How to Succeed in the Interview Process

Facing a hiring or promotional interview can be daunting, but once you know the tips and tricks of the trade you’ll be prepared to face the task and thrive. So wipe those palms, have a seat and take a deep breath—you’re about to learn everything you need to succeed.

The First Person to Interview You Is YOU

The most important part of the pre-interview process is the one many candidates miss. Begin by taking the time to update and revise your resume. Doing this gives you a chance to think about your personal and professional strengths and accomplishments, and how they connect with the position for which you’re applying.

Consider why you want the job. You know you want it, but can you explain why? Next, think about jobs which you have now or have had in the past, as well as things you enjoy doing, including hobbies, habits (the good ones) and pastimes. What motivates you? What are your personal and professional accomplishments? What are your three best attributes? What is the greatest of those three? Also, find one negative trait which you’ve turned around (or are working on turning) to a positive trait. Remember, the interviewers ask the questions, but you write the study guide.

Be Who You Are

Many candidates try desperately to present themselves as whatever they think the interviewer is looking for. This is a tremendous mistake. As anyone who has been on the other side of the table can tell you, it is very difficult to fake your way through an interview. Insincerity stinks and any interviewer worth his or her salt will smell it a mile away. Be comfortable in who you are and what you can do for this job. In preparing your resume you’ve thought about how this job will be a good fit for you and you for it. Now all you have to do is be honest and your sincerity will shine through.

Research the Process

Collect information on the entire hiring or promotional process. Begin with the human resources department or other representative posting the position. Make sure you understand all of the details, including the necessary paperwork and when each step takes place; the written, physical or skill tests which may be involved; and the format the interview will take. Of course, follow these instructions to the letter.

Although employers may not use the same process every time, it may be helpful to find the structure of previous interviews and what questions have been asked. Remember, the goal is not to memorize specific answers to specific questions, but rather to get more comfortable with the process.

Know the Job

Research the job itself. What do you know about the response area? The management structure of the organization? The job duties involved? A simple Internet search of similar jobs or postings will give you the opportunity to think about how you would perform in that position. Even if you’re generally familiar with the position, learn more. If you can, talk with other employees. Contact people who already do this job, either at this agency or at another, and ask them about both their day-to-day work and the remarkable situations they might encounter.

Things to know about the response area in question include the size, bordering areas, demographics and major features. Things to know about the agency in question include the stations, equipment, daily schedule and response duties.

Dress for Success

To be a successful candidate you have to look and feel like a successful candidate. If any instructions on how to dress are provided (work uniform, dress suit, chicken costume) be sure to follow them carefully. If not, the rule is to wear a suit with dress shoes and a nice belt. Don’t forget personal grooming, including avoiding excessive makeup, cologne/perfume and jewelry.

Bring It With You

You may want to have copies of your resume, curriculum vitae and relevant certifications available at the interview. Sometimes these are submitted in another part of the hiring process, but unless directed otherwise, you may bring them to give to the interviewers. Make sure you bring enough packets for everyone (six to eight copies should suffice). Each packet should be clean and bound.

Strongly consider bringing a notepad and pen with you. You may or may not be allowed to use the notepad during your interview (you can usually find out ahead of time), but you may find it useful to write down any additional instructions given to you during the process.

Arrive Early, Arrive Nice

Upon arrival you may find yourself speaking with employees positioned in different levels of the organization. Always be courteous. Often the “pre-interview encounters” are an informal part of the interview process. Remember, employers are looking for the right personality fit for their business as much as, if not more than, the most skilled applicant.

Even if you know some of the people or interviewers you encounter during your interview process, be professional and courteous but not overly familiar. You don’t have to pretend you don’t know them, but this is a professional process. Think of it as your opportunity to put your best professional foot forward. Remember, that’s the foot with the better resume.

Hand/Eye Coordination

When you reach your interview be sure to make eye contact and use a firm handshake with everyone to whom you’re introduced. Greet each person in the room and address them by title or rank unless told to do otherwise. If you’ve brought materials, you can give them out now. Finally, wait until you are asked to sit down. When you do, sit comfortably, but don’t slouch or lounge back.

How to Answer: Come Out on TOP!

You’ve prepared. You’ve thought about what you want to say about yourself. Now you need to make sure you say it in the best way possible. To do that, answer each question the TOP way. This method will ensure the interviewers see just how well you’ll fit within their organization.

