Letters of rec: How you ask for them matters!

I know that when I was a student, I had a great deal of anxiety about asking for letters of rec, and now that I am on the other side of the table, I wanted to share a bit of perspective that I have gained, to help you get the best possible letters of support. First of all, it is important to remember that writing a letter (if the person is writing you a good one) requires a tremendous amount of work, so you want them to understand that you know you are asking for a  favor. And I say that not to dissuade you from asking, but to remind you that you are looking for ways to show your gratitude and appreciation. This begins in the way that you ask for this favor.

Provide all materials without having been asked
Anything that describes why it is that you want this opportunity. Also, a paragraph that explains what skills, interests, experiences, qualifications etc of yours make you a particularly suitable candidate. This is only to your benefit as it will make your recommendation letter stronger.

Clearly communicate when/how the materials are due
And remind them. Your reccommender is probably writing at least 20 such letters, and they cannot possibly keep track of all of your logistics like the address to which yours need to be sent, whether submitted online or mailed, Send reminders about a week ahead of the due date that convey your gratitude and ask if there is any material that is still needed – you would not believe how much time it takes to have to look this up, so this is a wonderful way to show appreciation.

Tell your recommender why it is that you want THEM to write you this letter
And DO NOT ever let this reason be: “because I asked 3 other people ahead of you and they have all said no.” Tell this person something about what you learned from them, why it is that they have particular insight into your qualifications. And this is not just to flatter them. This will help them craft a letter with the best possible insight into your unique gifts, which will make your letter that much stronger.

Give them an out
There may be many reasons why this person does not feel as though they would be the best person to write a letter for you, some of which may have to do with you and some of which may have absolutely nothing to do with you, for example, their employment status at the institution where you happened to have taken the class, or their relationship with the person to whom you have asked them to write the letter. And in fact, it may be a bit awkward for them to go into all of this with you, and it probably would be much better for all parties involved if they do not, but in order to help protect their face in this way, you need to give them an out. Something along the lines of “if for whatever reason you do not feel as though you cannot write me a strong letter…”

Do NOT throw your stress at them!
Believe me, your reccomender understands how stressful this processes of applying for graduate school and applying for jobs are. We have been through it. Most of us many MANY times. Take a breath. Take a minute to step back and think about what you are asking them to do for you. You are asking them to vouch for you that you are prepared to take on increased commitment and responsibility. When you come to them with your angst and stress about the application process itself, this does not bode well. Think very carefully about why it is that you are applying for this now and whether or not you are truly ready.

Which brings me to……
Ask for these at least a month ahead if possible, and especially if this request falls over a holiday, such as Christmas break. Professors have a reputation for having a great deal of free time, but the truth of the matter is that what they have is perhaps only somewhat greater freedom in scheduling their time. Most faculty are booked solid at least 2 weeks out during any given moment of the semester, and so to ask for a letter with less than two weeks’ lead time means that you are asking them to sacrifice something that has already been committed to. This is quite stressful, and is not likely to put them in the best mood to sing your praises as an organized, thoughtful, and considerate individual.

The good news is that if you feel like they are a good person to write your letter, it is probably because you felt a connection to them, to something that they taught you, to something that they are passionate about.  They likely felt this too, so keep accentuating this!  🙂  And here’s to better and better rec letters!  🙂

Some love for networking

Networking: what is it?
First of all, networking is not a dirty word! It should never be about being opportunistic and taking advantage of people, it is about creating and maintaining a group of people who can serve to guide and advise you in your career. You build a network to connect with people who are interested in and excited about the same things that you are. Networking gives you opportunities to practice talking about yourself, and to listen and learn about others. It is going to be through networking that you find out about opportunities (for further networking and for jobs).

My definition of what constitutes networking is very broad. It is informed by my own research practice of ethnographic fieldwork, approaching others with an open mind, with curiosity, participating with them and observing by paying attention to how they think about things and what this teaches you about yourself and your ways of being and doing. I suggest that you are all already networking, that we all are, every day of our lives. Thus, while I cannot teach you how to network, what is can do is make you more aware of your current network, how to activate it, and how to build and maintain it.

