My last job interview was about ten years ago. That interview ended spiritually five minutes in, when the interviewer and I realized at the same time we had both acquired skills required for the job by teaching ourselves. The company wanted someone who went to school to learn them. The rest of the interview was perfunctory, and the headhunter who had accompanied me vanished like my dreams of a new future.
This time was different. This time I had a better resume, a clearer idea of my direction, and less of a sense of being an imposter. I was prepared for this instructional designer position. Yes, they wanted five years’ experience. But in addition to being one semester shy of completing a master in education in instructional design and technology, I had a master’s in library service, a half-master’s (AKA certificate) in web design and development, and much experience designing and teaching courses for college and adult learners. Plus, my professor worked for the company with which I was applying, and she gave my resume to her boss, who was the hiring manager. Experience? They wouldn’t care about experience when they saw the rest of my credentials, I thought.
That job was mine to lose.
I Phone-Interviewed with Five Different People
The hiring process was rigorous. After a delightful half-hour phone interview with a talent manager in human resources, I spoke later that afternoon, again by phone, with one of the two hiring managers. My professor’s boss was busy, but apparently two instructional designer positions were open, and the other manager interviewed me. He asked good, solid questions. I answered confidently with knowledge-packed replies. The conversation lasted ten minutes longer than I expected, which I took as a good sign.
The trial came next. The company assigned me the creation of a training module explaining their checking products to new associates using Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I also had to explain how the module would be implemented. The assignment was due in 72 hours. I returned it within 48 hours, unsure if they would like it, but having greatly enjoyed the creation process and disappointed I could not show off my expertise in Adobe Captivate or Articulate 360.
The following week, the talent manager emailed me to schedule another phone interview. I spoke for about forty-five minutes with two women who worked for each of the hiring managers. As was the case with the other people I’d spoken with, these women were long-term employees, with six and twelve years’ service. The conversation was fun, the women engaging, and I laughed frequently as I paced my living room rug.
Next hoop: the in-person interview. Or rather, interviews. I was scheduled to meet with the two hiring managers for an hour, and with a surrogate for their boss (who was out of town) for thirty minutes after that. I arrived early and watched in fascination as the employees wandered through the security gates. All my previous experience was university based. I wondered what it would be like to show a security pass every day.
Needle Scrapes. Music Stops.
At long last I was face-to-face with these people. They were friendly. They asked great questions. But while I had researched important industry issues — gamification, diversity in instructional design, the use of Degreed in training — they did not ask me a single question about those. They wanted to know specifics. In fact, in the first and second interview I was asked the same two questions: What process do you use to work through a project and bring it to completion? What project have you worked on that you are most proud of?
My answers revealed my lack of experience beyond the classroom. Sure, I had created courses and taught them, but using a method that worked for me, not one based on the principles I learned in class. Just like in the ten-years-ago interview. Driving home afterwards, I knew how I should have answered the first one. The ADDIE process: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. We learned it in the first semester of the program.
The second question was tough. I am not good at remembering specific examples of anything. I stammered a bit and told them about the first project that came to mind, a storyboard proposal for a virtual reality project on Victorian cemetery and burial customs. Granted, I was proud of it, but it was not the best answer I could give.
I was glad when the interviews were over, and not at all confident of the outcome. A few days after I received what I always referred to as the “drop dead letter” from the company, I met with my professor. She told me her supervisor was impressed with the test project results they had requested. I was “the candidate to beat” going into the in-person interviews. My interview answers, however, had doomed my candidacy. I wasn’t specific enough about my experience. I couldn’t give specific answers about my accomplishments.
Ouch. No way could I spin this to my favor. It was mine to lose, and I lost it.
Y’know, I Learned Something Today
I learned several things from the experience that I’ll apply to my next opportunity.
1. Experience requirements are there for a reason.
While I could possibly succeed in the position for which I applied without the specified years of experience, I would have a steep learning curve. Preparing a plan to make up that learning deficit shows you are aware of your lack of experience and conveys a sincere sense of initiative to the hiring manager. Doing that never occurred to me beforehand.
2. Be specific.
My resume consists of specific information about where I worked, what my title was, what dates I worked there, and what my main responsibilities were. In preparing for an interview, I must write out what projects I’ve worked on, how I carried them out, what I achieved, and the outcomes. What was difficult? What didn’t work? What worked well? How did I deal with subject matter experts in the process? I tend to remember better if I write something down; you may prefer to speak it aloud or record it and listen back to it. The overachiever in me wants to create an additional resume with all those answers in it, just for my benefit.
3. Use the STAR method.
My professor gave me a link to Christian Eilers’ blog post on answering behavioral questions using the STAR method: Situation, Task, Action, Result. Behavioral questions are those that start with, “Give me an example of…” or “How did you handle…” To answer with this method, state the situation or context of the event, what your task was, what action you took to solve the problem, and what the result was.
The informal nature of the phone interviews did not prepare me well for the actual job interview. I’m confident I passed the “personality” part of the process. Just not the technical part. Next time, I’ll polish my stories until they shine.
Tell the story of why they would be foolhardy to continue their corporate lives without you, complete with convincing details, and the job will be yours to lose.
And you’ll win.