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How to prepare for a job interview: 9 top tips from Your First Year of Work: The Survival Guide


Your First Year of WorkAre you in your first job?

Are you trying to find your first job?

Are you stressing about entering the workplace?

Are your parents stressing about you finding your first job?
Shelagh Foster has seen so many people just like you, battling to get ahead once they’ve finished matric, college or university. This is a daunting time, but you don’t need to go it alone – let Foster guide you through the dos and don’ts of entering the workplace.

In this excerpt from Your First Year of Work: The Survival Guide, Foster explains how to prepare for a job interview.

Read the excerpt:

* * * * * *


Chapter 4: Interview essentials

If you enter the work environment with a courageous spirit and a humble heart, you will develop greater wisdom.

Now that you have a better idea of who you are and what you have to offer an employer, it’s time to sell your accomplishments in person. Are you ready to embrace the following steps and qualities? They spell out I-N-T-E-R-V-I-E-W.


The first step when applying for a position is to request an interview. Do so even if the advert doesn’t mention the word ‘interview’ and is asking only for applications. Display confidence and show them that you are keener than the rest of the applicants.

Always follow the organisation’s lead when doing this. If the advert states email applications only, then respond accordingly. Send what they have asked you to send; this is often a short covering email and your résumé. On the other hand, you may be asked to phone the company.

Sending an email is much easier, as you can spend time getting every word right. Remember, you are about to make your first impression, so make it a good one – no spelling mistakes, no slang and no text-speak.

If the advert doesn’t ask that you write anything in particular in the subject line of the email, write a clear, short description of the purpose of your email, along with your name. If you don’t know the name or the gender of the person you are emailing, start your email with ‘Good day’ (not ‘Hi’ or ‘Dear Sir or Madam’).

In one sentence, describe why you think you and Company C are a good fit. Refer to your résumé and mention that it is attached. (Avoid phrases such as ‘herewith please find attached’, as no one speaks that way.)

Be available, and let them know when you are able to start. If you have a degree, diploma or other qualification, don’t be shy about telling them.

Here is an example:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Date: 26 May 2012
To: Cat Zane
Subject: Application for position: Junior research assistant – Katleho Matabane

Good day

My name is Katleho Matabane and I wish to apply for the position of junior research assistant.

I have been following with interest the work that you do on Molecular Mousetraps and I am certain that I could make a valuable contribution to your team.

You will see from my résumé (attached) that I have all the required skills, qualifications and references.

I am available for an interview at any time that suits you. Should you wish to offer me a position, I can start immediately.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Katleho Matabane (B.Sc. Chemistry UFS)
Cellphone number

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If you have been asked to phone in rather than send a written application, give them the information mentioned above, but be prepared for further questions. Also:

  • Have your résumé handy, along with any letters of reference.
  • Be prepared to write notes.
  • Speak clearly.
  • Spell out your name; if necessary, ask the person you are speaking to spell his or her name.
  • Sound confident without being pushy.
  • At the end of the conversation, thank the person for his or her time.

If you don’t manage to get an interview, don’t be despondent. This is hard, I know; particularly if Company C is truly where you see yourself working in future. If this is the case, find another avenue to apply for a position there. Write to the HR department, stating that you weren’t successful with a previous job application but that you still have a strong desire to work there and would like to be notified of any other suitable openings. Don’t give up before you’ve really tried.

If you do manage to get an interview, excellent! It’s time to prepare yourself. It is said that an experienced interviewer will have made up her mind about an interviewee within the first 12 seconds of meeting. Much can happen in 12 seconds. The way you are dressed; the look in your eye; the way you carry yourself; the way you shake hands … all these elements can spell ‘yes, I want to employ this person’ or ‘not a chance’.

Having the right skills, experience and qualifications can all amount to nothing if you don’t present yourself in the best possible light from the word go.


When it comes to dressing the part, neatness is as important as what you wear. You may not be able to afford a Hugo Boss suit or a Jenny Button dress, but if your clothes are neat, clean and appropriate, you won’t set off any warning bells. Neat means:

  • No hanging threads
  • No loose hems or cuffs
  • Clean shoes
  • Clothes that are ironed
  • Clothes that match (trainers and a suit generally don’t)
  • Clothes that suit the work environment. Find out beforehand what the dress code is (even if it is jeans and T-shirts) and make sure that yours are spotless.

