Acing the Telephone Interview

  • February 4, 2014 2:52 pm

As everyone knows, it’s a buyer’s market in hiring right now.  Human Resources staff have so many applicants for every job that they are finding new ways to reduce the pool of those under consideration. One of their techniques – not really new but increasingly being used – is the telephone interview.



Not a surprising choice, the telephone interview offers an inexpensive way for hirers to get beyond the paper file and meet candidates live while learning about their extemporaneous thinking and communication skills.


Telephone interviews are different from face-to-face interviews live and via internet-based apps like Skype. Phone interviews require a special kind of preparation and a special kind of attention. While such interviews have many disadvantages like not being able to see the facial expressions and body language of the interviewer, they have some advantages like permitting you to have notes to refer to.


Following are some tips to help you prepare for a telephone interview:


  • Dress the way you would for an in-person interview. Even on the phone, we broadcast a different vibe when we are wearing sweats rather than business clothes.
  • Give the interview your full attention. Have your computer and other mobile devices turned off. Clean up the area where you will have notes. Standing up will help you stay focused and will increase the energy you project.
  • Smile and gesture as if there was another person in the room. Your voice will sound friendlier and more energetic. The biggest failure of people interviewed on the phone according to studies of hirers is sounding bored or unenergetic.
  • Be conscious of enunciating your words clearly. Hold the phone; do not put it on speaker mode which makes your voice sound tinny and garbled. Allow pauses – they will give your interviewer time to process what you have said and will help you avoid verbal graffiti like “um.”
  • Have an “elevator speech” ready that includes the main points you want the interviewer to know about you. At an appropriate time, you can interject all or part of it. As with in-person interviews, you may ask, “Would it help if I told you a bit about myself?” at the beginning or when there is a lull.
  • As with in-person interviews have questions for the interviewer. You want to show an interest in the interviewer, the company, and the job.
  • Remember to use examples, stories, and details to flesh out your answers. They give credibility to your assertions of skills – “I definitely used my attention to detail in my internship when my supervisor needed me to . . .  .” And they make you more interesting.
  • Be as prepared for a telephone interview as you would be for an in-person interview. Know everything you can about the position, the company, and, if possible, the interviewer. A comment like “I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you are in an MBA program at the University of Chicago. The Booth School program has a great reputation,” will sound like interest rather than stalking!
  • Near the end of the interview mention that you are looking forward to meeting the interviewer. This action will show your interest and friendliness and will imply a sense of confidence that you will  be invited to the next stage.
  • Try to be natural; be yourself. Of course, this advice is easier given than put into practice when you are anxious. But it is even more critical when you cannot be seen. It might be helpful to have a photograph of a friend or family member that you can look at while you answer.


Most of all, be aware that you must never assume that you are hidden from the interviewers. Act as if they are there with you. Our voices and energy levels convey much more than we think, and an experienced interviewer is more intuitive and astute at reading those things than you might think.


It’s nice to be right ;-)

  • April 1, 2013 12:36 pm

Despite the barrage of media attention to the issue, I have not yet come anywhere near being convinced that the main purpose of getting an education is to secure a job. From my own experience as a student and from a career of being involved with college students, I know that education is primarily about personal growth and development.


That said, I am also convinced that gaining meaningful and productive employment ranks a close second as a goal of becoming educated. Sigmund Freud was wrong about many things, but I think he was correct in observing that two things give meaning and purpose to life: love and work.


The mission of the James S. Kemper Foundation focuses on assisting students to complement their liberal arts education with hands-on experience in the world of work. For about 65 years the Foundation, through its Kemper Scholars Program and grants, has operated with the belief that enabling students to work in professional positions with mentoring will educate them about the workplace application of the skills they have been developing on campus and about ways to be an effective, ethical professional.


It feels good to have evidence that employers share our values and our philosophy.


The Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade paper of college and university professionals, reported in its March 8, 2013 issue on a survey conducted by The Chronicle and American Public Media’s Marketplace.  The study concluded, “Employers want new graduates to have real-world experience. Internships and work during college matter most. . . .”


