The most important question you’ll answer in a job interview

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Most of us have heard the expression ‘First impressions are the longest lasting’ or ‘First impressions count’. Nothing is more true in the job interview.

Whether it is the impression made in the first 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 2, 5 or 10 minutes most interviewers have already made up their mind about you early on. Knowing this human fallibility, how can you use this to your advantage in a job interview? Simple! Know that generally, the interviewer is either unprepared or under-prepared to interview you…

Most interviewers are busy people, racing from one meeting to another, working on projects, meeting customers and other corporate busyness. In this myriad of activity, preparation for ‘that interview at 11 am’ very much takes a back seat, meaning that most interviewers may only take a cursory glance at your resume before interviewing you.

On the back of minimal if any preparation, the interviewer then relies on those off-the-cuff questions like ‘What are your weaknesses?’, ‘What do you see yourself doing in ‘x’ years?‘ and ‘Why don’t you step me through your resume’, which is basically saying, ‘I am a lazy sod and have not bothered to read it.’

In the same category of what I term ‘lazy, off-the-cuff’ questions is the classic, ‘Why don’t you tell me about yourself’?‘ This is normally the first question out of the interviewers’ mouth after any initial small talk and an overview of what will be covered in the interview. It also buys the interviewer a few moments to catch their breath, and take another sneaky look at the resume.

Common – and ineffective – responses to this question include personal history (‘I am married with 12 children and enjoy woodwork’) and/or a lengthy rendition of work experience (‘I started working in 1985 with company X, in 1987 I moved to company Y…’). In other words, death by a thousand cuts…

If you want to significantly differentiate yourself from other candidates and give yourself the foundation for a great interview, prepare a response with these 4 elements:

  1. I am a….

  2. I have worked in…

  3. I have vocational/professional skills in…

  4. My strengths as an employee or manager are….

Let’s use an example: “I am an experienced human resources business partner and I’ve worked in transport and IT for company X and most recently for company Y. I have skills in recruitment and selection up to senior executive level, talent management and succession planning in global organisations and the development of broad strategies that aid employee retention. My strengths include developing effective and productive relationships with all levels of employees and managers, the ability to effectively manage my time and achieve set priorities and a strong working knowledge of business technology.”

This summarizes who you are professionally and what you offer the potential employer…In essence your value proposition or what problems you can solve for them. You should also tailor it to suit the role you are applying for, because at the end of the day it’s all about matching the person to the requirements of the job.

What this response also does is to ‘feed’ the unprepared interviewer a number of prompts from which they can ask further questions. For example, ‘You mentioned that one of your strengths is around business technology. Can you tell me more about this?’ You betcha I can! Because in addition to getting my pitch right, I also have also thoroughly prepared specific examples to illustrate each of these areas of skills and strengths.

So, aside from being professionally dressed relevant to the role and engaging in comfortable pre-interview small-talk with the interviewer(s), you have nailed what is often the first question in a job interview. What a great first impression!

For assistance in all aspects of job search, contact Paul Di Michiel (The Career Medic) by clicking here. Paul provides tailored job search services around resumes, cover letters, interview skills, and LinkedIn and fear-free networking.

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