Interview Skills

Interviews: Two Way Streets

Paperwork gets you the interview: the interview gets you the job! The interview’s purpose is to allow the employer to assess your candidacy beyond the information presented on your resume. The interview also allows YOU the opportunity to assess the organization and the position for which you are interviewing. The key point is that the interview is a “communications process.” Rather than simply being a respondent to an interviewer’s questions, an effective interviewee takes an active part in the interview.

The purpose of this Web page is to prepare you to become an active participant in interviews and to help you spell out your liberal arts credentials to full advantage. You are encouraged to tailor your interview preparation by discussing your particular goals with a Career Education counselor and participating in a mock interview.

Interview Format

There is no formula for predicting the format of employment interviews. Interviewers’ styles vary and, consequently, there exists a range of approaches, from structured to non-directive.

Whether you encounter a structured or non-directive style interview, the key to selling yourself in the interview involves preparation. It is a myth that you can “just wing it” in an interview and attract a good job offer. Set an agenda of key points that you want the interviewer to know about you, and energetically articulate these points in the interview. Provide the interviewer with compelling reasons to select you over other candidates.


  • Research the job or position being interviewed for.
  • Determine the skills required. Use the handout on Researching Organizations to assist you.
  • Self – Assessment: Know your own interests, skills and values. A common concern of employers is that many students do not know themselves nor how their past experiences demonstrate the interests, skills, or motivation employers seek. Use the exercise on the following page to help you with this process, or make an appointment with a Career Education counselor. Be prepared to show employers how your abilities match their needs. Dip into all of your background; volunteer experiences, educational background, etc. Identify three to five top selling points – attributes that set you apart from other candidates – and be sure you get the chance to point them out in the interview. Develop and rehearse concise examples about how you used your skills, each illustrating a specific activity or task required by the job.
  • Rehearse answers to basic questions. Be prepared for surprises. Be prepared to provide examples of occasions when results were different than expected. Your skill in handling failure as well as success may be probed. Be prepared for questions asking for more detail than you’ve already given.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice! Make an appointment to do a Mock Interview with a Career Education counselor or practice with friends and family.

Don’t underestimate transferable skills!

Even if your past experience does not seem to be directly relevant to a position that you are applying for, do not assume that you will not be able to use the skills that you have gained. Consider, for example, that you are interested in a job at a bank. You are wondering about how to market the three summers that you spent working at a fast food restaurant. Although the actual duties may be different, think about what skills both positions would share. For example, in your position at the fast food restaurant, you needed to address the needs of all kinds of customers. Your communication needed to be effective and pleasant. You needed to work under pressure and ensure that all of the details needed to complete an order were taken care of. You handled money and worked as part of a team of employees. These are skills that are transferable to the position at the bank. These skills are then combined with other experiences, course work, and activities to assist you in marketing yourself as a successful candidate.

What About Those Liberal Arts Skills!

What employers want most from college graduates is clear and imaginative thinking skills, diverse communication skills, and the ability to work well with a variety of people. Your liberal arts background has probably prepared you quite well in these areas. Consider the opportunities that you have had to illustrate and sharpen these skills while at Allegheny.

Communication Skills

  • Writing reports, essays, and correspondence in plain language
  • Speaking effectively to individuals and groups; presenting information in seminar format, large class format and individually
  • Listening carefully and empathetically whenever necessary
  • Portraying ideas clearly and imaginatively

Thinking Skills

  • Reading critically
  • Defining a problem cogently
  • Constructing sound lines of reasoning
  • Organizing and synthesizing large amounts of material
  • Evaluating alternative courses of action critically
  • Creating divergent solutions to a problem when more than one answer is possible
  • Shaping new ideas in the context of old circumstances

Human Relations Skills

  • Interacting cooperatively with superiors, subordinates and peers
  • Communicating orders, instructions and feelings with openness, genuineness and understanding
  • Delegating tasks in ways which show respect for the other person and receptivity to his/her ideas

Check the Allegheny College catalogue for the education objectives of Allegheny for more ideas of the benefits of a liberal arts education.

Skill clusters (which relate to you?)

