Career Resources

Monday, February 21, 2011

What's your greatest weakness?

Ah, the dreaded weakness question...the bane of every college student's interviewing existence.  Each semester I conduct about 75 mock interviews with students and, invariably, they struggle with this question.  Admittedly, it is probably one of the most difficult questions you will have to answer on your interviews. I think the problem is that most students think it is a sign of weakness to admit that they have a weakness.  During a recent mock interview, I asked a student why it was so difficult for him to answer this question honestly, and he replied, "Well, aren't the interviewers screening out candidates based upon how bad their weakness is?"  While I could definitely understand why he felt this way, I told him that this was not the case (unless you give a horribly horrendous weakness!) and proceeded to explain why interviewers ask this question and the appropriate way to answer it.

Interviewers ask this question for a number of reasons:  1) to see if you can remain confident and positive when discussing a negative aspect of your life; 2) to see if you will answer it honestly and not try to pretend that one of your strengths is actually a weakness (for example, "I'm such a perfectionist that I end up spending way too much time on my projects."  Excuse me, but where is the weakness here?).  Here's a clip from The Office where Michael does exactly what you're NOT supposed to do:; and 3) to determine if you are mature enough to routinely reflect on areas of your life that offer room for professional growth.

The typical way that most career experts say to answer this question is to state a true weakness, but then show how you're working on overcoming that weakness. If the thought of stating your true weakness makes you break out into a cold sweat, then consider my approach to answering this question. Reframe this question in your mind and think about it as, "In which areas do I need to grow professionally, and how am I doing that?"  This is what interviewers are trying to evaluate with this question. And if you're not growing professionally, then that is undoubtedly a weakness. As I always point out to students, every professional, no matter what level, needs to be continuously assessing themselves to find ways to improve in order to increase their chances of upward mobility and to remain competitive candidates in the job market.

Listed below are a few examples showing how your answer to this question can be changed from the weakness approach to the professional development approach:

Weakness approach: "My public speaking skills are not that great."
Professional development approach: "Because my public speaking skills were not up to par, I enrolled in a Toastmaster's course."

Weakness approach: "I tend to dominate team discussions and not listen to others' opinions."
Professional development approach: "Being an extrovert, I tend to get excited about sharing my ideas, but now I'm stepping back more to give everyone else a chance to speak before I present my opinions.  I've realized from doing this that my teammates have a lot of great ideas to contribute."

Weakness approach:  "I tend to be really shy and don't like to attend networking events."
Professional development approach: "I am attending at least two networking events each semester so that I can improve my professional networking skills."

One last point:  Never state a really bad weakness, that is, one that is directly tied to the job responsibilities.  For example, if an internship requires strong analytical skills, don't say, "I hate working with numbers."  If the position requires strong customer service skills, don't say, "I always lose my patience with people."  If the job involves a lot of writing, don't say, "My writing skills aren't the best, but I'm taking a creative writing course." If writing is a major requirement for the position, you should possess that skill right now.  If you're finding that your true weakness is in direct opposition to the job requirements, then it might be time to pursue another career direction or find a way to overcome that weakness through some form of professional development before you embark on your internship or job search.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Seniors: Are you residing in Neverland?

Ah, it’s spring semester of your senior year. If you’re like most college seniors, you’re probably in a mild state of panic right now about finding a job. “Wow, how did this happen,” you’re probably wondering, as you start to think about what’s next. “Wasn’t I just a freshman trying to maneuver an uncooperative rolling cart, jam-packed with 'dorm essentials,' into my new dorm room?” It’s hard to believe that in a few short months, you’ll be expertly maneuvering that same cart as you leave your cozy college cocoon to embark on this scary thing called life. And just like Peter Pan, you may be inwardly declaring, “I won’t grow up. I don’t want to wear a tie. And a serious expression in the middle of July."

To make matters worse, I’m sure you were barraged with questions and advice from your parents and other adults about getting a job while you were home over winter break. You probably found yourself dodging questions such as, “So you’re graduating this May, do you know what you’re going to do?” Other “well meaning” relatives may have grimly shared the most recent unemployment statistics with you or said things like, “I heard there are no jobs in (insert your major here).” You might have even had to smile and nod as someone told you how his super-star son or daughter just landed a highly paying job with a prestigious company that involves traveling around the world. Ugh! It’s enough to make you want to turn that rolling cart around and stay on to get your master’s degree.

But wear a tie you must (well, maybe not in July), as well as do other grown-up things, as you go about this scary process called “Looking for a Job.” As an undergraduate career counselor in the School of Management at Boston University, I have seen my share of seniors who are feeling pressured and anxious about find a job and making the transition into the real world. Undoubtedly, part of my job is to calm them down, to give them inspiration and to motivate them to move forward. In addition, a large amount of my time is spent dispelling myths. I often hear statements like, “All of my friends already have jobs,” or “There aren’t any jobs,” or “I know I won’t get that position because of (fill in the blank).” After I debunk their myths with true information, bolster their confidence and provide them with a positive action plan to move forward, I can quickly see their anxiety melt away, and they leave my office recharged and reenergized.

