Skills and experience are at the top of the list of key factors that employers look for when interviewing potential employees. Think about the most important skills you possess and how they will help you in a particular position or field. During the interview, offer specific examples to illustrate your point. Don't cross the line of confidence by sounding too pompous or arrogant. Employers will never believe you saved the world from mass destruction. They will, however, believe you increased departmental sales by 25 percent.

Q: What are your key skills?

YES: After spending the last six years as a senior systems analyst, I've developed a number of important skills including business modeling, process re-engineering, software-package evaluation, and advanced programming capabilities in UNIX and C environments. I was very pleased to discover that these are the skills you are seeking. Would you like to hear about specific examples of my work?

NO: I am a hardworking people person who wears many hats.

Talk about your key skills and how you'll use them in this job. Avoid using clichés or generalities. Offer specific evidence, drawing parallels between your current or previous job and the job you're interviewing for. Don't be afraid to ask a question in your answer. However, the last thing you want to do is seem garrulous, so find out if the interviewer would like to hear specific examples, and if so, oblige her.

Essential

“I wear many hats” is one of the clichés in the job market to be avoided in interviews. Other clichés to be avoided are, “I am a people person,” “I am a jack of all trades,” “I am interested in honing my skills,” and “I am a multitask-oriented kind of person.”

Q: What sets you apart from other applicants?

YES: Once I'm given a job or a project, I tackle it with unrelenting energy. I want to learn everything I can, and my goal is to achieve results beyond the expectations of my supervisor. I really strive to excel in all I do.

NO: I have experience in the field, and I am a college graduate.

Your answer should demonstrate confidence in your abilities without sounding conceited. A good way to illustrate your worth as an employee is to talk about what others, preferably past and present supervisors, would say about you. If you have specific skills that relate to the job, be sure to emphasize this point as well. Make sure that the reasons you give for your uniqueness are well thought out. Citing your own experience in the field—unless it is unique or a special skill in high demand—is pointless, as many of the other applicants are probably experienced as well.

Q: What are your strengths?

YES: I would say that my strong interpersonal skills are one of my greatest strengths; I work easily with others and am always open to various points of view. I also have good judgment about people and an intuitive sense of their talents and their ability to contribute to a given problem. Given the type of employee you are looking for, I think that these skills directly relate to the job. I am extremely hardworking. In addition to maintaining an active membership in various professional societies, I have spent the past two years taking evening classes to further my education and knowledge of this industry.

NO: I am smart as a whip, and I am looking for a company just like yours so that I can hone my skills and talents even more.

Describe two or three skills you have that are most relevant to the position. Avoid using clichés (“I'm a real people person”) or generalities (“I'm loyal”). For each strength you give, be prepared to back it up. To say that you have initiative without mentioning a specific example of this trait will not work. In addition to describing how your strengths have worked for you in the past, talk about the ways in which these skills could be put to use in the new position.

Q: What are your weaknesses?

YES: On some occasions, it has taken me longer to complete a project than I had originally anticipated. I consider myself a bit of a perfectionist; I refuse to turn a project in if it is not the best it could be. While this serves me well in some respects, it can also set me behind schedule sometimes. For the past month, I have been taking a time-management class once a week. Already, I can see that the skills I'm learning are helping with this tendency to dwell on certain projects.

NO: I really can't think of anything.

This question can make you or break you in the eyes of an interviewer. While you want to be honest, you also want to make sure that you don't shoot yourself in the foot. Think about the many duties the job entails, and try not to point out a weakness that would be a major obstacle as far as your potential duties are concerned. Try to think of a weakness that is not too big of a deal and can be overcome. Another smart move is to discuss how you are working to strengthen this weakness.

Essential

If the interviewer asks how you view his company, don't give a general nonspecific answer. If you've done your research, you'll be able to give details, figures, and facts. If the interviewer thinks you haven't done your research, he may decide you're not interested in the job.

Q: How does your experience relate to this job, in particular?

YES: In my current job, I've recently completed three re-engineering projects. I gathered all the necessary market data, developed a benchmarking program, and put together a team to do the evaluation and analysis. As a result, I'm ready to tackle the major re-engineering project that you've listed as the priority of this job during the first year. In my past job, I was the liaison between the project engineering group and the instrumentation group in the testing of a new turbo engine. This experience will also help me tackle this job, which involves a close and careful working relationship between your technical group and your field-testing group.

