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Excerpts from How to Go To College Almost for Free by Ben Kaplan


Interview Mastery


Ever wonder how certain entertainers, journalists, and politicians seem so poised and well-spoken in television interviews?  Well, here's a little secret: For most, it's not because they've got natural on-screen talent exuding from their pores.  Rather, it's that they are so familiar with the interview format, and what to say in any given situation, that their performance becomes second nature. . . .


Preparing for the Interview


What you do before you even show up for an interview contributes to more than 50 percent of your overall performance.  How can this be?  How can what you do before you even show up, shake hands with the interviewer, or utter your first word have that much to do with the ultimate success of the interview?

Quite simply, it's because preparation and practice are the keys to feeling comfortable and confident in the interview setting.  Preparation and practice give you the ability to relax at the interview, respond effortlessly and naturally to questions, and add some spontaneity with ease. . . .


Do your homework


An important precursor to performing well in an interview is to understand the perspective of the interviewer.  If you understand where the interviewer is coming from, you'll be able to anticipate where he or she will go with questions allowing you to formulate answers that are likely to be well received by your audience. . . .

To the extent possible, find out what you can about the person or people who will be interviewing you. . . .  Uncovering snippets of background information gives you some idea about the types of questions to expect and the types of preferences your interviewers might have.


Prepare a Few Key Points


Don't respond only to what an interviewer tosses your way.  That's like being on a basketball team that only plays defense.  Instead, play offense as well: Go into an interview prepared to make several key points of your own – selling points that demonstrate you are deserving of [a good recommendation].  At least one of these points should emphasize [the themes you discussed in your narrative memo].  Communicate your themes with passion and enthusiasm, and never assume that interviewers have read your application word for word. . . .

At the same time, don't dwell on your themes to the exclusion of everything else.  Interviews allow [interview board members] to discover more dimensions of you than they can on the written page, so prepare at least one key point that goes beyond anything mentioned in the written application.  Use the opportunity of meeting the [board members] to show them something fresh, new, and even surprising about yourself that they might not have considered before.


Prepare Anecdotes to Illustrate Your Points


What's the cure for a dull interview?  Quite simply, an anecdote is the antidote.  Telling stories and giving examples keeps the interviewer interested and engaged.  Don't just recite a list of your key personal "selling" points; take the time to communicate interesting anecdotes and stories that illustrate each point.  Rather than communicate these points as a laundry list of credentials, approach the process as though you're putting together a descriptive clothing catalog: Take the time to describe the quality of the material, the style of the fit, and the vibrancy of the colors.

For instance, if your application theme centers on community service, don't just summarize all the service activities you've done.  Talk about a specific community service project and a particularly memorable occasion when you felt  your efforts made a big difference.  Tell an interesting story about a person you helped and how that made you feel.  In the end, this conveys much more about your service efforts than just reciting a list of credentials or facts.

Use the opportunity of an in-person interview to delve into particular experiences in a more in-depth way than you could in the written application.  And when it comes time to [write the interview report] it will likely be your anecdote that the [board members] remember – your interesting, humorous, funny, sad, or poignant story that sets you apart and calls attention to your merits.


Anticipate Interview Questions


The specific questions you'll be asked in any given interview are generally no big secret.  With a little forethought, you can usually predict at least some of them.  [See Coast Guard interview preparation resources].  So take the time to come up with a list of potential questions.  Don't just review the questions in your mind; write them down on index cards. . . .


General Questions
  • How would you describe yourself?

  • Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

  • What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

  • What is your favorite book, and why do you like it?

  • Who is someone you admire, and why?

  • How would you like to be remembered?

  • What has been your greatest accomplishment?

  • What was an occasion when you overcame adversity?

  • How might you contribute to society [or the Coast Guard] in the future?

Activity-Oriented Questions
  • What are your favorite extracurricular activities?

  • What are some activities in which you've shown leadership?

  • What types of things have you done to help others?

Prepare Responses


Once you've come up with a pile of questions on index cards, write out answers to the questions on the reverse side of the cards.  Don't bother writing out actual sentences; just jot down a few notes that will remind you what you want to talk about.  Never try to memorize actual responses verbatim.  After all, you want to seem relaxed and natural.

