Project Management Institute

The Big Interview

How to Ace Your First Interview in Years

Voices | CAREER Q&A

By Lindsay Scott

I haven't had a job interview for a long time. Are there any strategies I can use to help me put my best foot forward?

Preparing for an interview starts by studying the job posting. The posting essentially lists the perfect candidate for the job. Just because you're not a perfect fit doesn't mean you shouldn't apply. Instead, use the interview to explain how you tick off a lot of the role's requirements.

You can stand head and shoulders above others by taking the time to pull together examples that clearly demonstrate experience and success.

First, break down the job posting into each element: the activities, experience, skills, behaviors and personal characteristics they're looking for. Then try to figure out what questions you are likely to receive. Say the posting asks for experience in large business transformation programs. Expect two questions during the interview: “Can you tell me about your experience in large programs?” and “Can you tell me about the last business transformation program you managed?”

You also want to read between the lines. What have they not explicitly asked for in the posting, but you know is needed? Say it's a program manager position but they haven't explicitly asked for experience working with program management methods and techniques. Think about what program management questions you're likely to receive.

As you work through the job posting, you should also make a note of how you can demonstrate the skills and qualities asked for. You're looking to build up a memory bank of examples and scenarios that can be used in the interview. You can stand head and shoulders above others by taking the time to pull together examples that clearly demonstrate experience and success. Think about the specific outcomes and facts to present, such as how much under budget or early the project came in or how much client satisfaction increased.

One other task that is useful is to conduct your own competency self-assessment before embarking on a job hunt. First, this assessment reminds you about all the competencies required in your current role and gives you some pointers about which competencies to mention in your interview. An assessment also gives you a really good answer to questions about your weaknesses or where you need to improve. You'll be able to inform the interviewer that you already know where your weaknesses are and what you're doing to address them. It shows you're a serious candidate, self-aware and confident in what you bring to the party.

The last job title I had—business solutions manager—is not helping me now that I'm looking for a new position. Can I just change it on my résumé?

There are certainly many weird and wonderful job titles people have when they're delivering projects. Organizations have their reasons for naming them the way they do. But you're right that job titles are a big deal when it comes to the recruitment process. If someone is looking for a project manager, he or she obviously wants to see evidence of that in your career—and it starts with your title.

The problem is, your résumé must tell the truth. Plus if you're looking for references from a previous employer, you don't want to get caught changing your job title. The solution is to use your actual job title alongside something more suited to the marketplace, such as “business solutions manager (senior project manager).” You can then go on to write about your experiences using terminology more suited to the marketplace—rather than the language of your previous organization.

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I'd like to attend some project management training this year. How should I approach my boss about paying for it?

You need to do your homework first. There are two obvious things your boss will want to know: How much is it going to cost, and what's in it for the organization? You need to be prepared to answer the questions about the logistics side (where it will be held, who's running the course, etc.) and the ROI (what benefits will it bring to you and the business).

Do a quick search for “justification letter” and you'll find lots of templates to help you make your initial request. Make the approach by email first, allowing you to get all the facts down in black and white, and then ask for a follow-up conversation. You also need to be prepared to answer questions like: What will happen with your workload while you're away? And, Would you be expecting a pay raise or promotion after completing the training? It's natural that you might experience some resistance to the request (training budgets have been slashed over the years), but if you can make your case clearly, you can show how it makes business sense to go ahead. If your request does get denied, look for ways to find a compromise or suggest having the conversation again a few months further down the line. PM

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Lindsay Scott is the director of program and project management recruitment at Arras People in London, England.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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