Winning Interview Techniques for Architects

Bob Borson —  February 20, 2010 — 36 Comments

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Over the next month, I will be talking to three separate groups of young architects about the job market and what they can expect. I will be covering what type of jobs might be right for them, big firms versus small firms, etc. I feel qualified to talk on this subject because I have held a lot of jobs as an architect and I have never gone on an interview without getting a job offer. So I will share with you some tips and techniques that I think can make the difference between receiving an offer and someone offering to “keep your resume on file should anything come up”.

Dress Appropriately and Be on time
You should dress professionally but depending on your age, this could mean different things. You can recover from over-dressing but you can never recover from under-dressing. This may sound like an obvious thing to point out but you would be surprised to see what people have worn to their interview with me (unless you’re that guy). I always preferred to wear a suit and dress shirt with an open collar. Ties are tricky and you might be sending an unintentional message by the tie you choose. If you are meeting with someone for the first time, they will be judging you by your attire, it’s unavoidable, so for now, don’t make your attire part of your personal personality billboard.

Do some research on the firm you are interviewing
Don’t walk into an office thinking that you can wing it because you are amazing. You should know what market sectors they work in and how they are viewed in the marketplace. Be able to reference projects they have done and specific things about those projects that you admired. There is a fine line here – you don’t want it to come across that you studied their website prior to this meeting, but you want it to come across that you want to be here for reason other than just receiving a paycheck. Everyone, including the person you are interviewing with, appreciates hearing that their work is something worth aspiring to and that you can learn something from them.

Be Specific with your answers
There are a handful of questions you should be prepared to answer so think about what you might say when you hear them. People who know me might think this is a funny tip considering how much I blather on. I can usually talk for 10 minutes on just about anything whether you want to hear it or not but during an interview, I keep it brief, specific and on topic.

It isn’t just your answers to questions that are important; it’s also how you respond. Attitude can solve far more perceived ills than ability during an interview. Since I can’t truly evaluate your abilities during our conversation, I am dialing in on how you are presenting yourself. Some typical questions you should expect to hear include:

Why do you want to work here?
Why did you leave your last job?
What do you think is your best skill?
What are your goals for working here?
What are your expectations for this job?
How much money do you expect to make?

I am amazed that most people who have come in for a job interview don’t ask questions to the people who are interviewing them. That would always be a major strike against you in my evaluation. Not asking questions of your potential employer sends a message that you either 1) don’t have options, 2) don’t care as long as you get a job, 3) didn’t think ahead and aren’t prepared, or 4) you are task oriented rather than goal oriented. Take your pick, they are all bad. In every job interview I ever went on, I always asked very specific questions. Some of my typical questions might have included:

What will my role be?
What needs are they trying to fill with me?
What are my opportunities for advancement?
What is the pay structure and benefits?
How long did their employees stay with them?

I asked these questions because I wanted to know the answers but I also knew that it sent the message that I was motivated, goal oriented, willing to take on responsibility beyond my position (and pay), and that I expected them to be an active participant in my development. The employee – employer relationship has to be mutually beneficial if it has any chance of succeeding long-term and everybody needs to have some skin in the game.

Finally, you should gear your resume and portfolio towards the job you want. If you think you are a designer, your portfolio should reflect that. You should also bring the appropriate type of material to the interview. If you have been out of school for a while, don’t bring school work along – believe me when I tell you nobody cares about your ‘Dark Side of the Moon Aviary Research Center’. You should also be prepared to explain what your role was when showing someone a set of construction documents. I am not going to write a specific piece on resumes or cover letters – there is too much information available out there to anyone who cares. I will say that there are three things that drive me crazy when I see them:

  • Don’t use a form letter for your cover. Make it specific to the firm you are sending it to. Call ahead and find out who the letter should be addressed to and for God’s sake SPELL CHECK EVERYTHING – TWICE!!
  • Don’t list Microsoft Office products as software you know (e.g. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.). Everybody in the civilized world knows these products and either you’re dumb for not knowing that or you think I am.
  • Don’t write that your goal is to “gain meaningful employment in the field of architecture”. You might as well say that your goal is to get a job. Isn’t that everybody’s goal if they’re sending out a resume? Instead, consider writing something like your goal is to “advance beyond your current position and earn the respect of your peers”. Can you see how much more information someone can infer about you just by this minor change?

