How do you nail your first engineering job interview when you have no experience?
What will make you stand out? We spoke to recruiters in a wide range of engineering disciplines to and asked for their insights.
“We’re more interested in a candidate’s drive, curiosity, and thought process and approach to the unknown than anything else, especially for entry level jobs. We know their relevant professional experience is limited, and that’s okay,” says Dominic Lozano, VP of software engineering firm Contegix. “Engineers have to constantly grow and adapt, so share problems you encountered, how you resolved them, and the thought process you went through. Give me insight into your drive for learning and growing.”
There are three different types of interview you need to prepare for, and you’ll need to make a good showing in each. Emily Bernstein of Pennoni Associates interviews aspiring engineers daily. “Before a candidate even gets to a face to face interview, we phone screen everybody. You have to come across well at that stage, so make sure you have a good phone manner. And before then, we talk to a lot of people at job fairs and other student events. Those aren’t formal interviews, but it’s just as important.”
Preparation is Essential
If you’re unprepared for your interview, you’re inviting trouble. Get ready well in advance: remember that a phone interview could be sprung on you at any time if a recruiter likes your resume.
- Get a coach or a mentor. “Working with a good career coach is indispensable. Athletes have them. Politicians have them. Job candidates should have them too. Nobody works well as an island,” says Sarah Weinberger, former electrical engineer and now CEO of Butterflyvista Corporation. They will advise you on every stage of your job search.
- Know the company. Research your potential employer in detail. Make sure you know what they work on, the name of their CEO, major clients, and recent projects. Jennifer Trendler, Head of Talent at Nitro notes that this can give you a major advantage over someone who’s too cocky to do their preparation. “You should always come uber prepared for the interview and have a deeper knowledge about the company’s product offering(s), the people you’re interviewing with, and the company’s culture. Showing that you can identify with these factors communicates that you’re a good fit for the role, and could even give you a leg up on someone with more experience.”
- Assemble plenty of supporting material. Always bring a few extra copies of your resume, plus your professional references. You never know who you’re going to meet, and you can’t assume they’ll have copies of everything. It also shows that you plan ahead. “Come equipped with work samples that shows the hiring manager or recruiter that you are amazing for the job based on what you’ve already done. Even if it was a school project, showing what you’ve done is impressive,” adds Tracey Parsons, CEO of career management service CredHive.
Personal Presentation Makes a Vital First Impression
One of the main things recruiters will consider is whether you look and act like someone they want to have in their company. A professional demeanor is essential.
- Look smart. “Poorly dressed candidates are an instant turn-off,” says Bernstein. “Shirts not tucked in, messy hair, poor personal grooming and hygiene… we don’t want those people representing us. Wear a suit.”
- Use body language to communicate effectively. Lynne Sarikas is Executive Director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business in Boston. “Establish and maintain strong eye contact. If you’re nervous, point out that it’s because you are so enthusiastic about the position and move on.” Bernstein adds that it’s important to remember the basic social skills. “Smile and shake hands,” she says.
- Establish a connection and relax. “If the interviewer seems bored, connect on a human level,” advises Sarikas. “Stop talking, take a breath and smile – ask them why they love working there! People love talking about themselves and your interviewer will be forced to focus on you.”
How You Sell Yourself
Your first impression should be enough to win your interviewers over and make them sympathetic toward you. Now, you need to convince them to take the next step.
Be confident. “You are selling, end of story,” says Mark Herschberg of MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Engineering Program. “The product is you. You need to be positive, inspire confidence in your abilities, be likable, etc. Think of it like a first date with that guy or girl you really really like. Put in the extra effort and go in believing you’ll be successful. Remember the airport test: interviewers ask, “if I was stuck at an airport for hours with this person waiting for a delayed flight, would it be fun? annoying? boring?” You want them to think hanging out with you for hours on end would be enjoyable.”
- Emphasize what you have done. Even if you don’t have work experience, make the most of what you do have in your background. Bernstein wants to know what you’re like outside school or college. “We look to see if you’ve been involved in extracurricular activities, especially if you’ve had a leadership position: sports, clubs, volunteer organizations all show us what sort of person you are. Have you been involved with your local ASCE chapter? Tell us about school or college projects, even if they were collaborative.”
Herschberg points out that anything can be beneficial. “When I was in school I had taken a bartending course and so I listed my bartending certification on my resume under education (in addition to my college degree). Nearly every interviewer commented on it and they all remembered me as the bartender.”
- Think out loud. “When given a brain teaser, case study or any type of thinking problem, talk your way through it,” says Herschberg. “Candidates often fall silent not wanting to say something stupid. Instead, say, “Im going to think out loud as I go to help you see how I think…” That’s what you’re really being judged on, less so the right answer and more so how you approached it. I’ve hired people who didn’t get the right answer but thought through the problem well.”
- Talk about your passion and knowledge. “We know they can be intimidating, but think of interviews as just “talking shop” with us” recommends Matthew W. Caldecutt of BlastPR. It’s a conversation about how cool, interesting, and useful technology is, and how you’re capable of using it.”
- Ask smart questions. “You need to to determine if this company is right for you, too,” says Parsons. “Be prepared to ask questions that will help you make a good decision to move forward in the process. By approaching the interview as a two-way street, you will be perceived as more polished and discerning.”
Don’t Forget to Follow Up
A recruiter may meet up to 70 people in a day. You need to make sure they remember you.
- Send a followup letter. “Send a thank you note, either by email or hand,” concludes Herschberg. “You should send an individualized note to each person with whom you interviewed. Remember to get their business cards at the interview!” If there were questions you couldn’t answer at the time, now’s your opportunity to show you’ve done your research. Tell them what you learned at the interview and why you think you’d be a good fit.
Mastering your interview technique is a critical skill. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just “be yourself.” Put as much effort into your interviews as you do into getting your qualifications, writing your resume, and applying for jobs.