I can assure you that, regardless of the industry you are entering, the state of your clothes and the effort you make in presenting yourself as cleanly and neatly as possible will count for more than the price tag. Neatness implies effort, order and self-respect – all valued traits in an employee.

If you don’t have anything suitable in your wardrobe and can’t afford to buy an ‘interview outfit’, then borrow one.


‘The bus was late’, ‘The taxi was full’, or ‘My car broke down’ are not acceptable excuses for not arriving on time.

Early bird

One day I was conducting interviews for a junior sales position and, as I arrived at work, I found a young man waiting in the car park. His interview had been scheduled for 8.15 am, yet he was there at 7 am. When I asked him why, he said he ‘didn’t want to be late’. He had risen before dawn so that he could catch the first bus and, even if that bus should be late, he would have still been on time. He didn’t make a big deal of this; to him it was simply logical that being late would be unacceptable. I knew right away that this was the kind of person I wanted to employ.

If punctuality is not your thing, you may be wondering what the big deal is. Surely you can be slotted into a later time? Surely it’s about how you do the job and not what time you arrive at work that counts?

Wrong. Punctuality is important because it shows that:

  • You can manage your time. Time management is an essential skill in any work environment.
  • You respect the person interviewing you. You have the maturity to understand that busy people can’t simply change their schedules to suit you.
  • Order is important to you and you can rise above challenging circumstances (a car with a tricky gearbox, for example).
  • You are a team player and you realise that your role is a small, yet important, part of a greater whole.
  • You are ambitious, and being the first and best is important to you.


Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. It fills those around you with high expectations and enjoyment of the task at hand. Not being enthusiastic can signal a lack of interest or lack of confidence.

By arriving at an interview filled with enthusiasm you are showing the interviewer that you want to be there; you can’t wait to get started and to contribute.

If you’re not an openly enthusiastic person (and let’s face it, many of us prefer to keep a lot of our enthusiasm on the inside), here are some motivators to make you appear more delighted at the prospect of working in Company C:

  • This is your first job – your first step on the ladder of career success.
  • If you get the job, you will get paid. Yes, you will be earning a salary and be on your way to financial independence. (You will be able to afford to fix the gearbox on your car, go to Oppiekoppie, or buy those shoes …)
  • The industry or work environment excites you. You want to be a part of it, to learn and to grow.
  • Or, this might not be where you want to end up, but you believe that this is an important stepping stone, a learning curve from which you can benefit and to which you can contribute.

Empty enthusiasm, on the other hand, suggests that you are overly excited, empty headed, immature and insincere. Be sure that your delight is real, and that you aren’t simply trying to impress the interviewer with your bubbly personality.


Everything you do and say at the interview must be relevant. Don’t chat about your family, complain about public transport, or gush about the divine rose bushes on the company grounds. Be entirely prepared with relevant facts and questions about the organisation and the position you’re applying for.

You could bring the following organisation-related facts into the conversation:

  • What the company does
  • When it was founded and by whom
  • Its main clients and target market
  • Its competitors
  • Its mission statement
  • Any experience you may have of the organisation or its services.

You will probably be asked whether you have any questions. Tempting as it may be to leap in with ‘What’s the salary?’ or ‘How much leave will I get?’, you should rather express more interest in what you can do for the organisation.

Although some interview skills resources recommend not asking about money, I feel that is naïve; you obviously have to know if you will be earning a market-related salary. You need to know the salary before you accept the position, should you be offered it.

Job-related questions you could ask include:

  • Do you offer a mentorship or training programme?
  • What CSR or charity drive do you have? Would there be an opportunity to become involved?
  • Would I have the opportunity to become familiar with job functions other than my own?

If the interviewer gives you the impression that the interview went well, phrase the salary question in a professional manner. A polite and professional question, such as ‘Could you please give me an indication as to my remuneration package, should you offer me the position?’ works better than ‘How much?’


Vitality is energy. A person with vitality is one who makes a plan and who always manages to find the time and energy to tackle a task and to complete it properly. During an interview, you can display this quality in the following ways:

  • Walk with purpose.
  • Sit up straight.
  • Lean forward a little when talking to your interviewer.
  • Listen well and respond.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. For instance, if you see a particular book on the shelf, don’t be afraid to refer to it: ‘Live and Lead was one of the most informative leadership books I’ve read.’
  • Make eye contact with the interviewer.
  • Come prepared so that you can answer any questions without hesitation or uncertainty.

