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WORKING STRATEGIES A COLUMN BY AMY LINDGREN

Business column: Fast (and slow) interview prep

Friday, March 28, 2014 - 7:57 am

Last week's column on 20-minute resumes brought some interesting response from readers, most of whom agreed that sometimes you just need a quick resume to check it off the list.

Some readers wondered if the same principle applies to other aspects of job search. My answer is a guarded “yes” – some parts of the process can be streamlined with no noticeable impact on results. I'd say this is true of most online applications (which I'd streamline right out of the picture if I could) and quite a few cover letters.

There's one element of job search that I hate to see shortened: interview preparation. Since the decision to hire is made almost exclusively from the interview, it follows that this is the most important part of the process.

In my ideal world, candidates would spend the equivalent of at least two days preparing for each in-person interview. The first eight hours would go to information gathering and the other eight hours would be used to identify and prepare for the anticipated questions.

In the real world, I'm happy when candidates set aside three or four hours to prepare. Understanding that you won't always have two days to prepare for interviews, the following timelines will help you maximize the time you do have.

Gather info: 1-8 hours

The minute your interview is scheduled, the race for data begins. Your steps: 1. Call or email your contacts to ask what or who they know; 2. Hop on the Internet to search for information on the company as well as its competitors and market sector; 3. Screw up your courage to contact people you don't know but should – including current or former employees, vendors and industry experts.

Success tip: Get as close to the department as possible in gathering your information. Data that comes from people near the situation is better than generalizations about similar companies or the overall sector.

Analysis: 1-2 hours

Review the information you've gathered, using some of these questions to help you organize data:

•Why are they filling this position?

•Which new skills do they need?

•Which challenges does the department manager face?

•What are my primary assets related to their needs?

Success tip: Sift your data until you can identify a core set of three or four assets that you possess that they need. These key messages are your primary talking points in the meeting, upon which you will build your answers.

Answer prep: 1-3 hours

Start by identifying the questions you anticipate being asked. You can do this by reviewing your analysis in step 2. If you were trying to find a worker with these skills, what might you ask? Would you want examples of problem-solving aptitude, technical expertise, personality, etc?

To augment your list of likely questions, use the Internet to search phrases such as “Interview questions for ___ (electrical engineers, elementary teachers, etc.).” If your potential employer is a well-known company, try using their name in the search criteria.

Now factor in likely questions that are specific to your situation, such as “Why did you change careers?” or “What have you been doing since your layoff?”

Once you have created a list of potential questions you can start plugging in answers, based as much as possible on the key messages you developed.

Success tip: Can you illustrate any of your strengths with a visual aid? Photos, charts, screen shots from web sites, reports and other work samples can add dimension to your answers.

Practice: 1-3 hours

Now that you have questions and answers, your preparation is a matter of practice. In a short window of time, you can rehearse a few of the most difficult answers; in a longer period you might try a mock interview with a friend asking the questions.

Success tip: A taped interview will allow you to review your performance and reduce awkward mannerisms you might not otherwise discover.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.