So, who is in your network? From your personal life: Your family, your friends, your significant others, your doctors, dentists, etc. Basically anyone that you talk to as you shop, eat, drink, exercise could potentially be part of your network. People that you know through your work life you probably already think of as part of a network, but for those of you who are in school, remember that your classmates and your teachers are and will be central figures in your network. You network every day when you show up to class, when you hand in homework, when you study together and even when you hang out and blow off steam afterwards. For better or for worse, being a part of a community means being accountable to those around you, so when you begin to think about networking, one of the things that you want to do is become more aware of how you come off, and how others see you. Along these lines, and in the spriti of soliciting honest feedback, you may be interested to read my story about the non-reversing mirror.

Of course, there will be people who abuse their networks, and you will want to avoid them, or manage them carefully, and be mindful that you never become that person. Perhaps now is a good time to review the golden rules of networking:

Three golden rules of networking

• Networking is not about asking for a job, it is about learning about someone’s professional path, getting feedback about your own. The exchange should arise out of a genuine curiosity and interest.
• Be respectful of this person’s time. For example, by researching the company before you come to meet with them (even if you know that you would not want to work there). DO NOT waste time in an informational interview by asking what their organization does.
• Be paying attention for ways that you might be able to help this person, resources that you could share, connections that you could make, ways that you could give back.

I have read in the Economist that for every job any successful person has at least 16 other people, key individuals in their network who are out there thinking about you. With the exception of jobs that I have had in restaurants, just about every single job that I have ever gotten, with a handful of exceptions, I got through my network.

Perhaps because of its tremendous value, networking is difficult!! And the anxiety about networking continues even after you have made the contact. Maintaining contact is work and it can be nerve-wracking. But one of the key objectives of maintaining your network is just to keep prompting their memories to think about you and thinking about people for you to meet and activities for you to be aware of. There is probably no better way to do this than just being physically in someone’s office. You may happen to come in on a day when they have had a meeting about needing to reach out to interns. To stay in their minds, you may offer to do a bit of research or a volunteer project for them. Think about them the way that you would want them to think about you: send them articles that you come across which you think are likely to interest them. Let them know about events likely to be of interest to them! Be the informational interviewee that you wish to see in the world! 🙂

The non-reversing mirror

When I was a young graduate student at NYU, taking my first course in field methods, my professor Renee Blake took our class on a little fild trip to learn about how others see us. She took us to a shop in New York City that had non-reversing mirrors called True Mirror.

For many, looking in a mirror that does not reverse your image can be like looking at yourself for the first time. This certainly was true for me, I saw assymetries that I had not been aware of, and it was a fundamentally different experience seeing myself move in a mirror when it was not the opposite hand, moving in the opposite direction.

From their website:
When you communicate with every other individual in the world, your eyes always meet left-eye-to-right-eye and right-eye-to-left eye. This normal biological pattern conveys information “just so”. With traditional mirrors, where the right eye picks up the right-eye reflection, and the left picks up the left’s, you are experiencing a highly unnatural way of gathering information about yourself. You don’t communicate with anyone else in the world in that pattern. The result is that we always feel we are somehow different than everyone else, often in a negative way. It is very common for people to feel “I won’t join a club that will have me” or “I know there’s something wrong with me, no one else seems to see it, but I sure do.” Other people report that flat mirrors create uncomfortable or pointless feelings that really don’t have any good explanation.

I would characterize my experience with the non-reversing mirror as quite unsettling. but it did help me to see myself in a new way and think about what kind of impression I give off. This is so important when we are jobsearching. Finding ways to understand how we are being seen.

The closest parallel that I can think of is in cultivating a network that will give you the good, the bad and the ugly. You desperately need honest feedback, keeping asking for it from those you trust!!! Tell them that you appreciate honesty when they trust you enough to give it! It may feel distorted when you first hear it, because you may be used to only having one version of yourself reflected back to you, but the sooner you can become aware of and comfortable with the full picture, the better!

LinkedIn: New media, social media, or computer-mediated communication (CMC)?

When we are researching LinkedIn, are we researching new media, social media, computer-mediated communication? Researchers are actively deciding which term to use to because the term that you use says something about how you understand these interactions and what makes them worthy of study.

So to begin, while there are important ways that these conversations feel new, but to call this “new media” would suggest that it is by definition NEW, which obviously is not the case when you look at LinkedIn for five minutes and realize how it borrows from genres like resumes. Thus, newness cannot entirely be the case.

