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Sunday Times STLive By Tina Weavind, 2012-02-12

Crack that key job interview

Not many enjoy them, but there are ways to improve the experience and the outcome, writes Tina Weavind

In terms of awkwardness, job interviews are worse than blind dates. You have to impress people you have not met before, and get them to believe you are the best goldfish in the bowl - all while you cling desperately to your dignity. At least on a blind date the other party is in the same boat.

But the more interviews you go to, the less intimidating the process becomes . Here are a few things you can do to boost your confidence, limit your stress and increase your chance of success.

Try to schedule your interview for the middle of the morning. A mid-morning appointment will give you time to get there without having to battle traffic, and will stop you from wasting that time sitting at your desk worrying about what awaits you. Also, you will look fresh, your clothes will be at their least creased and your hair at its neatest.

Executive coach Eileen Thayser says what you wear is important. Make sure your clothes are appropriate for the company - and that you feel confident wearing them. Clothes give people clues about who we are, and while we've all been told not to judge a book by its cover, we all do when we have nothing else to go on. If you know you look good and your clothes are appropriate, you'll have one thing less to worry about.

Make sure you are fully prepared mentally, says Thayser. Do your homework both on the company and the industry. Read up about the company's history and the direction they are going in. Find out who's in charge and who the other major players are in the company. Try to find out who you'll be working for, and who will be working for you and with you. Thayser also suggests you find out the industry standard salary rate for the job you are interviewing for. And it can't hurt to do the same for the positions you will want to be promoted into.

Make sure you are physically prepared. Unless you're applying for a position in a tobacconist or at British American Tobacco, don't have a cigarette immediately before your interview - if your interviewer doesn't smoke, the smell will dominate his or her first impression of you. Make sure your phone is switched off. You won't win any points if it doesn't ring, but if it does you're going to look unprofessional and careless. Bring along an extra copy of your CV, and a notebook and pen to take down anything pertinent. And don't chew gum.

Don't offer more personal information than you need to. You're not going to endear yourself to anyone by being cold and impersonal, but it's probably best not to discuss your outstanding debts or your relationship with your current colleagues and former girlfriend. Stick to measurable, work-related experiences unless the personal information you are offering is appropriate for a work environment.

Interviews are not a good time to indulge your inner wallflower. You need to speak clearly and with confidence and no matter how little you know about a subject, never say "I don't know" or use yes/no answers. Tanja Koch, MD of DAV Professional Placement Group, suggests preparing some answers in advance to help paint a flattering picture of your abilities when the opportunity arises. For example, think of times you have solved problems in your current job, how you have saved your present company money, increased their revenue, or created new earning streams. When the time comes, you will have the relevant information on the tip of your tongue and will be able to communicate it clearly.

While it is advisable to be positive about your successes, don't oversell yourself, or you might end up looking desperate and self-centred, and you are more likely to annoy rather than impress your interviewers. If you have a real-life scenario to back up an answer, use it. But don't gush or babble, or give weak, overlong answers that will have the your interviewer thinking about his or her dry-cleaning.

Ask questions too. Koch says the interview is an opportunity for you to find out if this is really where you want to work. It's a chance to get a feeling for the corporate culture and the kind of environment you'll be in if you get the job. Ask questions that aren't readily answered through online searches or in company brochures. For example, what software does the company use? What are the biggest challenges a person in your anticipated post will face? If you will be working on projects, how long do they run for on average?

Clean up your online persona. Thayser says this is worth taking very seriously because you can virtually guarantee that your Facebook and Twitter profiles will be looked at at some point if you are a short-listed candidate. Those photographs of you dancing on the table at your cousin's 21st? Get rid of them, or at the very least, untag yourself.

Make sure that you listen carefully. Perhaps one of the most valuable things you can do in an interview, says Thayser, is to really take in what you are being asked so you can structure your answers in the most relevant way possible.

A few questions you are  likely to be  asked, and possible ways to answer them

How would you describe yourself?

This is worth preparing for, because it is highly likely to crop up in a first interview. While it is a personal question, it is best answered in terms that relate to the job on offer. Are you reliable, loyal or creative? Perhaps you are shy and prefer the company of numbers to chatting with colleagues in the canteen. Are you punctual and deadline-driven? If you struggle to find appropriate descriptions, imagine how your parents or your friends would describe you. Try to throw in a few examples to illustrate the adjectives you use.

What are your weaknesses?

Executive coach Eileen Thayser says this is generally not a trick question, and appropriate disclosure is the best policy. But remember that your weaknesses can also be strengths. Thayser describes herself as someone who is weak at maths, yet she worked successfully in financial institutions. The upshot is that she is adept and creative enough to find and use a variety of tools that will compensate for her shortcoming. She suggests you use an example of a blunder and how you rescued and/or learnt from the situation.

Why are you interested in working here?

This is your chance to be flattering and to show your interest in and knowledge of the company. Tell them what you find exciting about what they do or produce, and what fires you up about them. Stay away from responses like, "All my friends want a job here," and stick to things that highlight your belief in the driving principles of the company. If you're interviewing for a job at a miner, discuss their excellent safety and environmental record, and why you believe in the long-term demand for, say, iron ore. Make sure you are clear on the facts about the company.

Where do you see yourself in five years' time?

You need to walk a line between sounding like an arrogant over-achiever and a no-hoper. Consider talking about skills you would like to have obtained, either formally or through experience, and how this might put you in line for something more senior in the company. Depending on your understanding of the company organogram, you can make this as specific or vague as you deem fit. Saying you plan to dethrone the CEO in five years might not be the way to go.

What have been your achievements to date?

Prepare for this question by thinking about recent achievements in your current work environment. Were they commercial-, people- or process-oriented? How did the situation arise and what was the effect of your intervention? If you have little work experience, discuss personal accomplishments that could have a bearing on the job you're trying to get. Think about wins you've had that will demonstrate your determination, initiative or ability to work in a team.

Describe a difficult situation you've faced and how you tackled it.

This will show your interviewer what your definition of difficult is and your ability to be creative and "think outside the box". Choose a recent work situation that became problematic, preferably not because of you. Explain the context and the situation as briefly and clearly as possible. Explain what options existed and why you chose to go the route you did. Then discuss the outcome, and why it was positive.

Why do you want to leave your current job?

The golden rule here is not to bad-mouth the company or anyone in it - and, if possible, don't give money as the motivator. Be positive and clear about your current circumstances and your goals. Are you looking for a new challenge, more responsibility, experience or perhaps a change of environment? Make sure this answer is clear in your head, because it will almost certainly come up.

Why do you want this job?

The interviewer needs to know that the job and all it entails fits your personality and aptitudes and that it will fulfil your long-term goals. It's also important that it be something you enjoy. You need a good understanding of what it is that you will be doing if you get the job.