Sooner or later, almost everyone has some contact with an interview or a verbal (oral) exam. (In the Soviet Union oral exams are the main kind of final examinations in schools and colleges.) Some differences in the case of interviews are naturally quite obvious: Personal appearance counts; so do manners and striving to make a good impression, and, of course, demonstrating the qualities known to be desirable in getting along with people. Sometimes these matters can be ascertained through complex, objective personality or attitude tests, consisting of matching words which associate themselves in your mind, or asking you to supply solutions to particular problems. Incidentally, “attitude” exams are sprinkled with duplicate questions worded differently to detect wishful or false answers in one place by catching you off-guard in another. These are perfectly fair, since the employer has a right to know if you are inclined to bluff a little.
Interviews are usually informal, friendly, and easy-going. A person-to-person interview might be merely a brief chat between a company representative and a number of candidates for a job, individually. An interview may be quite straightforward, in that just the simple, recorded statements of fact in your folder are reviewed while the representative gets a line on you as a person. How well do you conduct yourself? Are you reasonably at ease? Do you have any unpleasant mannerisms? Do the general statements of fact in your folder truly represent you as a person?
Interviews, like oral exams, can at times go into things a bit more deeply, however, especially for an exacting job having many able competitors. The interviewer sometimes has been fully briefed about you. He has read recommendations you have not seen. It may be an important matter to the representative to discover, for example, that you exaggerate at times, if you do. He has before him recommendations from people you have asked to write him about you. He may be honestly interested in the accuracy of some of the remarks made by these people, and in asking further, he seeks to find out whether these remarks are based upon good observations. If someone has written glowingly about you, and in the interview it turns out there is something revealed as a contradiction, the recommendation will appear too flowery and over-drawn, detracting from those statements which are altogether true. The interviewer wants to get an accurate estimation of you, for his reputation is involved, too.
To use a far-fetched and possibly extreme example, the interviewer might ask you, “How well does Professor Smith know you, do you think?” You may be inclined to try to “outguess” the question, but if you outguess wrong, the penalty is hundreds of times heavier than the gain of outguessing right. In this case, if you bluff and say, “He knows me very well,” you may be contradicting what the prof has actually written; whereas, if you say, “I took two lab courses from him in my freshman and sophomore years with about 30 other students,” the representative has specific information and can judge for himself. If you try to outguess the other way and say (thinking the prof has made an unfavorable comment) “Oh, he doesn’t know me too well, but I had to get two professors, and he knew me longer than my others,” you may be reducing the value of some complimentary remarks Professor Smith provided.
The lesson? It is very important to deal with specific statements of fact, and not try to outguess the question.
Being too easy-going and careless during an interview, in an effort to leave the impression you’re a “pretty good guy and a good buy” because of what you think is a scintillating personality is almost as unfair to yourself as freezing up. If you are your best self, be properly attentive; this means a lot to you, so how can you be nonchalant?
It is useless to say, “Be yourself,” because all of us have many different selves, at different times. But it is always easier to limber up and become more easy-going as things move along than it is to recover from some boner made in an effort to create a big splash.
Oral or verbal examinations vary from group to group. They are usually conducted with several people present, taking turns as indicated by a chairman. From limited experience, the writer can only generalize to this extent:
Of course, many questions are asked in order to reveal the information you are expected to have at your command. But some questions are also asked to see how you react — whether you will honestly admit ignorance where the question is beyond your training and background, or whether you will begin to throw up a smoke-screen to hide your ignorance. Committees are extremely harsh on such tactics, as a rule. I have heard of several committees which flunked candidates largely because of this defensive, smoke-screen attitude. Unless one is very thoroughly versed in a subject, it is more sensible to say, “This is what I know about the subject in question: According to Dr. Blank (one authority), the evidence points to … (such-and-such) … while So-and-so (another authority) is inclined to doubt him.” To offer to take a stand without adequate knowledge of your own is a sign of an unscholarly outlook, and it may, if used repeatedly, be sufficient to deny you a passing grade.
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