Jennifer Newman: How to edge out the competition in a job interview

Research in the Journal of Personnel Psychology indicates there's more to getting a job than talking about how your skills fit the posting.

Research indicates there's more to getting a job than merely emphasizing your skills and experience

Workplace psychologist says showing you're unique is key to landing a job during an interview. ((iStock))

You made it past the resumé stage. You've been called for an interview. Now what?

Research in the Journal of Personnel Psychology indicates there's more to getting a job than talking about how your skills fit the posting.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman spoke with Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition about how to put your best foot forward and land the job.

I thought an applicant's academic background and experience were important in getting work. What's changed?

The right knowledge, skills and abilities for the job still get you in the door, but things are changing. The job market is more competitive.

Recruiters are often swamped with applicants with bachelor degrees as more people enter the job market with university degrees than before. The same goes for experience. Internships, co-ops, practicums and some part-time jobs give entry workers good experience. Applicants have to find other ways of distinguishing themselves from others.

What can give you an edge, when everyone has similar credentials and experience?

If an applicant is similar to the person doing the recruiting, they'll have an edge. That's because interviewers tend to like candidates who remind them of themselves. It's not conscious, but it happens.

Another way to get an edge is getting interviewed after an applicant who was unpleasant to the interviewers. You'll automatically do better.

Workplace psychologist says interviewees should pleasantly surprise, not shock, the interviewer. (Jennifer Newman)

But, these things are out of the applicant's control. Is there anything a job seeker can control about the interview process?

Yes. You can get around these contrast effects by being unique.You can distinguish yourself from others by giving unique answers to stock interview questions.

That's because unique people tend to get more goodies in general. They receive more prestige. People tend to help them more. They even receive more love, according to the research. So, they're also more likely to get a sought-after job.

How do you make yourself seem unique in a job interview as they are pretty conservative occasions?

It's in how you answer the questions during the interview. Many interviewers use some stock questions like, "Tell us something about yourself" or "What is your main weakness?"

Many applicants I've spoken with have used answers like, "My main weakness is I take too much responsibility." This answer can get stale when several applicants use it.

Provide a different answer. Research shows a unique answer may impress regardless of the quality of the answer. A unique answer gets you remembered after all the interviews are done.

For example, the researchers suggested an answer to the question about weakness. They suggested saying, if it's true, "My weakness is I'm impatient. I'm active and dynamic. When things don't progress, I have to work on being more patient."

Could this backfire? What if providing unique answers in a job interview turns recruiters off?

You'd think it would depend a lot on the job, but, it turns out you can provide unique answers no matter what the job is. Even if it's a non-creative type job, unique answers will help.

And, it's a real plus if you are up for a creative job. Being unique doesn't mean trying to shock the panel. That will backfire. Pleasantly surprising them is your best bet.

For example, a job applicant was interviewing for a job working with young women at a community centre. The interviewer asked, "What challenges do young women face today?"

The applicant pointed to gender discrimination and told the interviewer she hated men. Her answer was alarming and inappropriate, but the applicant thought she was using a unique way to highlight her commitment to women's issues.

Conversely, how can employers ensure they aren't being bamboozled by a unique answer with no substance?

Interviewers can vary their questions from the usual ones used. So, you can ask things like, "What makes you the best person for this job?" But also, include questions about how an applicant handled things in the past.

It's hard to concoct a unique answer, and a unique answer given to a common problem can identify a solid candidate. Watch out for contrast effects.

Anyone coming in after a terrible interview will seem great. You'll probably tend to favour people who are like you or fit your idea of an ideal candidate. And, extroverts make great first impressions, so don't overlook introverted types. 

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