The key to preparing your responses is to try to be specific, to focus on personal experiences and perspectives, to take into account the [selection criteria], and to avoid generic-sounding answers.  What you don't want to do is prepare a response that sounds like ones given all too often by beauty pageant contestants – responses that are perceived as little more than lip service to what the judges want to hear.  ("My goal for the future is to single-handedly bring about world peace!")  It's perfectly fine to give idealistic, optimistic, and even clichéd answers, but the key is backing up these statements with concrete and specific examples that demonstrate you truly mean what you say and have thoughtfully considered the statement you are making.


Prepare Questions to Ask the Interviewer


During the . . . interview, you often get the opportunity to pose questions to the interviewer.  Your interviewers may ask you directly if you have any questions for them, or a less deliberate moment may arise when the flow of the conversation suggests that you should pose a questions.  So be prepared for such a moment.  A well-thought-out and articulate questions can tell the interviewer a lot about you.  Questions are also an opportunity to convey your knowledge . . . .  It's nice to be able to give the interviewer a chance to talk as well.


"Pepper" Yourself


Put these index cards in a box or favorite hat, and draw out random questions to practice your interview responses.  To view yourself form the interviewer's perspective, videotape your responses, then review and study those videotapes.  Conduct the practice sessions as if they are a rehearsal or a scrimmage.  When you feel comfortable with your responses, do a mock interview with [officers and chiefs at your command].  Provide them with your list of questions, but also allow them to ad-lib as well.  If at all possible, videotape your mock interviews.

After the mock interview is complete, get as much feedback as you can.  Find out what you did well and what you need to work on.  What were the strongest aspects of your interview?  What parts of the interview could use a little more practice?  Did you sound natural and relaxed?  Use their comments and suggestions as stepping-stones for improvement. . . .


Reread and Review Your [Narrative Memo]


. . . During interviews [board members] often ask you specific questions about things you've included [in your memo].  So review your application [and all materials submitted to the board ahead of time], and be prepared to talk intelligently about any information you have submitted.


The Big Day


It's the morning of the big interview.  You're feeling prepared and confident, but the butterflies in your stomach are doing the mambo.  To do your best, you will want everything to be in order the moment you walk into the interview room.  To ensure this result, employ the following suggestions: . . .

Avoid Stress  Before your interview, stay away from people or activities that easily irritate you.  Think happy, happy thoughts.

. . .

Refresh Your Memory  An hour or so before your interview, review your key points, anecdotes, and practice questions and answer.


Arrive at Least 15 Minutes Early  It's always better to arrive early and get settled.  The interviewers could be ahead of schedule, and you wouldn't want to make them wait.  If you're unfamiliar with the location of the interview, make sure ahead of time that you know how to get there.


The Main Event


Finally, it's time for the main event: the interview itself.  The following tips are a few tricks . . . .  Practice these techniques in your mock interviews until they are second nature.


Use a Firm Handshake and Make Eye Contact  Sure, it's old-fashioned, but it still works.  Make a mental note of the interviewer's name when he or she tells it to you.  Burn the name (with the correct pronunciation) into your brain cells.


Listen   No one likes to be ignored.  Look attentive when the interviewer is talking to you – even if he's expounding on a subject about as interesting as the history of butter lettuce in the 20th century.  Resist the temptation to "tune out" the interviewer in preparation for what you want to say next.  Failing to show attentive listening communicates to the interviewers that they don't matter.  Remember – attentive listening is one of the highest compliments you can pay anyone.  Show genuine interest in what an interviewer is saying, and you'll create a strong impression.


Don't Perform a Monologue  It's easy in an interview to start reciting your opinions and accomplishments to the point where the interviewer isn't able to get a word in edgewise.  Resist the urge to start talking and never stop.  Be careful not to get lost in the minutiae of every activity so that you wind up giving a ten-minute discourse on the finer points of your city dump cleanup project.


To the extent that you can, strive to create a two-way dialogue – a real interactive conversation.  If your interviewer comments on something you say by talking about his or her experience and background, ask a follow-up question.  Most people enjoy talking about themselves and will appreciate the opportunity and attention.