Good luck and I would very much like to hear what you have to say on this matter.

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  • ALEX

    Is it too forward to ask what they think it was about my cv that they thought was worth calling me into an interview? Worded differently though….

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      No – I don’t think it hurts to ask for feedback

  • Ally

    Very informative article in gaining interest during interviews. I was wondering do you have any tips on gauging an employees attention prior to an interview? With the current market where I live, there are very little graduate architect jobs and although I have a well written cover letter, a resume which details my skill level appropriate and targeted to the firm, a folio with my best work (specific to what job entails) as well as references from my current work experience employee, I find it very difficult to gain the attention of firms to get a response from them, or even step it up to gaining an interview. If you have any advice I would really appreciate it!

  • wma

    It’s very difficult for me to wow the interviewer. I’m a very professional and honest person and I think I might seem negative or laid back in interviews no matter how hard I prepare myself. I would appreciate any tips for my coming interviews.

  • Nicole H.

    I was in an interview for an architectural intern position a few months ago. The man interviewing me flipped through my portfolio in 10 seconds and then said “Tell me 5 things about yourself that you want me to remember after this interview.” That question threw me….. I answered with what I thought was unique, but he responded saying “I hope anyone interviewing for this position has those qualities.” When it was time for me to ask questions at the end, I asked him “What 5 things do you want me to remember about your firm?” He was thrown off (and said that I was the only one who had asked him that) and he could only list 4 of the 5. I’m not saying that was the right thing to do, since I didn’t get the job.
    I’m only a 5th year student in the bachelors program for architecture but I feel that the questions should be catered to the conversation you’ve had with the interviewer. It shows you’ve been paying attention and engaged in the conversation.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I think his question to you (and yours summarily back to him) were kind of interesting – although you run the risk of coming of bratty like your throwing his question back in his face, maybe he became embarrassed.

      That’s a hard question but the answer really has more to do with you the person rather than you the worker. My answers might have been (off the top of my head)

      1. I show up on time and work hard.
      2. I am a good communicator.
      3. One of my goals is to have other architects respect my abilities.
      4. I am a designer who thinks how a building gets detailed will make the difference between a good project and a great project.
      5. I like to smoke barbecue, I want to learn how to weld, and I wear my shoes longer than I should.

      How do you think I would have done?

  • Jordan Sharp

    I am currently looking for a job for the summer and i have to say the best part of this post is the “questions to ask” paragraph. genius. It seems so simple when you read it, but in practice it’s fantastic advice. Thankyou, you’ve given me that little bit extra that might make the difference between the job i want and the one i need.

  • Ceci Pipe

    Which begs the question, how important is the game?

    If I have a good interviewer, they’re going to cover my questions, such as what are my specific duties, who I’m reporting to, how much I’m getting paid, when I’m likely to start, how you’re seen in the industry, what your clients think of you, why you’ve made the decisions you have when designing, etc. Which means I blurt out a silly question for the sake of it “Your tie is fuchsia, why?”, or I don’t ask a question.

    So far in my experience asking a question seems to be better than not, but it seems so pointless for me to make up a stupid question just to placate good interviewers. Still if I must be facile in order to be professional then I must, which brings me to the point of this elongated and roundabout inquiry What are your recommended silly questions?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I don’t recommend silly questions – they waste people’s time.

      A funny anecdote is another matter…

      • Ceci Pipe

        Would you accept a funny anecdote in lieu of a question though?