To call this computer-mediated-communication calls attention to the communication and the ways that it is mediated by the instrumentalities (which we all know to not be limited to computers nowadays) and seems to give undue weight to them and not the people who use this language to DO things in the real world. For me, what is interesting about LinkedIn is how people USE it to DO things like meet people, make meaningful connections, develop ideas, get jobs, discover their passions. I am a linguist, so I am in a position to comment on the role that language plays in accomplishing these ends, but as I am a SOCIO linguist, I am particularly interested in the social implications of doing things on the site like “inviting,” “welcoming,” “linking,” “recommending,” “endorsing” and joining groups, posting questions, and participating in discussions.

Thus, we are left with the term “social media” which feels right when you come to understand how what is expected on LinkedIn seems to be like that which has come to be expected on Facecebook (West and Trester 2013), the norm for being a good user on LinkedIn is that of “joining the conversation.”

Perhaps it is precisely the convergences, the ways that all of these ways of interacting come together, that make LinkedIn what it is, and that equipped with this knowledge, you can use LinkedIn strategically, to its fullest potential, or in other words, like a linguist!

Make some time for your job search over break

As the holidays are fast approaching, and you prepare to put away the books for a while to go home to be with family and friends, make some time for the job search by asking those who know and love you well to reflect with you about where you have been. Take them out for a coffee, and bring a journal!

The questions guiding below are for your own personal reflection, but they can all be addressed to friends and family as well. Ask those who are close to you how it is that you talk about work and school? Which tasks do you describe most positively? What do you seem to like most about them? Which tasks / project do you complain about? What do you express as being your reasons for disliking them? Ask them to reflect with you on your Academic and Professional life thus far and where it is that they see you going.

When searching for a job that will best suit you, you want to closely examine your path with an eye to identifying patterns in the choices that you make and have made thus far. What can you learn from them? In the way that you are trained as a sociolinguist to examine presuppositions, you can identify underlying assumptions and (often largely unsconscious) systematicity and patterning in your own academic and professional life. Unfortunately, we often have a very hard time seeing ourselves objectively, but your friends and family can help because they have been along with you on this ride. They probably have seen and undersrtood more about you than you have realized, but have never thought to ask. So ask. What do they see as your strengths, your values?

Your Academic Life
Research: When you are given the choice, what kinds of research topics, communities, and methods of analysis are you drawn to? Do you prefer field research or reading? Why? Maggie Debelius in SWAYGTDWT? talks about this as a question about whether you tend to prefer to get your information from people or from books. This point is a significant one. These tendencies may point to different choices of industry or maybe functions within those industries, or maybe even just ways that you can structure any job to carve out more of the work that you enjoy. You will probably be better at jobs you enjoy simply because you enjoy them.

Study Habits: Ask your friends and family what they have observed about your work habits including whether you prefer to work alone or in groups. What time of day do you get your best work done? Do you seem to prefer the structure of a deadline or do you like to have time and space to be creative and exploratory with your thinking, research, and writing? Do you find yourself volunteering to do things like editing for your peers? The seeds of your future path may well be in the things that people in your life come to you for.

Professors: Think about the feedback you have gotten from your professors about what projects you have done the best on. Go back to these who you trust to ask some more about where they see your strengths. What type of instruction do you prefer (this can tell you something about how you function in a team or what type of supervision you want to look for / ask for). Thinking about professors who you found challenging to work with, what can you identify as being the source of your frustration? Sometimes we forget that we can really ask for the work environment that we want. When we know as much as possible about how we function, the better position we are in to make that dream job!

Classes: Looking back on the classes you have had thus far, what types of classes do you seem to be drawn to? Which do you excel at, even offering to help classmates / peers? When you are given freedom of type of project to create, do you choose multimedia, web-based, or service-type projects? What types of projects do you excel at?

Your Professional Life:
What jobs have you had? Why were you drawn to each?
Which aspects did you most enjoy? Why?
Which did you least enjoy? Why?
What aspects of the workplace were most conducive to your success? What barriers to success did you encounter?

Activity: Many career search books (SWAYGDWT?, What Color is your Parachute?) have your reflect back on your top professional accomplishments in terms of what skills you utilized to accomplish them. This is a very useful exercise in beginning to deconstruct things that you may have done well but without thinking about what you were doing when you were doing them. This will help you break down familiar activities into their constituent pieces. Ideally, you want to find ways to use skills that you already possess and that you know that you love using, I want you to ask those around you to help you identify and understand your acomplishments. Ask them to describe a time that they have seen you really excel at something. What skills, interests, and gifts were most active in those moments? Where do they see you finding expression of those gifts professionally?