  1. Planning/ Organizing/ Executing
    • Generate ideas
    • Initiate projects
    • Identify problems and needs
    • Make and keep a schedule
    • Schedule/ coordinate operations
    • Set realistic goals
    • Set priorities
    • Develop efficient systems
  2. Detail/ Follow through
    • Follow through on plans
    • Get projects done on time
    • Handle many tasks at once
    • Work under pressure
    • Accurate memory for details
    • Be orderly/organized
  3. Working with Numbers
    • Manage money
    • Keep financial records
    • Be exact and accurate
    • Develop and follow a budget
    • Prepare financial reports
    • Use math or statistics to solve problems
    • Use computers to calculate and analyze
  4. Research and Investigation
    • Identify appropriate information sources
    • Survey, interview, gather information
    • Organize information
    • Analyze information
  5. Communication
    • Speak effectively to individuals
    • Speak effectively to groups
    • Think on your feet
    • Persuade, convince, promote, sell
    • Define, explain, interpret
    • Write clearly and concisely
    • Use media to present ideas creatively
    • Teach/train
    • Critique, edit, proofread
    • Write creatively
  6. Interpersonal
    • Relate well to public
    • Listen/understand feelings of others
    • Work well on a team
    • Deal patiently with difficult people
    • Accept differing opinions
    • Express feelings appropriately
    • Advise/counsel/encourage
    • Use tact, diplomacy, discretion
  7. Leadership/Management
    • Take initiative
    • Work without supervision
    • Make decisions
    • Take risks
    • Organize others to achieve goal
    • Supervise others
    • Mediate/negotiate
    • Run meetings
  8. Other
    • Knowledge of computer languages or software packages
    • Persistence

The Interview

Create A Positive First Impression…

The “presence” you project is a product of the way you dress, speak, act and “carry yourself.” A positive initial impression will serve you well throughout the interview. Conversely, a negative first impression is almost impossible to overcome (in spite of good qualifications), since hiring decisions are often made within the first ten minutes of an interview.

  • Prepare yourself and your family or roommates to react in a businesslike way to job-interview phone calls you receive. Potential employers may call anytime, day or evening and even on the weekends.
  • Attire contributes to the image you project. Be business-like in dress and appearance. Dress professionally and when in doubt, err on the conservative side. Specifically, hair should be clean, neat and simply styled. Don’t neglect shoes and fingernails, and make sure your clothing is well-pressed and well-fitting. Suits are safest for both men and women; a tailored dress may also be acceptable. Men usually choose gray or navy, while women are allowed more flexibility: be careful not to choose something too bright or overwhelming – choose a becoming color and style. Keep any jewelry and perfume subtle.
  • Bring to the interview a folder with references and extra copies of your resume, along with any demonstrations of your work you wish to offer. If you are in a field that prefers a professional portfolio which highlights your work, be sure to have one available. You may also want to prepare a portfolio if you feel that it would provide useful information to support your candidacy.
  • Plan to arrive at least ten minutes early. Allow extra time if you don’t know the area or parking is difficult.
  • If you cannot make the appointment, call well in advance to cancel or reschedule.
  • Relax – try deep breathing for a few minutes before the interview.
  • Give a firm, friendly handshake.

…Leave a Lasting Impression

  • Be Yourself – within the bounds of professional behavior, relax and let your personality show. Try to convey an attitude of respect without fear; self-confidence without cockiness. Be friendly, warm, interested and enthusiastic
  • Be conscious of your body language and posture but don’t adopt an “unnatural” style for the interview. Although a little nervousness is to be expected, avoid mannerisms that indicate tension or nervousness.
  • Try to maintain eye contact whenever the interviewer addresses you, and for most of the time when you address her or him. If there are two or more interviewers, direct your comments to all and establish eye contact individually.
  • Listen attentively, asking questions if you don’t understand a point and building on their comments. Employ active listening skills (i.e. paraphrasing and summarizing what has been said, head nods, etc.) to show you are listening.
  • Don’t interrupt or use profanity or slang. Avoid repetitive phrases such as “you know” or “like”. Plowing on without “taking in” what the interviewer tells you is a real rapport blaster.
  • Answer questions directly and concisely – avoid both one word responses and long, rambling explanations. Use proper grammar and avoid slang and trite phrases.
  • Be positive – avoid volunteering any negative information about yourself or others. Try to phrase even negative responses positively. i.e.: “Have you taken any computer courses?” “No, but I’ve had the opportunity to use Word-Perfect and Excel on the computers at school.”
  • Here’s where your preparation pays off. Tell what you can offer and how your skills and achievements meet the job requirements. Illustrate your skills with examples from jobs or volunteer activities. Focus on how you can meet the employer’s needs, not vice-versa. Show a willingness to learn.
  • In closing the interview, let the interviewer know if you are interested in the position. Ask what the follow-up procedure will be and thank the interviewer for his/her time.


As already mentioned, you are to be an active participant in the interview – not a passive respondent to questions. Setting an agenda of key points you want highlighted in the interview helps you to become an active participant. With a set agenda, you become less self-conscious and look for opportunities to get across your points. Present your qualifications in terms of the interests, skills, and values which parallel the qualifications the employer seeks.

