College seniors are navigating the crucial—and nerve-racking—job interview season. Underclassmen, too, are fighting for meaningful summer (and fall) internships in public relations and other areas of communications. All have read about—and even discussed in multiple classes—the concept of developing and marketing their own “personal brand.” They have absorbed an overwhelming number of interview preparation tips and know how to dress, walk into the room, sit, talk, present themselves, and more. They are ready to move forward. Some will do so, recruiters and senior public relations and communications professionals say, because they can also successfully “check the boxes” on the following five key issues: 1. Media: Still part of the discussion. Yes, the media world has changed dramatically, but not entirely. As a result, recruiters and interviewers are disappointed—though somewhat understanding—when candidates show up with little or no actual news media experience. What they don’t understand is when the candidate doesn’t have even a working awareness of the media landscape. Interviewers say only about one in six candidates has ever spoken with a reporter. Not surprising, the vast majority of them are not able to offer samples of media-related work. Candidates who have worked in communications departments have a clear advantage over those who have not. 2. Do you fit the company? Many candidates try to mask media deficiencies by emphasizing their study-abroad experience, class projects, work-study programs, and even sales jobs. They forget a vital piece: They do not effectively link those experiences with what the companies do. Moreover, too many candidates don’t understand the company they are courting. It isn’t enough to have visited the website so you can recite what you learned on the home page. Interviewers expect candidates to have a fairly good idea of what the company does on a daily, but they don’t, recruiters say. When asked why they want to work at Company A, the answer that really doesn’t work—but comes back frequently—is this: “Communication is interesting.” Parroting something about “international reach” or use of “social media” won’t score points, either. What an interviewer want to hear is the candidate’s well considered opinion on why he or she would fit into the organization and/or what skills the individual could contribute. 3. Does the company fit you? Similarly, candidates tend to focus on how a company is a good fit for them, but not on how they could help the company. These comments, invariably, cause the interviewers and others to question whether the candidate would really roll up his or her sleeves to do what needs to be done. 4. Defend/animate your resume. Remember: Your resume preceded your visit, and some of the people you are meeting with actually read it. Now they’re going to ask you about it. Unfortunately, interviewers say, too many candidates seem genuinely baffled when asked to explain how they contributed to projects listed on their resumes. In one example, for instance, the student who had worked in a broadcast studio for an entire summer had no observations about media relations, how to pitch a reporter, what makes a good story, etc. Then there’s the one who stated proudly that she “supported her agency’s media campaign”—but, when asked to elaborate, had nothing to share about the campaign’s goals or strategies. Yes, we all know that she was stuck monitoring the media, but she missed the important opportunity to ask questions so she could actually learn about the assignment. 5. Find your voice before you get to the interview. Not all candidates have found the conversational “middle ground” needed to succeed in an interview. Many need more interview practice in order to convey confidence without being too full of themselves or (potentially even worse) coming across as being bored. On one end of the spectrum is the agitated candidate who shouts and seems to be ready to leap across the desk. At the other end is the candidate who is not only unprepared but uncomfortable as well.
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Either way, it makes for a long day for all involved. Michael Geczi has worked in communications for over 35 years. He currently serves as an instructor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and also maintains a private practice in which he provides strategic communications and editorial services. A version of this story originally appeared on his blog.