How to Ace the Interview, Part 1: Put in the Time

This was a time of life, she understood, in which you might not know what you were, but that was all right. You judged people not on their success – almost no one they knew was successful at age twenty-two, and no one had a nice apartment, owned anything of value, dressed in expensive clothes, or had any interest in making money – but on their appeal. 

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

Over email, the HR coordinator asked me to set aside an hour and a half to meet with “the team.”

The position was for office administrator. I learned of the position from a third-party recruiter who encouraged me to apply online via a time-consuming essay/video application. In addition to writing short essays with obvious answers, it asked applicants to, “Tell us where you’re at and what you’ve been doing. Record a 1-minute video.”

I agonized over these videos. There were three. I had put the computer by a window, sat it upon enough books and magazines so that it caught me at a flattering angle, applied makeup and practiced smiling. I wrote out a short script for each answer. After watching a half dozen recordings I came to the startling realization: I am not “made for TV.” I am not even made for home video. My voice came out nasally and my face washed out. My hair seemed flatter onscreen than it had ever been IRL and my mouth twitched. I said “um” too often and incessantly looked up to the left, as though I was a liar. After two hours of tripping over lines, staring blankly at the “record” light, cursing and rerecording, I finally settled upon three videos in which I rushed through my written responses which were taped below the computer camera, concluded each with what I hope came off as a somewhat natural smile, and sent it off. I didn’t expect to hear back, imagining them cringing at my recorded image, “God what an awkward person.”

But a week later, they called.

I figured it wasn’t so much a skills thing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you can get to the age of twenty-nine and live in a very clean studio apartment in which there is always toilet paper, dish soap and Greek yogurt, you can probably manage an office. Yeah, right. Ha. Working in my favor is the fact that there are only so many questions a person can ask before they notice how complicated lunch orders make you nervous or that you are forgetful when it comes to setting appointments. Your old boss will hopefully not, when they do reference checks, tell them about the times you forgot to put coffee in the coffeemaker or when the CEO of [Major German Telecommunications Company] flew all the way from Germany to discover you scheduled the meeting on your boss’s calendar for a different day. No, all they can do is try to assess whether or not the handful of people you work with will like you. Fortunately, that is one of your skills. Soft as they may be.

The HR girl had written, “No suits required!” This was good because I don’t own a suit, but there is a huge chasm between suits and t-shirts and jeans. I wanted to make a good impression so wore a collared blouse, black capris, and pearl earrings. The same thing I wore to my Tory Burch interview minus heels and decided to use a free-tote bag from a literary nonprofit rather than the leather purse I usually carried to look more “grown-up.” Young people, especially women, notice things like this.

But I was still overdressed by a mile. The office itself was outfitted with standard startup accouterments: foosball table, an exercise ball here, a standing desk there, toys and wires strewn across various parts of the floor and color, ergonomic chairs. Most of the men wore hoodies or t-shirts and jeans. The girls were mostly young and still had H&M and Forever 21 budgets. The only walls aside from the building’s exterior shell were glass, in keeping with the company’s policy of transparency. There was a brightly lit canteen with a fridge stocked with expensive juices and bottled water, all free, and shelves of healthy snacks which invariably leads to the “Startup 15.” By now, I was used to the “startup” set up which is different at every startup, but really it is the same.

I sat on a baseball-mitt shaped netted chair, right behind the foosball table and observed some people eating lunch at a long, high bar with stools. Then realizing it was probably rude to stare at employed people eating their lunch, I began tinkering with my phone for a few minutes before a lanky blonde woman came out to greet me. I had a hard time getting out of the deep glove chair, but she waited patiently and then we were off, striding towards the glass conference room. As we took our seats I asked, based off her accent, if she was Irish.

“I’ve a reformed southern accent,” she said, “But Irish. That’s a first.”

She told me the names of four girls I’d be meeting with, and one man, whose name, seemingly Hispanic, was to be pronounced with a hard ‘J’.

“You’ll want to go ‘Hoo,'” she said, “but it’s ‘Joo.'”

I nodded.

“He’s the COO,” she continued, “Technically, you’d report to him, but he’s pretty busy and usually has no idea what the admins are doing. We hire self-sufficient people and he trusts you guys.”

We took the perfunctory stroll through my resume before she said, “So you ready to meet everyone?” I nodded, shook her hand, then turned, and shook hands with the first of four fresh-faced young women, each of whom adhered to the company’s “casual” dress code in jeans, t-shirts, sandals, unkempt hair, little or no makeup.

Each girl asked me what about the company had caught my eye, and I felt, perhaps inaccurately, that they wouldn’t judge me for being mostly honest. First, it was a startup. I both liked and disliked the chaos and energy of a startup. One of the girls nodded at this. “That’s so funny I know exactly what you mean.” Second, startups were more open-minded about whom and how they hire. This one in particular prided itself on hiring generalists and turning them into specialists. I had read the company’s blog in which one of the co-founders had written about how he’d “fired” himself from his first position at the company to make room for someone better suited for the job.

One of the girls was a history major who had taken five years to graduate. Another had studied international affairs with a year abroad in Spain and was now working in Business Development. Another didn’t have a LinkedIn profile, so fresh was she out of college. She nodded along, eyes-wide with “Oh I know just how you feel!” when I told her that my background didn’t really fit into any neat career path and that even after graduate school, instead of feeling more “specialized” I felt more “generalist” than ever, as in, “Generally, I would like to be employed,” though I kept this last part to myself.

“I love the opportunities I have here,” she said. She had been in the position I was interviewing for the past six months and was already “specializing” up, most likely into marketing. Two of the other girls said similar things. They started out as admins and then from exposure and poking around in other departments, began to see what career paths they actually wanted to take. The girl with the half buzzed pixie cut and tribal tattoos wanted to try out HR and was now the coordinator.

They liked me. I say this with certainty because I am writing this after the job offer, but I felt this at the time. I clicked with all of them and went well over the allotted time with each so that at the end of each conversation it really felt like the middle, and they each had to glance up at the glass door behind me to realize that, “Oh gosh, I have to let the next person in to talk to you!” I clicked with them at the very least in the way one should during interviews. But this feeling had become so familiar, been present in most if not all the recent interviews I’d had that I was careful not to overthink it.

“It was so nice talking to you,” I said to each, and they said the same in return, smiling a warm smile, which then quickly tapered off into polite coolness just as the next girl stepped in. They liked me but the next person had to like me too. It would be, after all, a group decision.

Read Part 2 Here. 

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