As if getting your engineering degree wasn’t hard enough, now you have to interview with a parade of companies to show them you are worthy of full-time employment. Interviewing for your first (or any) job can be intimidating. Here are five tips that will help you navigate the interview process a little more proficiently:
1. Talk About Yourself, Not Your Classmates
I fondly remember the late nights I spent with my classmates working through frustratingly difficult problem sets. I can honestly say I would not have passed a single class were it not for the combined knowledge of my fellow e-schoolers. Engineering is a team sport in the real world as well, but remember, the interview is about you, not the people that gave you the right equation every now and then. An employer wants to know what you can contribute to a team. If The Breakfast Club was about an engineering design class, which student would you be? Are you the leader, the one who guides the team to glory? Or are you the nerd, the one who actually came up with the ultimate solution? There is also nothing wrong with being a solid contributor, the person who completed their tasks as assigned and helped put the final report together. Hopefully, you aren’t the slacker, the person who only showed up for a few team meetings and made the rest of the team very nervous during the final presentation.
Team projects will inevitably come up when answering interview questions, and it never hurts to show how passionate you were about your team’s success and how much fun you had working with others. However, the fact remains that you are the one trying to get hired, not your team. Focus on the steps you took to make your team better and how you contributed to the overall success of the project. And remember, be truthful. There is no embellishment of responsibility that a few intelligent follow up questions can’t reveal. Your interviewer wants to walk out of the room having a clear idea how you will fit into his or her team. Make sure you don’t leave it up to the imagination.
2. Give the Right Interview for the Job
There is a wide range of engineering jobs available to those who endure the four (or five or six) years of grueling undergrad work. These opportunities run the gamut from
extremely technical lab positions to posh consulting gigs. As a potential employee, your first job is to know which of these jobs is on the table during the interview. The answer to that question should guide the tone and theme of your answers. As a recent graduate, you should have a repertoire of 4-5 stories and experiences to use in most of your interviews.
While you study for your interview, prioritize which of those stories will be most effective for the job at hand. Each time you use one of these stories in an interview, emphasize the aspect of the story that most closely relates to the job. Let’s say you were a group lead for a project in one of your classes. During a technical interview, you should focus on the part you played in forming the technical solution for the project. How much of the code did you write? How many of the simulations did you run? If you are interviewing for a less technical position, you may want to focus on the leadership aspect of your experience. How did you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your team members to assign them tasks? What was your logic behind the format and content of the final presentation to your professor? Applying situational awareness to your interview will help ensure your answers directly relate to the job in question.
3. Understand the Meaning of the Logo
The string of interviews a recent graduate like yourself must endure to land a job may cause the different companies to blur together. While you may have trouble telling
them all apart, remember that the person interviewing you lives and breathes the company every day. The shirt has the company logo on it. The pen has the company name on it. But to any good employee, these things represent more than just a name. Any company worth working for will have its own identity, and with it, its own consistent strategy, values, and ethics.
You can sometimes find these items on company websites or simply by talking to current employees at a job fair. For successful companies, a culture fit is often just as
important as a technical fit. Weaving their values and strategic priorities into your answers will give you a step up on your competition. Interviewers can meet with dozens of potential employees before deciding on a hire, so if you can show that your own values are similar to those that the company name represents (assuming that they are), you will have given your possible employer a reason to differentiate you from the other candidates.
4. Concentrate on the How, Not the What
Imagine a scenario where all four members of your senior design team interview for the same job with the same interviewer. That person will hear about the same project and same solution or product four different times. What about your explanation will make it stand out from the other three?
At its core, engineering is about problem solving. The problems you will solve at your first job will rarely be out of one of your fourth year textbooks. With this in mind, an employer is interested in your approach to problem solving, not necessarily the solution to the problem itself. What will set you apart is the logic that you apply to challenging situations. What are the most important steps in solving an engineering problem? Which of those steps are you strongest at? If you can answer these types of questions while walking through your technical experience, you will greatly enhance the effectiveness of your interview answers.
5. Read the Name Tag
Companies have a few different methods for interviewing college graduates. At job fairs, Interviewers for bigger engineering companies are often not interviewing for specific positions. They may get some general guidance from home base on what skills are currently in demand (like, for instance, electrical engineers or computer science majors). Your interviewer may be someone from human resources or a manager who was willing to help out the recruiting team. Keep this in mind when answering their interview questions. A person from human resources is not going to understand the last four minutes of your five minute explanation of your ingenious software program. I distinctly remember an interview I had during my fourth year where my interviewer spent most of the hour staring at the sprinklers on the football field instead of listening to the rundown of my thesis. Rule of thumb: If it looks like your interviewer has stopped listening, he/she probably has. In these cases, it may be prudent to stay more high level in your answers. Pay attention to how the interviewer introduces his or herself to know who you are talking to. Other interviews, however, may be for specific job openings. Small to midsize companies at job fairs and second round interviews at big companies are more likely to fall in this category. In these instances, it may be appropriate to get much more technical with your answers (see #2). Catering to your audience is a skill that will help you succeed throughout your entire career, not just your first interview.
The interview process can be a difficult one. Trust your skills. Trust your ability to learn new things. Trust yourself. The right job for you is just one good interview away.
Mark Johnson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2007 with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. He is currently a program manager for Lockheed Martin Corporation, a global security and aerospace company headquartered in Bethesda, MD. Mark is also a proud UVA basketball and football (yes, still) season ticket holder.
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