While that part of the conclusion may not be surprising, the other part is. It runs counter to what students think (as established by a parallel survey) and contrary to what they often told by others: “Employers said that each of those [internships and work] was about four times as important as college reputation, which they rated as least important. Relevance of coursework and grade-point average rounded out the bottom of the list.”


This study has many implications, but one that supports one of my favorite hobby-horses is that students should exchange their choice of seeking multiple majors and minors for opportunities to get internships and work experience.

Plays well with others

  • January 10, 2013 1:27 pm

Each week my Chicago church sends out an e-newsletter with reflections on spiritual matters and information about upcoming events. This week’s reflection by my pastor, Craig Mueller, contained some ideas I thought relevant to college students preparing to go into the professional world. The following three paragraphs contain his thoughts. If you would like to read his full reflection, you can find it by clicking here.


“Earlier this week I heard a story on NPR on maps. Simon Garfield, a map expert noted that it’s easier these days to use GPS on a smart phone than it is to look at an actual map.

“Garfield regretted that one of the losses is that we lose the beauty and romance of maps. But his concluding comments had a spiritual ring to me:   ‘The other thing we lose, is a sense of how big the world is. Because now we look at our map, there’s a real sense of, ‘Get me to where I want to go.’ Now you get the feeling, actually, ‘It’s all about me’ … It’s a terribly egocentric way of looking at the world. So I think the view of where we are in the world, in the history of the world, is changing. And I think in a way it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest impacts of the digital and technological revolution – is how we see ourselves in the world.


“As 2013 begins, it is good to reflect on the way we see ourselves in the world. Most of the time we are apt to reflect on our own financial situation, health, emotional landscape, and to-do list. Everything depends on how we are doing as an individual. It is a bit like looking on a Google map and seeing the dot in the middle showing where you are. Everything revolves around you.”


Here is why I thought these ideas are relevant to college students.


Whenever I get a chance to speak with executives or with people who do hiring, I ask them what they most look for in new employees. My goal of course is to get information to funnel to the Kemper Scholars I work with, giving them insights into how to further their professional careers.



Recently the answers to the question have had a consistency around two points: they want people who can communicate clearly, interestingly, and correctly (“Not at all a given with today’s college grads,” one executive told me.); and they want people who can work as part of a team.



As a former English professor, I have thought and written a great deal about communication skills – including in this blog, so I will spare you more. And the desire for employees who can work as part of a team is nothing new either. As I asked them to clarify, however, I heard some new things.



One executive compared her difficult search for team players with the paralysis in American legislative bodies. “People see themselves and their positions as the center of things. They demand that others adapt to them and not vice versa,” she told me. Sounds remarkably like Simon Garfield’s and Craig Mueller’s words above, right?


When I asked whether employers therefore prefer graduates who have been part of sports teams, the answer I got was “Maybe in the past. But now athletes are as likely to be grandstanders and hotshots as team players.”



Since most of American academia does not create situations where students must complete course assignments as part of a group, I suggest undergraduates would be wise to find teamwork opportunities on their own. These are most likely to occur in internships, jobs, and extra-curricular organizations.  Volunteer at an organization like Habitat for Humanity where everything is done in work teams. Learn how to operate as part of a group without being the leader. And when you do these things, take time to reflect on how people work best as groups and how setting aside your personal goals can get larger ones accomplished.


Drilling into the Job Market

  • January 5, 2013 9:00 am

In his article in the October, 2012 issue of INC., Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals, a Chicago-based software company, includes an observation by Theodore Levitt, legendary professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School:


“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”


Levitt was speaking about the misguided approach to advertising and marketing that emphasizes the features, characteristics, or specifications of a product. Marketers should be telling potential customers what a product can do, how it can meet their needs.


As I thought more about Levitt’s comment, it occurred to me that the same advice can be very helpful to job seekers.  Potential employers do not want a description of the jobs you’ve had, a list of personality traits, or a rehash of your college curriculum.


