As with so many professions, journalism inhabits a small world—and the New York City magazine world in which I worked for most of my career is even smaller. Once you build a solid reputation in the industry, you're often poached by other publications. Long story short: I haven't had a real job interview in a dozen years. So imagine my dismay when I realized that my recent yearnings for a career change will no doubt lead to face-to-face meetings with intimidating hiring managers who have no idea who I am. That's one reason I was excited to dig into the research and talk to experts in the psychology of human resources. Preparation is 90 percent of success (or something like that), right?
#1 Do a little preinterview cleanup. Before you even start sending out applications, it's smart to prune prejudicial content (politics talk, margarita selfies, rants about your current boss) from your social-media accounts, says Therese Macan, a professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, who studies the process of employee selection and recruitment. “If your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other accounts aren't private, the interviewer may build an impression of you before you even walk into the room,” she says. “You should at least Google yourself and see what comes up.”
You might also search LinkedIn to see if anyone else in your field also has your name (and a typo-ridden profile). “One of my grad students found out there was somebody else in the Midwest, in a psych department, who had her exact same unusual name and who had a provocative picture on her site. She had to make sure employers knew that wasn't her!”
#2 Prep a few key answers. Many companies use so-called structured interviews that focus on asking job seekers to describe past behavior. A couple of examples: “Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult co-worker and what you did to resolve it” or “Tell me about a tough project you worked on and how you managed it.” Try to give concrete examples of what you did in those situations, Macan says: “To figure out what the questions are likely to be, think about what the job might entail. Does it require that you work as a team? Does it require that you present in front of people?” Then you might be asked to describe such moments from your past. Another option is one-on-one expert coaching. A few years ago management researchers Todd Maurer and Jerry Solamon found that 91 percent of people who took an interview-training program felt like it helped them do better in their real interviews.
#3 Picture yourself landing the job. Visualization has become a training staple for elite athletes—and there's evidence it may work for job seekers, too. Applicants who practiced mental imagery were less stressed and got better evaluations than those who didn't, according to a 2003 study in the Journal of Managerial Psychology. The 10- to 20-minute protocol is fairly simple: picture yourself feeling confident and in control during the course of an interview, then envision the entire thing ending in a job offer.
#4 Channel your inner narcissist. It's usually pretty obnoxious when people outright brag about themselves. Yet an interesting 2013 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology confirmed that being wholeheartedly self-promotional during an interview can be a good thing. About 70 tapes of mock job interviews were viewed and scored by more than 200 raters—applicants who talked a lot, spoke quickly, were self-promotional, and tried to ingratiate themselves by smiling and complimenting their interviewers were given much more positive evaluations than people who acted a bit more modest.
My best friend, Cheri, has been in staffing and recruiting for the past 10 years, and, boy, does she have some stories. Like the woman who gave Cheri way too much information about how diarrhea contributed to losing her last job. And then there was the eager beaver who followed up several days in a row, in person. I know better than to cross any of those fairly obvious lines, but in a challenging job market, all of us have to strive to get where we want to be. If that means learning to brag a bit and engage in shameless temporary self-promotion, I'm up for it.