Job Interview Tips for College Students — Interview With Jia Wei Cao, Career Coach, Stony Brook University’s Career Center



TUN sits down with Jia Wei Cao, a career coach at Stony Brook University’s Career Center, to discuss common job interview questions that college students have and what students should do to prepare for their interview.

TUN: Jia Wei, thanks so much for joining us. 

JIA WEI: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here. 

Let’s talk about preparing for the job interview. Can you walk us through some of the most important things to do before the interview? 

I always say that preparation is key to a successful interview.  You should always research the company or organization, including the interviewer or interviewers.

You want to try to find things about the company that resonate with you, such as any projects or initiatives that they’re spearheading or any leading industry things that are unique to the company. 

Things to avoid: don’t read facts or numbers to them that you took from their website. This is stuff that they already know. 

I would also suggest researching the company culture. Depending on what it is, the tone or the way you want to present yourself could be different from what you were initially expecting. 

You should always try to figure out who is interviewing you. More often than not, employers will let you know who the person interviewing you is, whether it be a first-round interview with an HR employee or someone from the team itself. 

You want to try to look them up. LinkedIn is a wonderful tool. Most people who are working for large organizations will have their profiles updated on LinkedIn. So, it’s a good opportunity for you to learn a little bit more about their work history and what they do at the company. 

If not, company bios are usually a good place to go. You’ll be able to break it down. You can also go to companies’ contact information pages. You want to try to have their contact information with you on hand, in case you need to contact them. 

Sometimes I’ve had students tell me that they’re running late to an interview or something else is happening. The time that you spend scrolling and looking for the contact information could be changing their impressions on you. So, you want to make sure that you have that contact information on hand in case something happens. 

I recommend putting together your outfit the night before. I always like knowing what I’m going to wear before I’m going to an interview. 

The day before, I always go to bed early. Try to wake up early if you can, especially if your interview is in the morning. Try to be up at least a few hours before the interview so that you’re ready to go and all warmed up for the day. 

I try to give myself a 2-3-hour buffer period. I recommend that to all the students I work with. It also gives you enough time in case there is a last-minute emergency or some last-minute changes that you want to make. It’s also a good time to calm yourself down. 

Definitely don’t make any major changes during this time. You don’t want to redo your resume during this two-hour time period. You’re going to drive yourself crazy. 

I’m always very big on breakfast, especially if your interview is in the morning. Try to eat something light that won’t upset your stomach. Nothing too smelly, right? No garlic for breakfast. 

Check TUN’s interview with Jia Wei Cao, a career coach at Stony Brook University’s Career Center, for advice on how to get a job interview.

Now, let’s turn to the day of the interview. Can you walk us through some of the most important things to bring to the interview? 

Definitely have your resume on hand. Back when we were going to interviews in person, I would always tell students, for as many people that are going to be interviewing you, try to bring twice as many resumes. You never know what’s going to happen or who you’re going to run into.  

Try to have your references ready too. Sometimes, if the interview goes well enough, they might ask you for references on the spot. In that case, you want to make sure all the people who are going to be your referrals are alerted that somebody’s going to be contacting them. You never want to let the person know after the fact that you’ve already listed them as a reference. 

Try to avoid bringing a backpack to an interview. It doesn’t look professional. 

A nice shoulder bag or a messenger bag is a good alternative. Sometimes, you might just want to go with no bag at all, especially if you’re going straight to an interview. A padfolio is another good item to have. It’s going to have the notepad that’s inside as well as space for you to put pens and business cards that you receive during the interview. 

If you have business cards, definitely bring them. You want to try to leave an impression. Sometimes, the resume might be too much to hand somebody, especially if you just met them. I recommend that students make business cards. They don’t cost a lot. You can go very minimalist. And, they’ll have a huge effect. You just need to include your basic contact information as well as what you’re currently doing. Something like that really could be a game-changer. 

Try to silence your phone. That’s always good advice. Sometimes, I see students’ texts going off in the middle of the interview. No one is going to say anything, but it’s distracting. You don’t want that.

In terms of what you’re wearing, I always recommend business professional attire, unless stated otherwise. You want to try to wear a top with a collar that buttons down. Try to avoid crazy bright colors. Go with something darker. Maybe wear a dark-colored suit with matching pants and shoes. 

Absolutely no jeans and no sneakers, unless stated otherwise. You want to try to minimize anything that might distract the interviewer from your responses. Go light on the cologne. Go light on the perfume and flashy jewelry. Be mindful of piercings, exposed tattoos, hair color and facial hair. There are some organizations that do have policies about those. It’s something to think about. 

Now to the questions you might be asked during a job interview. Obviously, they will vary depending on the job you’re applying for. But, there are some general questions that are common in almost every job interview. So, can you walk us through some of those common interview questions and give us some insight into how they should be answered? 

I’ll give you my top three. 