NO: I've had experience with market research and beta testing of new products, which should prove very useful.

When you read a job description, you should try to envision the many tasks that the position will entail and relate these tasks to past experiences. Draw parallels from your current or previous job to the requirements of this job. With first interviews especially, the interviewer may very well be a human resources professional, not someone associated with your job or industry. She may not know much about the field to which you are applying. A similarity that seems obvious to you may not be so obvious to the recruiter. By showcasing your own knowledge, you are demonstrating that you are a knowledgeable employee. Even if you are new to the professional job market, have only held a part-time job, or have never held a job, you have done things in your life that you can count as experience. For instance, if you have waited tables, you could talk about the interpersonal skills you learned at your job and the way you learned to deal with customers in a friendly and effective manner. Don't discount any experience you may have, no matter how inconsequential you think it might be, provided that you can show a connection to the job you are interviewing for.

Q: What skills do you think are most critical to this job?

YES: As technology is ever changing, I think that it is important to keep up with the latest marketing trends. Knowing what kinds of new technologies exist and how to go about incorporating them into my own marketing plans is what will keep me ahead of the competition. Creativity is also of major importance to the marketing industry; new ideas can quickly become stale and stagnant. A successful marketing associate will always be looking ahead to the next big revolution. If, just a few years ago, I had not been aware of the important role that social media would play in our day-to-day duties, my current company could have been quickly overtaken by the competition.

NO: In sales, you have to be able to stretch the truth or manipulate the facts. I feel like I could do that to make the deal.

When describing the skills you feel are most important, make sure that you know how these skills relate to the position at hand. Illustrate how the cited skills have helped you in your current and/or past positions.

Essential

Getting up before an audience and being able to give a good presentation is a valuable skill for a candidate to have. It is also the number one fear of many people. To overcome the fear of speaking in public, consider joining Toastmasters, a theatrical group in your community, or taking acting lessons. It could give a boost to your career.

Q: What skills would you like to develop in this job?

YES: I'd like to develop my negotiating skills. I've had considerable experience interpreting and implementing large contracts, but I've been limited in negotiating the actual conditions, costs, and standards for a major contract. I believe this job will offer me the opportunity to be a member of a negotiating team and thereby to begin acquiring the skills necessary to lead the team.

NO: As an assistant manager, I would hope to be able to learn the skills that will allow me to open up my own fine-dining establishment within the next six months. With no prior restaurant or managerial experience, I think this position would afford me the perfect opportunity to run my own international franchise one day.

Make sure you are not inhabiting an imaginary world in your answer to this question! First, your answer should coincide with skills that this job will help you develop. Second, you should have already covered some of the prerequisites to developing the skills you mention. For example, you wouldn't want to apply for a job as a receptionist with the Joffrey Ballet and say that you hope to develop your ballet skills.

Keep in mind that there are several different skill categories that your employer might be interested in. Functional skills are the skills you have spent your entire working life developing. They include such things as organizing, problem solving, writing, listening, and communicating. Personal skills tell an employer how well your personality will fit in with those around you. These skills include such things as how well you work with others, whether or not you are able to assert authority, and how well you manage your time. Technical skills, such as your computer knowledge and customer service skills, are important as well.

Think about your current job and several aptitudes you have not been able to develop fully. For example, your opportunity to manage the department might have been hindered because your supervisor plans to stay in his job at least five more years.

Q: If you were to stay in your current job, what kinds of tasks would you spend more time on and why?

YES: If I were to stay at my current job, I'd like to gain more experience in labor negotiating. In particular, I'd like to help negotiate labor contracts, resolve grievances at the step-4 level, and prepare grievances for arbitration. Though I have a very strong background in all areas of human resources, I believe that a strong grasp of labor relations experience will round out my skills so that I could have the opportunity to move up to a position of department head and possibly vice president.

NO: I would probably make one last attempt to further myself in my current company. If that was unsuccessful, I would probably use my sick days to find another job.