  • Truthfully: Answering truthfully means more than simply not lying. To really be truthful about yourself, you need to be introspective. This is why you took time to think about your strengths, weaknesses, motivators and why you want this job.
  • On the job: Answer each question as though this is the department for which you already work and the job you already have. Help the interviewers picture you as the person they’ve already hired.
  • Positive: Stay upbeat and optimistic with each answer. Some questions are posed with built-in negativity to test your ability to improve a negative situation. Use terms like “happy,” “love” and “excited” to show your enthusiasm and positive attitude.

How to Answer: Be an ACE!

ACE the interview by letting the interviewers know everything great about you. Don’t just get through the interview; use these techniques to master it.

  • Answer the question: There’s a lot you want to say about yourself. That’s great, but stay focused and make sure that you are answering the question which was asked. If you need to, ask the interviewer to repeat the question.
  • Connect: Frame each answer in a way which connects you with the job. Use phrases like “right candidate,” “right fit” and “the best” to emphasize that you are the top candidate for the job.
  • Examples: Use phrases such as “shown,” “demonstrated” and “proven,” along with examples of times you’ve exhibited those positive behaviors, to substantiate the great things you say about yourself.

Wrap It Up and Follow Through

When the interview is complete, make note of any additional instructions you’re given. You may ask to have a written copy of these instructions or you may wish to write them down on your notepad. Be sure you understand these directions. If you have any questions about them, now is the time to ask. However, remember this is not the time to turn the interview around and interrogate the interview panel. Long format questions can be addressed through your H.R. contact.

When thanking each person in the room, again be sure to make direct eye contact, use a firm handshake and thank them by their name and title or rank. As when you came in, even if you know some or all of the people whom you encounter, continue your professional demeanor. When you have completed your interview and any related tasks, say thank you, goodbye and leave. Do not linger or “hang out.” Don’t ask anyone how you did or tell them how you feel you performed.

After the interview it is appropriate to follow up with a brief and professional thank you note addressed to the person in charge of the hiring process, thanking them for their time and consideration of you as a candidate.

10 Major Interview Questions

Most candidates will say the thing they find most intimidating about the interview process is they don’t know what questions will be asked. While it’s true a variety of questions can be asked in different ways, interview questions tend to fall into one of the following 10 categories. Once you’ve prepared for these categories, you can use TOP/ACE to answer any of the interviewers’ questions in a way which shows how your specific knowledge, skills and abilities will benefit your prospective employer.

1) Tell us about yourself. This question is an absolute given and is your opportunity to talk about your general background, your prior experience and employment, and, if you choose, your family, hobbies and interests. Examples of this type of question include: Tell us a little about who you are. What do you like to do? Tell us about your life outside of emergency services. How are you involved in your community?

2) What motivates you? Since you’ve already thought about what motivates you professionally this type of question is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is connect to the job using the TOP/ACE methods. Examples include: How did you decide to become a/an (EMT, paramedic, firefighter, police officer)? Why do you want to work for our agency? What does the job of (EMT, paramedic, firefighter, police officer) mean to you? How do you measure success? What are you most passionate about?

3) What are your strengths and weaknesses? Remember those three positive attributes you came up with? Here’s the time to use the best one. You can use the same one more than once, but don’t use it exclusively. If they ask a question looking for a weakness or negative trait, simply use the example of how you have turned (or are working on turning) a negative trait into a positive one. Examples of this type of question include: What are you bringing to this job? What do people praise or criticize you for? How would your friends describe you? How do you work under pressure? Why should we select you over the other candidates?

4) Your “work” history. To answer this question, consider not only where you have worked for pay, but also where you have volunteered or participated as a hobby. You can also include family, group or community activities, as well as your education. Again, think about your best examples ahead of time and use the TOP/ACE method to connect your past with your new job’s future. Examples include: What have you done to prepare for this job? What is your greatest accomplishment or failure? What were your former job expectations? What did you like or dislike most about your previous job(s)? You appear to be over (or under) qualified for this position, so why should we hire you?

