The Two Parts of Every Job Interview You Control, with Karla Rockhold

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Walking into an interview can be nerve-wracking, to say the least. Will you have all the answers they’re looking for? Will it be a good fit? You can’t prepare for the unknown, but what you can do, says Find Your Dream Job guest Karla Rockhold, is prepare for what you do know. Karla recommends preparing a 30 to 90-second elevator pitch to answer the “tell me about yourself” query that usually opens the interview. Do your homework to prepare for the middle part of the interview, and end strong with your own set of questions for the interviewer.

About Our Guest:

Karla Rockhold is the director of alumni career engagement at Oregon State University. Her office connects graduates with the campus community and its career services.

Resources in This Episode:

  • As an undergrad or graduate student, information is your best ally. Connect with Karla on LinkedIn to soak up all the career development advice and help she offers!
  • From our Sponsor: Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster. Get a free review of your resume today from one of TopResume’s expert writers.


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 420:

The Two Parts of Every Job Interview You Control, with Karla Rockhold

Airdate: October 11, 2023

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume. TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster.

Get a free review of your resume today.

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When you walk into a job interview, you may think the employer is in charge of everything.

In fact, says today’s guest, you can shape what happens next – if you plan ahead.

Karla Rockhold is here to talk about the two parts of the job interview that you control.

She’s the director of alumni career engagement at Oregon State University. Her office connects graduates with the campus community and its career services.

Karla joins us from Corvallis, Oregon.

Well, let’s jump right into it, Karla. You say there are two parts of a job interview that an applicant controls. The first part that you control is the way you introduce yourself, and the second part that you control are the questions you ask an employer.

Why is a job seeker in charge of these two parts? What makes these two parts unique?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, thanks. Well, the beginning of most interviews generally start with something like, so tell us about yourself, or tell me about your qualifications. And so, someone who’s being interviewed really needs a great thirty to ninety-second elevator pitch that gives the interviewer some insight into how they believe their life experiences have prepared them for this role. So preparing that pitch is vitally important, and it’s something that anyone can do because, as I said, about ninety percent of interviews do start in the exact same manner.

Also, studies have shown that the interviewer usually knows within the first twenty seconds whether someone’s going to be a good fit for the role, and that seems like a really short period of time, and it is. And there’s actually a professor at Oregon State University who’s done research on this and finds that the interviewers kind of make an assessment of the candidate very quickly, in at least the first half of the interview.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, let’s unpack that, Karla. So there are two things I want to talk about- one is that pitch, and then when you say you’ve got to have a pitch ready, you’re talking about basically the answer to the question. Tell me about yourself. It’s a personal elevator pitch for yourself. Is that right?

Karla Rockhold:

Exactly. Yeah, it’s really great to prepare something about yourself, that based on looking at the position description and determining what the employer needs and how you’re going to meet those needs. And then also trying to pull terminology from the position description that you can utilize in your pitch about yourself.

And this will help them think, wow, this person thinks like us, and they sound like they’re gonna be a great fit for our culture, and you can also do that by mentioning how you align with their mission, vision, and values as well. And I have a colleague at OSU named Jon Stoll who always says you’ve got to do that interview before you do the interview. So you really have to know about yourself and how you’re going to meet the needs of that employer.

Mac Prichard:

So you know this question is coming, you know you gotta prepare an answer, and it has to be short because decisions are being made according to the research at your university in that first twenty seconds.

Let’s break down that pitch and how to get it ready. You talked about the importance of looking at the job description, understanding an employer’s mission and values.

How do you do this when you’re coaching the alums that you work with, Karla? What process do you take them through so that they do the research they need to do in order to craft that persuasive pitch?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, usually, I tell them that their pitch needs to be between thirty and ninety seconds. Any time after ninety seconds, people seem to lose interest in what people are saying. So keep it short and sweet.

And then I tell them to think of it like a story. So, a good story has a beginning, middle, and end. It could be chronological. You could start with the past and why you are interested in this role based on your past life experiences, or you could be talking about the present – what you’ve presently been doing that aligns with this position, as well.

So, thinking about it in some sort of chronological order helps, too. So, I walk people through, so what have you done in the past that helps with this position? What are you currently doing?

