Heather Krasna is the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service, and the Director of Career Services at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
Job interview questions can be boiled down into three big categories:
1. Can you do the job? That is, do you have the skills, training, or ability to at least learn how to do the job? Questions like “give me an example of a time when you used your research skills,” or “what
are your strengths” fit with this question type.
2. Do you want the job? Questions like “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” or “Why did you choose to pursue your MPA degree” come down to seeing if you are motivated enough to work hard enough to do a
3. Can you get along with other people? You could have aced the first two questions, and think you are the best qualified person for the job, but in fact, if you can’t get past this last question, you
won’t land the job.
While there are specific strategies for answering questions #1 and 2, which I can cover in future posts, today I want to focus on question #3.
It’s much more important than most people think to be well-liked in the job search process. What often happens is that an employer will see numerous candidates who are qualified at the same level, and who
both really want the job, so the question becomes: “Who is nicer?” Who
was more friendly and polite, who shares your sense of humor, and who
could you imagine working long hours with, socializing after work with,
and sitting next to on a long plane ride?
A lot of the answer for #3 equals being polite. In case you need a refresher, here are some pointers on job search etiquette:
DURING THE APPLICATION PROCESS
When you apply for a job, or even before you apply, it is a good idea to follow up with a phone call to the employer if possible. (Most people don’t do this, but doing so in the right way can set you apart
from other candidates). The tone of this call, and what you ask, are a
big reflection on both your enthusiasm and your politeness. Avoid
asking questions that simply make the person on the other line comb
through piles of paper, like “Did you get my application?” Instead,
try the following:
Jane Q. Employer: Hello, Jane Employer speaking.
You: Good morning, Ms. Employer, my name is Bob Jobseeker, and I have a quick question about the public policy analyst position you have open.
I’m sure you’re busy–would you have just a minute to discuss it now,
or should I call back later? (respect the other person’s time)
Jane: I have a moment now.
You: Thank you so much. (show appreciation). I’m about to apply for this position, and I think it would be a great fit for my skills. I was just wondering what specific skills you are
seeking in the ideal candidate (be sure your question isn’t answered by the job description; and give the other person a chance to talk)…
Express enthusiasm and gratitude throughout your short conversation, then follow up with Jane with a brief thank-you email. You might even then start your cover letter with a statement referring to your
discussion with Jane.
SCHEDULING AN INTERVIEW
More politeness comes into play if and when you are being scheduled for a job interview. The person scheduling you may or may not be on the hiring committee. Regardless, show your gratitude and enthusiasm
about being chosen for an interview. Try not to be difficult in your
scheduling– having to reschedule is a red flag to most employers, who
are trying to suss out your trustworthiness and commitment before you
walk in the door.
For your interview itself, be sure to arrive about 10 minutes early– too much inconveniences your interviewer and shows desperation; and too late is a huge job search no-no.
If –heaven forbid!– you ever actually do run late for an interview (something you should try to avoid at all costs), call on your cell phone as far in advance as humanly possible, with the following message:
Jane Employer: Hello, Jane here.
You: Good morning, Ms. Employer, this is Bob Jobseeker. I know we have our interview scheduled for 11am, and this interview is extremely important
to me. I’m so sorry to tell you this, but my car broke down this
morning, and I had to take a taxi. I should be able to get to your
office at 11:15am. I want you to know that I know your time is very
valuable, and if you wish to reschedule this interview, I totally
understand. This emergency was completely out of my control, and I
just want you to know that I would never to reschedule in any other
DURING THE INTERVIEW
During the interview itself, you should be friendly and polite to each person you meet, including receptionist and anyone you meet in the elevator. It’s quite common for two candidates to be equally
qualified, and the decision of who to hire is based on how nice they
were to the receptionist!
Show your appreciation for the opportunity to interview, and thank each and every person who interviews you at the beginning and the end of your interview. At the very end of your interview, try to get a
business card from each person interviewing you; barring that, at least
ask for the spelling of each person’s name and write it down.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
Within 24 hours of the interview, send a thank-you email, followed by a written thank-you note. Why both? This is a matter of personal opinion, but the email is quicker, but the written note is much
classier. People who are of a generation that did not grow up with
email expect a written thank-you. I’m a fan of a thank-you letter, in
a business letter style format (since the interview is a business
meeting), on resume letter quality paper stock. Send one to each and
every person who interviewed you, and ideally, thank the receptionist
that scheduled the interview as well. In this day and age, a written
thank you letter or note is something people simply don’t receive often
and makes you stand out.
One of the main reasons to do networking is to be remembered favorably, not only as a talented worker with great skills, but as a decent human being. Your main goal as a networker is to be referred to
other people and/or to get an internal referral when you apply for a
job, and to have someone trust you enough to refer you in that way, you
have to be remembered positively. Respect your network contact
person’s time and expertise. If your informational interview is
designed to last a half hour, be sure not to take more time than that
unless the other person asks you to. When you have an informational
interview or other networking meeting with someone, be sure to send a
thank-you card (in the case of an informational interview, as opposed
to a job interview, the other person has done you a personal favor, so
a more personal thank-you like a card is in order).
If you actually get a job offer, it’s also extremely important to thank all the people in your network who helped you along the way: your references, your supporters, and especially anyone in your network who
helped you with informational interviews. If someone went above and
beyond–for example, helping you get an internal referral, or
recommending you–that person deserves at least a thank-you card, if
not a box of chocolate or flowers, or other small but professional gift.
HANDLING REJECTION WITH CLASS
Politeness is even more important in the one situation when you are least likely to feel like being polite– when you are rejected. If you are rejected for a job, especially after an interview, responding
politely (even if you are really disappointed or angry) will set you
apart from other candidates and may even help you stay in consideration
with the organization for future opportunities. It’s rare for people
to think to do this, but even after a rejection, sending a short note
(saying how you understand that you were not selected but you still are
very interested in the organization and hope to be considered for other
opportunities in the future) can keep you remembered positively.
In short, if you say please and thank you throughout your job search related interactions, you will go a lot further than other similarly qualified candidates.
For more tips on being friendly during the job search process, I recommend How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and The Savvy Networker by Ron & Caryl Krannich.