Decoding Interviewer’s Questions

(from Complete Handbook: How to ace the interview, make them say, “we want you! by Shirley Sloan Fader)

Interview questions can fool you because they all seem to be about you. People who don’t get the job spend too much of their limited time talking about their interests and their goals. Truth is, all the questions are attempts to discover what you can do for them.

Below are some commonly asked questions – and also a couple of important follow-up questions you should ask. The same techniques you see in this guide will work for any questions they hurl at you. Decode, then draw on your preparation skills and employer research to discuss how your abilities, experience, and work style fit this employer’s needs.

What interviewer asks Don’t tell them Yes, tell them
Tell me about yourself. (Why did you apply here? What makes you think you can handle this job? Did they teach you anything useful at college? Your life story What you know or can do that would be useful to them in the job you’re applying for.
How would you describe yourself?(Tell me more about yourself. Give me a profile of your personality.) Your religion, politics, life philosophy, matrimonial/maternal plans. It is illegal for them to ask. You are under no obligation to volunteer such information. About traits you have that this kind of work demands, such as “I’m a people person who would enjoy the hours of cold calls this job requires. I can take rejection and keep going. In college, I sold more cold-call advertising for our newspaper than the other two salespeople combined.” Or “I enjoy concentrating on what I’m doing and can bury myself in my work all day, as this job requires.” Be certain to mention that you work well with others. Vary self-praise by quoting others: “My bosses have always said I learn fast and am well organized.”
What’s your experience?(What can you contribute here? Why are you right for us? Why are you so great that we should pick you over the other candidates?) All the jobs you’ve had. About relevant experience and successes – as they relate to their needs. “My degree and internship, where I helped supervise temps compiling monthly production schedules and reports, gave me training for problem solving you’d expect of me.”Important: Now zero in further on their needs: “What parts of my experience interests you most for this position?” Use her answer to indicate your competence in those responsibilities.
Interviewer’s follow-up about your previous reply – such as, “what do you mean you’ve had financial research experience?” “Well, it’s what I just mentioned before.” Whatever you told her before; never mind that you’ve been targeting your experience to the firm’s needs all along. Even professional interviewers may miss significant points the first time around.
Why are you interested in this job? You see it as a rapid ladder to a glamorous, high-paying position. You want “accomplishment” and “challenge” That you want to work hard for them because they are just what you need for your career. “I want to become a marketing executive. You’re a leader in your industry. With your accounts (from your research), I’d have many chances to learn a great deal. Also, because you’re a large organization, I believe there’s many avenues to advance.” Or the other way around: “Because you’re a small company (medium size), I believe I’d be given a variety of assignments and learn a wide range of valuable skills.”
Describe how you handled a difficult situation.(Which of your accomplishments gives you the most satisfaction? What are your greatest strengths?) Every detail “As sorority treasurer, I created new income-producing and expenditure procedures, got them accepted and implemented, and took us to a seven-thousand-dollar surplus.” Or mention the day you grabbed a canoe and rescued someone from drowning as an example of your ability to act coolly under pressure.
What is your greatest weakness?(What are you teased about? What would you most like to change about yourself? I can’t believe you’re perfect. What’s the truth about you?) Any character flaws. (You’re not good at something needed for that job. What you consider poor, she might view as okay.) Something that doesn’t conflict with qualities the job requires. The usual advise is to pick a strength and report it as a weakness: For instance, you get so caught up in your work that you sometimes forget to have lunch. Interviewers recognize the strategy, however, and some find it annoying. Play it by ear, but be ready to confess to neutral faults that don’t matter in this job.
What do you know about the company? “I planned a big research effort, but I had so many interviews, I didn’t get to it.” At least what their company does and sells, how it stacks up in the industry (Leader? New? Small? Medium? Successes?), and other basics. Are they expanding any part of the business? Great plus to know, as that’s where they’re probably hiring.
Your resume says…Tell me about it. “It was so long ago that I don’t remember the details.” Short and specific answers illustrating the point questioned. As you prepared, you should have thought out facts or examples to illustrate every resume claim.
What did you think about jobs you held during college?(How would you improve bosses/ coworkers/ conditions in the jobs you worked at previously) How jobs/ coworkers/ conditions were “stupid”, unpleasant. Even if it’s 100% true, interviewer will see you as the problem. Only positive responses. Examples: “Though nothing’s perfect, basically I’ve gained a lot from my previous work. I learned the need for maintaining good records, the value of pleasing customers, and how to work well with a variety of people.” You’re then seen as having “positive attitudes”, and that’s what this question is all about.
Where do you see yourself in five years? A specific job title. Your plans to go to grad school/ pursue your real interest in art, social causes. The safest answer contains a desire to be regarded as a true professional and team player. Example: “I have always felt that first-hand knowledge and experience open up opportunities that one might never have considered, so while at this point in time I plan to be a part of operations, I would be open to other exciting opportunities which may crop up in the meantime”. You hope to stay at that company and expect that in five years, based on your expanding abilities, you’ll make a significant advance int eh organization. Make interviewer feel “safe” about you.
What starting salary do you expect? A specific sum early in interview. You’re willing to come as a bargain and instantly accept low end of salary range. She’ll wonder why you have so little faith in yourself. (If early in the interview) You’d like to explore more about the job’s responsibilities and opportunities. Later in interview, ask for mid-level range for that job (You should know range from research). If you have a firm job offer, ask for higher end of range. You may not get it all, but you’ll do far better than with an “I’m a meek thing” attitude. And the interviewer will also have a higher opinion of your competence. If necessary, compromise – gracefully and cheerfully! – because the job is such a great opportunity.