Finally, start looking at these people in your life as people who themselves have had professional journeys that you can learn from. Reflect with them about their own Academic and Professional lives by thinking through some of the above questions in their worlds. For example, you may know that your mom worked as a school principal, but you may not know what aspects of her job she most enjoyed or why she was drawn to that path?

But it’s only an X not an interview…..

X being a meeting for coffee, a quick chat with an important person that a friend has arranged, and recently from a student who was able after 2 years to finally set up a conversation over Christmas Break with a major executive at an organization of interest.!

What is this interaction?
Now, networking can be a rather nebulous thing, and you may indeed find yourself more often than you might like siting down across the table from a person having an interaction that you do not understand with someone who you don’t really know which someone else arranged for you. However, you should treat this as a job interview if for no other reason than for your own sanity, that way at least one person knows what the interactional frame is. The truth is that the person across the table from you may not have any expectations for this interaction either, or maybe they do (and if you get the sense that they do, you should let them guide things), or maybe they don’t YET, but when they hear about you and what you are passionate about, they might be prepared to offer you something. Most people who have jobs have need of assistance, and hiring someone can sometimes be just a question of timing and bureaucracy. Maybe they can easily arrange something for you, but this will only happen if you are ready!!

This actually happened at my very first informational interview, but because I was completely unprepared, I was in no position to recognize let alone accept the opportunity that was presenting itself to me.

So, the story:
When I began my job here at Georgetown working with the MLC program, I was given the task of conducting 50 informational interviews over the course of my first semester. Now, for those of you who have not yet begin informational interviewing, let me tell you: THAT IS A LOT!!I figured I would start with former jobs. The executive producer at McNeil Lehrer Productions had a sudden opening in her schedule for the following day. Knowing how busy she is, I jumped at the chance to meet with her, and made the mistake (since I had previously worked there) of thinking that I did not need to prepare. Or that is to say I was half-prepared: I was ready to talk about myself and my interests, but had not taken any time to look into what she or the studio happened to have been recently working on.

What do you know about X?
They had recently produced a film about generation Y, so when I started talking about language, communication and culture, her mind went immediately to the communication styles of the multigenerational workplace and so naturally, she asked me what I knew about the expectations and cross-cultural communication issues surrounding milennials entering the workplace for the first time!! Well, I had never really thought about it, but because I felt like I needed to be an expert in this moment, having nothing, I just completely shut down.

What I missed in that moment
Now, I had been a researcher in the past on a film that they had produced about linguistics. It is not outside the realm of possibility that she might have offered me the opportunity to consult or do some research on this or another project had I recognized this opportunity for what it was: a chance to demonstrate enthusiasm and curiosity, not necessarily expertise.

The good news is that this associative skill is one that develops with practice, but it can be very hard for an introvert like me, for whom social interaction can already feel overwhelming, and direct questions like these can feel like a challenge of my credibility or motivations.

So what can we do to be ready?
One strategy that I have learned to employ in this moment is simply to turn the question around. “Hmm, no, I have not been exposed to language use in exactly that context. What struck you about it? What do you imagine would be salient to an outsider? Did you encounter any examples?” not only does this buy you a little bit of time, but chances are good that there is some specific observation that is motivating their question. The sooner you can get to the “question behind the question” the better! Since they have been thinking about this already, their thoughts are more accessible, and once they get talking, that can prime your thinking, and it becomes much easier for you to engage.

Learn what strategies work for you. Perhaps you want to ask the person who set up the meeting what they imagine this person to be most interested in and curious about these days. Have your friends and family imagine with you what kinds of questions might come up.

So, what I mean when I say that you should treat it as a job interview is that you should PREPARE for it as if it were. Spend a couple hours on the organization’s website and on LinkedIn, and looking up this organization in the news. Know the organization well enough so that should the person offer assistance at some point you are prepared to tell them what you would need. For example with which members of their organization would you like to network? Do they host events that you would be interested in being involved with? If so what kind? If given the opportunity to volunteer your services, with which division would you most want to work? Why? What would you do for them? Why do they need a linguist? Help them think through how you would be best used.

Likely this person who has agreed to meet with you is very busy: do not waste their time by not having taken the time to do some work to think for a minute how you can “help them help you!”

