How can I get constructive feedback from interviewers?

I’ve been for several interviews but I haven’t been successful yet. I always ask for feedback, but most interviewers either never respond or give feedback that’s vague and not much use. How can I get really useful, constructive feedback?

Turn the penny over and sit in the employer’s seat for a moment. Most people don’t enjoy giving feedback. They’re worried about hurting the other person’s feelings and about how they may react. They may even be worried that their reasons for choosing between candidates won’t seem strong enough, and may lead to a complaint of discrimination.

Sometimes choosing the right person is as much about personality fit as it is about qualifications and experience, and when you try to explain: ‘there were several strong candidates, and my gut told me this was the right person’ it just sounds – well – weak.

Remove concerns

So the first thing to do is reassure the interviewer about why you want feedback, and what you will do with it. Say: “I recognise that you have picked the best-fit candidate for the job, and I respect this. However, it would really help me in my job search to understand what elements of my interview technique work well, and which could use brushing up.”

The same thing applies if you are not getting interviews – you need to ask what parts of your application are impressing the employer and which are not, so don’t be shy of requesting feedback on your application.

Make it easy

The next thing is to remove any barrier to the employer responding straight away. If you are emailing or writing to ask for feedback, attach a copy of both the vacancy details and your original application so that the employer doesn’t have to go looking for them.

Be specific

Be specific about what you want to know. If the employer is faced with a blank page, you are likely to get a few words – whatever pops first into the employer’s head that they think will ‘do’ to get this distasteful task over with.

Instead, think of the top two or three things you want to know: “I would be grateful for your comments on…” and then give them some specific points to respond to.

For instance, for interview you might want to ask about (I’ve written in the first person in case you want to cut-and-paste these into your own letter or email):

a) Personal presentation – how I was dressed and the impression I created
b) How well I answered your questions and conducted myself during the interview
c) Anything you think I should focus on to improve.

For applications, you might want to ask about:

a) The presentation and layout of my cv and covering letter/how well I completed your application form. Did I tell you what you needed to know?
b) My fit for the job. In your opinion, do I have the right level of experience and qualifications for a vacancy like this?
c) Any off-putting factors or things you would advise me to change.

Asking specific questions takes the pressure off an employer, and frees them to be really honest.

These questions will work well by telephone, but using post or email means you can more easily include copies of your application.

Watch out for feedback that doesn’t make sense

One final point. Although most companies aim to have a transparent hiring process, it is estimated that between 20 and 50% of advertised jobs may have a ‘favourite’ candidate already in scope. If you receive feedback which doesn’t make logical sense then don’t treat it as gospel. If you were to receive several pieces of similar feedback you might consider revising your view, but, in general, if feedback is weak or illogical, it may be that you were never going to get the job, no matter how fantastic your application or interview.

November 26th, 2009 | Posted in CV, application, feedback, interview | No Comments

How do I overcome ‘no experience, no job’?

I can’t get interviews (and if I get the interview then I don’t get the job) because I don’t have any experience. How can I break this cycle and show what I am capable of?

This is a really knotty problem, especially for graduates and career changers. What you can do depends to a certain extent on what field you work in, but the bottom line is, you need to try and make, find or create some experience to demonstrate.

Build a portfolio

If you work in a field that lends itself to creating some documentary evidence, consider making up a portfolio. For instance, if you want to work in marketing, you could choose from the 10 or 12 main marketing disciplines and set about creating three or four case studies to show what you can do.

Similarly, you can set out project plans, sample menus, (with or without photographs), sample budgets, sample policies, research briefs and bases of measurement, design solutions, outline PR campaigns, simple strategies, market analyses, press releases and so on. It’s not just designers or photographers who have portfolios!

If inspiration deserts you, pick out industry examples that are currently visible in the press, and say how you’d do things differently if it were your challenge.

Presenting your work

For each example, set out a ‘brief’ – an explanation of what you are trying to do – and how you would measure your success.

Present your work as a physical folio, a PowerPoint presentation, a PDF file, or a web site (but only do this if you are confident in graphic design, as a poorly designed web site can hurt more than help).

Promoting your work

For extra kudos (and networking to boot) approach contacts working in the industry to ‘crit’ what you’ve done, ask them if you may include their comments, and then you have both examples and professional comment to show off to potential employers.

Now you can add into your cover letter (and your CV) a line about where the employer can see examples of your capability, eg ‘to see examples of my capability, please go to www.website.com’ or ‘I have a portfolio of worked examples which I can bring with me to interview’.

Offering to show or bring proof of your capability will mark you out from the pack, and it may well give you the head start you need. It shows dedication and passion, and if nothing else it is a brilliant answer to ‘what have you been doing while you’ve been unemployed?’

November 19th, 2009 | Posted in capability, career changer, experience, graduate, stand out | No Comments

How much work experience should I include on my CV?

How many years’ past experience is necessary on a CV? If you have multiple industry experience how would you tailor your CV taking into consideration some of it might be years ago?

A lot depends on the career you’ve had and what you want to do now.

If you’ve always been in the same line of work, it’s usual to include career history going back about ten years. This is because experience tends to build, so there is little benefit in including early examples of what you’re doing today. Professions also move on over time, making some experience obsolete. Including this can ‘date’ you, especially if you are an older candidate.

If there are valuable nuggets of information within your previous experience – for instance, an apprenticeship or internship that underpinned your career; a particular company or job title you want to include – you can list the job titles and companies under a separate heading: ‘previous experience’. Limit this to one line per significant job. Adding all the dates if they were more than ten years ago is not necessary.

