Excerpts from How to Go To College Almost for Free by Ben Kaplan
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. . . .
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. . . .
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.
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.
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.
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. . . .
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?
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?
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.
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.
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. . . .
. . . 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.
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: . . .
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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.
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.
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?"). . . .
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.