Compelling ‘accomplishment stories’ key to successful job interview

As spring semester finals wrap up, the majority of our 1Ls are preparing for clerkships with law firms, externships with state government agencies and nonprofits, clinical experiences such as the Judicial Clerkship Clinic, and summer classes. Last year, 80 percent of 1Ls reported summer employment and/or enrollment in summer school, a law school clinic or a study abroad program, and this year’s numbers are shaping up to be similar.

Although it’s a little hard to believe, the fall recruiting period for jobs to begin in the summer of 2012 begins on July 1, when rising 2Ls and 3Ls will get their first look at the list of employers that have registered to interview over a six-week period. The deadline to submit a resume for consideration by the Week 1 employers is Monday, Aug. 8, and the first week of fall OCI will take place from Aug. 22-26.

As we’ve blogged about previously, the first step to a successful fall OCI period is to distill your previous academic accomplishments and work experience into coherent “accomplishment stories.”

In the current hiring climate, employers are relying with increasing frequency on behavioral interviewing questions designed to evaluate a candidate’s competencies. As described in an article in this month’s National Association for Law Placement Bulletin, “[i]n a competency-based behavioral interview, employers work to discover whether candidates possess desired skills and qualities by asking them to discuss a past situation and their response to that situation. Questions beginning with ‘Tell us about a time when’ are common in behavioral interviewing.”

Questions of this type are easy to answer provided the interviewee has thought about his or her academic and work experiences, can recall specific details, and can wrap up the story in a logical and compelling manner. Anecdotes that relate past accomplishments to the potential for future success with that employer are the secret to effective interviewing.

For several years, we’ve been suggesting the STAR method of responding to behavioral interviewing questions. The method, which is recommended by many interviewing experts, is referenced again in this month’s NALP Bulletin article, “Behavioral Interviews — Preparing Students to Tell Their Stories.”

The STAR method is simple. In response to a question, walk an interviewer through these steps:

  • Situation or Task: Describe the situation you were in or the task you needed to accomplish. Don’t rely on a general description of a past event; be specific. Pepper your description with memorable details.
  • Action(s) you took: What steps did you take to address the situation? What tasks were necessary?
  • Results you achieved: How was the issue resolved? What happened and what did you learn?

An effective “accomplishment story” holds the interviewer’s attention and keeps the focus on you, the interviewee.It also provides an interviewee a memorable way to organize and deliver his or her thoughts.

I enjoyed how the NALP Bulletin article, written by Amanda DiPolvere of Penn State Law and Gwen Tolbert of Rutgers Law-Camden, matched specific competencies/traits/skills sought by legal employers to sample behavioral interview questions. For example:

Skills Sought
Sample Behavioral Question
Taking ownership of assignments. Talk about a time when you made a mistake and how you recovered from it.
Team orientation Discuss a situation in which you were on a team and disagreed with the team leader.
Clear communication Tell us about a time when someone misunderstood your instructions.
Attention to detail Describe a situation in which a detail you thought to be unimportant turned out to be very important.
Ability to handle stress Tell us about a stressful situation you have encountered and how you coped with it.

To formulate impressive responses to questions like these, you must first appreciate that you’re likely to be asked to recall the specifics of your experiences (both academic and work related) during an interview.

Approach your summer classes, clinic or work experience with that in mind, and pay attention to details that might enliven your interview responses. Jot down ideas for accomplishment stories this summer, and you’ll be better prepared to excel in interviews this fall and beyond.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Dean for Career Services