In the last 2 years since graduating with a finance degree from SMU, I have interviewed scores of fresh graduates in Singapore for summer internships and graduate employment programs.
Fresh graduates are curious creatures; they are brimming with enthusiasm and nervousness, they are excited and also unsure, they show unbridled passion and then go and doubt their own energy and dedication to a certain career path.
Singapore is a relatively small job market, and that automatically makes it all the more competitive. It is a hub for many industries, most of all business and finance. Even though there are tons of jobs in the market for business professionals, only a small chunk of those are jobs are directly dedicated to, or would be suitable for fresh graduates with bachelors degrees.
In the grand scheme of things as they are, there are only a limited number of roles that HR managers will actively keep aside for fresh grads and not be tempted to hire a person with more experience, and there are countless numbers of such people thronging to Singapore to vie for these roles.
Add to that the fact that most industries in Singapore are quite close knit networks where everyone knows everyone else, you have to be extra careful about how you put yourself through as a smart and talented individual who the big corporates would want to hire.
In such a landscape, with so many sources of information about the real working world but little actual face time in a professional environment, we often don’t know what works and what doesn’t. We also have to make every first interview count, and for that we need to be prepared.
So collecting from my real time interviews in this city-hub – both interviews I have given, and interviews I have conducted – here’s a few things that I can assure you are true and will greatly impact how successful your interview is.
First Impressions rarely change
My former boss (owner of a local risk management consulting firm) once told me straight on, “In the world of business relationships, you are being judged all the time. In Asia especially, that holds true, because ‘face’ counts a lot. That may not be a bad thing, just know that you are being judged, and be prepared for it.”
Remember that people form an impression on you within the first 8 seconds of meeting you. That means the minute you enter the door of my company, what you project is how I will perceive you.
Rarely, if ever, will interviewers give you the chance to completely change their first perception of you.
Have a Reason
One of the worst mistakes that sadly happens more often than I’d like in interviews is when I ask graduates why they are here, to sit through an interview with me. Most kids blink for a second, then manage to mumble something to the tune of ‘because you called me in for an interview, that’s why’.
Never. Ever. Say that.
For one, it shows me that you don’t really have any personal interest in the job – and that is a major killer all on its own.
Secondly, I realize you might be the kind of person who isn’t proactive. You wait. You let others take the initiative. Yes you applied for the job, but the only reason you came in is because I called you.
Technically yes, that’s how it happened, but that’s not what I asked. What I meant was, why do you want to work here?
You must have a reason for these basic but seemingly obscure questions. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter what your reason is. As long as you have one, and it sounds genuine and personal to you, it’ll do.
Show your personality but also take cues from your environment
How we conduct ourselves in social settings is a complex combination of our own true personality and also subconscious clues we take in from our surroundings which tell us whether to dial it up or tone it down, whether to be serious or fun and so on.
I see that more often than not in Singapore, instead of taking the lead, students want to imitate that one successful peer of theirs rather than take time to look into their own personality, and let it shine through.
Sure, it is a risk to be yourself rather than checking the boxes on a stereotyped list – and not every company will ‘approve’ of the real you – but there will definitely be ones who do, and wouldn’t it be great to work in a company where you can truly play to your strengths?
Successful communication is made up of constantly reading the environment and adapting yourself to what it tells you, but at the same time, retaining your own identity throughout the length of the interaction.
Remember your CV
No matter what type of interview this is, as an interviewer I will always go through your CV once or twice. Most interviewers will actually refer to your work/school history two or three times before they are able to grasp a full picture of what you have done thus far.
Be prepared for this, and take the time to go over your CV alone before the interview. Look at each paragraph, each job, internship or activity, and mentally rehearse what you are going to say about it.
Some general questions that can be asked of every fresh graduate’s CV are as follows:
• Why did you intern here?
• Why did you pick this university?
• What made you choose this as your major?
• What was challenging about this part?
• What did you learn here?
Even if the interviewer doesn’t ask, volunteer information about your experiences. If they are not interested, they will let you know (again, read the cues!) but I would say a good interviewer values any information you put in front of them.
All my interviews with fresh graduates can broadly fit into two forms of dialogue. One (the less frequent one) is where the candidate and I are having a relaxed and balance conversation: I might ask a few questions and then he might ask one, and it moves back and forth.
The second and more common one with fresh graduates is where I ask away till I am done, and then I ask them “Do you have any questions for me?”
Now, to illustrate what happens if you don’t have any questions, let me show you what goes through an interviewer’s mind when you say “No, thank you.”
Hmm, really, so he already knows everything he needs to know about my company?
What about the job role doesn’t he want to know what work he’ll be doing? Hmm that must mean he doesn’t really care, he just needs to be hired for the sake of it?
How about that incident in our industry – that policy decision just made? Isn’t he curious how that will have an impact on our future strategy?
How about just asking me when I will respond to him with the result of our hiring process? Maybe he just doesn’t care enough.
And so on.
Apart from showing inquisitiveness and passion for your industry and the company, these questions will give you valuable insights into the company’s principles, their plans and how well you might or might not do there.
I remember that as a fresh graduate, it was always very tempting to just grab on to anybody who might want to hire you. But treat the interview process as a journey of finding what you want to do.
In Singapore, we sometimes tend toward the ‘safe and certain’ ways of doing things, and that leaves us out of the pool of the many riskier but greater opportunities that await us. As much as you want to be hired, you should also treat your interviews as a checking process for you to see whether or not it will be a rewarding place for you to work at.
Believe me, if you go in with that in your mind, the interviewer will see it and respect you all the more for it.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Eesha graduated from Singapore Management University with majors in Finance and International Trading and is working as a consultant for the energy and commodities industry, a member of MENSA, and actively involved in leadership and character building programs for youngsters in Singapore.