The next step: getting ready for job interviews

So you’ve written a dynamite resume and married it with the perfect cover letter, and after sending it off to the company where you want to work, you receive the much-anticipated call.  The firm would like to invite you to an interview!

It is a thrilling feeling when the phone rings and the hiring manager is on the other end of the line  – kind of like having having someone you like say “yes” when you ask them out on the first date.  It is also slightly terrifying – also kind of like having someone you like say “yes” when you ask them out on the first date.  Seemingly thousands of thoughts race through your head: what to wear?  when should I arrive?  what does the company expect from me?  what will the interview be like?

It can be overwhelming, but in the next few posts we will take deeper look at the various types of interviews that companies employ to find the right employees.  Some are very traditional, such as meeting the hiring manager in his or her office, and some are very eclectic, with such hoops to jump through as impromptu essay writing, math quizzes, and team building exercises.

The long and the short of it is that all of the work that you have done to this point – researching the company, writing a resume, crafting a cover letter, and sending it in – is wasted unless you can close the deal in the actual interview.

Before we get into the individual interviews and how best to prepare for them, we first need to go over some basics.

Remember always that the purpose of the interview is for the company to fill a need in their organization.  It is never about what a great person you are.  That said, if you fit the need of the company, then you are likely to be hired.  That’s right, you are likely to be hired.

Why is that?  Why only likely?

I’m glad you asked.  Your skills and talents are what got you the interview in the first place.  In the eyes of the company, they are bringing you in and expending resources (in terms of the interviewer’s time, maybe lunch, or maybe even airfare and a hotel room) because you look good on paper and are worthy of a closer look.  Your resume opened the door, but it is up to you to go through it and secure a job offer.

Simply put, the interview is more about how you will fit in with the company’s culture and the way things are done there than your skills.  They want to see how you articulate yourself, how you dress, what your manners and mannerisms are like.  They want to see if you trim your fingernails or pick your nose or scratch yourself in awkward places, or if you project the image that the company wants.  That is what the interview is really all about.

So in the next few posts we will look at how to prepare for specific types of interviews, but before that let’s look at things that pertain to all interviews.

First off is personal hygiene.  Ask someone you know and respect of the opposite sex how you look.  Don’t ask your mom or dad (because they still think of you as a kid in the third grade) but someone who will give you an objective opinion.  Ask them to look at you in terms of a hiring manager.  How does your hair look?   If it is a super-motivated flat-top then you may want to consider growing it out a little bit.  Your posture?  If you slouch in your chair it will project an image of slovenliness.   How do you speak?  If every third work is the “F”-bomb or you use acronyms in every sentence then you need to change your vocabulary.  Do you have any mannerisms that you are not consciously aware of yet are distracting to others, such as drumming your fingers, wiggling your toes, or biting your fingernails?  If so, recognize that you do and make a conscious effort to stop.

Make sure not to take anything that your friend says personally because they are really helping you out.  An unintended benefit is that you may actually pick up on some things that will improve your appearance and help you find a date for Saturday night, but that is an entirely different subject.

Look at how you dress.  As a transitioning military person you likely have a closet full of uniforms and a single navy blue blazer with a rumpled pair of khaki trousers.  That was fine for your time in the military, but it is completely underwhelming in the corporate sector.  Time to do some shopping.

I personally like going to the clothier Joseph A. Bank.  They carry a quality line of professional clothing, and more importantly the staff in the store is there to help you build a complete wardrobe.  This is a bit more challenging than you may realize, but after years and years of wearing exactly the same thing to work has a tendency to dull your fashion sense.  Nobody wants to hire an employee who wears a suit fresh from decades gone by, and just as importantly the sweet threads you wear to a nightclub are definitely not going to make a good impression at your interview.

Talk to the salespeople at the store.  They will show you the current trends in professional attire as well as instruct you on how to coordinate your wardrobe.  Believe it or not, there are color choices outside the green, brown, and khaki palette, and if you choose poorly you will end up looking either comical or color blind.  Swallow your pride and listen to the experts- you will be better looking for it!

