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8 Lessons for College Students Preparing to Enter the Real World

As a career services professional at one of the largest universities in the country, I teach a workshop to our graduating seniors, one that serves as a gentle kick into the real world, whether that means a good old corporate job or trekking through Africa for a year.

As a final project, we encourage students to participate in a mock-interview, where we ask behavioral based questions and provide immediate coaching and feedback.

After interviewing nearly three dozen students in two days, I noticed a few trends in their successes and weaknesses. So here are some nuggets of wisdom that I hope will help you land your dream job when you get that gentle kick.

1. Refer to your resume

It’s surprising how few students refer back to their resume when giving examples of their experience. If your resume is your key marketing document, don’t you want us to admire it during your interview?

Keep in mind that if you’re in a panel interview, the person sitting across from you may have just seen your resume for the first time, two minutes before you walked in the door. Help them get to know you by referencing experiences that you thought were awesome enough to win valuable space on your resume.

2. Don’t play into stereotypes

Most of the students we interviewed were Millenials. Maybe this group of students isn’t aware of how other (older, grumpier, baby boomer) people sometimes talk about them behind their backs, but there are some real hesitations about hiring twenty-somethings: fear they won’t be able to take criticism, deal with a failed venture or project, be able to detach from their parents, etc.

Whatever you do, don’t give the person interviewing you reason to believe that you are one of those Millennials (which I know you’re not). Make them believe that while all your friends might be a typical GenY, you’re different. Assuage their fears, don’t feed into them.

3. Know how to close

When asked a question like, “So, tell me about yourself,” our students started out strong and then, as they continued to talk, their voices gradually got softer and quieter until they kind of just did the slow fade, or ended their statement with, “so, you know, um.”

You do realize that people remember what you said last better than what you said first, right? So start strong and end strong.

A piece of advice: memorize the first thing you want to say and the last thing you want to say, and you can fill in the middle with whatever you want. (This especially works well for the dreaded Tell Me About Yourself question).

4. Understand the question behind the question

When we ask you things like “tell me a time when….” or “tell me about a situation where…”, try to hear the question behind the question. These behavioral interview questions aren’t tricks; they are ways to understand things like character, integrity, ambition and motivation.

So try to get what the interviewer is really asking you, because if you don’t, it’s likely they’re going to keep questioning you until you give up the goods they want.

5. Avoid potential landmines

A few of our students used examples that included references to things such as religion, the anti-vaccine debate, and the presidential campaign.

Just don’t. Even if you don’t tell us which side you’re on, we probably have a strong opinion about the topic and are going to spend the rest of the interview trying to figure out which side you’re on. Come up with other examples, or swap out something less controversial to take the place of your more controversial subject.

6. It’s okay to pull from personal experience

Several standard behavioral questions we asked stumped many of our students, especially the ones asking for the biggest obstacle they’d faced. Understand that what we’re looking for here is how you bounce back from hardships, so if you tell us that the biggest obstacle you’ve faced is graduating from college, unless you explain that it was because you were also working 60 hours a week at Subway while taking care of your sick mother/sister/goldfish, we’re probably going to question whether or not you can handle adversity and disappointment in the real world.

We don’t really want to be your first trip to the old life of hard knocks block. So don’t be afraid to tell us that you were hit by a car and broke your back sophomore year of college, or that you got mono your senior year and were sidetracked for a bit, or that your father’s death threw you completely off track for a while. And then tell us how you recovered. We’ll admire you for your honesty and perseverance.

7. When asked about your biggest weakness, please don’t provide a list

More than a few of our students started LISTING weaknesses (or said things like “my strongest weakness is…”). One I even had to cut off so we could move on to the next question.

To answer this question, give us one weakness (ONE!), and then show us how you are working to overcome it. Don’t tell us you’re a perfectionist, or that you work too hard, because that shows us that you’re an inexperienced interviewer and you’re telling us something you think will make you look good (it won’t).

This question is really about being able to self-reflect (the question behind the question!). Do you know yourself well enough to know your own weaknesses? And are you doing things to compensate for them?

8. Put yourself in their shoes

One of my favorite students from last semester was a bubbly, bright, chatty non-traditional student. In her interview, she did a great job of showing us her enthusiasm and excitement, but her answers lacked focus and kind of went on… and on… and on.

A bright, bubbly, chatty hiring manager would find her energy infectious. But a type-A personality sitting across from her would probably recoil in horror, afraid that this energetic person would never stop talking to co-workers about her passions long enough to get anything done.

So understand that while you should certainly be yourself in an interview, always remember the person sitting across from you might not appreciate the things that you view as your core strengths. If you have a bold personality, try to balance it out by toning it down a bit, or if you’re more of an introvert, focus on speaking a little more openly and passionately about whatever you’re discussing. Don’t give your interviewer a reason to think you would be anything less than a magnificent addition to their team.

Claire Sullivan is based out of Tempe, Arizona and provides career services and employer relations for Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. As a former recruiter and recovering English major, she loves to write and read just about anything, but has a soft spot for books and articles related to career development, sustainability, college students, and higher education. *Reprinted with permission from Brazen Careerist.