What’s your story? Why are you interested in this career field? Or working in this company or organization? What skills have you developed over time? What’s your educational background? And so we kind of walk through the steps of what makes a great story.

Mac Prichard:

That’s a lot to pack in in ninety seconds, Karla. What’s been your experience working with the people that you serve? How do you help them do all of that in ninety seconds or less?

Karla Rockhold:

A lot of it’s about practice. So when we meet, I just ask them, tell me about yourself. We pretend that we’re in an interview situation, and then while they’re telling me about themselves, I take notes and pull out the key elements from that elevator pitch that I thought were the most memorable or the most interesting aspects of their answer.

And anyone can do this. They can sit down with family or friends. They can record themselves, maybe on Zoom or their phone, and hear what they have to say. And then go back and edit it, and refine it, and ask people for advice. And suggestions about, what do you think are the most salient things about me that I should cover in my elevator pitch that are relevant to this position? So getting lots of feedback is really essential.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so you’re starting with that position description. You’re doing research, looking at the employer’s website, understanding their mission and values. You’re creating a ninety seconds or less pitch. You’re practicing it with colleagues or family members. You’re getting feedback. How much time does this typically take, Karla, to do all of this?

Karla Rockhold:

I tell people it takes at least a few times. So the first time you do it, it’s not gonna be perfect, and the second time, it’s still not gonna be perfect. So, I generally suggest that people talk to three different people and practice their elevator pitch with three individuals, and then record themselves. Do the pitch in the mirror and watch themselves. Just trying a variety of different ways to practice that.

And Zoom’s a great thing to do. Anyone can record themselves on Zoom. Especially if you’re gonna be having a virtual interview initially as a screening or as part of the whole interview process. So try your elevator pitch as many times as you can in a variety of different formats.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned earlier the importance of looking at what you call the inner view. That’s taking a look at yourself internally. Tell us more about that, what an inner view and how it helps you inform your preparation and your delivery of your ninety-second pitch.

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, that’s really helpful for people to really know themselves before they go to an interview. And oftentimes, if people have access to taking any personality assessments before they’re looking for jobs, it’s great, so that way they have some language to speak to and knowing about their strengths and their weaknesses and how those might impact the employer’s impression of them. I really like people to focus on what they bring to the table, the strengths they have that an employer will be excited to incorporate into their workforce.

And, again, looking at that position description and really thinking hard. How do I meet their needs? Now, a position description is a wishlist. I tell students and anyone I work with, it’s like they write down everything they can possibly imagine that would be excellent to have in a candidate. So, again, it’s a wishlist. They’re looking for a unicorn, a pink unicorn, in the forest with that position description.

So you don’t have to meet all of the requirements. But you do have to have some of the key qualifications in your arsenal that you can speak to. So really, again, honing in on what you bring to the table, how you’re gonna be a unique candidate, and what life experiences, what educational background, what personal skills you bring that are gonna make you stand out amongst the competition.

Mac Prichard:

In addition to paying attention to that inner view that you described, I know you’re also a big fan of understanding your why when preparing your personal pitch and the answer to the “tell me about yourself” question. Why is it important to understand your why, Karla? And what do you mean exactly by that?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, so understanding your why, it’s really important to think about why this job and why this company. Because ultimately, they know you want a job, but the employer wants to know that you have a specific reason why this role, this organization is a great fit for you. So, being able to articulate that is going to be very essential in a good interview.

Because, ultimately, that’s what an employer wants. They want somebody that wants to be part of their team, not just somebody who wants to come in every day, do some work, and collect a paycheck. They want somebody who’s really gonna be part of that, again, part of that team.

And so knowing your why, again, why this job? Why this company? Why this role? Why do I fit? What can I do to make a difference here? That’s gonna be essential in selling yourself to an employer.

Mac Prichard:

Terrific. We’re gonna take a break. Stay with us. When we come back, Karla Rockhold will continue to share her advice on the two parts of every job interview you control.

Here’s something else in your control: your resume.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Karla Rockhold.

She’s the director of alumni career engagement at Oregon State University.

Her office connects graduates with the campus community and its career services.

Karla joins us from Corvallis, Oregon.

