It’s that time of year again: the time of year when the leaves change color, football season gets into full swing, and companies begin their on-campus recruiting efforts at colleges across the country.

But how can you differentiate yourself from your classmates in a crowded market?  How can you convince employers that they want, no need, you to work for them?  And how do you find the time for several rounds of interviews when you’ve got midterms, papers, and beer pong tournaments that demand your attention?  In this article we’ll answer these questions and give you tips on how to ace the on-campus interview.

How to prepare: If the company is simply looking for good applicants in case a position opens up, you don’t need to cram too hard for the interview.  But if they are looking to fill a specific position, you should spend several hours getting to know the company.  Get a really clear understanding of what they do, how they make money, and how you would fit into the equation.  Are they on LinkedIn?  If you know who you’re interviewing with, find out where he went to college, or what his interests are.  Is the company on Twitter, and if so, what do they like to tweet about?  Search Google News and see if they have gotten any recent press.  Read the company’s own press section on their website – what are they proud of, and where are they headed?  Use websites like The Vault to learn about your particular job description and industry.

What to bring: Several copies of your resume, your letters of recommendation, and any samples of your work that would be impressive and appropriate.  You should also bring the notes you made about the company prior to the interview.  These will help you sound knowledgeable during the interview, and will help you ask intelligent questions when the time comes.

Get ready to wait: Once you arrive 10 to 15 minutes early for your interview, be prepared to wait a few minutes until you’re called in.  If there’s an administrator present, be sure to ask the name of the interviewer.  Spend this time going over the information you have about the company and rehearsing your answers to some of the standard questions.  Go over some of your best stories for use during behavioral interview questions.  And smile.  If you don’t smile and make eye contact with the interviewer, you can just go home.  So even if you’ve got crazy butterflies in your stomach, you still have to appear happy, enthusiastic, and excited about getting a chance to prove yourself.

Use what you know: Unlike a job interview in the real world, in an on-campus interview you already know who your competition is.  They’re your friends and your classmates.  Think about who they are, who they know, and what they know, and use this information to guess at their strengths and weaknesses.  If you and your friends are interviewing for an entry-level programming position and you know you’re the best at Ruby on Rails, be sure to say as much during the interview.  Marketers would call this selling yourself based on your “unique value proposition.”

The STAR approach: On-campus interviewers are famous for using behavioral interviewing techniques.  This means that they will ask you about situations you have faced, and will use your answers to predict likely behavior in the future, should you get the job.  One classic behavioral question is, “Can you tell me about a time you faced a conflict and what you did to resolve it?”  The STAR approach refers to a method used to answer these types of questions: Begin by describing the Situation you were in or the Task you had to complete.  Then describe the Action you took towards resolving the situation.  And finally, describe the Results you achieved.  Keep the focus on you, tell the interviewer what you did, not what you might do, and give specific details but keep the story down to about a minute in length.

And remember: The interview starts the minute your name is called.  Use every moment you have to sell yourself, show off that you’ve done your homework, and make a great impression.  ALWAYS follow up with a hand-written thank-you note, preferably the same day.  You can give it to the administrator to give to your interviewer as he leaves for the day.

The on-campus interview is the first step toward the on-site interview and your entree into the real world.  If you take it seriously, you’ll already be light years ahead of your less enlightened classmates.

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