‘Lean Cuisine’ and other useful interview answers
Most job candidates prepare themselves for standard interview questions by rehearsing standard interview answers, a practice that won’t do much to distinguish them from other potential employees.
“When someone is looking for a job, they figure they have to play it safe,” says Donald Walsh, a career coach based in San Jose. “They give routine answers
to the who, where, why and what questions they get from a recruiter, and as a result, they become just another face in the crowd, just another resume in the pile.”
Walsh says interviewees don’t have to take it to the extreme, either.
“I’m not suggesting outlandish stories about climbing a mountain or curing cancer,” he says. “I’m suggesting real stories with real results.”
A little more 'me'
To illustrate his point, Walsh says he often asks his clients the most obvious of all interview questions, “Tell me something about yourself,” and nine times out of 10, he gets the same answer.
“They all say the same things: ‘I’m a hard worker,’ or some variation on that,” says Walsh. “And my response is always, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. We were looking for someone who was lazy.’ Of course, the person interviewing for the job is going to say he or she is a hard worker. That comes out of everyone’s mouth. That’s the expected response.”
What’s not expected, says Walsh, is the honest answer that goes beyond buzzwords.
Without delving too much into your personal life, Walsh suggests answering the “about yourself” question with a quick summary of your talents and skills.
“Take a listicle approach,” says Walsh. “Have a series of witty sentences ready. Say things like, ‘I was the fourth of four children, so I have no problem being left alone to figure out how to solve a problem’ or ‘Well, I sit near the kitchen in my current job and I’ve learned that some of the best ideas are generated while people wait for their Lean Cuisines to finish cooking in the microwave.’”
The point, Walsh says, is that job seekers need to take the basic answer and turn it into something memorable, and since most interviewers lead with the obvious questions, you have a chance to differentiate your skills from those of other hopefuls five minutes into the interview.
“You give that ‘Lean Cuisine’ answer and your interviewer might make a face and think, ‘OK, that’s a little odd’ to herself, but I’ll bet you she writes down ‘Lean Cuisine’ in her notes,” Walsh says. “Then, in a couple of days, when she’s reviewing candidates and all her notes are essentially the same, she’ll come across the ‘Lean Cuisine’ line and think to herself that you were a bit more original and a bit more approachable than the other candidates. When she’s decided who gets called back for the second round, you’re going to be on that list.”
Eve on the prize
Yolanda Valenski, a former recruiter for Xerox Corp. in Norwalk, Conn., says she agrees with Walsh’s approach, but emphasizes that job seekers should stay focused on the job they’re after.
“Every answer you give in an interview has to have some connection to the job you want,” says Valenski. “Little anecdotes about yourself are great but they have to relate to the job.”
Easier said than done, Valenski acknowledges, but the New York-based corporate trainer says candidates can easily make their statements about the job if they do a little homework.
“Let’s say you’re applying for a job as a project manager for a tech group that will design software for home sales,” says Valenski. “Your answers should reflect a deeper interest in that job. If you’re asked why you should be hired, skip the hard-work lines and talk about buying your first house, and how the process was unnecessarily difficult, or what a parent had to deal with when selling their home after living there 30 years. You put yourself in the job. You surround yourself with its backstory. You become not just the candidate, but the job itself.”
Heady stuff, Valenski admits, but not as complex as you might think.
“Basically, job candidates have to prove they’re all in when it comes to getting the job,” she says. “They have to let their recruiter know that they have a personal connection to that particular position.” Walsh agrees.
“You’re fighting for your professional life, so you use what you can from your personal and professional life to get the job,” he says. “There’s no more ‘work you’ and ‘home you.’ It’s all the same person. Recruiters aren’t asking you to sign your life away, but they want to know you have an interest in the position that goes beyond collecting the paycheck.”
And the best way to sell employers on your commitment is to go beyond the cookie-cutter answers.
“Tell them who you are,” says Walsh. “Let them know why you’re the person for the job by giving them something the other applicants won’t give them — interesting stories, honesty, passion. Don’t let who you are get buried in a mountain of interview clichés.”