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  There is a lot more to interviewing than just showing up at the hiring manager’s office.  Before you show up, you need prepare, and a significant part of preparation centers around how you will come across in the interview.

2.  Have a trusted friend give you an honest evaluation of your appearance, habits, and hygiene.  Then work on your deficiencies and shortfalls.

3.  Get a new set of clothes.  Talk to the pros at a place like Joseph A. Bank, and listen to what they say. You will look a lot more professional, and that will go a long way in presenting a solid impression at your interview.  They also have some wickedly good sales on suits and whatnot- so take advantage of them when you can.

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Innovation in education for veterans: USC’s MBV program

As the war in Afghanistan comes to a close it signals the end to one of the longest periods of protracted warfare in American history.  For well over a decade our nation’s young men and women volunteered to serve in time of war, and over two million of them have seen firsthand the face of conflict.

They have learned things that are not taught in any school and gained experiences that could not be garnered in a lifetime spent following a different path.  These veterans, some still in uniform and many more who have already left the service, have tremendous yet unrealized value for the corporate sector.  They are leaders who have matured in austere and often dangerous circumstances as well as being highly trained in their martial specialties.

Despite their experience, veterans have difficulty transitioning from the military to the corporate sector.  Many are daunted because they feel that they must start all over again.  There are many opportunities for them to go back to school, but it can be frustrating for vets because they feel that their experiences are not valued and the time that they spent serving our country was wasted.

But things are changing.

Leading the charge is the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.  The school recognizes that military professionals have learned so much in their service that it makes sense to not just value such lessons but to also leverage them in an educational context.  In concert with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, alumni, and veterans, USC has developed the Master of Business for Veterans (MBV) degree program.

The MBV is specifically designed to build upon the experience that veterans have gained in their military careers by adding coursework in areas such as finance, accounting, statistics, strategy, marketing, entrepreneurship, business leadership and communication and others that are consistent with traditional MBA programs.    Class sessions meet Fridays and Saturdays over two semesters with minimal interruption to the careers of working professionals. The MBV degree program is constructed of lectures, projects and course work that are delivered via distant learning, with significant projects and course work being primarily completed during the 16 residential sessions.

It is a graduate level program, and as with all programs at that level there are prerequisites for enrollment.  In a nutshell, they are a minimum 3 – 5 years of active and honorable service in the military, a bachelor’s or equivalent degree, two letters of recommendation, and they must complete and submit two essays for the review of the matriculation panel.  Standardized test scores such as the GMAT or GRE are not required, but a good set of scores would certainly help.

The program is an innovative response to the growth in active duty military and veteran communities.  Not simply a mashup of the traditional MBA curriculum, the program is an integrated educational experience that focuses tightly in leveraging the skills of military people to ensure its success.  Class cohorts are small, in the 20 – 40 student range, and the entire class will consist of those who meet the military service requirements.  Like the military, it is both demanding and fast paced.  The course is completed in half the time of a normal resident MBA program, with classes starting in the fall of the academic year and graduation coming the following summer.

Active duty and veterans can take advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill to help defray the cost.  Students will learn from world class professors in a world class educational environment, and in the end both the veterans and the corporate sector will benefit from USC’s leadership in educational innovation.

James Ellis, the dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, says it best,   “This is an important program for Marshall, serving a population that has provided outstanding service to our country while creating valuable leaders and managers for the corporate community.”  My hope is that Dean Ellis’s vision spurs other top-notch schools to create programs like the MBV for graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education.

For more information about the program and the admissions process, please go http://www.marshall.usc.edu/mbv or contact the program office at mbv@marshall.usc.edu or 213.740.8990.

Jennifer’s VA story

As you are aware from previous posts, I recently received my initial disability claims information from the VA.  I am still trying to figure it all out.  I am not alone, as I have learned.  Several people have posted comments about their experiences, and I am reposting their comments here because they are very illuminating!

