Preparing Students for the Job Market: Telephone Interviews

October 12, 2011

As part of Kitware’s recruiting strategy, and also because I enjoy it, I sometimes participate in events coordinated by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Career and Professional Development.  The sole purpose of the center is to assist students in finding internships, co-ops and employment and to guide them through the processes associated with each.  The staff has the incredible ability to put even the most nervous job seeker at ease, while answering questions that they have heard countless times over the course of their day.  They provide an invaluable service to the students at RPI.  So, when they put out a call for people to help, I am always happy to pay them a visit.

Recently, I was asked to give a talk about the intricacies of telephone interviews.  In many industries, especially those that have rarely utilized telephone interviews before, this has been an effective cost cutting measure so students are being subjected to more and more of these nerve wracking calls.  During my presentation I cover the basics of what candidates can expect leading up to and during a telephone interview, give them some pointers on sounding polished and professional, and try to provide insight into what a recruiter is looking for during the conversation.

I share some of Kitware’s hiring statistics with the students so that they can understand the magnitude of the competition that they face.  (In 2010, only about 10% of Kitware’s applicants made it to a screen.)  The fear of rejection is paralyzing to some candidates and it almost a certainty that they will all be rejected at some point during their job search.  Unlike Kitware’s current situation, most companies don’t have the luxury of hiring every awesome candidate, but rather have the task of choosing the single candidate that they feel best suits the available position.  It is what candidates take away from each rejection, and learn from each screen, that will eventually determine their success in the job market.

Overall, the goal of my talk is to convince these inexperienced job seekers to stay cool, calm and collected and to remember that even the most seasoned interviewer has been where they are right now.  I try to keep the talk light, with lots of stories of people that haven’t made it into Kitware, and stress the emphasis of learning from other’s mistakes before they make their own.  I also tell a few stories about some of our current employees that were particularly nervous (but were still rock stars that we needed to hire) and made it in despite shaky voices, sweaty palms and other nervous quirks. 

The students always have a plethora of questions, which take up the bulk of the time.  One particularly overachieving graduate student came prepared with his resume and asked me to take a quick look.  It was clear that he asked this of possibly everyone that he knows as it was one of the most beautifully put together resumes that I have ever seen.  When he started to talk to me about the layout of the white space on his resume and whether or not it was acceptable, I had to interrupt him.  I asked him what field he wanted to work in, and I asked him whether he knew as much about his field as he did about writing a resume.  After looking slightly taken aback, of course he said yes.  I assured him that he will be just fine.  What I didn’t tell him is that his resume could be much uglier and still get him a phone screen.  I have never met a recruiter that has rejected a candidate because their balance of white space was “all wrong”.  

Probably the most humorous moment of the talk had little to do with the topic at hand.  About halfway though, a young lady came strolling in asking about a lecture, which had evidently been moved elsewhere on campus.  Always happy to have another student join into the discussion, I invited her to stay.  She asked me what the talk was about, and without thinking hard enough about where I was, I simply responded, “telephone screens”.  Of course, being at RPI, her immediate response was, “Oh, like LCDs and stuff?”  She didn’t stay.

Overall, it was a great audience (with about 35 students in attendance), and hopefully they are more prepared to take on their next telephone interview with ease.  Every time I give a presentation like this, it reminds me just how glad I am that I am employed, and have no plans to be on the receiving end of a telephone screen anytime soon.  Honestly, they are terrifying!



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