Worth it!!
I have heard from many students who showed up for what they thought was just a conversation and which ended up by the other interactant offering them a job. Not that you should EXPECT this (by any means), or comport yourself in the interaction in any way to suggest that you feel entitled or owed any kind of favor, but if someone offers one to you, recognize the gift which has been offered you. Be gracious! If luck, as is so often said “is where opportunity meets preparation” hold up your end of the bargain by being prepared to be lucky!

Articulating your professional vision: Show me your city block!!

Over the years I have read hundreds of applications for graduate school. I am to the place now where I can tell you within about thirty seconds whether or not I am excited about an applicant, based on the story they tell in their applications materials. What makes me light up? Well, I am a linguist, so you might not be surprised to hear that it is not about the numbers: GPAs, GREs, or TOEFL scores. I jump immediately to the statement of purpose. I get excited when the first 50 words of this document shows me something about who this person is and how they understand and interact with the world.

So, when I am asked for advice about what to say in a statement of purpose, I say: “show me your city block.” As I will explain in this blog post, this advice is informed by different experiences and sources of knowledge, but it is shaped most strongly by one very compelling statement of purpose that I read from a woman who was applying to graduate programs in urban planning. She took her reader through the experience of driving to school when she was a kid growing up in Atlanta, showing us what she saw through the passenger window as she and her mother left her affluent suburb and passed through poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Her struggles to comprehend the disparities that she saw for those few minutes at the beginning and end of every day so impacted her, that they have fueled her passion for study more than 20 years later.

Part of what made her statement of purpose so very compelling was that it contextualized her graduate studies as the first step to realizing a broader professional vision.  You saw how this step was just the next logical progression in the expression of her goals.  So as you think about how to articulate your professional vision, start by thinking about what you said in your own statements of purpose if you went to grad school. And if you are just thinking about grad school, here is one site and here another which give good advice on composing a compelling letter of rec.

But of course she would pick a block, she is an urban planner!
Think of it as a metaphor, but the truth is that everyone sees something different when they are out there in the world, and a city block is as compelling a place to start as any. The point is to think about what you might notice because of who you are, the experiences that you have had and how these have shaped the way you understand the world.

Show us the world though your eyes
When someone is deciding about whether or not they want to hire you, they want to see the world through your eyes, and what they most want is to have a sense for how you feel about what you see! What makes you empassioned? Why? We talk about this in improv as creating a filter or a lens for your character. There are certain things that only you will notice in the first place because of who you are and what your experiences have been. Once you have noticed them, how do you react to them – what do you make of those things that you notice. What do they mean? WHY?

So let’s think about that city block for a moment:

I grabbed this photo from a site that I found called Living City Block because I realized that I saw things here that were informed by my own recent experiences of looking for a condo. Because of my budget, I have been restricted to looking at small floor-plans, mainly studios, and because I am buying rather than renting, I wanted a space that would suit my priorities in the long term.  I had to articulate my thoughts about HOW I want to use my living space now and going forward. When it came down to it, I realized that I need a quiet place in which I can write. In a studio, depending on the layout of the building, I could have up to five noisy neighbors with whom I will have to share a wall (or ceiling or floor). Consequently, one of the first things that I now notice about buildings now is how far apart the windows are as a quick point of reference for how the building is laid out. Even before I walk into a building, I try to deduce from the window configuration how big the units are and how they are oriented relative to one another. So, when I looked at this city block, the first thing that I saw was how much further apart the windows in the building in the foreground were as compared to the taller one in the background. I bet this wasn’t the first thing that you noticed!

So take a minute and think about what you see here.

Maybe you ride a bike, so you notice the bike lanes. Maybe you are drawn to big cities like New York City or London, so you notice that these buildings are not highrises or that the sidewalks seem relatively empty. Maybe you hate spending time in a city, so you are drawn to anything that reminds you of green things growing: the trees. Maybe you are an architect, or a visual artist, so what jumps out at you when you look at this picture are the qualities of the artistic rendering. Whatever it is, get some of it down on paper to see whether why you see what you see means anything.

Show don’t tell!
A classic exhortation for writers, this is how you do it and why it is important.

