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Observations from HR – How to ace your job interview

Diplomats interview people all the time. As managers, they're often involved in hiring permanent staff and interns. They may also interview grant applicants, exchange students, and their own successors. Many also serve on embassy employment panels.

Now that I work in the embassy's HR section, I often observe interviews to make sure the hiring process is fair and square. I've never been very good at interviews, and I always felt terribly nervous, so to me it's quite interesting to see how people do.

Here are some general things I learned:

1. Be personable

What surprises me most during interviews is how wide the disparity is between people who come across as team players, and those who come across as self-promoters. And how everyone in the room instantly gravitates towards the person who seems nicest to work with—whether we’re interviewing for a leadership position or an internship.

2. Answer each question

Some interview questions are hard, sometimes on purpose. But applicants should still answer them because it influences their score (interviews are often standardized to make it fair for all applicants). When applicants don't understand a question, because of language barriers for example, I'd suggest the following: acknowledge the problem with understanding the question and ask for an explanation; then repeat the part of the question you understood and reply to it, adding a little bit of general information about how you always ensure you do a good job. It's better to say something nice than to say nothing at all.

3. Acknowledge weaknesses

Surprisingly, a lot of people during job interviews claim they don’t have any weaknesses. This doesn't look good because 1) nobody believes it and 2) it implies that someone has little self-awareness and doesn’t care about self-improvement. It’s not a trick question; it's really important to assess if someone can identify weak spots and come up with appropriate ways to deal with them.

4. Be honest and specific

Interviewers learn a lot from specific examples applicants give about their past work experience—much more than from broad descriptions of their educational backgrounds, career goals, and life mottos. We’re not looking for the “best” answer; we just want to know how someone works in order to determine how it fits with the job and the team. Hearing people's honest reflections on their previous job is much nicer than having to guess their work styles and goals because they only give standard answers.

5. Have examples ready

All applicants, for any job, should have practical examples ready that demonstrate skills like leadership, management, and customer service, and reveal their ability to solve problems, communicate, prioritize, learn, adapt, etc. A good example sketches a clear situation, problem, action on the applicant’s part, and solution. It's wonderful when an applicant can easily think of examples and walk us through them quickly.

Also: say what you really want

There are plenty of questions to identify an applicant’s motivation: Why did you apply? How does this job fit with your current career? Where do you see yourself in five years? I believe that a great answer to this has to be authentic. Don’t even bother going to an interview if you don’t have at least one real and passionate reason why you want that job. It might turn against you if your answer reveals something the interviewers don't like, but if it’s a good reason it makes an impression.

When I applied for the Foreign Service and the examiners asked me at the end of the interview if I had any further questions or comments--since the interview was the last part of the assessment--I did something I'd never done before: I looked them straight in the eye and said: "I want you to know that I'm completely sure that I want this job. I've been working towards this goal for years and I thought about it a lot. I lived this life and did this work and I'm absolutely convinced it's what I want." I don't know if it helped, but I saw that at least one examiner smiled and wrote something down on his sheet.

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