Here are a couple of comments from Jennifer.  She presents a case study in frustration:

Thank you for posting your experience with the VA Claims process. I am currently receiving VA disability at 10% (migraines), but am rated at 0% for both of my shoulders and back (which is simply VA’s acknowledgement that I suffered injuries in these areas while on active duty). Over the past 10 years (ETS 2002), all of the areas in which I was rated have progressively gotten worse. On 2/11/ 2011, I filed a claim with the VA for a disability rating increase. My claim included a request for increase for migraines, both shoulders, and my back. My case for increase is well documented by my family practice doctor and two different neurologists (ten years of documentation indicating my symptoms have gotten progressively worse). My claim went from the gathering evidence phase to the review of evidence phase in July, 2011; however, it only stayed in this phase for about a week before my file was sent back to the gathering evidence phase. During the VSO’s review, they identified several (8) secondary conditions to my existing claim based on the review of my file. When I noticed my status had changed (negatively), I contacted the VA 1-800-# and was told I needed to provide evidence on the secondary conditions the VA had identified. I thought this request was ridiculous, since the VSO had already identified these conditions based on medical evidence I had already submitted; however, I complied with their request and resent in my medical evidence, along with my service records, and made the case to tie the secondary conditions to the service connected disabilities. In August of 2011, the medical records in my c-file were mysteriously misplaced, and I was asked to resubmit my medical records once again. Again, I complied with the VA’s request and immediately faxed the documentation to the Roanoke Regional Office where my claim resided. I waited several months, periodically checking the status of my claim on the e-benefits web site; however, there was no change in my claim’s status. There was an estimated completion date listed on the top of my claim (12/13/ 2011). This date came with no progress or change in my status; therefore, I contacted the VA 1-800-# again requesting a status of my claim. The VA representative sounded very irritated I had called, and gave me a scripted response- something to the tune of: the length of time it takes to process your claim depends of the complexity of your claim and the number of disabilities needing review- I asked them if they needed anything additional from me, and was told no. Once again, I waited patiently for my status to change- no luck! I contacted the VA in March of 2012 and was informed I needed to send in additional documentation stating I had no other medical evidence or supporting documentation to submit. As instructed, I faxed in the document. My claim skipped the reviewing evidence phase in e-benefits and is now in the preparation for decision phase(as of 9/24/2012- 19 months after the initial submission of my claim). Today is 9/26/2012, and I am still waiting for a decision from the VA. I wanted to do cartwheels when I saw my claim move into the preparation for a decision phase (however, my shoulders and back disabled my excitement (grins)).

I am posting my experience because wanted to share my story and let my fellow veterans know just how slow the process really is. I did have an interesting conversation with one of the 1-800-# representatives that I find worthy of repeating:

He told me he was a disabled veteran as well, and said his own experience with the VA claims process was exhausting (no one gets special treatment- not even the veterans who work for VA). He then gave me advice that I wish I had been given at the onset of my claim. He told me that every time I send in a document, my file is sent back to the gathering evidence phase. When I was sending in my medical documentation, I faxed the documentation in as I received it. Hence,VA’s rationale for my claim staying in the gathering evidence phase for so long. He advised me to submit all of my documentation at one-time, if possible, and to be sure my clam was well documented. He said this is important to ensure the VSO did not have to kick the claim back for questions or additional documentation. I then asked the VA representative another question in which I thought would help my claim. Over the course of the year, I had been to the doctor for my disabilities, and had accumulated much more medical documentation; therefore, I asked him for his opinion- Should I submit the additional documentation to ensure my c-file was up-to-date? He told me, in his opinion, NO, I should not submit the additional evidence, especially if my file already provided adequate evidence of my claim. He told me if I did submit the evidence, my claim packet would be pulled so that the additional evidence could be added to my file, then sent to the bottom of the stack for review. I did not realize that every time a document is submitted, your packet is pulled and sent to the bottom of a “pile”. He told me to hold on to the documentation and wait for a decision from the VA so I would start receiving benefits. He also advised, if I was not happy with the VA’s response to my claim, I should then send in the additional documentation I have accumulated and appeal their decision.

With all of this said, I hope I have shed some light on why the process takes as long as it does. I am just as frustrated as every other veteran submitting claims; therefore, I wanted to share my experience and the advice I was given hoping it will help another veteran with the submission of their disability claim.

