Caitlin McLaughlin, global head of campus recruiting for Citigroup Markets and Banking (C), will sometimes surprise MBA students by starting off an interview with a question that has little to do with their experience in the business world or as a student at their particular school.
She'll glance at the interests and activities section of their résumés and ask questions on subjects students expect recruiters to gloss over.
"I'll say, 'I noticed on your résumé that you are a Jimmy Buffet fanatic,' and it will be clear that the person forgot it was on there," she said. "You can see the look of panic spread across their face because they forgot."
Little Mistakes, Big Impact
Little slipups like this are the types of things that recruiters say can make the difference between making the right impression or the wrong one during a job interview (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/6/06, "The 'Do Nots' of Networking").
One thing most recruiters agree on is that MBA students are coming to job interviews more prepared and polished than candidates in years past. They are coached by their career services offices, have studied meticulously the employers, and have boiled their work and academic career experiences down to a carefully crafted script.
Even with all this preparation, there are a number of missteps students can make that can quickly shift the tone of the interview in the wrong direction, recruiters from top companies say.
We asked recruiters for specific advice about navigating interviews and sidestepping common mistakes. Here's what they told us:
1. Follow Interview EtiquetteSome of the most embarrassing moments are caused by blunders a student didn't anticipate. A cell phone ringing in the middle of an interview can be an unwelcome interruption. Whatever you do, don't stop to answer it or check the number, says Connie Thanasoulis, director of campus recruiting at Merrill Lynch (MER). Her advice: "Apologize, and immediately move on."
Etiquette requires students to shake the recruiter's hand before the interview starts and again at its conclusion. These are moments that could prove embarrassing if you have sweaty palms, a common byproduct of nerves and adrenaline. A simple way to solve the problem is to first brush your hand against your leg to dry it off, suggests Thanasoulis.
2. Keep Your Answers Short and to the Point Recruiters will sometimes ask a question about a candidate's résumé and the candidate will ramble on—and on—for several minutes before getting to the main point. This can be trying for the interviewer, who is trying to learn as much as possible about the student in a short time. It can put the interviewer in an uncomfortable position, says Peter Sullivan, director of North American People Services for Booz Allen Hamilton.
"It is very difficult when someone starts diving into detail. It can be perceived as impolite to cut someone off," says Sullivan.
Try to keep your answers under a minute if possible. This gives the interviewer a chance to consider whether they want to ask the candidate to elaborate on the answer. "If the interviewer wants more details, they will ask for it," Sullivan says.
3. It's Okay to Be CluelessSteve Canale, manager of recruiting and staffing services at General Electric (GE) likes to throw in questions that students might not have anticipated. For example, most students will talk at length with him about the company and why they want to work there, but will be thrown off when he asks them to name GE's current slogan.
Most students don't know this and will frequently stumble their way through the question. "Some people will look at the ceiling like God is going to come down and tell them, and other people will try to fake through it or get terribly embarrassed," he said.
The question can be an interesting test for Canale, who evaluates candidates by the manner in which they answer the question. He says that being honest about not knowing the answer is sometimes the best tactic. "Don't be afraid to say I don't know," says Canale. "I think that would be an area where everybody could improve."
Sometimes a student does know the answer to a particular question, but may have trouble answering it on the spot, says Thanasoulis, of Merrill Lynch. Her suggestion for dealing with nerves: Take a sip of water and ask for a minute to think about the question. "Regroup and say, 'I'm sorry about that,'" Thanasoulis says. "It's okay to say, 'Sometimes I get a little nervous, but I'm very excited to be here.'"
(By the way, GE's slogan used to be "We Bring Good Things to Life," but four years ago the company changed it to "Imagination at Work.")
4. Avoid Clichés.It can irk a recruiter when students spend their allotted time talking about themselves in broad generalizations or clichés. Avoid common phrases such as "I'm a people person" or "I'm a creative person."
Instead, Booz Allen's Sullivan recommends that you come up with pertinent examples or stories that clearly illustrate your point. One young woman he interviewed convinced him of her leadership skills by telling him about her volunteer efforts at a church in an inner-city neighborhood. She helped several teenagers at the church learn about financial aid and college preparatory exams, and two of the teens she coached went on to become students at Duke University. The story stuck in his mind and helped her stand out among the other students he had interviewed.