Employers want someone who can do a job for them. Usually it is a very particular job which they have described in their ad or announcement. Your best approach in cover letter, résumé, and interview will be to tell with concrete details what you have accomplished and how these accomplishments match those skills the employer seeks.


“You say that you want someone who can X, Y and Z? I’ve X’d, Y’d and Z’d many times in many circumstances with these positive results. And here are the names of some people who can tell you about it.”


Of course, this assumes that you have had jobs, campus roles or internships where you have gained hands-on work experience. It is not too late!


“Our Perfect Candidate”

  • December 7, 2012 9:00 am

The Baylor University Business Review in its Fall, 2012 issue contains a comment from Scott Smith, a Baylor alumnus and senior vice president of human resources operations at AT&T. “Our perfect candidate is one who has the underlying technology foundation along with key self-directed leadership abilities such as collaboration, creativity, critical-thinking, communication and customer service skills.” [You can see the whole issues by clicking here.]


I was happy to see Mr. Smith’s observation, because it validates something we have learned from the Kemper Scholars Program over its more than sixty-five years. The skills organizations want in their employees and future leaders are the skills honed in the course of completing a liberal arts college education.


Despite all the punditry about what is new and different and changing and developing in the workplace, someone like Mr. Smith who does the hiring for one of the country’s major corporations reminds us that the ideal employee skills they are looking for have not really changed.


So if liberal arts college and university students will possess the skills at graduation, what do they need to do to secure those jobs reserved for the “perfect candidate”?


First, they need to be sure that they select courses and campus experiences that are challenging and will help them test and hone these skills.  Sign up for the logic course that will push your critical thinking skills. Even if it requires more work, take the course with the writing and speaking components that will give you opportunities to refine your communication skills. The best way to improve writing and speaking is to do them.


Second, they need to find non-classroom experiential opportunities in the workplace (jobs or internships) and extra-curricular leadership positions where they can test out and practice these skills. Things like collaboration, creativity, critical-thinking, and communication look different in the classroom than they do on the job. Having the chance to do them in this environment helps one to adapt these skills appropriately. For example, academic writing is communication, but not the style called for in the workplace.


Third, they need to reflect upon how the skills they learned on campus are playing out in the workplace and leadership positions. This practice will give them the confidence, the specific details and the vocabulary to show prospective employers in résumé, cover letters, and interviews that they in-deed have the skills employers seek in the perfect candidate.

Virtual Job Applications

  • November 9, 2012 10:00 am

More and more commonly, job applicants will be making their bids virtually through online applications or by email.


When you apply for a job by email, should you write a full-blown cover letter?


The hiring experts say, “Yes.”  Though the form of delivery is different, the cover letter still serves its purpose of guiding the reader to see the connections between your resume and the desired characteristics mentioned in the job posting.


Highlight or expand upon those items in your résumé you think will show that you have the skills and traits the hirer seeks.  Use the same vocabulary used in the job posting.  If it said they want “creativity,” give evidence that you are creative and use that word. Remember that the reader may have scores, even hundreds, of applications to read; so you have to guide the reader to see what is most relevant.


Most first job applicants are in school or just graduated. You will be in the mode to write for professors in an academic style. Don’t. Be clear, concise, and pointed. Use straightforward Anglo-Saxon vocabulary when possible and use concrete, specific examples. If you majored in something like sociology or gender studies with a specialized vocabulary, do not use it unless you are applying for a job in that field and feel confident that your reader shares the same jargon.


Try to start out with a hook or punchy line that will grab your reader without being cute. You might begin with something like “Why would an education major think she is qualified to work in a bank?” Then go on to explain how you have developed the necessary skills and attitudes to fit in.


Attach a résumé to your email and note it after your signature, adding the program in which the résumé was prepared: “Attachment:  résumé in MSWord 2007.” If you have the latest version of the software, it would be good to save the attachment in an earlier version so the recipient will be able to open it. To be extra safe, you can copy and paste the resume into the email after the letter in addition to attaching it.


