Accomplishments are one way to measure your success in the workplace. It's a good idea to think about your accomplishments before your interview so that you'll be prepared to reel off a string of them. This is not the time to be modest, but don't bore the interviewer to death with your heroic tales; focus specifically on the actions you took and the results you obtained. The best thing about accomplishments is that they can be examples from your professional career, academic years, or personal experiences.
Q: Tell me about a major accomplishment in your life.
YES: As the publicity director of a tiny, alternative publishing house, it can be difficult to get major sources to review our books. Because the subjects we cover are often far from the mainstream, many television shows and review publications find our topics a bit too controversial. Last year, we published a book that I really thought could be a number one bestseller. Though I always put forth a lot of effort to publicize all of the books we published, I was particularly interested in seeing this little gem find its way from obscurity to popularity. Because of my efforts, coverage of this book was astronomical, and the book became a New York Times bestseller, with both the author and the book becoming household names.
NO: My purchasing skills saved my last company from financial ruin.
Talk to the interviewer about the accomplishment in your life that you are most proud of. The accomplishment should be work related, but it doesn't have to be. Be honest and be specific. Don't just throw out a general statement (“I won an award”); describe the steps you took to accomplish this goal and how all your hard work paid off in the end. One job seeker brought along a picture of herself receiving a prestigious award from a well-known celebrity at an industry awards dinner. It stimulated conversation and made an impression on the interviewer, who would be likely to remember the candidate after the interview was over. Don't exaggerate or boast, as interviewers have ways of finding out the truth. Don't be long-winded; instead, focus on your actual accomplishments and the steps leading up to them. The interviewer wants to know whether you will be able to contribute something to this company; this is a great opportunity to prove that you can.
Your interviewer is doing all the talking, and you're relaxing, certain that you're sailing through the interview. But beware. This can mean the interviewer is either inexperienced or anxious to sell you on the job and fill a position that's difficult to keep staffed.
Q: Tell me about a contribution you've made to a team accomplishment.
YES: In my current company, all projects are group projects. My last work group was made up of five very intelligent and very creative people. However, the overall technical skills were a bit lacking. People knew how they wanted our presentation to look, but they didn't know how to go about achieving it. I am an avid computer user and have taken several classes in graphic design. I think our group's final product was a good mix of creativity and technology. I used my computer skills to help our team come up with a fantastic presentation that the client accepted without hesitation.
NO: While I like autonomy over a team situation, when I am placed within a group setting I think that I am very effective as the leader. I'm not afraid to take control over the group. I'll handle the brunt of the work if the others can't keep up.
Even if you spend most of your time working independently—or work independently because you choose to—the interviewer wants to be reassured that you deal with other people well. When placed within a group setting, do you immediately try to take control or do you offer up a certain expertise? Think about the kinds of tasks you've performed before in group settings, and the skills that you have mastered. What would the other members of your team say about your contributions? Would they want to work with you again? Would they consider your skills vital to the team's success? Offer proof, using specific examples, that you delivered more than the team expected and that the team would compliment your contributions to the group's efforts.
Q: Are there any special contributions you feel you've made to your employer?
YES: For the past four years, I have run a Walk for Hunger campaign at my company as part of our corporate social responsibility program. I believe that it is a very important cause, and I know it can be difficult for a company to find volunteers, so I stepped in to help. Each year has been more successful than the last, and coworkers have told me it's one of the things they look forward to most throughout the course of the year, which obviously makes me very happy.
NO: I think that I have made a special contribution to my company every day that I have been there. I give 100 percent each day and my work reflects this.
Convince the interviewer that you are ready to go the extra mile for your employer. Tell her about a specific time when you delivered more than the employer expected. If you were hired, what situations would you handle especially well? What unique contributions can you make to the organization? How would you go the extra mile?
You should make a habit of reading the trade literature of the industry you are focusing on; you should also read some background books about the field. Remember, your aim is to sound like an industry insider, and you'll need to be familiar with industry-related topics while you're networking and interviewing.
Q: If you were hired here today, what is the first thing you would do?
YES: I would help to increase your business within the software market. Though your company is mainly known for its printed products, I believe that your software is one of your greatest assets. I have spent the past four years working as a sales manager for a software developer, so I have a great understanding of how to market these products more effectively.
NO: I would call up my husband and tell him we're going out to dinner to celebrate.
In addition to showing your enthusiasm for a job, this question tests your knowledge of a company and its products. Give the interviewer clear, tangible evidence that the company will benefit immediately upon hiring you. Focus your answer on the action you would take, and—above all—make sure your goals are realistic. Is there an area you think could use some improvement? Discuss the steps you would take to achieve maximum results. Do you have a creative way to improve some aspect of the company? Talk about it. If you can, relate what you would like to accomplish in this company to past achievements and experience. A job offer is a cause to celebrate, but the interviewer isn't probing for that kind of response; she wants to know how you can make a difference right from day one.
Q: Tell me about an accomplishment you had a difficult time achieving.
