I’ve interviewed – and rejected – hundreds of people applying for jobs not because I think they couldn’t have done the job, or because they didn’t have the skills, or because they weren’t nice folks. I’ve rejected them because they screwed up the answer to the first question that I (and most other people who do job interviews) typically ask, which is: “Why do you want this job?”
This is an obvious question, and most job interviews start this way. That’s not surprising. What is surprising, however, is why very few people ever knock this question out of the ballpark. Most of the time people act like they’ve heard this question for the first time. Or they give some rambling answer that’s generic, some sort of vague description of how they enjoy our line of work and how they have always wanted to work in our organization. And, by the way, did they mention they work hard or are from the area or whatever? It’s mostly bad. An answer like that makes the candidate fade into the background with the others. And failure to answer this question well scuttles your chances. Why? Because usually there’s no consolation prize for finishing in the top ten. All that matters is that you finish first, and get the job.
Why the First Answer Is (Almost) the Entire Ballgame
I’ll give you three specific tips on how to ace this question here, but before I do that, let me tell you why, psychologically speaking, doing well on this question is what makes or breaks the interview.
First, job interviews aren’t really about the facts. By the time I’ve decided to interview you, I’ve already sifted through the resumes, looked at tons of other resumes and shredded the ones who have no shot at the job. I’ve already screened and know you could do the job. And because I’m a busy guy, I’m not wasting a half hour or an hour talking to you if I don’t already think you can do the job. So the job interview is really about whether I want you to be the one to do the job. That’s an important distinction, so keep that in mind. It’s really chemistry, not facts.
Second, psychological studies have shown that first impressions skew the interview massively. In one study, professors were rated by students after a semester of teaching. Researchers showed video clips of the same professor teaching, but the clips were much shorter (along the lines of two minutes), and the ratings by the students was pretty much the same. Then researchers showed clips of the same professors that were just a few seconds long, and even removed the sound. The result? Astonishingly, pretty much the same result. In other words, on the first interview question you must absolutely crush it, or you go home empty-handed. I didn’t believe this myself until I began interviewing candidates, and I make up my mind after 90 or so seconds and slot folks into a yes, take a closer look mindset, or into a let’s-just-smile-and-run-out-the-clock bucket.
Third, I am a trial lawyer and we all know how important the opening statement is at a trial. When you do a case, you know certain facts can be helpful to either side. In a malpractice suit, does the fact that the surgeon is very busy and sees very many patients mean that he’s just too busy to do a good job on a particular case, or does that mean he is super-skilled and conscientious? If the audience in a public speech or elsewhere believes how you frame the argument, facts that can be interpreted one way or another will be interpreted to help your side. Once I interviewed a lawyer for a patent attorney position, but the lawyer didn’t have much of a scientific background. It could have been a bad fact for her, but I liked her, so the fact that she didn’t have a scientific background made me think she could explain complicated concepts in plain English to a jury. So keep in mind that the answer to the first question either turns them off or makes them like you. If they like you, showing off your accomplishments makes them see you as qualified. If they don’t, doing the same thing looks like arrogance to them.
How You Can Ace the First Interview Question
Please, please, please, spend time thinking about this question. People don’t nearly do it enough. People spend time trying to figure out what other questions they may be asked and how to respond to them. Understand that others are answering the very same first question as well. Here are three specific things you must do to ace the question.
Tip #1: The job is more than the job. What do I mean by that? No matter what the job is you’re applying for, make the interviewer understand how you see the job. Whatever it is you’re applying for can always be described in a way that’s a little more grand, more meaningful, more inspiring than people think. Are you applying to be a barista? It’s not just filling cups of coffee all day and dumping out the grinds. It’s about serving beans that have been grown in another part of the world and sharing it with people who want coffee as the first part of their day and making it enjoyable. Are you applying to be an IT specialist? It’s not about replacing keyboards or backing up emails on disk. It’s maintaining the communications architecture and being in the background so that the office mission can be carried out securely and quickly. Are you applying to be a lawyer? It’s not about writing briefs and reading cases. It’s about pouring your life’s energy into serving the clients in our system of justice. There’s a fable about this: A guy walks to a foreign country and sees a guy digging a ditch. He asks the guy what he’s doing and he says, I’m digging a ditch. He keeps walking and sees a second guy putting bricks on the ground, and asks him what he’s doing. He says he’s laying bricks. After walking some more, he sees a third guy spreading mortar, and asks what he’s doing. The third guy looks up, smiles, and says: “I’m building a cathedral.” So tell them you want to help build the cathedral when you’re interviewed.
Tip #2: In this economy, jobs are hard to come by. Tons of people are interviewing for the same jobs. Scour your background for something that’s unique to you and incorporate that into why you’re perfect for the job. I interviewed someone for a legal assistant position, and she said that she grew up in Vietnam where there was no rule of law. And that’s what inspired her to go into the legal field. She said she was looking to join an organization in the United States where she could work as part of the legal field. Someone else might have ignored her cultural background. But instead she used it as a strength. At the end of the day, I want to see you as a human being with a special story, and not just a resume in a stack of resumes. Make your life interesting, you know? Draw on something special in your background and make it as part of your answer. Nobody else can give the same answer, and you’ll stand out.
Tip #3: Finally, and obviously, be enthusiastic. People always forget. Vary your voice, and your pace. Turn up the high wattage smile and amp up your voice. In future posts I’ll tell you exactly how, but do you know what makes people attractive? It’s their presence. And you can have that presence by enjoying the interview (even enjoying your feeling a bit nervous about it). Remember that I wouldn’t have given you an interview and chosen to spend time with you if I didn’t already like you. I want you to do well. So make the most of it. And don’t sell yourself short. The job interview is not just a chance for me to find out if I want you working here. It’s also for you to figure out if you want to work here. So we are equals. And keep that in mind and best of luck!
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