Actions that do not show vitality include:

  • x Yawning
  • x Walking slowly
  • x Sitting like a half-empty sack of beans
  • x Looking anywhere but at the interviewer
  • x Not paying attention; daydreaming
  • x Mumbling and hesitating
  • x Scratching yourself; shuffling your feet; fidgeting.

Literary theorist and feminist Susan Sontag, said this of vitality: ‘Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.’

If you are not a naturally vital person, you need to work on this before the interview. Ask a friend or family member for their honest opinion. If the consensus is that you show as much vitality as that sack of beans, start working towards upping your energy levels. The following tips will help you become that ‘clenched, curious’ person:

  • Eat well: Look after your physical self. Ditch the junk food and start following a balanced diet (you will find resources at the end of the book).
  • Drink less: If you consume too much alcohol, cut back to a maximum of two drinks a day. Don’t drink the day before the interview.
  • Exercise: Become used to moving your body and be aware of your movements. Sportsmen and dancers are vital people; partly because they are in tune with their bodies, and partly because exercise releases brain chemicals called endorphins that make you feel alive and excited about life.
  • Observe keenly: Become more aware of your surroundings. Find new words to describe what you are seeing. Think like an artist or a poet.
  • Be grateful: Finding one thing a day to be grateful for is a liberating and energising habit that could change your life forever. Be grateful for what you have. Express your gratitude to others.
  • Really listen: Listen to other people; become curious about what makes them tick. Ask questions about their interests, talents and troubles. Become aware of other people as the interesting, complex creatures they are.

The more you work on your vitality, the more you will draw the right people to you. Others will want to engage with you and work with you because your energy boosts theirs. It is a wonderful thing.


Initiative is the art of making things happen, rather than waiting for them to happen. As Barack Obama said, ‘The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.’

Initiative takes courage; yet the more you practise making some good things happen, the more you will be filled with courage and hope. Here’s how you can apply initiative to a job interview and the job itself:

  • Make sure you have all the right documentation with you; that you have researched the company to which you are applying; and that you have relevant questions and answers at your fingertips.
  • Bring copies of any documentation that the interviewer might need or email them to him or her before the interview.
  • Don’t be afraid to share relevant thoughts and ideas. If you think you know a better way of achieving something, share that information.
  • Find out what you can about the person who will interview you: their position in the company; their name (and gender); and how they prefer to be addressed.
  • Make sure you know where the offices are and how you will get there.
  • If there is anything that you don’t understand, ask. Ignorance is not bliss.


Eloquence implies clarity (clearness) of thought and speech. We dealt with speech in Chapter 2, but to apply eloquence in an interview situation requires further preparation and a certain amount of talking to yourself.

I’ve always been a big fan of talking to myself. I try not to do it in public, but if I know that I am about to have an important and challenging conversation, I do a great deal of one-on-one role-playing beforehand. Of course, the actual situation never works out the way you plan, but if you have practised the various questions and answers that are likely to arise in an interview, you will be that much more eloquent on the day.

So find a mirror and an upright chair and let’s get started:

1. First, make sure that you are mentally prepared and have on hand your résumé, copies of education certificates, and basic information about the company.
2. Sit up straight, look yourself in the eye and smile.
3. Introduce yourself with confidence. Rehearse until you are happy with the way you sound and appear.
4. Talk yourself through your résumé. Speak slowly, clearly and confidently. Sell your skills and emphasise your achievements. Rehearse until you sound confident and natural.
5. Check that you are not slouching, scratching, fidgeting or shuffling. If you find that you are, correct yourself with a sharp mental reminder not to do that again.

If you are not used to talking to yourself in this manner, you may feel pretty odd at first. You may even be thinking: ‘This is nuts’. However, I can assure you that this kind of role-play can go a long way towards making you more eloquent and confident when it comes to the real thing.


This Somali proverb says it all: ‘Wisdom does not come overnight.’ Wisdom is something that grows within you, and is built on a foundation of instinct, knowledge, facts and experience. You already have a measure of your own wisdom, but be prepared for it to change, develop and increase as you change and develop.

Wisdom is not about knowing everything, but rather about knowing that you don’t know it all. If you enter the work environment with a courageous spirit and a humble and teachable heart, you will develop greater wisdom. This is what makes ‘work’ joyful, and joy in work is first prize.

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