That was Jennifer’s first comment.  Here is her second one:

Just as I finish typing my blog to you, I contacted VA to learn my claim has been sent back to the gathering evidence phase. The VA service respresentative could not provide me with a reason why… just the typical blanket statement stating they need additional evidedence. Hence, my claim stayed in the decision phase for two days….ugggg!

Keep plugging away, Jennifer!  Thanks for sharing!

The Post 9/11 GI Bill Shot Clock

There has been quite a bit of news coverage lately concerning benefits that veterans from our most recent wars are eligible to receive for their service.  Many educational institutions and training programs have come under scrutiny as a result of questionable practices, but why does it appear rampant these days?

The answer, simply put, is the remarkable educational benefits in the Post 9/11 GI Bill.  The bill is generous, and pretty much everyone who served more than 90 days in uniform since September 10th 2001 is eligible.

The intent behind the GI bill is best summed up by Senator Jim Webb, a former Marine who was highly decorated for his service in Vietnam:

“The Post-9/11 GI Bill started with a simple concept: that we owe those people who have served since 9/11 the same type of quality educational benefits that those who served in World War II received.”

The bill is indeed tremendous in its scale and scope.  Millions of men and women are entitled to the provisions in the legislation, and in cases where the veterans don’t need to go back to school they can pass eligibility to their children.

Recipients are entitled to 36 months of benefits.  With summers off, this makes a four year university degree possible for every veteran or serving member of the armed forces who desires one.  The dollar amount paid by the program equals the in-state tuition for state schools, and with a stipend for books and a housing allowance, it is possible for a veteran to attend a top-notch college or university and earn a degree.

Unfortunately, there is also the opportunity for the veteran to squander the benefit by falling victim to those organizations and institutions that more interested in taking their money than ensuring that they receive a quality education.

Webb, who introduced the bill to the Senate the day after he was sworn into office, recognized the problem and has introduced new legislation to address the situation.

“Some for-profit educational institutions are providing our students a good education, but abuses by certain institutions could put the integrity of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program at risk,” said Webb.

To counter the abuses, he introduced the Military and Veterans Educational Reform Act.  The act requires schools participating Veteran Administration and Department of Defense educational programs to meet the educational standards currently required for Pell Grants, federal student loans and other federal education programs. To receive funding from the VA, the schools must also disclose both default and graduation rates in addition to other information that students need to make informed choices about their education.

The problem for vets and servicepeople is that the 36 months of GI Bill eligibility are set in stone.  The recipient cannot get those months back in case he or she makes a poor decision and uses their benefits for an education at a dubious institution.  Once those benefits are used up, they are gone and the veteran is out of luck.  The educational institution takes the money and the vet loses out.  Since there are so many veterans and so much money devoted to the GI Bill it has become a cash cow to some disreputable institutions, and it is for that reason that Senator Webb moved to change the rules.

There is help at the local level, too.  This past weekend the North County Times ran an article by Mark Walker that highlighted the work of Pat Uetz, who as a retired Marine Colonel is heading up the University of San Diego’s Initiative to Protect Student Veterans.  He is spearheading a very effective effort to help veteran students.

“If you are a current or former student veteran of a for-profit education company and believe you were misled or are unsatisfied with your education, or you are considering enrolling in a for-profit company, then contact the USD Veterans Legal Clinic as soon as possible,” says Pat.  “They will assist you and there is no charge for the clinic’s services”.

You can contact the clinic at (619) 260-7470 or email to veteransclinic@sandiego.edu.  For additional information on USD’s Veterans Legal Clinic and USD’s other free legal clinics go to http://www.sandiego.edu/law/free_legal_assistance/.

Cover Letters

We have spent several posts together on the thrilling subject of resumes.  As a part of a job-seeker’s correspondence toolkit, resumes are the heavy weapon that a hiring manager looks at to determine whether or not to call you in for an interview.  Simply sending in a resume is not a good idea, however.  It is not that simple.

Put yourself in the hiring manager’s position.  She has a pile of resumes on her desk and she has to work through them to find the best candidates for the position.  A skilled manager will spend a few seconds on each resume, and in that time if you do not catch her eye your hard work will end up in the shredder.

