And that is the signal that they are thinking about advancing you in the process.”

Stage 5: The close. At this stage, you need to rally, repeat your story and summarize your value proposition.

“It feels awkward to most people,” Reich admits, “but it ties a ribbon on the conversation, and it reminds your interviewer of the themes that you chose to convey throughout the conversation and it gives them a chance to recall all of the things that you said that were relevant to those themes, which by design are relevant to their interests.”

How to ace stage 5: “You’ve got to read the cues that the interview is coming to a close,” she says. Often, this stage begins with the interviewer thanking you for coming in.

“This is your signal to say, ‘May I take this opportunity to thank you for a great conversation. When I came into the conversation, these are the things that interested me, and now I see that this and this and this are all great opportunities for me too. I can see that I am a good fit for you in this way and this way and this way. I want you to know that if I am a good candidate for you, I would like to continue in the process. I think this would be a great opportunity. And I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much.’ ”

And the ribbon is tied.

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