3 Homework Assignments for Effective Job Search


Paul Swiergosz

I was fortunate enough to find myself on both sides of the interview table over the past 36 months — as a prospective candidate to outside organizations, and a hiring authority for the organization I was leaving. Over the course of well over 100 interviews, I came the conclusion there is one constant for success: Doing your homework. While that may sound like a no-brainer, it was simply astonishing to discover so many candidates – especially Millennials – in an extremely tight job market who were very obviously not prepared for their audition.

Below are the three homework assignments all candidates should complete prior to their interview.

1. Research the basics. Know the organization, its people and history – beyond a cursory glance at their web page/Facebook, etc. Look at annual reports for the past three years; become familiar with the business model, the strategic plan, congressional testimony (if applicable) branding and marketing efforts; review their media coverage, the reporters and outlets who cover them habitually; and know the challenges and successes they have had recently and historically. For agencies, spend some quality time on their websites and call up stories from PR Week, O’Dwyers and other trade publications.

As the hiring manager interviewing candidates for my organization I expected the same application of research and knowledge. If you were one of the many candidates who walked into my office and at some point asked, “So what is it exactly your organization does?” you should have a pretty good idea why I didn’t call you back for a second interview.

2. Now research beyond the basics. Every time I was a candidate for an interview, I prepared a rudimentary SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and communications audit of the organization — building on the initial research I conducted. Together, those findings were the basics of a one page communications outline of the organization — which I shared with the interview panel if asked. It not only allowed me to discuss issues from a position of confidence and knowledge, but it demonstrated I took the process seriously.

When I was conducting interviews, I was truly surprised at how many times people would ask something like, “What is the biggest challenge you face here?” While it may be a fair question to ask, I think you should at least preface it with, “From my standpoint, this is how I view your organization… Am I in the ballpark?” You’ll either be validated or corrected. When I was interviewing candidates, I never punished anyone who offered their own opinion — even if they were way off. At least they had the professional knowledge to form one and the guts to speak up. That’s what I am looking for on my communications team: Unafraid thinkers.

3. Have your portfolio at the ready. Don’t assume they will have your resume, cover letter, writing samples, references, etc., at their disposal. Always bring enough copies of your one-page resume (it is only one-page, right?) for everyone you’re meeting. If you don’t know how many people are on the panel, bring at least five copies of each. And have them at the ready in PDF format on your tablet or smartphone to send to an HR rep should they ask (because they get hundreds of resumes and sometimes the dog eats your homework…). I’m not a gizmo freak, but I took my iPad to every interview and configured it to safely pass around in case one of the panel wanted to see another sample of my work. It was not only handy, but also demonstrated I was a competent user of technology.

It may sound hard to believe, but as I was interviewing for a position with a major university — which required submitting some extensive mock proposals beforehand — I was told by the panel that almost half of the applicants disqualified themselves by not submitting these requirements on time. Really?!

I had a great deal of success following using this research blueprint, and from an interviewer’s point of view, it was quite obvious when a candidate had put this kind of effort into their preparation. I can’t promise you’ll be offered a job if you follow this advice – after all, your work and research is a reflection of your professional competency: Good work equals a promising candidate. Poor work reflects either a poor candidate or one who doesn’t care enough to do their proper diligence to get the job. I can promise if you put your best effort forward, you won’t be disappointed with the results. Good luck!

Paul Swiergosz is a retired Army officer with over 15 years of government public affairs experience. He holds an M.A in Public Relations from Marshall University and a B.S. in Public Relations from Bowling Green State University. He is currently on sabbatical in Charleston, S.C., enjoying his new role as a stay at home dad.

4 thoughts on “3 Homework Assignments for Effective Job Search

  1. Hi Paul,
    My name is Alyson Seyer and I am a senior at Southeast Missouri State University. As my college career is winding to a close, I am in full swing of job searching and interviewing. In reference to the first homework assignment, “Research the basics”, how can one effectively portray knowledge of the organization if; 1. They are not asked questions about the organization during the interview, 2. The interviewer is dominating in describing the organization without giving you an opportunity? I know this may be unlikely, however, it could happen! If this does occur, how do you expose your research without seeming overpowering?

  2. A good question Alyson, thanks for asking.

    Two part answer:
    1. It should come up. It always comes up. Sometimes it’s not an obvious or outright question and you have to back into it, but the opportunity is always there to demonstrate your knowledge about the organization. I’ve never been on an interview (on either side of the table) where it hasn’t.

    2. If for some reason it doesn’t, ask yourself why. Frankly, if I were a candidate that would be a warning sign to me. What, they don’t want to know what I know? They don’t care what I know? Are they just looking for a doer and not a thinker with initiative and passion? Hmmmm. Perhaps not the right fit for me…

    Remember this: Interviews go BOTH ways. I’ll cover that more in-depth in a future post.

  3. Hi Paul,
    My name is Robert Brooks. I’m a senior public relations major at Southeast Missouri State University. When you were discussing the importance of having your portfolio prepared for an interview, I noticed that you briefly touched on the subject of using tablets and smartphones. I find myself using those two things all of the time now, whether it’s for educational or entertainment purposes. Do you think that the extremely fast advancements in technology will cause a majority of companies to prefer the use of tablets during the interview process, or will the physical paper copies of portfolios always exist?

    1. Robert: Yes, tablets and smartphones will continue to gain acceptance as a conveyance of portfolio information. However, some individuals will want to see hard copies so you need to be prepared for both. If you’re interviewing with someone who is into the technology, you simply have to practice how you will most effectively show him/her your portfolio. It sometimes gets awkward as you pass a tablet and the document disappears or turns vertical to horizontal. Just a bit of practice allows for a smooth transition.

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