This is a guest post by Trevor Stoimenoff for Student Stories.
Grand Ledge, Michigan is, as you might have guessed, not the most “happening” place in the country. The talk of the town was either, “boy, the corn is growing fast this year”, or, “how ’bout them Lions?”, and students (yes, plural) drove tractors to my senior prom. Growing up here, and not having the opportunity to travel very far, prevented me from gaining any perspective on what the world around me was like. When I was accepted to Northwestern University as a pre-med student, I felt as if I was unprepared, but ready for the new experience.
So, fast forward to the beginning of my freshman year of college. I had moved in and was eager to hear back from the various jobs I had applied for which were, as a pre-med student, research assistant positions. I got called in for three interviews, and I, as a delusional and naïve freshman, was confident that I would be offered at least one of them.
My first interview came, and it was going great – until the question came up. The question that I was not prepared to answer in the slightest. The interviewer asked, “What previous experience do you have with this type of work?” I completely froze. I had prepared myself for the toughest questions I could think of, I had run over every scenario that I could’ve faced, but I hadn’t equipped myself with an answer for this question. Needless to say, I didn’t get any of the research positions that I applied for, and that question haunted me for the rest of the year.
I know there are others like me that come from a similar situation – a high school that offered very few challenging classes and lacked career-relevant opportunities, a community that did not value academics, a town that saw less than five students every year attend an out-of-state college. Find comfort in the fact that you are not alone. For the rest of my freshman year, I cowered away from potentially rewarding opportunities because I was under the impression that everybody’s backgrounds were far more impressive than mine, that I didn’t have a chance of finding any type of job because there was always somebody better than me – this isn’t true. If you take time to look around and meet new people, you will see that there are other students who come from similar backgrounds. Eventually, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I did get a research position, so there is hope for everybody.
It took me a year to figure it out, but I finally understood that having no experience is okay. Going into the interview of the job that I eventually landed, I expected the question to arise, and here is exactly how I answered it:
“I don’t have any research experience, but I’m an extremely driven and ambitious person, and I’m more than willing to work hard to learn the necessary skills to succeed in your research group. I did work in my family’s small bakery for 4 years, which helped me build excellent communication skills and organizational abilities, so I do have experience working in a setting where every day at work was different and I never knew what to expect.” In more generic terms, I immediately acknowledged that I had no research experience, and I then turned the question into what I wanted it to be by stating what my general qualifications were and how I intended to succeed in the job. It turned out well, as I got the job and am even doing independent research this summer through my research group.
The important thing to remember is that everybody has different backgrounds and unique specialties and interests – and interviewers realize this. I didn’t understand that during my interviews freshman year; I tried fooling myself, and fooling the interviewer, instead of being completely honest and upfront about my background and intentions.
Ultimately, if you show your true self to the interviewer, don’t hide anything, and make them understand that you can and will be successful within their company or group, experience is just gravy.
After my initial rejections, I was afraid to seek out more opportunities, and it took me a full year until I finally did. Don’t be me. Your background might be different than what you think an ideal job candidate’s is, or you might think you lack experience, but in the end, you have to embrace what your life has given you and the path that you have taken, and run with it. I have come to understand that being personable is the most important aspect of an interview. Companies will hire the candidate that they feel they connected with during their interview, so embrace your own personality, background and goals, and make the interviewer get to know the real you – it will pay off in the end.
My name is Trevor Stoimenoff. I’m 20 years old, from a small town called Grand Ledge, in mid-Michigan. I’m currently a sophomore at Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!) majoring in Biology and on the pre-med track. Feel free to follow me on Twitter or Instagram (tstoim).