Whether you’re a recent college graduate looking for your first job in your chosen career, or a teenager just looking to make some money, the thought of your first interview can be intimidating, if not downright terrifying!
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Much of the fear of first interviews comes from the unknowns. You don’t know what to expect and may not know how to prepare. Don’t worry – I’ll clear these things up for you in this post.
While much of my career as a Hiring Manager has been for organizations that don’t have many entry-level positions, I did spend seven years as a manager in the retail industry. This is an industry that has many entry-level jobs and as a result, I’ve interviewed many candidates for whom it was their first interview ever.
What to Expect in Your First Interview
Who will be there?
If it’s a minimum wage entry-level position, such as is common in the retail and fast food industries, there will probably be only one person besides yourself in the interview. This will typically be the supervisor or manager who will directly supervise this position.
If it’s a large company, for example, a large retail department store, that hires a large number of people on an ongoing basis, it may even be an HR manager who does the interview and may even make the hiring decision.
For professional entry-level positions, such as those looking for recent college graduates, it’s likely there will be two or more interviewers. There may even be an interview panel, though this is less common.
Where will the interview take place?
If it’s a large location for a large organization, there will be conference rooms and this is where interviews will usually take place.
If it’s a fast-food restaurant or retail store, it may take place in a manager’s office. For small fast food or other restaurants, I’ve even seen interviews conducted at one of the customer tables.
Regardless of the environment or who will be there, your interview preparation should be the same.
How to Prepare for Your First Interview
Do you need a resume?
When people ask me for advice about a first interview, one of the first questions they ask is “Do I need a resume?”. My answer is…maybe.
If you’re applying for your very first job ever (typical for teenagers) you probably don’t need to prepare a formal resume. The application you’ll be given to fill out will tell them what they want to know. But there are still some things you do need to prepare and bring with you, as I’ll explain below.
If you’re a college graduate going on your first interview for your first job in your chosen profession, it’s expected that you will have a resume. Even though you don’t have any direct experience, the Hiring Manager will still want to know about your educational background, what classes you took, what were your specific areas of focus that are relevant to the job, what other jobs you’ve had, even if it’s not in that industry.
For example, you may have other life experiences that demonstrate skills required for that position, such as volunteering, babysitting, tutoring other students, delivering newspapers, captain of a sports team.
The life experiences that will help you most in first interviews are those that demonstrate three attributes:
These are the three personal characteristics that are most needed in entry-level positions.
Company Research for Your First Interview
Company research is something you should do regardless of the nature of the job. It’s a step missed by many first-time interviewers.
You’re looking for information about the company that you can use in your interview to show you did your homework. You’re also looking for information about the job and the company that might tell you what it’s like to work there.
Go online and look at:
- The company website
- Their social media accounts
- Any recent news releases
- The Linkedin account of any managers you’ve been able to find
- Any company brochures or annual reports you can find
Some of the things you’re looking for are:
- What does the company do (what products do they make)?
- What does the company stand for? (For example, Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil”)
- What are the company’s goals?
- Who are their customers? (for McDonald’s, everyone!)
- What skills and training do employees have? (the job listing may have this information)
- What is the job environment? (indoors, outdoors, dirty, loud)
- Do employees wear a uniform?
- Is the job physically demanding? (e.g. heavy lifting, constant movement)
- What are the hours – nights, weekends, long shifts, split shifts?
A good website for information about what it’s like work for a particular company is glassdoor.com.
How to Dress for a First Interview
All the attire rules that apply to other interviews also apply to first interviews.
Briefly, for men, the correct attire is business casual. This means slacks or Docker-style pants, a long sleeve shirt with a collar, and dress or casual shoes that are NOT any type of sneaker or athletic shoe. For women, dressy casual pants and a blouse, along with low-heeled shoes.
For everyone, no jeans of any kind, no pants with rips, no sandals. Keep jewelry to a minimum, and cover-up tattoos if at all possible. Avoid bright and unnatural hair colors.
I know this is a lot and many people tell me that companies should just accept them the way they are. I always tell them that while I appreciate that viewpoint, they should then be prepared for their job search to take longer than it would otherwise.
One final note: make sure you’re not wearing something that shows the logo of a competitor to that company, especially for retail stores. You don’t want to wear a shirt with the Abercrombie logo to an interview at Forever 21!
Prepare and Practice an Opening Statement
The first question you’re most likely to be asked is something like: “Tell me about yourself”. You’ll need to prepare an opening statement you can use when asked this question.
To prepare your opening statement, make a list of your best strengths, best skills, key achievements (school, as a volunteer, as a sports team leader, etc). Compare your list to the job requirements and the ones that relate to those requirements (even if that relationship is somewhat tenuous) are the ones you should include in your opening statement.
Note that your opening statement should not include non-relevant personal information, such as your hobbies (unless directly related to the job), how many siblings you have, where you went to grade school and middle school, how many times you’ve moved, or your astrological sign.
You want to talk only about your skills and experiences that make you a good candidate for that specific job.
Then, practice that statement in front of a friend or relative enough times that you can deliver it smoothly and without hesitation. Be sure to have them look for bad habits such as slouching, playing with your hair, biting your lip, bouncing your leg, using phrases such as yeah, you know, huh, dude, bro, any other kind of slang.