Find Common Ground  Each interviewer will respond to your various activities, experiences, credentials, and goals differently.  This is understandable.  Interviewers are viewing your life through their eyes.  For this reason, observe when interviewers are especially interested in something you say (made obvious by body language and verbal clues), and talk about this in more depth; don't forget to ask them questions, too.


If you're talking about how much you loving painting, for instance, and the interviewer comments, "Oh, I enjoy painting as well," seize the opportunity to ask her a question (such as "What type of painting do you do?"). . . .


Be Fluent in Body Language  Researchers at UCLA tell us that an astounding 93 percent of communication is non-verbal.  So use body language to your advantage.  Remember, you're not on trial here.  It's not an interrogation.  An interview should be a friendly conversation, and you hope an interesting one because, after all, it's all about you.  When you speak, don't hold back: Use natural hand gestures, keep your face animated, and project your voice with energy and enthusiasm.  Refrain from slouching the way you probably do when hanging out with your friends or watching television.  By sitting up straight, you communicate confidence and assertiveness.


Make Your Points ... But Don't Force Them  Try to communicate the points and anecdotes you have prepared by working them into  your answers.  But if you aren't asked about something you wanted to talk about, don't completely digress from the interviewer's questions and attempt to force it into the conversation.  In other words, don't respond like the stereotypical politician; you should actually answer the question asked.


Leave Your Annoying Habits at Work  We all have our share of annoying habits, but in an interview you want to look mature and composed.  Avoid tapping your foot, shaking your leg, or doing any type of fidgeting.  Try to cut down on using "um," "like," and "you know" when you talk.
. . .


Be enthusiastic, Smile, and Have Fun  During the interview, try to be enthusiastic and cheerful.  Don't be afraid to show off your pearly whites.  A smile puts the interviewer at ease, dissipates the tension inside you, and conveys confidence.  Besides, interviews should be fun.  If you've practiced enough, all the other points I've mentioned should already be second nature to you, and you'll be able to relax and go with the flow.


Wrap Up with Style  At the end of the interview, express  your gratitude for the opportunity to interview, and communicate how much you enjoyed the discussion.  In addition, try to repeat the interviewer's name in your closing remarks.  (Remember, to the person you are talking to, his or her name is the sweetest sound in the world.) . . .


Short  Articles About Interviews

Interview Chit-Chat Pays Off

Making the Most of Marathon Interviews

Avoid These Interview Bloopers

Seven Deadly Interview Sins

How to Ace a Job Interview

9 Tips to Prepare for a Job Interview

10 Overused Phrases Interviewers Hate

Your Job Interview "Manners" Matter!

10 To-Do Rules To Use in a Job Interview

The Worst Interview Mistakes To Avoid

5 Questions Interviewers Always Ask

How to Block Stress - Before the Interview!

Interviewing Etiquette

7 Mistakes to Avoid in Job Interviews

Deadly Mistakes Made In Job Interviews

Mastering the Phone Interview

How to Stand Out on Your Next Job Interview

5 Ways to Look Relaxed During a Job Interview

4 Ways To Answer Any Question Without Being Paralyzed By Fear

How to Answer “Bad” Interview Questions With “Good” Answer

Ready for an Unexpected Job Interview?

Two Killer Interview Tips

Secrets to phone interview success

How To Interview Like a Pro

The Rules of Informational Interviewing

Keep it Professional

6 Things to Do Before Your Job Interview

Improve Your Interviewing Skills In Hours

Secret Tip For Tough Interview Questions

7 Tips for Successful Federal Interviews

Five Guidelines on the Art of Interviewing

Interview Bloopers & How to Correct Them

Body Language in Interviews

“To-Do” Rules for Job Interviews

Questions to Ask During a Job Interview

Actions & Phrases that are Job Interview Suicide

10 Top Mistakes People Make in Job Interviews

Tips to Boost Your Job Interview Confidence

Successfully Closing the Interview

The Mother of All Interview Questions and How to Answer It


Job Search Web Sites


The advice given on many civilian job-search web sites is also useful in preparing for your interview.  These are just a few of dozens you can find on-line.

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Last Modified 1/12/2016
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