Now, Karla, before the break, we were talking about the two parts of every interview that a candidate controls, and we talked about that first part, how you prepare for and answer the “tell me about yourself” question, and why that’s so important to get that answer right because of that first impression you make.

Let’s move on to the second part of the interview that you say every applicant controls, and that’s the questions that you ask when that opportunity comes at the point of the interview where an employer says, well, do you have any questions for us? Why is it important to have questions, Karla?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, it’s really important to have questions at the end of the interview because this is your opportunity to tell them a little bit more about what you want them to know about you. It also is an opportunity to showcase that you know about them and the role and the company and organization based on your research. So it highlights, look, I’ve done my research on your company or organization. I know about you, and this is why I want to work for you. And lastly, it gives you an opportunity to find out what are the next steps in the application or the interview process.

So, I always tell students to have three to four. Our students or anyone I’m working with to have three or four questions either typed up or written in a notebook. You don’t want to have to memorize the questions because everyone gets nervous during an interview, and it’s so easy to have information slip out of your mind. So, get those questions typed up. Feel free to pull those out or open your notebook, and also take notes about the answers they’re giving you so that you can refer to those after the interview when you’re writing your thank you follow-up note.

Mac Prichard:

What kind of research do you recommend a candidate do to prepare those questions?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, so there’s lots of great websites out there that have resources for questions that you can ask. But, again, first and foremost, you want to think about what questions do I really need to know about this organization or this role. So that you can also make an informed decision if this is the right role for you.

So, some things you might want to ask are, what are gonna be some of the unique challenges I might face in this position in the first thirty to sixty days? Or what are some unique skills or qualities that someone would have to be highly successful in this role? So you want to get them talking about the position, as well, so that you can get some greater insight.

And then, I also really appreciate when people come, and they say something great about themselves on a question. So you might want to start with saying, you know, I’m a really conscientious person. So, what will be those top expectations for me in this role? So it gives them some insight into a quality, or skill, or an asset that you bring, and then you’ve shaped it into a question. That’s always a great thing to do.

And then, if you’re creating a question based on your research on them, you might say, well, I was reviewing your website recently, and I noticed that you pride yourself on customer service. So, how does the onboarding process prepare your employees to meet your customer service goals? So, again, you shape the question in a way that showcases that you did research on them.

Mac Prichard:

What do employers think of candidates who don’t ask questions?

Karla Rockhold:

Well, that’s a red flag for an employer because it showcases that you haven’t really thought about the position or maybe haven’t taken the preparation for this interview very seriously.

So, it’s always important to ask those questions. Maybe it’s only two questions, depending on the amount of time that you have in that interview, but you do want to come in prepared with something to ask them, again, to showcase some extra elements about you that you want to feature in your interview, and/or tell them how you’ve done your research and you’ve made it specific about how you align with their mission, vision, and values, or the key skills that they need in that role.

Mac Prichard:

Interviews can vary in length depending on where you are in the hiring process. As you know, it’s common often to have a quick, what’s called a phone screener, where it might be a short conversation of ten, no more than fifteen minutes.

What if there isn’t an opportunity to ask questions? What should you do as a candidate to indicate that you have thought about this and want to show your interest and the work you’ve done in preparing for the call?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, that’s great. One suggestion is after any interview that you would have with an employer, whether that’s an initial phone screen, which could last fifteen or twenty minutes, or you’re having a virtual interview or an in-person interview, you always want to send a follow-up thank you note to that employer, hopefully, one of the individuals that either was on the call or the virtual interview or to the HR director that you’ve been in contact with in making these appointments.

And in that email that you send them as a thank you note, you can mention that you had a question about the role that you hoped that they could address. So, you can definitely put that in that thank you note as a follow-up, and then hopefully, that HR person or someone from the hiring committee that you spoke with will get back to you with that answer. And they will appreciate that, again, you took the time to think about the role and prepare some questions that help you learn more about how you’re gonna be a good fit.

And again, the questions shouldn’t be something that you could find by Googling information about the company. It really should be something that you’ve thought about, and that showcases your skillsets.

Mac Prichard:

Why shouldn’t you ask a question that you could get the answer to by Googling the subject? Why is that a bad thing, Karla?