5) Site-specific questions. This is your opportunity to show what you know about the job, agency and response area, which you should have already researched. Remember, these aren’t trivial pursuit questions. Don’t just recite facts. Demonstrate your understanding of their implications. Use TOP/ACE to show what you know about the job, and also how you can use that knowledge to excel in the position. Examples of this type of question include: What do you know about our (city, department, agency)? How do you get from (point A) to (point B)? What is the population and makeup of our response area? How will you change your personal schedule to accommodate your new work schedule?

6) Skill-specific questions. Reviewing topics which are likely to be covered is a good idea. Often you’ll know ahead of time if the interview is going to include job skill-specific questions or scenarios. Use the TOP/ACE format to show not only that you know your skills, but your particular skill set fits best with the job. Examples include: Another emergency responder insists on transporting a patient against their will. How will you proceed? What are your incident management priorities at a motor vehicle accident on a busy highway with victims trapped in a burning vehicle? What trends do you see in the current emergency services in our area?

7) Ethical scenarios. These are often perceived as the most difficult interview questions, but the process for answering them is practically universal. When presented with an ethical dilemma in an interview, follow these simple steps:

  • Stop: Stop whatever the behaviors or actions are if it’s within the authority of your prospective job to do so. If it’s a safety issue, always intervene. Safety is everyone’s job.
  • Question: Gather information. Question and observe to gather the information to either make your decision or pass it up the chain of command.
  • Correct: If it’s within the authority of your prospective job to do so, do what you can to correct the problem immediately. Remember, there is always something you can do.
  • Report: Whether or not you were able to correct the problem, you must report the issue to your immediate superior. Always follow the chain of command.

Scenarios for this type of question include: Drinking or drugs on the job, conflict with another employee, irate citizen complaint, employee crises during an emergency response, sexual harassment complaint, conflicting orders at an emergency and stealing on the job.

8) Creative thinking questions. Although not often used in interviews for emergency service positions or promotions, creative thinking and problem solving questions are sometimes used to test an applicant’s ability to deal with new or unexpected problems and situations. The key here is to go with the flow in your answer. The only truly wrong answer to a creative thinking question is no answer at all. Examples of this type of question include: How would you figure out how many jelly beans fit in a 747? If you were a chocolate bar, what kind would you be? If you walked into a grocery store to count bottles of milk but the clerk threw you out, what would you do? Why DID the chicken cross the road?

9) Your future here. This is another category of questions based on why you want the job. As with all of the other questions, you’ll look your best using the TOP/ACE format. Keep in mind your future goals with the agency should be reasonable, realistic and reaching forward. Examples include: Where do you see yourself in five years? How far do you want to go in (EMS, the fire service, law enforcement)?

10) Do you have anything to add? This is you chance to ensure you aren’t leaving anything on the table. Whatever remaining positive things you want to say about yourself, this is where you say them. It’s also your last chance to use TOP/ACE to really hit it out of the park. Make this your big finish!

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect, Period!

Give yourself plenty of time to practice these techniques before the interview. Build your interview skills and your confidence one step at a time. Practice asking yourself questions you think might be asked and answering them in different ways. Remember, you want to practice answering different questions to get your ideas across, not memorize exact answers to specific questions. Next, have someone record some questions (or record them yourself) and play them back to simulate the interview process. Take it a step further and videotape yourself while another person asks you questions. When you’re done, review the tape and evaluate how you come across. Are you confident, engaging and sincere? Did you connect yourself using TOP/ACE in each question? Was there still more you wanted to say about yourself? The more comfortable you get with the process, the better your answers will come across.

Finally, enlist one or more people to help you with a full dress rehearsal. Give them a list of questions to ask you in their own words. Wear and bring everything exactly as you would in the real interview. Tell the “interviewers” to have you wait in another room and then call you in. Go through the whole procedure. Practice your introductions and get an idea of how the interview process feels.

Remember, you won’t always be the right fit for every job, but every interview, hiring and promotional process is a learning experience which will make you shine even brighter when the right job comes along. Follow and practice these tips and you’ll be calm, cool, collected and successful in any application process. And now that you know you’re on TOP, you’ll have the confidence to ACE it. Good luck!

Rommie L. Duckworth, LP, has been an emergency responder for more than 20 years with career and volunteer fire departments, public and private emergency medical services and hospital-based healthcare. He is an internationally recognized subject matter expert, fire officer, paramedic and educator. He is currently a career fire lieutenant, EMS coordinator and American Heart Association national faculty member.

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