"I now have a story I can then attach directly to her. It was compelling and it was going to get her remembered," Sullivan says.
5. Keep Negativity Out of the ConversationMany MBA students are career switchers and are excited about transitioning to a job in a new field. Often students in this position will talk at length to a recruiter about why they disliked their old career. This can be a slippery slope, especially if you are talking to a recruiter who might be involved with that field. For example, a student who worked in consulting and is now switching to investment banking should be careful not to say anything negative about their old career, said Citigroup's McLaughlin.
"The problem is you don't know if the person sitting across from you may be a consultant," McLaughlin said. "You could be rubbing the person the wrong way. I always tell students stay away from anything that could be perceived as a negative comment."
6. Always Have Questions PreparedRecruiters expect that students will use the interview as an opportunity to learn more about their company. Most end an interview by giving candidates an opportunity to ask a few questions. Don't take the easy way out, warns Sullivan, of Booz Allen. "When I ask a student, 'What questions can I answer for you?' and they say, 'I'm all set,' they've just failed."
Students should walk into the interview with a list of thoughtful questions that take advantage of the recruiter's knowledge of the company, Sullivan says. He recommends avoiding questions that can easily be answered by looking at the company's Web site, such as whether the company has a Boston office. "You should have three or four really good and insightful questions that show self-awareness that you are in front of someone who is pretty senior," Sullivan says.
It helps if the student uses the question as an opportunity to have a genuine conversation with the recruiter, says Jeff Vijungco, Adobe's recruiting director (ADBE): "At some point, it feels like the conversation evolves organically…. The best interviews I've found are the ones that don't even feel like an interview."
7. Keep Your Ego in CheckThe temptation to impress a recruiter can sometimes get the best of students—and come back to haunt them later in the interview. If quantitative math is not your strong suit, don't pretend that it's your best subject. You could be sitting across from a derivatives trader who might want to put you on the spot, says Citigroup's McLaughlin. "Instead of making broad characterizations about your skill set, be more humble about your abilities," she says.
8. Don't Walk in UnpreparedLearn as much as you can about the person who is interviewing you and the company before the interview. Recruiters say they are sometimes surprised when they see a student has done little to no research on the company before the interview. "We've seen students that may not know the company or firm. Some may not have visited the Web site or attended a briefing on campus," said Angela Marchesi, MBA recruiting program manager at Deloitte.
In most cases, students know the name of the recruiter interviewing them in advance. Make every attempt to find out as much as you can about the person before you meet them, says Thanasoulis. Students should conduct Internet searches on the recruiter and try to find out anything they can about them from contacts they have at the recruiter's company. People who work at the company or spent a summer internship there can also prove to be valuable resources, notes Thanasoulis.
"They should exhaust every information source they can get to so they can know who they are interviewing with," Thanasoulis says.
9. Don't Talk in AbsolutesStudents should avoid the temptation to tell a recruiter that their firm is the candidate's No.1 choice.
"A recruiter will hear that as 'I will accept your offer,' and it is understood that the company is your No.1 choice,' McLaughlin says. If the company later extends a job offer that the student rejects, the candidate may have damaged his credibility, she said. A safer approach might be to tell the recruiter that the firm is one of their top choices. This allows the student to express interest, but also leaves a little wiggle room, she says. "Saying something like that is a hundred times better than saying you are my No.1 choice and not being prepared to act on that."
10. Never Bring Up SalaryOne mistake that can immediately take you out of the running is bringing up salary during an initial meeting with a recruiter. Adobe's Vijungco has seen several students this year who have used this year's strong job market as an excuse to ask him what they can make at the company.
"Sometimes there is a tendency for candidates to overemphasize the compensation piece," he says. "They talk less about 'how can I contribute to the company?' and more about "what can I make here?'" Students should equate an initial meeting with a recruiter with a first date, Vijungco says: "On a first date, you don't want to talk about marriage."
A recruiter can be drained at the end of a long day interviewing MBA students on campus. In most cases, they have been meeting with people from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seeing 13 or more candidates over a nine-hour period.
Citigroup's McLaughlin says that performing at the top of your game is essential in such an intense interviewing environment. "There is guaranteed to be somebody else, maybe several people, who did more than you did to get ready and shine during the interview," she says.
With those odds stacked against you, you'll want to do everything you can to come out on top. Avoiding these mistakes will help you keep in the running.