        This is working on the assumption that a position is advertised with the usual detail (duties, location, salary, start date, etc), and that a small amount of information is available about the business such as previous works, clients, etc.

        If you work on a more informal level (cold application, interview, job) then my point is moot.

    • http://twitter.com/DesignWild Tim Hair, ASLA

      You can always ask a personal question about the interviewer’s interests and long-term goals. If it’s an owner of the firm, I’ve had good feedback from questions like “What is your ultimate vision for the firm, in terms of size, impact, and target market?”.

      Just because they own/run the place doesn’t mean they don’t have goals for their job, and I’m willing to bet that nobody else asks them about it with any frequency.

  • yale2012

    This worked for me! Got two job offers in one day after interviews using these techniques.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Fantastic! I try an tell people all the time that I’m not just good looking, I actually know something ;)

  • yasyule

    I have an interview in 3 days time, not feeling so nervous about it as I have been to quite a lot of interviews since graduation last year and I always learn something new each time. I am familiar with the firm who have invited me, even before I did some research on their website, so hopefully I’ll give off the impression that it is THEM I am interested in and not just for the sake of being employed in an architecture office. It’s nice to refresh on tips again, so thanks for this article and I shall take your points into account.

    • Kenshiro

      What do you think are some of the most important things you have learned from your interview experiences? I have one this week and would love to hear your thoughts!

      Cheers

  • Grace

    Great post! I did notice that you followed the trend of providing appropriate wardrobe pointers only to the men seeking employment in the architectural field. It’s less simple for young women. The decisions that have to be made, from height of heels to shade of lipstick, can cause a nervous breakdown before even walking out the door for an interview. What are your thoughts and observations about appropriate attire for young women? Does the standard follow the norm of the business field? Is there more room for expression of personality as a designer?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Since I am a man, I tend to avoid giving wardrobe pointers to women. That having been said, as long as you show up looking dressed somewhere between a cocktail party and church, you should be fine.

      Your clothes can be part of your personal billboard and you can treat it as such, just avoid going too far in any one direction.

      • http://www.facebook.com/theresa.hassell.jones Theresa Hassell Jones

        In my experience, I usually lean towards a similar dress code as you described for men….a nice suit….even those can denote personality with women’s clothing. Dresses/skirts have always seemed inappropriate for the obvious reason that legs could be distracting from the purpose of the interview and if you consider the position you are seeking, dresses on a jobsite would be inappropriate.

  • Frank

    Thanks for the advice Bob. I’m going back into the professional realm after several years in a Master’s program. The firm I’m interviewing with works in a completely different sector of the market than what I have experience in and what I would prefer to work in, truthfully. Without lying completely, how do I come across excited about their line of work?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      try not to lie – that will always come back and burn you. You can be excited about the challenges, getting to work with new people, learning new things, becoming a better [fill in the blank] etc.

      Be yourself and stress the positive – that’s actually good life advice so it should work for you as job advice.

      Cheers and good luck!

  • ballofnerves

    Great tips and advice, read this last night before my interview this morning. I felt confident knowing it was me interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me. It went well, although I was nervous. They were impressed that I had an active interest in the direction of their company and how both our goals for the future could align. I would say just, breathe, smile and remember to be yourself!

  • Dleger23

    Wow! Thank you, Bob! I’m a newcomer to your blog, but i see the pains of up-and-coming architect’s resumes. My advice? Wherever you interview….don’t be intimidated by the person you are meeting with. Even if they are “Starchitects” They are your peers, and they are people you can learn from, and potentially teach a thing or two as well.
    What you are passing on is the education of the future innovators of our field. I believe the true job of an architect is not to paint his name across a masterpiece, but to pass his knowledge along to the next generation. If you’re doing it right, acknowledgement will come along with that.  

  • architectrunnerguy

    Great post Bob.