If you use boilerplate copy and recombine sections for a new email, be sure there is nothing in the copied material that shows it was written for another application – for example, the name of a company.  It is important to include specific references to the place you are applying, so in your boilerplate source document use colored highlighting to alert you to things you will need to change.


Finally, to avoid sending your email accidentally before you have proofread and edited it, do not fill in in the “To: line” until the very end.

Developing Habits of Mind

  • October 30, 2012 12:33 pm

Recently a number of periodicals have published articles reacting against a perceived push to define the value of education in terms of acquired job skills or salaries earned by graduates. Most commonly, the authors talk in terms of the need to develop lifelong “habits of mind.”


A piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 12, 2012 titled “Habits of Mind: Lessons for the Long Term” describes the argument this way: “the real value of a college education is how it affects the way students think and act, ideally for years after they graduate.” The intellectual virtues cited include critical thinking, open-mindedness, and intellectual courage.


Probably like most others whose lives and careers have been intimately connected with liberal arts education of the kind that happens in smaller colleges and universities, I find the argument resonant. If given a choice of skills to develop, the ones which will serve us longest deserve the most effort and resources, I would argue.


What we have learned from the Kemper Scholars Program, however, is that job skills and habits of mind are not at odds. Our experience shows that the two can come together comfortably in mentored experiential learning through professional internships. These kinds of experiences, in which students work in challenging internships accompanied by reflection, discussions, and mentoring, elucidate and concretize both professional work skills and habits of mind.


One of the most important things we have learned from the Kemper Scholars Program’s post-sophomore-year internships is the value of putting students in managerial areas of organizations rather than focusing on narrow skills related to their academic majors. In such positions they are likely to be called upon to use all their skills to deal with the complex issues that can arise on a daily basis. As a result, they know the value of all of these abilities and the reason to develop them.


We wish colleges and universities would make it possible for all students to have the same opportunities as Kemper Scholars!

College career offices can guide grads better

  • October 13, 2012 12:00 pm

While reports are mixed about whether the job market is getting any easier for recent graduates, one thing is certain: Too many students are graduating from college unprepared for the job search that awaits them. And part of the reason is that colleges aren’t giving students the right guidance.


According to the popular management blogger Alison Green, here are eight things that colleges and universities can do to better prepare students to find jobs when they graduate:


  1. 1.     Hire better-qualified career-center staff. Career-center staffers often don’t have much work experience themselves, and what experience they do have is at the junior level. This is a disservice to students, who end up receiving advice on getting hired from people who have never done any actual hiring themselves and don’t have a first-hand understanding of what employers are looking for.


  1. 2.     Stop with the outdated advice. Too many college career centers are dispensing outdated advice—telling students to use old-fashioned resume objectives, recommending aggressive follow-up phone calls that irritate and alienate employers, and other advice that doesn’t work in today’s market. Not only does this outdated knowledge not help students, in some cases, it actually harms their job-searching efforts.



  1. 3.     Teach students how to network. Students often come out of college having heard that they should network, but not understanding what that means or how to do it. As a result, some new grads simply don’t network at all, and others inadvertently use strategies that turn off their contacts.


  1. 4.     Help students understand that a degree alone won’t get them a job. Too many students graduate with the belief that their degree will lead straight to a job—setting the stage for a painful wake-up call when they realize that in most fields, a degree is simply a minimum qualification, not an instant pass to easy employment.


  1. 5.     Teach students how to evaluate an employer. New grads often take the first job they can find, without asking any of their own questions to evaluate the work they’ll be doing, the workplace culture, or the employer’s financial stability. Colleges could help significantly by teaching students how to figure out if a potential employer or potential job is likely to be a good fit or not


  1. 6.     Start talking about careers long before graduation. Many students pick a major without fully understanding what jobs it will (and won’t) qualify them for once they graduate, and then they’re frustrated to learn that the major doesn’t come with a clear career path or one that they’re interested in following.


