During the interview, you’re likely to get asked stereotypical questions such as “What is your greatest strength?” or “Tell me about a time you failed and how you responded to that failure.” While preparation is key for interviews, there are an innumerable amount of questions you could be asked, so rather than focus on practicing answers to every type of question, you need to be prepared for what the interviewer is actually looking for in your answer, and that is a convincing anecdote or story as to why you are the right person for the job. Look at these questions as an opportunity to sell yourself. The best way to sell yourself is to have mentally prepared success stories of your time and experience in the military to intelligently respond to their question or proposition. You’ll need to have a decent amount of these success stories in your back pocket because depending on the specific question they ask, or the way in which they ask it, you’ll need to determine which story best exemplifies your strengths you’re looking to showcase.
If you’ve read our resume series, you’ll remember in the Professional Experience post I mentioned this –
So, before we even start writing the actual section, we’re first going to organize your career. This might seem like a pain in the ass (which it is), but it’s vital to ensuring you don’t gloss over any part of your career that has an important story to tell. Additionally, this process also is important when preparing for interviews. You’re going to want to remember everything, so when we start talking about success and failure stories, you know you’re remembering your best examples.
First, open a word document and write out every single base you’ve been assigned to. Then, beneath that, write out every assignment you had on that base. For example, my first two assignments as a CEC Officer were to Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Gulfport, MS.
See that spell-it-out then put the acronym in parenthesis thing? Good lord I still write like an officer. My old USAFA commandant would be proud…sigh.
Anyway, my first two assignments were at NCBC Gulfport. I was assigned to a public works department and also a mobile construction battalion.
Notice how I didn’t capitalize the first letters in those unit titles? That’s because in the civilian world, people don’t capitalize everything like we do in the military. Not really a pro-tip, more of an FYI.
Then beneath your assignments list out every position you held at that unit. Don’t forget collateral duties either. Some people really excel in their collaterals and it may be worth including on your resume. For example, when I was at the mobile construction battalion, I was a department head, an officer-in-charge for a detachment, and also a logistics director for a joint exercise. Additionally, I was the unit’s equal opportunity officer. I’m far from unique, so I know you have been in units where you held many roles, often times multiple roles at the same time.
THEN, beneath each position you’ve held, you need to write out at least three accomplishments. It might be a stretch for some shorter term roles, but really press yourself to have at least three. What will likely happen when we start editing this section is these bullets will all get condensed down. But in order to do that, we need all the details up front; it will help make the editing process easier and also result in a better final product. If you have more than three accomplishments, that’s totally fine, the more the better. But at a minimum, three.
After the accomplishments, write out at least one failure. Nobody is perfect, so I’m sure you can think of at least one thing you screwed up, even if it’s miniscule, write it down. Of course more than one is fine; but at a minimum, at least one.
What’s important with the failure, is the lesson you learned and how you recovered. No failure is worth talking about if you didn’t learn from it. And it’s even more valuable if you can discuss how you implemented the lesson you learned later on and created a success/accomplishment from it. It all comes full circle.
So once you have this exercise done, save this document as is. Save it as “Success/Failure Stories”. This document will be critical when preparing for interviews.
For those who did not follow this advice when building your resume, now is the time to go back and do it.
I know back in that post I said at least one failure story, but now that we are revisiting the document, think of one additional failure story. As you read through the document, highlight the four biggest achievements of your career and the two failure stories. It may be more “fun” to focus on your success stories, but don’t skip figuring out what your failure stories are.
Don’t be like Mona Lisa
Believe it or not, interviewers may want to know about a time you failed. The worst possible answer you can have to a question about failure is stating that you haven’t failed or not being able to recall a failure that you have undertaken. What’s important about the failure stories is twofold: 1) it shows you have humility and are humble enough to admit that you sometimes fail and 2) it gives you an opportunity to display your resiliency in how you bounced back from that failure. The most critical aspect of your failure story is how you recovered from it. That is the entire reason for asking the question, so do not forget it.
There are several key aspects to your success stories that you’ll want to write out before hand so that you can review prior to entering the interview.
- What specifically did you achieve?
- What made it difficult? Why was it significant?
- How did you accomplish it?
- What does this story demonstrate about you?
There is no format for answering these questions. One or two bullets that addresses the question is all that’s really necessary. What’s more important is that you’ve taken the time to think about these questions and put some honest thought into them. If you take the time to write these down and review them before each interview, you’ll have no problem recalling them when a question prompts it.
We’ll take the same approach with failure stories. These need to be written out as well. The questions you’ll need to ask yourself are similar to the success stories. When determining which stories to tell for your failure stories the most important aspect is that you recovered from the failure, but the second most important aspect is that…you actually failed. If you give a bullshit failure like you were late to work one time, or you forgot to sign out on leave, you’re wasting the interviewers time. Represent the honesty and integrity that veterans are known for.
- What did you fail at? And why was this failure significant?
- Why did you fail?
- How did you recover?
- What did you learn from the experience?
- What does this story demonstrate about you?
If you take the time to write out these success and failure stories, they will pay dividends when you get to the interview. I’ve sat in numerous interviews and it is a night and day difference between people who have prepared for their interview and people who haven’t. It’s very clear who took the time to reflect on their time in the military and understand how the lessons they learned will help them develop and grow in future roles outside of the military. If I ask a very easy question like “Tell me about you greatest strength?” and you can’t come up with a coherent message within 5-10 seconds of me asking, it’s clear you made little to no effort planning for the interview. That question is probably one of the most common interview questions and it should immediately spur one of your success stories you have in your back pocket.
Preparation and reflection is required to really stand out in your interview. If you take the time to go through this exercise, it will pay off. You should be able to say your great strength is, for example, “Resiliency” and you should be able to talk about a time you overcame the odds to achieve a particular success. People who answer questions like that with unique works like “Resiliency” versus an answer like “Leadership” or “Strong Manager” actually professionally communicate what skills and capabilities they bring to the table in a real and practical way. You want to be memorable in your interview, so be ready to show the interviewer why you are memorable. As a veteran I guarantee you have far more interesting and life changing stories than your civilian counterparts.
After you have put all the time in mentally preparing, make sure you practice saying it out loud. Putting your thoughts together in a cogent and coherent way takes some rehearsal. The point is not to memorize your stories, if you sound like you memorized responses, you’ll do more damage than good. The idea is to have a few points you want to hit as you tell the story and use more natural language to navigate through the story.
These stories should take 90-120 seconds to get through. This gives you enough time to answer the direct question while telling a story that illuminates and illustrates your story. If you have a story you are passionate about, it can be easy to get carried away, and rehearsing each story a few times will ensure you know how to make your points without getting lost in the story.
Don’t get lost in the never ending story…
Prepare for your interview weeks in advance by developing these success and failure stories so you locked and loaded for the inevitable questions that will come where these stories can be deployed. There’s nothing like interviewing with the hiring manager, and them telling you they “got the chills” after telling one of your stories.
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