    Like you I’ve always looked on the relationship a job creates between employer and employee as a two way street. When I was stting on the interviewee side of the table I always asked a bunch of questions and for the 19 years I sat on the interviewer side of the table, a prospect asking questions always impressed me, particuliarly ones who asked to have a tour of the office or a list of local projects they could visit (Example: “Have you heard of the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art? Well it’s open all the time. Go there and you find the book kiosk we designed in the giftshop!!!!”).

    And another big DO on the list is BE SURE YOUR CELL PHONE IS TURNED OFF!!

    Regarding reumes, an interesting side bar is should one list personal activities? This was recent a topic on one of my running forums and opinions seemed evenly split, both among employers and employees. I think a one word description (ie: Interests: Running, photography) says “I’m not one dimensional” but doesn’t have to go anywhere during the interview while at the same time just may pique interest from the interviewer and a common interest can’t hurt. (Hell, the guy had a terrible portfolio but he can do a sub 36 minute 10K!!)Anyway, it was interesting hearing all the different viewpoints in that regard.

    Doug

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I am a fan of the personal activities section simply because I can learn something about that person. I should write a post on resumes – thanks for the idea!

  • Mike

    First I want to say that I just recently discovered your blog and I have really enjoyed reading your posts – I find them to be very insightful/helpful and amusing. So thank you!

    I’m currently a 3rd year student (in a 5 year B.Arch at Virginia Tech) and getting ready to send my resume and portfolio to firms in search of internship opportunities for this upcoming summer. I was wondering if you could provide any advice/suggestions as to how best I should go about doing this, especially considering the current market and that not everyone is looking for interns. Also, as I am still a student and do not yet have a degree would it be appropriate to include information from high school in my resume? I have been advised both to keep it and remove it so I am curious to know what those in the field would prefer to see.

  • Liz

    i have a lot of questions i want to ask at an upcomming interview– is bringing a list and taking notes ok?

    • Anonymous

      I would think that taking notes during an interview wold be acceptable but try and keep it to a minimum. I asssume you would think it would show how awesome and prepared you are – not to mention how seriously you are taking the interview – but in this case it’s a fine line.

      First, take the time to memorize the questions you want to ask – that speaks to being prepared. Secondly, I always think when people are taking copius amounts of notes they aren’t really hearing what is being said – rather they are recording it for later. Taking notes will interrupt the natural ebb and flow that a good interview will have so keep it to a minimum.

  • bobborson

    Annabel,

    Not only would it be appropriate, I would recommend it. It is polite but it demonstrates a few personal character traits that most employers would be happy to have in an employee, (diligence, follow-through, attention to details, etc.).

  • Annabel Ward

    Would it be appropriate to send a 'thank you for interviewing me' email afterwards, before they've announced who has got the job?'

    Thanks

  • http://www.idinterns.com Dominique

    I’m really glad I came across this article through Young Architect’s Facebook Page, I have an interview with a small design firm next week and these are great tips; especially the advice to convey to your potential employer that you’re goal oriented opposed to just task oriented.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Dominique,
      All other things aside. this is a big deal. Every employer wants to hire someone who’s goal align with theirs. You want to be a motivated employee and they want to have a motivated employee. This was a secret of mine for years, and it always worked out very well for me.

      Good Luck and let me know how things go,
      Bob

  • http://www.idinterns.com/ Dominique

    I’m really glad I came across this article through Young Architect’s Facebook Page, I have an interview with a small design firm next week and these are great tips; especially the advice to convey to your potential employer that you’re goal oriented opposed to just task oriented.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/ Bob Borson

      Dominique,
      All other things aside. this is a big deal. Every employer wants to hire someone who’s goal align with theirs. You want to be a motivated employee and they want to have a motivated employee. This was a secret of mine for years, and it always worked out very well for me.

      Good Luck and let me know how things go,
      Bob

  • su

    well said, very appropriate point to consider,thank you for that.

  • su

    well said, very appropriate point to consider,thank you for that.