Category Archives: Interview prep

What you may not have learned in College, Part 2: Composing a solid cover letter & acing your interview

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Part 1 of my 2-part post focused on how to give your resume a much-needed face lift. I hope that Part 2 will provide you with some prescriptive tips on turning around your cover letter and acing that interview. Mastery of these three, crucial components will help you differentiate yourself from your competition in the quest for employment. As y’all know, a job search is no easy feat these days so you want to prepare thoroughly and position yourself well.

Cover letter

1. Flow & format: When I look at most folks’ cover letter drafts, I find that the flow of the letter is often misunderstood. This is important because if you don’t have the proper flow, you’re going to be all over the map. While no format is a silver bullet, I believe that the following  is a solid framework for laying out your next cover letter:

  • Paragraph 1 (this paragraph can be as short as two sentences): What position are you applying for?
  • Paragraph 2:  Why are you drawn to this particular position at this particular company? A personal vignette resonates well here. Feel free to draw a connection to the position on multiple levels – in fact, the more levels, the better. Let’s say you were a developer at your old job so you’re applying for a new development role – the connection works.  Additionally, consider that the development role you’re applying for is at a company that plays in the healthcare field. Explain why are drawn to healthcare. A personal example of the affinity may include a story of negative impact on your family when a family member who didn’t have access to healthcare was diagnosed with a chronic illness. This experience, in turn, made you want to work for a company that seeks to expand access to healthcare. Theodore Roosevelt said that “…the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Reference points that tell your story go a long way in convincing the hiring manager that the work you’re applying for is work worth doing from your perspective.
  • Paragraph 3: Why are you qualified for this position? More importantly, what unique attributes do you bring to the table?

Check out this blank cover letter. It looks professional, includes the paragraph topics I discussed, AND you did not even have to wait in line at the career center to get it.

2. It’s not the kitchen sink. A cover letter is devised to catch someone’s attention, to compel them to stop, say, “this person is interesting” and grab your resume out of the pile. It is NOT a reiteration of every experience on that resume. Think of your candidacy for a job as a thesis paper in which you’re making a case for something. A cover letter should include a succinct synopsis of the most salient arguments that advance your candidacy. Pretend that you’re applying for a client service manager position. Your resume houses three customer service-related experiences: a coffee shop, an account manager position at an advertising agency, and a job that you held at the front desk of the Student Union at school. Think through which experience has prepared you best for the job you want and don’t be quick to dismiss the student jobs just because they were “less professional” than an office experience. Once you choose the appropriate experience, push the skill-set it taught you. Consider including something like, “I believe that the associate position I held at Espresso Royale coffee shop thoroughly prepared me for dealing with disgruntled customers and being able to deliver superior client service, both of which are integral to the role I am seeking.”

3. Levels of formality: Context should drive the level of formality in your cover letter. What do I mean by that? Think about how you came across the opportunity. Were you introduced to the CEO of a start-up company through a friend via email or are you applying for a job online? Always keep it professional, but in the case of the former, feel free to use slightly more colloquial language as start-ups tend to have more relaxed cultures. Next, think about what the opportunity is. Are you applying for a job at a large investment bank or at a startup? It is possible that a start-up may not have the same appreciation for language like “return on investment” or “creating value” as would an investment bank. Keeping your audience in mind is key.

4. Tying it together. In the spirit of shelling out prescriptive advice, I have chosen to provide an actual cover letter that someone sent me (the before version) and a draft of it after my corrections (the after version). While I will leave you to do a detailed comparison on your own, I want to point out a few things: 1. The ‘after’ document closely follows the flow I spelled out in my first point. 2. The new cover letters contains a salient personal experience (South Africa) that connects the reader to why the candidate is interested in the work. 3. The edited version is terse, simpler to follow, and easier on the eyes.