The resume itself is not particularly eye catching because they all look pretty much the same.  Without something to really grab the reader’s attention your resume will never see the light of day.  Fortunately, we have another bit of correspondence that can help with that: The Cover Letter.

Think of the cover letter as your introduction to the company.  If you had thirty seconds to tell someone at the company why they should read your resume, what would you say?  The cover letter is that thirty seconds, but instead of speaking directly to a person you need to be able to convince them to keep reading with the contents of the letter.  If you don’t, your resume won’t make it into the “call for interview” pile.

A good rule of thumb is to expand on the objective statement from your combination style resume.  The objective statement articulates what you, the potential employee, are seeking in terms of employment.  It should match as exactly as possible the description of the job that the company is trying to fill, which you should be able to find out through your research on the company.

The second rule of thumb is to show, briefly, why you are the best candidate for the job.  Highlight an aspect of your skill set or your experience that will intrigue the reader and get them to turn the page and read your resume.  For an example of a cover letter that I used, and which resulted in an interview and a job offer, click here: sample cover letter.  This particular letter was written for a job in the defense industry, where the job required experience in ground operations, fire support, and military training.  Those areas were contained in the resume, but I pulled them out and hightlighted them specifically in order to get the firm’s attention – and it worked.  Remember, the key is getting the hiring manager to keep reading!  You really need to hone in on what the company is looking for and why you are the answer to their needs.

The format for a cover letter is pretty standard in the business world.  It is similar to most other forms of correspondence, but to help you put one together here are the elements, from top to bottom:

1.  Your address and contact information.  Include street address, phone number, and email.

2.  Company’s Address.  Include the hiring manager’s name if you can find it.

3.  Greeting. If you know it is a man, use “Sir”, and if it is a woman, use “Ma’am”.  If you don’t know, feel free to use “Sir or Ma’am”, but stay away from anything that could be viewed as informal or unusual.  Don’t start off with “Hey there!” or “Devil Dog,” because you will not look professional and they won’t read past the greeting.

4.  The body of the letter.  Three paragraphs is about right, with the first paragraph telling the reader why you are writing them (i.e., “I am very interested in working at Big Corporation”).  The second paragraph should emphasize your strengths and skills, and why you are the right person to hire to fill the need at the company.  The third paragraph should be a positive reinforcement of the previous paragraphs as well as information on how you will follow up with them (I didn’t have this in the example, but should have.)  Something along the lines of “Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.  The best way to contact me is…”

5.  Closing.  Use something conservative and respectful, as you did with the greeting.  “Sincerely” or “Respectfully” are fine, “Cheers” or “Semper Fi” or “Later” are not the best choices.  Remember, the only impression the person has of you is what they read.  Don’t put something at the end of the letter that will make all of your work a waste of time.

6.  Signature.  Type your name at the bottom of the page with enough space to sign your name above it. I recommend writing your full name and avoiding nicknames or callsigns –  you can introduce yourself more informally when you are there for an interview.

So, take a look at your resume and pick out the strengths that meet the requirements of the company that you would like to apply to for a job.  Using the format in this post, emphasize the things that the company wants, and write as professionally possible.  A solid cover letter, when accompanied by a professional and well written resume, is a huge step in the direction of landing an interview.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  The cover letter is the gateway to having the hiring manager read your resume.  It must be professional, compelling, and well written or they will never turn the page.

2.  Emphasize your specific strengths or skills that the employer is seeking.  Pick those from your resume and expand on them for your cover letter.  Be certain that whatever you write in your cover letter is in your resume, though, otherwise the reader will wonder why there is a disconnect between the two.

3.  Keep it to one page!  Brevity is key.  There should be a lot of white space in the cover letter; it should be less dense than the resume.  Remember, the cover letter is the attention gainer and the resume is the meat of your offering to the company.  Don’t cram too much in the cover letter.

4.  Tailor the cover letter to the company you are applying to.  The resumes may be the same for multiple opportunities, but each cover letter should be individually focused on the company you are sending it to.