In answering this question, think about the aspects of your job that interest you most. What are the areas you would like to strengthen and advance in? What are the areas you need work in so that you could advance? Talk about the current responsibilities that give you the most satisfaction. Another smart move (and one that will score you points in the motivation department) is to talk about the possibility of advancement. Again, make sure your goals are realistic. Talk about the career path you are heading down and how the sharpening of certain skills can help you attain your goals.

Alert

Never say that your old job was boring. You can mention that your old job lacked challenges, or something to that effect, but don't make it look as though you are giving up on it. Most jobs will have aspects that are less exciting than others. You don't want an interviewer to question whether the position being offered would be entertaining enough for you.

Q: How do you explain your success in the workplace?

YES: In this age of technology, human contact is highly underrated. I know how frustrated I get when I call a company and am met with a barrage of computer voices telling me which number to hit and whom to call. In business, I never assume that a customer is satisfied until she has told me so directly. I take a very personal approach to following up with every customer. The feedback that I have received—both positive and negative—has provided valuable insight into the quality and characteristics of our products. What augments my past successes even more is how much the customer appreciates these follow-ups, especially when there's been some sort of problem and I still have the opportunity to correct it on a timely basis. And the customer feedback doesn't just benefit me; I'm always passing on customer comments to our production and design teams so that we can ensure we are making the best possible product.

NO: I think that I have been lucky enough to have several managers who recognize my Mensa brainpower when they see it. I have contributed to much of the success of my last ten companies, and I'm sure any one of them would take me back as an employee in a matter of seconds.

Again, the key to answering such personal questions is to be honest but not arrogant. You should not be embarrassed to toot your own horn a little. If you've accomplished something in the workplace (or anywhere else), don't be afraid to talk about it. But, it's not enough for you to tell the interviewer how great you are. You have to show him specific examples. Discuss the steps you've taken to ensure that you are considered a worthwhile employee, and mention that little bit extra that you do. Talk about observations other people have made about your strengths or talents. This question is similar to the question, “What sets you apart from the crowd?”

Essential

One of the most difficult parts of the interview is trying to figure out how much of an answer the interviewer wants. Will a quick yes or no do, or is she expecting you to retrace all of your achievements? It is not wrong to ask the interviewer this question if you're really unsure of how detailed an answer she is seeking.

Q: How well do you write?

YES: I would say that my writing skills are above average. I made a very conscious effort to develop these skills while I was working toward my MBA. I even took an entrepreneurial class in which the chief assignment was to develop, write, and continually rewrite a business plan. I have brought it along, if you would like to see it.

NO: I am a horrible speller, and I have a bit of trouble with correct grammar. But I always use spell check, and I would definitely hand my work over to someone else before sending it out.

A great way to prepare for an interview is to overprepare. If you anticipate a question such as this one, bring along a sample of your work. For more creative positions (photographer, copywriter, graphic artist, and so on), always be sure to pack your portfolio so that the interviewer can see your work and assess your talent for himself. Even if the job you are applying for is not creative in nature, there may be some writing involved. A sharp set of writing skills is always a great asset.

Essential

If it looks as though your skills and background don't match the position your interviewer was hoping to fit, ask her if another division or subsidiary could perhaps profit from your talents.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your computer skills?

YES: I would consider myself very well versed when it comes to computers. In my current position, I typically use Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. I am also familiar with various graphic design programs including InDesign, Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator. I have some experience with Macintosh systems as well. I am a pro when it comes to navigating the Internet and have even picked up a bit of knowledge as far as HTML programming goes.

NO: I try to avoid having to learn new technologies. If I have to write something, I take out my trusty old pen and notepad.

Computer literacy is a must in today's job market, no matter what the position. A working knowledge of a word processing program such as Microsoft Word is essential, and familiarity with database management or graphics programs is valuable as well. If your computer experience is rather limited, have a friend tutor you in an MS Office Suite application, or visit the local library and try to find your way around some of the most basic word processing programs. These programs are simple to learn and will allow you to avoid having to say that you have very limited or no computer skills. You must be web savvy and have a knowledge of e-mail and social media. Windows remains the dominant platform in the work force, but Macintosh environments are prevalent in creative fields such as advertising, publishing, and design.

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