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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

How to Crack Apprentice-Style Interviews

After sending in your resume and cover letter, answering a handful of probing questions, and following up like a champ, you’ve been invited to interview with the company of your dreams. Reading through the invitation email with joy, you come across a line that stops you in your tracks: “Please prepare to spend 3-4 hours at the interview.”

What? What could possibly take so long?

Well, my friend, you might very well be facing The Apprentice-style interview. Prepare for the most challenging and fun interview you’ve ever had!

Depending on your industry, the specific challenges may vary, but the end goal is the same: a chance for your potential employer to see how you’ll perform on the job. My interview for a summer marketing intern position at a small startup included debating current events, working in a group to create a marketing plan, presenting that plan, participating in timed one-on-one interviews, and finally, entering The Board Room, where group members stands in front of the panel of evaluators and are asked questions about their performance.

Thankfully, I succeeded and got the job—and a year later, I got to experience this interview from the other side of the table. And along the way, I gained some insight into what leads to hearing, “You’re hired!” No matter what task you’re faced with in your Apprentice-style interview, use these strategies for standing out.

Have Energy!

You should bring great energy to every interview, regardless of the type, but it is especially true of an Apprentice interview process. You will be asked to work in (and lead) a group, answer questions you will never truly be able to answer exactly, complete tasks as quickly and correctly as possible, and be under the microscope of a number of different observers. It is tough and it is stressful, but if you don’t bring energy and make an impression, you won’t get the job. So you eat your carbs and get excited!

Always Stay Confident

Here’s a secret: Most of what you will be asked to do during the interview will be unanswerable or unable to be completed in the time allotted. Luckily for you, these challenges are often more about your process than your final product or answer—what your potential employers really want to see is how you work and perform under pressure.

So, even if it’s not complete or perfect, present what you’re asked to do with confidence. Here are a couple of tips that helped me:

1. Speak to your strengths: Just before you run out of time on a challenge, work with your team to determine your strongest points. Develop a few talking points for your presentation, and don’t stray from them. If you wander down the path of discussing things your group didn’t quite complete, your evaluators will have more questions. And you want to spend your time talking about the great stuff you’ve done, not answering questions about what you didn’t get to.

If an interviewer does drill you with a question your team didn’t consider, just be honest and say something along the lines of, “We didn’t consider that. Given more time we would definitely evaluate that as a variable.”

2. Use Your Resources: Another way to up your confidence is to use your resources (a.k.a., your team) wisely. For example, if one of your evaluators asks you a question that you know someone else has more knowledge of, redirect that question by saying something like, “I think Jane is best suited to answer that—she has a lot of experience in web design.” This will keep you from stumbling through an answer you’re unsure of—not to mention show off your teamwork skills.

Lead, But Don’t Overpower

It’s important to present yourself as a leader during this type of interview to show that you will be able to take on that role if hired. That said, I have seen candidates crash and burn by crossing the fine line (or not so fine line) between leading and overpowering—and I’ve noticed that many of the most successful candidates have been those who lead from behind.

What does this mean? For one, don’t do all the talking—try to engage all of your team members when you’re brainstorming ideas and weighing options. Many candidates are shyer than others, but they offer great ideas if given the chance to speak. And being the one to give them that chance is filled with bonuses: Your team has more ideas to choose from, your interviewers will see you as a team player, and the person you asked will appreciate your effort (and hopefully repay you in The Board Room).

Next, try to pose questions that will further your project. With a short amount of time to deliver your end result, it’s crucial to find an idea you are comfortable running with as soon as possible. You’ll see many team members declaring that certain ideas won’t work, but it can be helpful to redirect their concern into positive direction. My favorite question to hear a candidate asking is “How can we?” This shows that a candidate does not give up on ideas easily and is an optimistic problem solver.

Now, if you’ve asked all these questions and really listened to people’s answers, you’ll also have positioned yourself to be the team member who presents your group’s work to the interviewers. Don’t hesitate to volunteer to be the one representing your team—this is the best place to stand out.

Stay Calm

Throughout this lengthy interview process, you will be put under pressure, put on tight deadlines, and asked to work closely with others. All this stress makes it easy for less-than-desirable traits to start showing themselves. I’ve seen candidates yell at group members and even physically pound on tables during one-on-one interviews!

But no matter how frustrated you get, stay poised and calm and do not snap at your team members. Your interviewers are trying to see how you will function in their daily work environment, and no employer wants her employees yelling at each other.

And finally, it should go without saying, but don’t undercut your team members or throw them under a bus. If someone on your team has a great idea, don’t try to claim it as your own. One good idea doesn’t get you a job, but integrity and being a great team player could. Dishonesty definitely won’t.

Keep these thoughts in mind, and you should have no problem excelling in an Apprentice-style interview. It will be exciting, it will be exhausting, and it will be incredibly rewarding to know that, if you do get the job, you truly earned it. Remember these tips and be yourself, and, hopefully, you’ll be hearing “You’re hired!”

Photo of judges panel courtesy of Shutterstock.