Interviewing Amidst a Pandemic

Who could have predicted that avoiding handshakes at interviews would become professional? I certainly couldn’t have.

For students and professionals alike, 2020 has been a year of adaptation, critical thinking and resilience. Through the many obstacles that this year has thrown at us, each person has evolved to meet the demands of “the new normal”; interviews are no different.

This past month, I have been interviewing for 3 companies — all of whom approached the process distinctively. With different mediums comes different challenges and considerations during the preparation process.

To best prepare yourself for this unprecedented age of interviews, here are some aspects to consider:

In-Person Interviews

Interviewing in-person has become much less common, nevertheless it still takes place. To respect local guidelines, the formats often differ from normal in-person interviews. If you have one coming up, it is likely that some of your training or work will be in-person as well. Remember to accommodate for your level of comfort as you accept the interview (and potentially the position). Additionally, employers who interview this way often prefer so because they can get to know you better. 

Taking all of this into consideration, here are some practices that will help you prepare:

  • Practice enunciating your speech. 

My in-person interview took place outside, spread apart on a picnic table, while wearing a mask. If you don’t project your voice the way you would during a class presentation, it may be difficult for the interviewer(s) to understand you. Practice speaking with your mask on before the interview. 

  • Make eye contact. 

While this is important in all interviews, it is especially important now. If you are wearing your mask, your eyes are the only thing they can see to let them know you are listening and interested. See Vault’s article, How Eye Contact Can Get You the Job, for more information. 

  • Pay attention to your posture and body language. 

To make up for the inability to fully convey facial expressions, pay attention to your movements. For example, if the interviewer is speaking to you, nod your head and smile under the mask to demonstrate that you understand and are interested in what they have to say. In addition, make sure to sit with an open posture and directly face the interviewer(s). This communicates to them that you are serious about the position.

  • Strategize which mask you wear.

I recommend a solid, neutrally-colored mask because anything else may be distracting to look at. Make sure the mask also fits well, and will not move around too much while you speak, as that may sidetrack you. 

  • Thank them! 

Due to the danger of COVID-19, you should not intend to shake hands with the interviewers, but still make sure they know how serious you are. If you are comfortable with it, an elbow bump or a gesture of similar nature may be appropriate. However, this can also be done verbally in-person followed up by a Thank You Note in the following days. 

Virtual Interviews

At this point, most companies have a virtual platform (i.e., Zoom, Microsoft Office, Google Meet) on which they make conference calls from home or work. That platform is likely what they will use for your interview as well, thus it is important for you to convey your competence of the platform during your interview. Before the interview starts, you should already know how to utilize the features, as this may come up during the interview. 

Additionally, I recommend following these steps:

  • Find a quiet place with strong WiFi. 

Oftentimes in IV (and many other locations), it is difficult to find somewhere that is quiet and has strong WiFi, thus you should plan in advance. Ask your roommate if you can have the room to yourself for the interview, or consider other quiet places that you have access to. 

  • Take into account the lighting around you. 

The lighting will drastically affect how you look on the camera. Plan to test the lighting about 20 minutes before the interview so that you have time to adjust it accordingly. If you test it too early in the day (like I did) it will not accurately convey how you’ll look at the time of the interview.

  • Position your computer so you are looking straight at the camera. 

This is the best way to convey eye contact and posture. For me, I stacked my computer on books, and positioned it halfway across the table so that my face was in the center. 

  • Reconsider body language. 

Contrary to in-person interviews, for virtual interviews you will typically be showing only your chest up. Because of this, few of your hand gestures will be portrayed, however, the benefit is that your facial expressions will be seen. As you practice for the interview, practice with the camera on in front of you so you see what gestures are conveyed. If you have weak WiFi, less movements may be beneficial for higher video quality. 

Note: Sometimes when there is weak WiFi connection, the interviewers will have their cameras turned off. For me, it was quite distracting to look at their photos, but the practice helped me because I was accustomed to watching myself in the camera at that point, so I looked at myself instead.

  • Strategize your background ahead of time. 

Some may believe that Zoom backgrounds are unprofessional, however that is not the case. Out of my 4 Zoom interviewers, 3 of them used virtual backgrounds. This is a great tool if you don’t want interviewers to see inside your home. Additionally, it will convey to them that you know how to manage the platform.

For myself, backgrounds did not work. For some reason, Zoom took my hair to be part of an object behind me, so it looked like I had no hair. Luckily, I tested this in advance and set up in front of neutral walls instead.

To strategize what background you use, make sure there is a distinct contrast between the colors of your hair, skin, clothes, and the colors in the background. Then, let it reflect some of your interests and personality without being distracting and unprofessional. Had I been able to use a background, I was planning on using a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge for the company that was based in the Bay Area, and a UCSB background for an interviewer who was also a UCSB alumn. My interviewers used patterned backgrounds with the company logo in the bottom corner. 

Note: If you know how to make your own customizable background, this will be an excellent way to demonstrate your technical skills. 

  • Follow up. 

Remember that it is a hectic time for the interviewers as well. If they do not get back to you in the time frame they tell you they will, send them another email. This email can merely thank them for their time and let them know that you are available to schedule the next interview. 

As awkward as this may seem, this often helps the interviewers. My interviewer told me they would get back to me within the following 24 to 48 hours, so the morning after the second day, I emailed them. Within 2 hours, they thanked me for the reminder and scheduled the next interview. If you are uncertain about following up, I recommend reading Andrew Seaman’s article, Should You be Afraid of Ghosting?

Other Interviews

There are many more forms of interviews that may be less obvious. However, as the virtual workplace evolves, more interviewing formats will emerge. 

Here are additional interview forms which you may come across during the process, and tips regarding how to approach them:

  • Over-the-Phone Interviews: 

These interviews are typically introductory, and serve to establish the mutual connection and interest amongst the interviewee and their employer. Be prepared to provide a brief introduction about yourself and your experiences. Some interviewers may ask additional questions, which they will note when they schedule the interview. Have notes in front of you to use for reference. Additionally, make sure you are in a quiet space with great cell service and that you enunciate in case service is poor on their end.

  • Essay Questions:

This may come in various formats: (i.e., Google Survey, PDF document, email). It is common for interviewers to send out preliminary questions to gain a better sense of your candidacy. Take advantage of the fact that they are written; while it is beneficial to turn them in promptly, you can answer these at your convenience, and refer back to them for edits. It is also advantageous to receive a critique from Career Services before you submit them. 

  • Technical Interviews:

Technical interviews are typical for (but not limited to) students in Engineering + Technology. One form of technical interviews is homework assignments, which just like essay questions are propitious to complete in advance to receive feedback. However, if you are asked to conduct it live, consider the same technicalities of virtual and in-person interviews as discussed above. 

You Got This!

Remember that this year’s abrupt virtualization has gifted you with skills that are beneficial to the workplace. As you prepare for the interview, reflect on what those capabilities are for you and why. During this process, I also recommend researching the skills that are in demand for the virtual workplace. A great article to start with is Andrew Seaman’s article on The Skills Interviewers Want Most During a Pandemic

For more information about interview preparation, read about the various Interview Formats covered in UCSB’s Online Career Center, or make an appointment with a counselor. 

Written by: Caylee Burditt