This first one is a loaded question that you’re probably going to be asked right at the beginning of the interview. It is everybody’s least favorite question: “Tell me about yourself.”

You don’t want to go too deep here and go too far ahead of what the interviewer is planning on asking you next. You don’t want to answer the next three questions all at once.

So, usually, this response should last somewhere around a 2-3-minute range. You don’t want to go over that. This is really your opportunity to show your value as a candidate and establish why you can come in and do the job that they’re asking you to do.

The best way to do this is to directly link any experiences that you’ve had in previous roles that allowed you to develop the skills that they’re looking for. 

They don’t want you to walk through your resume. That’s absolutely not what you should be doing here. You should really just be thinking about the impact that you left at previous roles. Bring up examples of results that you’ve produced and why the results are relevant to whatever company that you’re applying for a job at now.

It’s also an opportunity for you to showcase your personality and work ethic. You want to talk about extracurriculars. Especially if you’re coming out of college right now, these things are very important to recruiters. Also, bring up volunteer experiences. 

People like wrapping up with hobbies. But, unless I have extra time left over, I’ll leave it out.

Another popular question is: “Tell me about your strengths. Tell me about your weaknesses.” 

These are really just questions that are there to test your ability to conduct self-assessment of your own skills. You want to focus more on specific skills pertaining to the job you’re applying for. If you’re applying for a very technical position, let’s say with a software company, you want to focus on something a little bit more technical like your analytical skills or something like that. 

You’ll make it harder on yourself if you give them a more general umbrella term like, “My top strength is communication. My top strength is being organized.” Those are more broad. 

You want something more directly related to what you’re interviewing for right now. You want to talk about how these skills have helped you be successful in the past. 

For the area of weakness — I don’t even like to call it that — I always tell students that’s a mindset thing. 

When you say “weakness,” you’re assuming it is something that you’re lacking in. Instead, call it “area of improvement.” That’s what I like to say. An area of improvement is just a skill that you have that’s not as strong as some of your other skills. 

There’s a lot of latent potential there. You’ll be surprised at how much you know. A small tweak in mindset can change the whole tone of the conversation. 

You want to avoid describing any skills that might be detrimental to the position you’re applying for. If you’re applying for an office assistant position, saying that you’re disorganized might not be the best idea. 

Any area of improvement that you bring up, you have to follow up with what you’re doing to either address the area of improvement or how you’ve been improving. You want to give examples that showcase the growth that you’ve been experiencing.

I’ll give you one more question. So, this is what I like to call the “conflict question.” You’re gonna be asked this in many many different ways: 

“When was the last time you had a conflict with somebody at work? When was the last time you were supervising somebody and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do? When was the last time you disagreed with somebody or somebody disagreed with you?” 

You want to approach this question by treating it as walking through a story. If you don’t have a story, just walk through what you would do in a situation. 

The themes that the interviewer is going to be looking for are conflict mediation, conflict resolution, listening skills, your ability to work with other people, your ability to understand different perspectives and your ability to maintain relationships after the conflict. 

A big part of what they will be looking for is what you would do after a matter is resolved. Do you just never talk to this person again, or do you go and make sure everything’s all cool and that there aren’t going to be any problems between the two of you if you were to decide to work together again?

There are many more questions that you can be asked, but these are definitely three questions you’ll definitely be asked. Hopefully, this will give you some insight on how you can tackle these during the interview. 

How should someone respond to an interview question that they don’t know the answer to? 

Don’t panic. More often than not, you probably do know the answer. I would say you can ask the interviewer to either repeat the question or clarify the question a little bit. Ask for more time to think about it. You’d be surprised. Sometimes it might just be the heat of the moment. Everybody gets a blank every now and then. It’s totally normal to ask for more time. 

If all else fails, I say honesty is the best policy. You can say something like, “That’s a really great question. At this time, I’m afraid I’m not really familiar with the topic. But, I would love to look into this topic more and follow up with you later once I have learned more about this.”

The worst thing you can do here is to start talking with no agenda and try to find an answer as you’re speaking. I would definitely not recommend that. You risk going off on tangents and distracting the interviewer. It’s just not a good look. Honestly is the best policy for this one. 

After the interview has come to a conclusion, what questions should you ask your interviewer? Are there any topics that you should avoid? 

Don’t ask questions that can be easily answered through a quick Google search, like “How many hours do I have to work? How much will I get paid? How many people work for your organization?” 

Definitely avoid any personal questions. I would also advise against getting too political.

Something you can ask about is company culture. That’s one of my favorite things to ask about. Ask the interviewer what’s their favorite part about working at this company. Maybe ask, “What are some of the company’s values?” 

Learn about the different affinity groups within the organization. If there are not any affinity groups, you can ask, “Will there be affinity groups in the future and, if so, how can I get involved?”

Ask about professional development opportunities as well as growth within the organization.

