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Career 101: Interviewing

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I receive quite a few emails from readers who are beginning their professional lives and seeking career advice, so I decided to start a new series all about business. There are so many intimidating aspects to starting your career (finding a job, interviewing, office politics, moving up the corporate ladder, etc.) and these posts will attempt to demystify the process while sharing some of my tips on what I've learned from both experience and great mentors. To kick things off, let's start with interviewing. Some of these tips may sound obvious, but are often overlooked or forgotten in the process of trying to land a job.

1. Prepare ahead of time. There are two areas to focus on when you're preparing for an interview: 1) company research and 2) your online profile. We live in a world of information overload, where almost everything you want to know about a company or person is a few clicks away. This access is very beneficial, but it also has some risk. Before your first interview (whether by phone or in-person) find out as much information that you can about the company, the person or people with whom you'll be interviewing and the available position. This knowledge not only shows your commitment and proactive nature, but will also help you ask informed questions. Secondly, if you have public social profiles, you want to make sure there is nothing posted or shared that could cast an unfavorable light on your professional appearance. The same way we all "stalk" random friends and acquaintances, companies definitely use the same tools to get a sense of who you are, so be smart.

2. Dress for success. There's no such thing as a universal uniform that works for every interview. The most important thing is to dress appropriately for the environment. If you're in more of a traditional/conservative industry, it goes without saying that you should probably be in some sort of suit, which can be personalized with a statement necklace or bright bag. If you're interviewing at a creative agency, you may risk looking stuffy if you're in such a formal outfit. If you don't know the protocol for the typical office attire, call ahead and ask either the person with whom you're interviewing or the receptionist. When in doubt, a printed blouse tucked into a pencil skirt with sensible pumps is a safe bet.

3. Be timely. Obviously you're going to want to show up on time for your interview, but it's crucial to arrive even earlier than needed. That way, you not only accommodate for things like traffic, parking, overcrowded elevators and finding the exact location, but it will give you a few moments to collect yourself before you begin. 

4. What to bring. A sleek portfolio should hold everything, including resumés (print them on high quality paper and always bring more than you think you'll need), a pad of paper, and a pen. You'll want to take notes about discussion points during the interview, but don't treat the meeting like a classroom, scribbling down everything without focusing on the person in front of you.

5. Establish a give and take. This is a tip that I learned from Gina Sanders, the former publisher of Teen Vogue. She said that whenever someone offers you something at the beginning of a meeting, even if it's as simple as a cup of water, accept it. It immediately sets the stage that your relationship is that of a give and take and not just one-sided. This also applies to how the conversation should flow during the interview. You want to try and create a natural back-and-forth during your meeting and to remember that you're also there to interview your potential employer, to find out if the company and the people that work there are the right fit for you.

6. Physicality. You know that saying about faking confidence (my mantra in middle school) until it comes naturally? The same applies here. From the minute you meet your interviewer, stand straight with your shoulders back and head held high. A firm handshake and good eye contact makes a strong first impression and bad habits (like playing with your hair, fidgeting, chewing gum) should be avoided.

7. Negotiating. Discussing money is rarely a comfortable experience, but when it comes to your job you need be slightly bold with your requests. Always ask for the top of the salary range, regardless of whether you think you have enough experience. If you don't know the range, simply ask. Conversely, if an employer asks how much you want to make, don't provide a figure but convey you want to make "the highest part of the salary range for the position." By throwing out a figure, you could potentially be selling yourself short, so try to avoid being locked down to a number until it's necessary. If an employer is set on a specific figure and really wants to bring you on, try establishing an accelerated review period (i.e. 6-8 months) where the opportunity for a raise or future bonus is available. You'll have to prove you're worth the investment, but showing confidence in your initial negotiations establishes the tone for future salary conversations.

8. Sell yourself. One of the most important things at the end of an interview is to be forward. Take a few moments to share why you'd be a valuable asset to the team (use some specific examples) and then verbalize that you're actually interested in the position. Even if you're not 100% sold on the job and whether it's a good fit, aim to get an offer. That way, you'll be better equipped at making a decision once the job responsibilities and salary have been clearly defined. And while this last tip might seem rather aggressive, ask if there are any reasons why you might not be a good fit for the job. It shows that you're assertive and will also give you a good idea about the likelihood of you getting an offer. Once you've left the office, send a thank you email (keep it no longer than 4-5 sentences) and follow it with a hand-written note reiterating the same points.

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