For a great example of an MLCer who has done this particularly well, check out Katie McIntyyre’s: The five object that tell my story

Can you give me some theory?
Charles Goodwin explores this his Professional Vision using the example of a patch of dirt. To a farmer and an archaeologist, the same patch of dirt will yield different information because of how the dirt is being scrutinized and why:

An event being seen, a relevant object of knowledge, emerges through the interplay between a domain of scrutiny (a patch of dirt, the images made available by the King videotape, etc.) and a set of discursive practices (dividing the domain of scrutiny by highlighting a figure against a ground, applying specific coding schemes for the constitution and interpretation of relevant events, etc.) being deployed within a specific activity (arguing a legal case, mapping a site, planting crops, etc.).

Our ways of seeing are entirely shaped by who we are, what we value, and what we do with our lives. Use the patch of dirt, the city block, or whatever object or experience you chose to talk about to highlight and articulate your passions, your skills, your values.

And when you have figured out a way to tell your story, tell it to me! 🙂

The culture of an organization from its website

As I see it, as a jobseeker, there a number of ways that you can gain access to a type of “insider knowledge” about the culture of an organization. Many of these “ways of knowing” lie in your reactions the public self-image they present with their website.

Discourse Analysis of an organization’s website
Start by looking for content, but don’t stop there. Given that you are trying to learn about who these people are by how they talk about themselves, consider ways that you are positioned as reader. Are you assumed to be an expert? If so, how, why? What images do they use? How are they used? Why? Can you identify any narratives? What do they seem to DO? Are there any “noisy nots” (things that are not talked about, but which you might expect would be)? What do you make of these? Who do they OTHER in this text – this might give you insight into who their competitors are, or who they are confused for.

Noisy Not: an example
One of my favorite examples of the “noisy not” from a website is that of one of my favorite authors: Tony Hawks. As it happens, his name is quite similar to the skateboarder Tony Hawk and as such, he often gets fanmail about skating. To make matters worse, the skater Tony Hawk has created a franchise, almost every product of which is presented with the possessive e.g. “Tony Hawke’s Proving ground” a game for playstation, which explains why it is that if one does a “google search” for “Tony Hawks” almost all of the images are for Tony Hawk. This confusion aslo explains some strikingly unexpected deictics which greet you immediately upon landing on Tony Hawks (the author’s) official website, including a graphic of post-it note with an arrow indicating “me” and a Polaroid picture with the label “Hello skate fans”

That Tony Hawks is a comedian becomes apparent when you click on the “skateboarding” link, where he performs bemoaning the confusion between himself: Tony Hawks the “startlingly good looking British male model” (joke), and Tony Hawk an “American whiz kid skateboarding champion,” by going on to present some of the ludicrous fanmail which he receives (apparently intended for Tony Hawk), to which he obligingly responds for the merriment of his fans here:

This is a humorous example, but a quick glance at any website will yield compelling information not only about who they ARE, but who they are NOT which is likely to be illuminating to the jobseeker for myriad reasons.

A serious example of “othering”
Bain & Company is a world renowned consulting firm with a close relationship to Bain Capital (partners from Bain & Co, including Mitt Romney and others started Bain Capital in 1984). At the time of writing, Bain Capital is enshrouded in controversy about when it was that republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney actually stopped serving as the CEO. A quick glance at the Bain & Co website can tell you many things, but one of the things that this site does most effectively is to tell you what they are not affected by (temporary factors like location) what they do not have time for (jargon-ridden reports, hidden agendas, or politics):


How do you do it: Virtual Ethnographies
Nowadays, one of the most valuable ways to glean insight into an organization, and perhaps even access to their “backstage” is to conduct virtual a ethnography, which includes not only seeking out places that the organization talks and is talked about online, but also logging your own reactions and responses in field notes. In field notes, an ethnographer captures different types of observations, which can be captured in the unfortunate acronym: “D.I.E.” for Describe, Interpret, Evaluate. Often this is done in to columns, with everything that you can “describe” on the left column, and everything that you interpret and evaluate on the right. The next step is to reflect on the Interpret and Evaluate column and think about how you got to the insights which are listed there.

Informational Interviewing
Perhaps some of this questioning, or one of the NOTs that you identify in your website analysis could become a question in an informational interview, provided that you have done enough homework to determine that neither would be likely to get you thrown out on your ear, and you have built a rapport with your informational interviewee during which you get the sense that it may be safe to do a bit of digging / reflecting. If your interviewee seems defensive, aggressive / impatient, I would not “go there,” and I might also encourage you to consider whether their response to you might be input about whether you ultimately want to “go there” (as in work with this organization).

Prepping for a job interview

It’s that time of year again: job interview season!!