More sample questions…

  • Name a problem you’ve encountered and tell how you handled it.
  • Give me an example of an occasion in which you used creativity. Explain.
  • How would you respond to the following scenario…..?
  • In what kind of work environment are you most comfortable?
  • What criteria are you using to evaluate organizations?
  • How do you respond to pressure?
  • In what areas do you feel you need additional experience?
  • What particular aspect of the job appeals to you most?
  • Which aspect of this job least appeals to you?
  • Why did you go to Allegheny College?
  • How did you choose your college major?
  • Were your extracurricular activities worth the time you devoted to them?

Illegal Questions

Federal and state Equal Employment Opportunity regulations prohibit interviewers from asking questions related to marital status, family plans or number of children, child care, physical data, criminal record (unless security clearance is required), religion, race, etc. Although these questions are illegal, be prepared to respond to them in appropriate ways. If you should have concerns regarding appropriate responses to illegal questions, please speak with a Career Education counselor or check the resources available in the Career Education Resource Library.

In some interviews (especially second interviews), employers may ask you to take a personality or aptitude test. These are not illegal tests, and employers use these to identify traits they believe are necessary for success in their field.

Have questions for the interviewer

However, don’t ask questions that could be answered by company literature or through basic research. Ask questions to gain information that you are sincerely seeking. By being an active listener during the interview, you may come up with questions you hadn’t thought about prior to the interview: questions about the work environment; what motivates the interviewer in working for company X; what the track records of previous hires have been, etc. Don’t ask about fringe benefits, vacations, or salary until you have a firm offer. The exception is when you must expend extensive time, effort and money to attend a job interview and you need to know if it is worth your or their time and expense. In this case it is acceptable to ask the human resources department for a salary range and general benefits information.

Examples of questions to ask interviewers:

Questions about the company

  1. What are the prospects for future growth and expansion?
  2. How would you describe the organizational culture?
  3. What do you see as the most positive aspect of the organization? The least positive?
  4. Has the organization had any layoffs or cutbacks in the last 5 years?

Questions about the department/ function

  1. How is the department/ function organized?
  2. What are the major challenges currently faced by this department?
  3. What future challenges and objectives do you anticipate?

Questions about the job

  1. What are the responsibilities and objectives of the position?
  2. What skills have you found to be valuable in this position?
  3. What improvements would you like to see in these area?
  4. Who will evaluate my performance? In what way?
  5. With what other key groups or individuals does this position come in contact?

Questions about advancement opportunities

  1. Assuming good performance, how long might I expect to be in this position?
  2. To what positions would I be likely to progress?
  3. Does the company encourage professional development? How?

Questions about region

  1. What are the housing situation and economic conditions of the general area? (save specific questions about housing, taxes, schools, etc. for after the offer)

Closing questions

  1. Can I provide you with any other information to help you in the decision-making process?
  2. How soon can I expect to hear from you?

Interview Follow-up

Be sure to immediately follow-up any interview you have with a thank you letter. This courtesy projects your professional image, and allows you the opportunity to summarize your interview remarks. You may also use this letter to add comments that were not discussed in the interview.

The thank you letter:
Thank you letters should be written immediately, no later than the next day. Examples of thank you letters are available in the Cover Letter Handbook, available on the Rip Off Rack at Career Education. We have already mentioned the power of initial impressions. The Thank You Letter is a good last impression.