So if you’re feeling anxious about finding a job after graduation, don’t take up permanent residence in Neverland. Rather than avoiding the issue and hoping it will go away, the best thing to do is to take action. Make an appointment with your school’s career counselor who can give you a career checkup and coach you onward to success. According to the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) 2010 Student Survey, “…the more frequently a senior used career services, the more likely he/she would receive a job offer. In addition, the study found that the likelihood of getting a job offer increased with the frequency of use.”

Here are some things that should be included in your career checkup, as well as things you can do to move forward in your job search:

1. Have your resume reviewed. Although you may think your resume is ready to go because there are no misspellings or typos, your career counselor can help you write your resume more strategically to target the career/industry in which you want to work by rearranging the components of your resume, highlighting accomplishments and using key words relevant to your industry.

2. Have your cover letter reviewed. I always tell seniors to come in and meet with me after they have written a cover letter for a real position. (Remember: never use a cover letter template! Recruiters can spot them in a minute.) If their cover letter does a good job of stating why they’re a strong candidate, why they want the job and why they want to work at the company, then I usually send them off to write subsequent cover letters on their own.

3. Conduct a mock interview. Even if you think you’re a terrific interviewer, I would highly recommend that you schedule a mock interview with your career services office. There may be one little thing you’re doing or saying (or not doing or saying) that could mess up your entire interview.

4. Start thinking outside the (computer) box. Many seniors think that searching for a job means sitting at your laptop, latte in hand, and applying to as many positions as possible. It’s so easy to sit there and apply for positions, simply by clicking “send.” Remember I said you had to take action above? This also means getting away from your computer and networking with professionals in your industry.

5. Attend events. Attend company information sessions, professional association meetings and career fairs, both inside and outside your school. This is another great way to start building relationships with professionals in your industry.

6. Develop a list of target companies. Do some research and make a list of the companies you would really like to work for. Once you have your target list, bookmark the career pages of these companies so that you can continuously check them. If there are no advertised positions, then you can send a prospecting cover letter and your resume to the HR departments of these companies.

7. Establish a profile on LinkedIn. Establish a profile on LinkedIn, invite people into your network and join your college’s alumni group, as well as professional groups. Join in discussions and post questions in your groups in order to gain visibility and credibility. LinkedIn is also a great way to find and reach out to alumni for informational interviewing purposes.

8. Have an open mind! Explore all opportunities available in your college’s database and external job databases. Look beyond the brand name companies and explore opportunities at lesser known firms. Don’t just read a job title and assume you know what the job involves. Read the entire job description. When I have students do these things during counseling sessions, they are usually very surprised (and pleased) to discover the amount and variety of jobs available.

After obtaining your clean bill of career health from your career services office, I guarantee that you’ll be feeling confident and energized about embarking on your job search. Soon enough, you’ll be whistling, “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go.” The ultimate cout d’├ętat will be when you can look your relatives in the eye at graduation and proudly declare, “I have a job!”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

If the caller's unknown, leave it alone!

A student was in my office the other day telling me that a recruiter had called him while he was eating his lunch in the school's dining hall and proceeded to interview him on the spot. Not only did this student have to think extremely quickly on his feet but he also had to conduct his interview within such a noisy, crowded and distracting environment.  Needless to say, the interview didn't go well, and he was not selected to move onto second round interviews.  To top it all off, the recruiter who had called him was from his dream company.  If only he hadn't picked up the phone.

Another student told me that she picked up a call from an unknown number while she was in class, and it happened to be from a recruiter.  Hello! She ended up whispering to the recruiter that she was in class and asked if she could she call him back after class.  Think of the impression this might have made.  As eager as you are to get a call for an interview, picking up your cell phone in class is a bad idea for the obvious reasons, but it also sends a fairly negative message to the recruiter as well.  They may wonder if you'll be picking up your cell phone during staff meetings or whether you understand proper business etiquette.

More and more companies are conducting first-round, screening interviews over the phone to save on resources so you need to be prepared to get these kinds of calls.  And many times they launch right into the interview no matter where you are.  So, what's the solution?  Don't pick up the phone!  If you aren't prepared to conduct an interview, never pick up the phone from an unknown caller.  Let all of those calls go into your voice-mail so that you can call them when you're more prepared and ready to conduct an interview.  By doing this, you'll be more in control of the situation.  Speaking of voice-mail, make sure that your outgoing message is professional and doesn't include the word "hey" or a long waiting period where the caller is forced to listen to your favorite song before leaving a message.

By following these guidelines, you'll increase your chances of getting the call to tell you that you're moving on to second round interviews or that you got the job!