Expecting the Unexpected: Navigating the Interview Process

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By: Alicia Kielmovitch

As one who has been job searching off-and-on for the past decade, I have been lucky enough (or perhaps unlucky enough, given your point of view) to experience all different types of interviews.  My first job interview was for Cold Stone Creamery for a summer position in between high school and college.  I remember it vividly because it was an interview process that I expected to go through – where, after filling out my application, I sit down with the manager and answer questions about myself.  No, this one was more unique.  They put us into groups of four and had us “write” a Cold Stone jingle for when someone leaves money in the tip jar.  My group rewrote the words to My Girl, and I remember selling the heck out of it!  I was thrilled when I got the job for the summer, though I ended up smelling like waffle cones for three months.  Little did I know, this would be the start of a long, arduous journey of interview processes that I would endure throughout my career.

One of the most stressful interviews I went through was for Teach For America (TFA).  After an intensive application, phone interview, and recommendations from professors, I was invited to the day-long, in-person interview (note: this interview structure will be often repeated for me).  TFA has a notoriously difficult interview process.  I had to prepare and present a five minute “lesson plan” on a subject, participate in a group problem solving exercise, and then have a one-hour one-on-one interview.  All the while, the interviewers were watching me and taking copious notes of my interactions with my fellow interviewees.  Throughout the day, I let my personality show through and earned a spot as a corps member.

Notably, my interview for the Peace Corps was much more of the standard sit-down interview style.  Peace Corps, however, asked me questions deliberately to rattle me.  The ones that stood out were:

  • Would you be okay covering up in a country that doesn’t allow women to show a lot of skin? (I was wearing a short sleeve dress.)
  • What if you live somewhere with no running water or electricity?
  • What if you live somewhere where people of the same faith do not live or are not readily accepted? (I was wearing a Jewish Star of David necklace.)
  • Will you be okay not seeing your family for at least 6 months and not at the holidays?

Luckily, I had had experiences from my time abroad that provided me with strong answers for each of these questions, but they were still unnerving – especially because the interviewer asked me these in between expected questions, like tell me why do you want to be in the Peace Corps.

I thought these two interviews would be the hardest I would ever go through, but interviewing for non-profits, policy and advocacy, and government jobs proved to be even more stressful and challenging.  The interview process often followed thusly:

  1. Submit resume and cover letter or application
  2. Have initial phone interview
  3. Complete a performance task (which has included: writing policy memos, creating PowerPoint presentations, developing recruitment strategies, analyzing data and spreadsheets, conducting qualitative research, writing reports and analysis, and any other task that could be involved in the job responsibilities)
  4. Have in-person/online interview, usually with a panel from the organization or successive one-on-one interviews
  5. Celebration or rejection

Though I have applied for numerous jobs (easily over 100) in the past decade, and have gone through this process probably dozens of times, there are a few organizations whose interviews have stood out because of their uniqueness.

Legislative Researcher

Though the above steps were followed for this position, they were shuffled around a bit.  I had to complete a timed performance task during my in-person interview.  Since I was living in Washington, D.C., I was conducting the interview via Skype.  While I completed the performance task, which was heavily focused on one’s prowess with Excel, I was still connected via Skype with the interviewer sitting in the room doing other work.  That unexpected element made me lose my confidence in my abilities and made me falter during the task.

Non-profit Program Coordinator

In addition to being by far the most bizarre interview I have ever gone through, this was the hardest and most taxing.  About 25 candidates were invited to the headquarters of this non-profit for about 4-5 positions.  In the pre-interview email, they informed me that the day would start at 8:30am with no actual end time.  We were handed a paper with our time slots for interviews – we had four 30 minute slots with a panel of 3 to 5 people.  The interviews lasted until 5:30pm, with a break for lunch, with an unspecified group activity scheduled for the evening.  The activity was to make dinner for the entire organization.  Our group of 25 had to determine the menu, buy the ingredients, cook the meal, and then serve it to the organization.  We were also being observed throughout the process with members of the organization taking notes.  Once we served dinner at the non-profit founder’s house, there was a dance party/celebration that followed, and, again, people were watching and taking notes.  The day finally ended around 12am.  A few weeks later, they called each candidate to let us know if we got the job.  I did not get in.  However, I knew long before the organization called that I had been rejected because I started seeing other candidates post their excitement about getting a position.  Overall, this was my least favorite interview.

Foreign Service

Probably the most well-known process for being difficult and unusual is the interview process for the Foreign Service.  After a few months of unemployment, I decided to take the test for the Foreign Service on a lark.  The test is the first of many extraordinary steps.  It tests your knowledge about American history and culture, world geography and history, economics, management theory, grammar, and computers.  I scored well enough on the test to be invited to the second step – the essay questions.  In very limited characters, I had to convey experiences that related to potentially challenging scenarios, such as a difficult manager or a stressful time.  As a former teacher, I had many experiences to share!  I learned from friends that this is where the Foreign Service rejects most people, but I was fortunate enough to be invited to the full-day interview.  By this time, I was already gainfully employed, but I figured why not try.  Because I had a full-time job at the time, I did not prepare nearly as hard as many people on the internet told me to.  I was going for the experience, which is what I got.  There was a group case on various topics and we had to interact with others in the interviewing all the while current officers were observing and taking notes; an interview portion with both experiential and case study questions (officers are trained not to give any feedback during these interviews – not even smiles or laughs or nods); and a performance task of writing a report based on a hypothetical sencario.  Again, a strenuous day that was an undulation of stress and downtime.  But I am glad I participated in it and had the experience!

After my many years and countless experiences of applying and interviewing for numerous jobs, my advice for anyone about to embark on the whirlwind of job interviewing is this:

  • Maintain your confidence and surefootedness throughout the process – regardless of what gets thrown at you.
  • Expect the unexpected (a cliché, I know, but still useful!).
  • Be prepared to dedicate a large amount of time to the process. Treat this as a full-time job and put in the hours accordingly.
  • In all situations, allow your personality to shine through.
  • Don’t take any situation too seriously. The worst case is that you are rejected, and so you move on to the next one!

Alicia Kielmovitch is honored to serve as a guest blogger for the Embry-Riddle Career Services blog.  She graduated with High Honors from Emory University, with a Bachelors of Art in Middle Eastern Studies and Anthropology.  She was a first grade teacher in a rural parish in Louisiana through Teach For America (TFA).  Alicia earned a Masters of Science degree in Social Anthropology from Oxford University, where she wrote her dissertation on how the sociocultural marginalization of rural communities impacts social mobility and educational opportunities.  She began working in educational policy in Washington, D.C., by researching and consulting on state and local policies and practices.  Alicia served as a TFA Capitol Hill Fellow for U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  She currently works as a Public Policy Fellow for the Indiana State Board of Education.  Alicia also happens to have the greatest, most talented sister in the world, who serves as the distinguished Director of the ERAU Career Services – Daytona Beach office and let her write this blog.  Her sister has been her personal career mentor and advisor since her first Cold Stone Creamery job.

2017-05-25T09:49:15+00:00 April 13th, 2017|General, Job Search Advice|

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