  1. 7.     Teach students how the interview process works. Too many new grads have no idea what to expect from a hiring process or what each stage means. As a result, they’re prone to think a job is in the bag when it’s not, to mishandle something crucial like supplying references, or to make other mistakes related to inexperience.



  1. 8.     Explain the supreme importance of working during college. Whether it’s a job or an internship, students who come out of school with work experience on their resumes are at a significant advantage to students who only have classes and extracurricular activities to highlight. Students shouldn’t learn this once they graduate, at which point it’s too late to go back and change it. Schools should be making them aware of this from the start.

I really, really want this job!

  • September 18, 2012 12:00 pm

When you are the lowly applicant looking for a job for which hundreds of others may be applying and desperately want the hiring committee to want you, it is easy to think of those doing the hiring as holding all the power. You may thnk them careless about whether you like them or not.


The fact is that even hiring committees are human beings, and everyone wants to be wanted.


So it is important to remember in applying for jobs that you must let the organization know that you really want to work with them, you really want the job. Job applications, cover letters, and interviews are not the time to play hard-to-get or even seem stoically above it all.


I recently read an opinion piece describing a hiring process in which a hot shot applicant who on paper and in the interview displayed everything the hiring committee was looking for was not hired. The applicant was rejected because the committee “didn’t get the feeling he really wanted the job.” Organizations want employees who want to be working with them. It is the applicant’s role to make that feeling clear.


So how do you let your potential employer know you really want the job? First, design your cover letter – and perhaps even your resume – to emphasize the elements of your experience, skills, and education which most closely fit the advertisement for the position.  As long as you put the dates for your previous work experiences in the resume, there is no reason they must appear in chronological order. Put those most relevant to this job first.


Second, spend some time reflecting about what makes this potential job desirable to you. (Of course, if the only appealing thing is that it has a salary and benefits attached, you might want to skip this part.) In your cover letter and in the interview, let those doing the hiring know why you want this particular job. Being specific makes you credible and shows them that you have seriously thought about this job. While they could figure out if they think about it that you are applying to other places, you want them to feel they are the only job you want.


Finally, take the opportunity in your cover letter and in the interview to say — in one way or another but very clearly — “I really want this job.” And give some evidence for why it will be perfect for you and for them in you get it.

Somehow it all connects

  • September 4, 2012 12:00 pm

As in my last post, I want to write about something I learned from scholars’ presentations at this year’s annual Kemper Scholars Conference. Many of the presentations dealt with how the students had solved challenging problems at their internship work sites and what they had learned from the process.


For example, one student described being asked to develop plans for a potential community kite flying event. He described how he made a well-received recommendation to change the proposed site for the event based on applying knowledge he remembered from having taken an introductory science course that had a meteorology component.


Another talked about her struggle to reconcile her organization’s accounting ledger and bank statements. While she knew all the accounting she needed, she could not find the error that would make the two match. What enabled her breakthrough was something she had learned reading a book on creativity.


So one thing these presentations and a number of others had in common was the students’ ability to transfer knowledge from one context to another.  They demonstrated the understanding – not a given for many people – that while things may be learned as separate disciplines, both the content and processes one learns have a transferability that makes them useful in many situations.


The failure to grasp the fact of the transferability of knowledge commonly manifests itself in complaints like “Why should I study statistics? I’m an art major” or “Why should I have to study history? I’m going to be an engineer.”


I think the Kemper Scholars who displayed their ability to synthesize across disciplines in unexpected ways reflect a value of their liberal arts education.  Although liberal arts colleges have grown to resemble universities in their “silo-ing” of disciplines, most retain in one way or another some cross-disciplinary integration. This integration may show up in first year seminars or senior capstone courses.


Each semester when I ask Kemper Scholars to tell me about the courses they are taking, it is not uncommon for them – especially juniors and seniors – to express a sense that “many of my courses seem to overlap and have a relevance and connection to each other.”


This sense of the interconnectedness or integration of knowledge gives these students an edge in the professional world whether they appreciate it ahead of time or not. They have learned that the solutions to problems may come from unlikely sources and that everything they have learned can and should be brought to bear on their work.