My personal favorite question to ask interviewers, back when I was interviewing, was “What are some of the challenges that you (the interviewer) faced when you either first started your job or were a young professional?”

You just want to try to start a discussion. You don’t want them to respond with one word or three sentences. Try to have two to three questions prepped at the very least. This discussion should go for at least 5-10 minutes. 

Do you have any tips on how someone should act or present themselves in an interview?

With whatever you’re wearing to the interview, you want to try and minimize as many distractions as possible. 

Body language and expression reveal a lot about you. People can still see that, even if you’re virtual. 

I always tell my students, whenever they’re in a networking event, to be nice to people. A smile and enthusiasm in your tone when you’re talking really goes a long way. 

I like to recommend that you should really be in interview mode the moment you step into either the office or the building. That’s whether you’re sitting in a waiting room or during any interactions you have with staff when you first arrive. These are things that are being noted down. 

Definitely stay off your phone when you’re in the waiting room. Don’t be fidgeting around your chair. Don’t be slouching.

Again, if you are doing an in-person interview and they are shaking your hand, make sure you shake everybody’s hand. Don’t shake one person’s hand and not shake other people’s hands. 

When people are talking, you definitely want to acknowledge what they’re saying. Don’t stare into their soul. That’s too much. But, definitely make good eye contact. Nod as they’re speaking so they know that you’re listening. 

If you’re able to incorporate some of the things that they’re saying during the interview, while giving contacts or asking questions, that makes you look even better. In group interviews, this is almost absolutely necessary.

A lot of interviews are being held online. Do you have any additional tips in terms of how students can excel in a virtual interview? 

It all starts with being in a nice, comfortable environment. You don’t want to be interviewing in a Starbucks or somewhere loud. If you have any family members or there’s a lot of stuff going on behind you, you want to try to minimize that as much as possible.

You want to be in your zone. So, I recommend finding a well-lit part of wherever you’re living. If you have any people that you live with, let them know when you’re going to be interviewing so that they know to be quiet. 

It’s a good idea to check in advance that all of the technology is working, especially if the interview is on a platform that you’ve never used before. That way, you’re not fidgeting, trying to resolve any technical difficulties. 

On the actual day of the interview, you always want to try to have your webcam on, whether you’re attending a workshop with a lot of people or one on one. 

I’ve had one-on-one appointments with students who didn’t turn on the webcam. It’s optional, but having your camera on definitely shows that you’re more engaged, attentive and paying attention. 

Lastly, you definitely need to research more about the company. Especially if you’re on a webchat, you often get less face time with the person. You definitely want to know your audience and who you’re talking to. 

Having a notepad on the side or even notes on the side of your computer is an added bonus. But, I definitely wouldn’t recommend reading off of a sheet of paper. It becomes really obvious when your eyes are going back and forth on the screen that you’re reading straight off the sheet of paper. Instead, make bullet points to keep yourself on track when you’re speaking so that you’re not talking in circles or going on tangents. 

What should applicants do immediately after the interview? Is it okay to follow up with an employer if you don’t hear back within so many days? How long should you wait?

Definitely get the contact information of every single person you speak with. If it’s only one person, it’s easy. If it’s the same person who emailed you, that’s easy. 

But, if more people interview you, make sure you get the information. Exchanging business cards is really the easiest way to do this. 

You want to send a separate thank-you email to every single person you spoke with. I also recommend referencing either something memorable or noteworthy from the conversation that you had with the person so they remember who you are.  

One piece of advice that I tell students to do is to pre-type emails the night before and add the customization. It’ll just increase the speed. They’ll be faster and ready to go. You definitely want to have those sent out pretty much right after the interview. Don’t wait on this. The longer you wait, the more likely they are to forget you.

If you don’t hear back from an employer, how long should you wait? I would say that if a timetable is given to you, they say they’ll get back to you in three days, then I would definitely wait those three days. 

If they don’t get back to you after three days, I would give them a call or send them an email. If they say they’ll get back to you tomorrow and they don’t, do the same thing. 

But, if they don’t tell you how long it’ll take for them to get back to you, I would wait about a week. If I don’t hear back within a week from an organization that I thought was really sold on me, I’ll just send a quick email. “Thank you, again, for your time last week. I really enjoyed our conversation. I was just wondering if there were any updates from the recruiting team?” Then I would just thank them for their time.

It’s very straightforward. Most of the time, they will reply to you if they are engaged with you as a candidate. 

Be mindful of business days versus regular days. Sometimes they say they’ll get back to me in 10 business days. You have to exclude the weekends and holidays in between. So, be mindful of that as well. 

But, if you interviewed with a company and they haven’t gotten back to you after a month and you’ve been sending them follow-up emails, it’s time to move on, unfortunately. 

You can’t be putting all your eggs in one basket. You have to make sure that you’re interviewing other places as well. 

Thanks, Jia Wei, for taking the time.

Absolutely. This has been great. Thank you, Jackson.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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