YES: Years ago, when I first began working for my current company, part of my job required meeting with our technical support staff once a week to find out about any technical problems or issues we faced. As part of the human resources team, it was my duty to voice any concerns to the right people and get the problems fixed. I didn't have very much experience with computers. For the most part, I didn't understand their complaints. Back then, I didn't even know what a modem was, and I certainly didn't know how to increase the speed of one.
I decided that in order to do a great job, I would need to learn more about what it was that each of our departments did. Whenever I could find the time, I would go down to the technical department and sit in for a while. When I had questions, I would ask them. The staff was always very happy to answer and seemed pleased that I had taken so much interest in learning more about their job. Although I definitely struggled for the first month or so, I now make a consistent effort to keep pace with new technology because I have seen firsthand how it impacts employee satisfaction and overall productivity.
NO: I was asked to complete an end-of-the-year marketing report with the assistance of one of our department's newest hires. After just a few minutes of working with this person, I knew our partnership would not be amicable. My assistant was a recent college graduate who wanted to use all of his recently acquired in-class studies to complete the report in a more efficient manner. I had to explain the way that had always worked best for us and was the accepted format. He assured me that his way was better. For the next two weeks, all I heard from this young man was how everything we were doing was passé. Though the report was completed on time and done well, it was not easy dealing with this new partnership.
Be careful what you are implying when you answer this question. Citing an instance in which the problem was a coworker can make you sound as though you're not much of a team player, a bit of a know-it-all, or worse, a dinosaur who won't change with the times. Talk to the interviewer about a time when you accomplished something despite obstacles, lack of training, or inadequate experience. Focus on your ability to overcome this problem and achieve successful results. Express your willingness to accept challenges and triumph over them.
If you're not sure about how to answer a question, admit it. Tell the interviewer that you don't have the whole picture, that you need more information to make the right decision, and add that if you were on the job, you would confer with other key parties in the project to make the right decision.
Q: Tell me about something you accomplished that required strict discipline.
YES: When I was a full-time graduate student, my one goal was to avoid accruing any more student loan debt. In addition to working toward an advanced degree in journalism, I spent twenty hours a week as an intern at a local magazine and another twenty-five hours a week as a waitress. Juggling these three hectic, very demanding schedules was certainly a challenge, but it makes me appreciate all that I have achieved.
NO: I decided that I needed to lose ten pounds for a friend's wedding that was less than two months away. Though I had to stop snacking during the day and cut desserts out of my diet, I did it, and was able to shed the weight by the time the big day came around.
Here's another opportunity for you to discuss a skill you have had to work hard to develop and have been successful doing. This is also an opportunity to discuss a time when the amount of work you had and the time you needed to finish it were a challenge. Discuss your strong time management skills and how you are able to prioritize to accomplish your goal. How did you remain focused? What were the results? What did you learn from the experience?
Though it's good to practice answers to possible questions, be sure to allow your personality to surface. The interviewer will take notice of whether you are being straightforward or are giving rehearsed and expected answers.
Q: What situations do your colleagues rely on you to handle?
YES: Whenever we're faced with a difficult or dissatisfied client, my coworkers come to me. Unlike some of my coworkers, I never lose my temper in front of customers. My ability to remain objective has proven extremely important, especially when dealing with an irate client.
NO: I'm not sure if there's one real expertise that I am relied on for. We work together as a team, and that is the way all situations are handled.
Even within a strictly team setting, there are obviously situations that you are better at handling than your colleagues are. Even though you may not be singled out to deal with each of these situations, tell the interviewer about the situations that you excel in. Which situations are you more qualified for (or better at handling) than your peers? This question provides a good opportunity for you to showcase your dependability, strength of character, and professionalism.
Q: Tell me about a quantifiable outcome of one of your efforts.
YES: I reorganized inventory planning and was able to automate the inventory-recorder function. A task that used to take forty hours to complete now only takes five!
NO: I was able to raise my salary from $45,000 to $50,000, which was a higher percentage than anyone else in my team.
One truth—in business, especially—is that numbers don't lie. One of the easiest ways to showcase your accomplishments is to quantify them. But remember, unless you're talking about sales dollars or company profits, don't talk dollar amounts or the earnings of colleagues. Describe a specific accomplishment that produced a clear benefit. Offer proof, using real examples, that you deliver more than what's expected.
Q: Tell me about a project you completed ahead of schedule.
YES: I was in charge of a new product rollout. In general, we completed each phase without a major setback—which was partially luck—but I also systematically called two days ahead of every deadline to check the status with all groups involved. I believe that is what made the real difference. The launch took place two weeks ahead of plan—a very significant period of time in our industry, where shelf life for products is generally less than one year.
NO: My boss had asked me to complete a project for her, and she suggested that—after rereading the report and editing it—it would take at least two days to complete. Rather than reread the report, I made sure to read it through very carefully the first time around. In doing so, I was able to complete the project in only a day, which was a new company record.
In discussing how you were able to complete a project ahead of schedule, make sure that you are not forcing the interviewer to question the integrity of the project, or the attention to detail you displayed while working on it. Focus on how you set goals and schedules, measured results, and championed the outcome of a project. This question is aimed at your diligence in accomplishing tasks and, assuming the project required group effort, at your leadership skills.