Interview prep

1. Find others who have done it. Search your contacts. Who functions in a similar capacity on your LinkedIn page? Consulting those who have been through the experience is an effective way to prepare. Firsthand advice is super helpful. Ask your contacts what the interview was like AND for those that got the job and took it, what it is like day-to-day. Understand what surprised someone about the job/company you’re applying for and what they would have done differently in preparing for the interview. What are challenges on the job and what is enjoyable? It goes without saying that you should read the company’s website and understand the business model to the best of your ability. Hell, in today’s world, you can find out what your interviewer looks like and where they live; don’t be afraid to capitalize on this! The more insight you have, the more informed your answers will be. Informed answers will allow you to interview from a position of strength, which will, among other things, calm your anxiety.

2. Think of a theme. Someone once gave me this advice. She suggested that when you go into an interview, you should have a personal theme – four things (visualize the four corners of a square) that you would want your interviewer to retain about you if they remembered nothing else. Study these four items. Should you feel stuck in an interview, tie the answer back to one of the four items, walk back to one of the corners of the square. Consider that someone asked you how you would deal with a certain situation and you either have no idea or are too nervous to think about it on the spot. Responding with something like “I am not sure what I would do in that situation but I did have [insert situation explanation] this situation with a former client and I did this [insert your actions]. Through my actions, I believe that I demonstrated my ability to be a reliable, team player (provided that team player was one of your four items).

3. Role play. This may be a throwback to my first blog entry. Choose a friend who will be honest and constructively critical. Do a dry-run. The dry-run should entail a healthy mix of question types. Some should be behavioral (e.g. How do you deal with stress?; Talk me through a challenging situation in your last job?; Give me 3 weaknesses/3 strengths, etc.) and some should be technical, if such questions are applicable to the job. For example, if you’re gunning for a consulting position, it would help for a friend to give you a case to practice. If you simulate a real interview environment well enough, I promise that you will quickly realize which of your answers are half-baked. Write the challenging questions down and write answers to those questions out. With repetition, you will likely begin to remember those answers. This helps to battle nervousness and tighten up your answers. Before I move on to my next point, I’d like to offer a word of advice on answering questions that require you to reveal your professional weaknesses. Be honest. Everyone has weaknesses. Don’t try to spin a strength into a weakness because you will look like a tool. However, do your best to couch the weakness. Here’s an example: “I can stand to get better at time management. One thing that I have done to improve this is make a habit of creating a “to-do” list at the start of each work day but I am open to more techniques that will help me more work on this.”

4. Looking sharp makes you sharp. Looking the part is an integral piece to getting the part. Please invest time and energy into your physical appearance. While caring about how you are dressed should be an ongoing habit, it is never as important as it is on interview day. You could have prepared stellar answers that someone will dismiss at the onset as he/she struggles to avoid looking at your blouse, bursting at the chest (ladies, I know you know what I am talking about) because it is a size too small. On the topic of interview fashion, I will say this:

  • Being overdressed is better than being under-dressed.  You may not be sure about an establishment’s dress code. Especially at start-ups, folks air on the more casual side. It does not matter! You should still walk in wearing a freshly ironed suit (preferably black or dark blue) and a shirt underneath that suits your body. Be conservative with your jewelry and your hair-do. I have curly hair that I usually wear up in interviews because I feel that wearing it down makes me appear younger and more playful, when I want to look like I am serious and up for the challenge. I find that looking more professional is empowering.
  • Wear body appropriate clothing. I feel strongly about this, even in non-interview environments. Fashion comes and goes and keeping up with the latest trends is important. However, this should NEVER come at the expense of wearing what looks nice on YOUR body. For example, if you’re a female who is well endowed in the breast area, you should either stay away from a button down blouse that will be bursting open OR you should buy one of a size and fit that does not appear that way. If you’re someone with a curvier bottom, you likely want to stay away from skinny, boot-cut dress pants that accentuate every curve you have. Instead, purchase pants on the looser side around the thighs. I am not suggesting that you should not look feminine but in the words of Andrea Pomerantz, a beauty blogger, “think Paris, France, not Paris Hilton.”   

Check out this cool link my friend sent me. It is a good visual of some topics I discussed and others I did not touch on. Internalize it. Now get after that job you want!

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