Minding the gap

People are often worried about leaving out any work experience: ’surely you shouldn’t have gaps in your CV?’ The real answer to this is that you should be able to account for all your working years if you’re asked to do so. Some application forms ask you to do exactly this, and some HR professionals may ask for a full account, especially if security is important, but it’s not necessary to include the whole of your work experience on your CV.

That said, it is one thing to show a complete decade with no gaps (which is what I’m suggesting) and quite another to present a ’spotty’ decade with gaps that employers could worry about. If you do have a ‘gap’ say what happened – from having children to taking a sabbatical to being unemployed, all an employer really wants to know is that you are consistent and trustworthy, and don’t have anything sinister to hide.

Organising your industry experience

If it would be a benefit to show you’ve had experience in several industries, separate these with headings, one per industry, and date each heading, like this: ‘Experience in Learning and Development, 1992-1999′. Then summarise what you did, for whom and any key achievements. Watch out for indications of scale that would seem odd today – for instance, a budget of £2m might have been a lot then, but would that seem like a lot today?

Grouping experience by industry or trade is also useful if you’ve only managed to work some of your career in something you really enjoy and want to go back to. For example, if you like working for environmental causes, and are now applying for an environmental job then group your experience in environmental work together as the first part of your work experience, under a heading ‘Career in environmental roles’, and then list the remaining jobs under ‘Work in other industries’.

Keep what’s strong

Be careful not to dismiss that ‘other work experience’ too briefly. Your key transferable skills may have come from any job, and these skills should be prominent on the front page of your CV whichever industry you gained them in. For completeness, the job you gained or built them in should then be mentioned somewhere within your work experience.

November 16th, 2009 | Posted in CV, gap, industries, work experience | No Comments

What do I do about industry jargon on my CV?

I worked for ten years for the same technology company, and following redundancy I put my CV together and sent it to recruiters. They haven’t seemed very impressed and I haven’t had much interest. One recruiter says that she can’t work out what I’ve done in my career, and that some of the job titles I’ve had are so technical it’s impossible to see my level of responsibility. I don’t want to tell lies on my CV. What should I do?

Industries such as technology, education and engineering often develop their own jargon, and big companies are famous for creating projects and internal departments with titles that only mean something if you work there. So, when you leave that environment you may have to ‘translate’ your work experience into terminology other people will understand. There is nothing dishonest about doing this, provided you don’t exaggerate what you did.

Two notes of warning before we go any further:

  1. If you are looking in the same industry, make sure you are using an industry-specific recruiter. Not all recruiters recruit for all jobs, and there is a high degree of specialism. You can either use Google to search for recruiters who specialise, or try a subscription service such as the eGold service from askgrapevine.com to do this.

  2. There is a case for saying that some industry jargon (for instance, names of systems or processes) is useful to make it clear that you have particular industry knowledge. Take your recruiter’s advice on what to keep in, and what needs rephrasing for clarity.

But, especially if you are changing industry, CVs may be more effective if they have industry jargon removed or reduced.

The object is to have a CV that clearly says what you did, and at what level. So, if your job was to lead a team, say you were a team leader. If you developed strategy, devised campaigns, built budgets, developed products or trained colleagues, say so. Give yourself job titles that say exactly what your job was; describe the purpose and work of the teams and organisations you belonged to and say, in plain English, what you did and achieved.

The same applies to courses (though not to qualifications) where the title of the course bears little relation to what you actually learned. It is perfectly honest to list the courses by what they were about instead. For instance, you can say ‘day course in beginners HTML’ instead of ‘Page Stage I’.

If your qualifications are likely to be unfamiliar to an employer – for instance, if you did qualifications in another country – you may wish to put in brackets: ‘equivalent to…’ and put the closest UK qualification. If you are coming to the UK from overseas, check your qualifications with NARIC, which is the national agency set up to provide information and expert opinion on vocational, academic and professional skills and qualifications gained overseas. Don’t forget that Scottish qualifications can prove confusing to employers in other parts of the UK.

If you are changing your most recent job title so that it makes sense to external employers, make it clear in your description of what you did that your job title has been changed to make it clearer (’internally, this job was known as Head of Red Team’) and also let anyone who is likely to be asked for a reference for this job know that you’ve used a plain English title, so that it doesn’t take them by surprise.

November 10th, 2009 | Posted in CV, courses, job title, qualifications | 1 Comment

Will she agree to be my mentor?

I’m leaving my current organisation to take up a new job, and before I go I want to ask a director I’ve always admired if she will mentor me. I’m hesitant to do so, because I know she’s really busy, although we get on very well. How can I present this as an attractive idea rather than a burden?

Most people approached to become a mentor see it as an enormous compliment: after all, it’s a big vote of confidence for their achievements and management style. But you’re right to be hesitant, because the general perception of a mentor relationship is that it can last for many years and be a drain on time and energy.

The trick to this is not to see mentorship as a permanent arrangement. Instead, have a really good think about what you want this person to help you achieve – is it to be a sounding board while you settle into a new job? Is it to open doors in the industry? Is it guidance and advice as you take on new responsibilities or change career direction?

Then you can present the request as mentorship for a specific purpose, and time-box it for a limited time. Make an agreement – for instance, to meet four times over six weeks to coach you for your new role. That way, neither of you will feel awkward about finishing the relationship when the contract ends (although it can be continued if you both would like). It’s also polite to offer to pay for coffee or lunch, by way of thanks.

For more information, have a look at our pages on picking a mentor .

November 6th, 2009 | Posted in coach, experience, mentor, objective | No Comments
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