Karla Rockhold:

Sometimes, for an employer they might think, well, they could’ve just Googled that information and found it out on their own, and you want to get the person talking about something unique and special about the company.

So, you might even ask them, why do you like working here? You can’t Google that necessarily and find out why these individuals that are interviewing you enjoy working at this company or organization. So, asking great questions gives you further insight into the culture of the company, their management style, and things like that that might not necessarily be something you could easily find on a website.

Mac Prichard:

So, don’t ask questions where answers can be easily found online. Are there other questions that you recommend a candidate never ask in an interview?

Karla Rockhold:

It’s really recommended that you don’t ask questions about pay or benefits. Oftentimes, the people that are interviewing you don’t really know because that’s something that’s dealt with through the HR department.

So, you wouldn’t want to ask, how much vacation time do I get? Or what’s my salary gonna be? Those are things that would be worked out with the HR department and not with particularly maybe the colleagues that you’re going to be working with. So, those generally tend to be questions that you shouldn’t ask in an interview.

Mac Prichard:

You recommended having a short list of questions. What if you just run out of time in the interview and you don’t get to all of your questions? What should you do?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, so if you find that you’re running out of time in the interview, make sure that you don’t forget to ask the most important question. Even if this is the only one you get out. So, you should never leave an interview without knowing the next steps in the hiring process.

So, you might phrase it as like, “After speaking with you today and discovering more about this role and how it aligns with my skills, experience, and interests, tell me more about the next steps in the hiring process.”

This is the most important question to end any interview with, and it could be the only question that you get. But you want to make sure that that is addressed because it helps give you insight into if there’s going to be a second round of interviews, third round, if there’s going to be more people that you’re gonna meet with.

Mac Prichard:

How specific do you recommend getting about that question about next steps, Karla? Should you drill down to talk about who you should follow up with? About exact timelines? What do you encourage the people you work with to do?

Karla Rockhold:

A timeline is great. So, generally, they will share the timeline with you. But, if they don’t, you can say, will the second round of interviews take place in the next few weeks? And you can ask them specifically. What is your timeline in the hiring process?

And they should have some general idea of, well, we hope to hire somebody in the next month or the next week, or the next two weeks. So, getting that information is essential because it helps you prepare for the next phase of the hiring process, especially if you’re going to be a candidate that moves on in the process.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Karla. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Karla Rockhold:

Yeah, so I’ve been in this role here in the alumni association for less than three months. So, right now, I’m diving into the role and what I need to do. But my biggest thing is I’m creating a lot of curated career content that provides individuals with relevant career advice and resources for every stage of their career.

And that information’s going to be on our OSU connection site, our Beaver Careers on LinkedIn, and then my own LinkedIn site. So, that’s my biggest thing is creating this content that’s going to be shared amongst the OSU Beaver Nation and also beyond.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific. I know you invite listeners to connect with you on LinkedIn, Karla, and when they do reach out, I hope they’ll mention that they heard you on Find Your Dream Job.

Now, Karla, given all of the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about the two parts of every job interview you control?

Karla Rockhold:

Yes, so I want people to remember that, yes, interviews are intimidating. It’s a really vulnerable process. But, again, you control more of the interview than you think, and having a great introduction, and tell me about yourself answer through that elevator pitch for thirty to ninety seconds, and then having excellent questions at the end are going to really help solidify you as a prepared candidate that someone would want to hire.

The rest of the interview, I call it the murky middle. We don’t know what’s gonna be asked in the middle. But you do know that, minimally, in the beginning they’re gonna ask something about you, and they want to find out how your life experiences have prepared you for this role and want to know that you’ve thought about that.

And then, in the end that, you’ve prepared some really thoughtful questions to ask them so that they see that you really have taken this application process seriously.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Becky Farone.

She’s a credentialed career coach and the founder of Fireworks Coaching.

Becky helps professional women over 40 decide to stay or leave distressing work.

You dread going to your job.

Not only on Sunday but every day.

What should you do next?

Join us next Wednesday when Becky Farone and I talk about how to decide whether or not to leave your job.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List.

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Our sound engineer is Matt Fiorillo. Ryan Morrison at Podfly Productions edits the show. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.