Even if you’re just interviewing for a job at Burger King, you want to appear as professional as possible.
Prepare Questions to Ask
Just like almost every interview will start with the “Tell me about yourself” question, almost everyone will end with “Do you have any questions?”.
Many first-time interviewers either won’t have questions or will only have ones about salary, hours, and benefits. Too bad, because they’ve missed a golden opportunity to find out some relevant information and to be the candidate most remembered.
Here are some suggestions for questions you can ask that show you’re really serious about the job and the company. They’ll work for any position at any company.
- “Can you explain some common challenges for this position?”
- “What makes a high-performing employee stand out from an average employee?”
- “How will my performance be measured in this position?”
- “What are the training opportunities?”
Get written references if possible
Since immediate hiring decisions are sometimes made after first interviews, it can help your case to bring references.
These references can be from teachers, coaches, organizations at which you volunteered, anyone you worked for in any capacity.
Friends and family members don’t count! We all can get glowing recommendations from these types of folks.
Other Items to bring to your interview
Finish your preparation by assembling the following items to bring to your interview.
- A pen and tablet of paper, placed in a portfolio
- Copies of your resume, if applicable
- Written references
- Your list of questions to ask
How to Make Your First Interview Go Smoothly
The day has arrived and you’re off to your first interview. Here are some tips that will help you through the process.
Be on time
Believe me when I tell you that being late for your interview is an absolute deal-breaker. It practically guarantees you won’t be hired.
Remember when I said earlier that first-time jobs give a lot of weight to punctuality and reliability? Being late for your interview shows you have neither.
Many job advice sites recommend arriving 15 minutes early. I don’t think this is enough. It leaves almost no room for any unexpected events that might delay you (flat tire, traffic accident, getting lost, etc).
My advice is always to arrive 30 minutes in advance for a first interview, just in case something happens. The best case is you won’t need the extra time and can simply relax in your car or go over your notes.
Then, walk into your interview no more than 10 minutes in advance. Any more than that and they may not be ready for you and may not have a place to put you until they are ready.
Be respectful and polite
This means you should be respectful and polite to everyone you encounter from the moment you walk in the front door, whether or not they’re involved in your interview. I know many Hiring Managers (myself included) who will ask their receptionist or other people who the candidate may have bumped into before the interview for their impression of that person.
I’ve interviewed candidates who came across as polite and friendly during the interview, only to find out later that they were a jerk to the receptionist. I never hire these types of people, so please don’t be one of them.
Call people Mr. or Ms. Unless told otherwise.
It goes without saying (I hope) to not curse. They’ll be plenty of opportunity for that after you get the job…
This will all come naturally if you adopt this approach: pretend like you’re meeting with your boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s/spouse’s parents for the first time!
Pay attention to your body language
Smile, sit up straight, and make eye contact frequently (but not constantly – that’s staring!).
The most common thing I see here – and I see it a lot – is for people to move one knee up and down rapidly. Of course you’re nervous, but make a conscious effort to avoid this. It’s always obvious and done to an extreme it can be distracting.
Show a great attitude
Having a great attitude makes up for the lack of a lot of other things. You aren’t expected to have a great resume and job history when you’re interviewing for entry-level jobs.
But you are expected to have a great attitude. In fact, that’s probably the most important attribute to display. Training entry-level employees is easy when they have a great attitude and these are the people I want to hire.
Turn your phone off
Better yet, leave your phone in the car and you won’t have to remember to turn it off.
Notice I said turn it off, not silence it. When your phone is silenced, you can still hear it vibrate when a call or message comes in and this is not something you want to have interrupt your interview.
I’ve even had candidates say, “Excuse me, I have to take this call”, and then proceed to answer it right in the middle of the interview. This will automatically put you on the do not hire list, so don’t risk it. Leave your phone in the car.
Working hours and salary
Many jobs have different shifts. Since this is your first job interview, you’ll need to be flexible on the hours you’ll work. You may have to start on a less desirable shift and then work your way up to the preferred hours.
Be realistic on your salary expectations. If you’re a teenager and it’s your first job, the salary will likely be the minimum wage to start with. Just make sure you know what the minimum wage is for your location and be sure you don’t ask for less.
When answering questions
Here are some ‘don’ts’ to keep in mind when answering questions.
- Don’t speak negatively about anything. This will cause the interviewer to assume that you’ll also bad mouth their job and company. If you have nothing positive to say about someone or something, it’s best to not say anything at all. Hiring Managers really dislike negative candidates.
- Don’t answer any question with “I don’t know”. Ask them to elaborate a bit on the question if you don’t understand it. If you’re still completely lost, ask if you can think about this a bit and get back to it later in the interview. There’s a good chance the interviewer will forget to come back to that question. If they do and you’re still lost, the best you can do is say that’s one for which you just don’t have an answer. This isn’t catastrophic when interviewing for entry-level jobs.
- Don’t interrupt the question before it’s completed. Wait until the speaker is done and pause for a few seconds to be sure. This also has the advantage of giving you some time to think.
- Don’t give overly long answers to interview questions.
Make your last impression a great one
People tend to remember the last impression they have of you, so be sure to make it a positive one.
Thank them for their time and the chance to interview, tell them you’re looking forward to hearing from them again, shake everyone’s hand, collect business cards if they have them, and send a thank you email to everyone if there was more than one interviewer.