Thought I would take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts about how best to prepare. I welcome your ideas in response. What has worked for you? What would you never do again?

From student to professional
A major theme of this blog is enacting the transition from student to professional, and I would argue that the job interview (while key to enacting this transition) is actually best approached as an opportunity to show that you have already enacted this shift. So for example, when you are asked to give examples of things that you have done well (or things that you need to improve upon: more about this later), give examples from a work environment. Or talk about school in a way that shows you understand it as a job and are thinking about it as your profession.  Do mock interviews with friends and family asking them to pay attention for ways that you may be approaching questions or responses from the perspective of a student (for example, seeming to be looking for guidance or asking for permission rather than working independently, taking initiative).

An activity
One exercise that I like to do to help me think about good examples to talk about in job interviews comes from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, talked about as a Time Management Matrix from this blog. Now this is supposed to be an exercise to help you be more proactive in managing your time, because it forces you to think about your work habits and triggers, but it will also trigger recollections which you can recontextualize as narrative answers to job interview questions.

Any and all thinking that you can do about quadrant 2 (those things which are important and not-urgent) will be the most valuable. Here you will find your core motivators, your values, which are tremendously challenging to articulate on the spot, and thus bear some thinking about. Think about the job tasks that live here, and how can you take some time for them from tasks from quadrants 3 and 4. Incicdentally, 3 and 4 and your responses to those may be the seeds of an answer  to a question about your weaknesses, which you really do want to answer honestly.

How to answer the “tell me about a weakness” question

Find something to talk about that you have processed emotionally: if you are still angry or embarassed about it, that may spill over into the interaction and will not read well.  You want to display self- awareness and self-compassion: “I know enough about myself to know that I can get very anxious before an oral presentation.”  Then, talk about the strategies you have learned that help you manage this weakness.  ” I have learned that I need to write out a script and rehearse if possible.”  End by talking about how this might manifest in a team environment, “when I can, I will take the lead in managing the timelines for deliverables for creating the presentation so that I can be performing at my best on the day of the presentation.”

Get your “5 things” in:
Make a list of 5 things that you would like to talk about. Ideally, these can be in response to things that you will be asked, but if they do not come up from the interviewers, find a way to introduce them into the conversation. Actively incorporate some of them as keywords into your answers and examples, or just be ready with one of these should someone ask you “is there anything else you would like to say?” or even the dreaded, omnipresent “tell me about yourself.” How fantastic does it make you look if you have something that you are just bursting to contribute with enthusiasm? It makes you look good and it makes them feel good, probably because you have demonstrated that you view the interview as collaborative, and that you take equal responsibility for the interaction going smoothly, a move which absolutely reads as “professional” and not “student”. I would venture to suggest that you will also be listening in a different way if you are looking for an opportunity to bring one of your five things. In improv, we call this “active listening,” it looks different.

Some old tried and true advice, which still holds:
Prepare questions to ask THEM
And after you have prepared them, have another look at the job description. Be sure that there is nothing there which has already been answered.

Do your homework
Go beyond the website in doing your research. Who is talking about the organization?  What are they saying?  What are the social media outlets which may give you unique insight into the most current developments they are experiencing (Twitter, LinkedIn?). Imagine that you were about to write a literature review about this company, but instead of key journals and major publications, it is your task to identify the key individuals in your life who might have insight into this industry and who you MUST speak to in order to locate yourself in the ongoing conversation. Do this not because you have to, but because you want to, because are interested. Use this as an opportunity to show how you take initiative, that you go above and beyond.

Show up EARLY!
We have all fallen into the trap of almost showing up late for a job interview. I have actually been late TWICE! In both instances, it was the fault of public transportation, which is to say, both were MY FAULT because I should have left much earlier to allow for problems. The first time it happened to me, I was new to the DC area and encountered some unexpected single-tracking on the green line. I arrived at the interview flustered and completely stuck inside my own head. When my interviewer asked me about my trip, I started venting about Metro, at which point she shut her folder, stood up, and said “well, if I were to give you this job, that would in fact be your daily commute, so I know one way to solve that problem for you quite easily: we can end the interview right now!” I ended up getting the job, but it involved some MAJOR humble pie, and I honestly think they must have been in a real pinch. Demonstrate unequivocoably that you take complete ownership here.

Learn from past mistakes,
Ask for feedback, do at least one thing better each time.

As ever, I want to hear from you: let me know how it is going for you out there!