Tips for getting your first job: acing the interview

How to prepare for an interview and make a good impression on potential employers.

Mar 3, 2016

This is the third installment in my 3-part series to help you land your first job. Check out Part 1: Writing a Résumé and Part 2: Applying for Work.

In my post called "Morning Shift at McDonald's" I describe how I ended up getting my very first job after having an on-the-spot interview the same day I handed in my résumé. I applied to the job on a whim and was totally unprepared when the manager asked me to interview right then and there. Luckily, I didn’t have time to be nervous.

Since then I’ve had a few more jobs, and I’ve made sure that I’m a lot more prepared for interviews. I’ve done some research and gotten a ton of advice from my mom. These days, I feel pretty confident walking into an interview—those pre-interview jitters are now more like butterflies of excitement. I’ve distilled what I’ve learned into the following tips:

Preparing for your Interview

If experience has taught me anything, it’s that you should always be prepared for an interview when delivering applications and résumés, because you never know if you’ll be asked to do an on-the-spot interview. This means dressing professionally and being ready to talk about your skills and experience. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and more often than not you’ll have some time to prepare. Here are some simple tips to prepare for your interview:

  • Do your research

    Chances are if you research the company or organization you want to work for online you’ll be able to find lots of information about them, like their mission statement, values, history, and work culture. It can be real handy to have this information to draw on in an interview, particularly if you’re asked a question like “why do you want to work here?” You can impress your interviewers by explaining how the company’s values align with your own, and demonstrating that you’ve done your homework.

  • Gather a few stories

    Often interviewers will ask you to describe a time that you demonstrated a certain skill, like problem-solving. Or, they might want to hear about how you handled a certain situation. For instance, was there ever a time you had to deal with an angry customer, or meet an important deadline? If these questions come up, it helps to have a few stories that you can use to demonstrate your past experience. You might explain a group project you worked on or how you developed a skill in hockey or dance with hard work and dedication. Gather a few stories that involve group work, team building, problem-solving, communicating, and overcoming obstacles to prove that you have the skills they are looking for.

  • Prepare your own questions

    At the end of an interview, you have an opportunity to ask your own questions. Many people pass over this opportunity, but you can set yourself apart and impress the interviewer by having some questions about the job ready. This shows that you are interested. You can ask things like: what would make an employee in this position successful? How can an employee fit in well here? What do you like best about working here? Now is not the time to ask about holidays, pay, or benefits—you don’t ask these questions until you’ve been offered the job.

  • Have your references ready

    On a separate sheet of paper, have your references organized with their contact information, or have copies of your reference letters available on hand. Not every employer will ask for your references, but having them prepared shows how organized you are.

Acing Your Interview

Interviews can be nerve-wracking, so keep these tips in mind to help make a good first impression:

  • Show up 5-10 minutes early

    It’s a no-brainer that showing up late for an interview doesn’t make the best impression. But on the flip side, some people show up half an hour early! This can be an inconvenience for your interviewer who may feel rushed to come and meet you when you arrive. I remember one time I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to bus to my interview at Starbucks. I left an hour early in case it was a long trip. It actually only took me 10 minutes. I went in anyway and I could see the manager scrambling to come and talk to me. Then they started the interview frazzled and so did I. It was a mess. If you get to a place early, take a walk around the block or just wait outside for a while.

  • Offer a friendly, polite greeting

    As your interviewer greets you, smile, shake their hand and ask them how their day is going. This sounds so simple and obvious, but if you’re nervous offering someone a smile can actually calm you down and show confidence. This can be especially important if you’re interviewing for a job that would involve a lot of interactions with people. By acting friendly and polite you’ll demonstrate your people skills and help break the ice.

  • Be aware of how you act when you’re nervous

    When I’m nervous, I play with my scarf or necklace and sometimes rub my face. I don’t even notice I’m doing it, but I’ve filmed myself giving presentations in school before and realize that my nervous habits are totally distract from what I’m saying! Most people nervous habits like biting their nails, playing with their hair, or staring at their feet. While these quirks are natural, they can be distracting to interviewers. Try to be mindful of sitting comfortably with your hands in your lap to avoid any distracting behaviours.

What to Do After your Interview

After your interview there are a few simple things you can do to set yourself apart from the crowd:

  • Say thank-you

    I’ve been to numerous information sessions on how to get a job, and one piece of advice that is repeated over and over again is to say thank-you after your interview. Do this the next day by calling, leaving a thank-you note, or sending an email. You can say something like, “I’d like to thank you for your time and for considering me for this position.” Keep it brief, and do not ask if you’ve gotten the job or when you’ll find out. This is a nice, courteous thing to do to make sure your future employer knows you would value the position.

  • Wait patiently

    Some people are too eager and will call or email a prospective employer many times to find out whether they’ve gotten the job. This can be super annoying. In most cases, you’ll find out if you have the job in a week or two. If you don’t hear back, you may not have gotten the position. It’s alright to follow up once if you haven’t heard anything, but usually at the end of the interview the employer will tell you when you can expect to hear back.

My final piece of advice when looking for a job is to stay optimistic. My worst tendency when looking for a job is to worry that I won’t find anything. Sometimes, I’ve even freaked out after a single day of searching when I didn’t find something right away. Keep in mind that looking for a job takes time and energy. If you keep your eyes open and keep applying, something will turn up eventually.

If you’re struggling to find a job, reach out and ask for help. Put the word out to friends and family that you’re looking for work, check to see if your city operates a youth employment centre, find the nearest Alberta Works Centre, or consider going to a job placement agency.


University of Lethbridge

I got pretty involved at my school and made a lot of friends that way, whether from joining a club or attending campus events.

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