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Just like in sports, preparation is key to a successful job interview

Sam Roworth, a former international-level athlete, chronicles the trials and tribulations of his hunt for an entry-level sales position in Canada. College graduates are struggling to find suitable full-time work.

Part Four

I was outside an office building in downtown Toronto, but my head was in a boat in Georgia. I was about to interview for a job in the dead of winter but my mind was reliving Olympic trials last spring.

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It was time to perform and all I could think about was the last time I felt the churning burn of anxiety and nerves, sitting in my two-person kayak, attempting to fulfill a dream.

I reminded myself that I was ready, that I had prepared for this. Different circumstances, but the same drive and determination. Different dream, but the same commitment to doing my best.

Having worked with my career coach, for several weeks, overhauling my resume and LinkedIn profile, creating a top-30 list of desirable companies and relying on my network to get me a face-to-face meeting, I had the tools to succeed and now it was up to me to perform.

I was already seeing the results of my hard work. In six months of job hunting on my own, I had secured only two interviews through online applications. Within two weeks of implementing the Launched Careers strategy to network my way into informational meetings, I had three.

I discovered that the people I had been connecting with wanted to help me, I simply needed to know what to ask them for. It was only after working through the process that I started to feel the momentum shift.

The majority of my networking was through introduction by a mutual contact. Having done my research, and equipped with the knowledge of why I was interested in a specific company, it was easy for me to explain where our values aligned and what I could bring to the organization.

The relationship-building process didn't move as quickly as I wanted, but it was important to show patience. My objective was to build trust during these coffee chats and have any new contact refer me into their network, ultimately to someone who was in a position to hire me.

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I am used to hearing the old adage, "It's who you know, not what you know." But you need both. Eighty per cent of career opportunities get filled through networking or referrals. It is an uphill battle, solely relying on your resume to get through automated screening systems and recruiters to get a call from a hiring manager.

As I began to get e-mails requesting my availability for initial phone interviews, I knew I was ready for the next step of the program – interview preparation. Together, Peter Caven and I worked on the structure of my answers, and how to use storytelling to get my experience across in an engaging, succinct way.

The recurring theme here was the same as in sport – preparation is key to success. We conducted some practice interviews to prepare me for phone interviews, focusing on basic questions that are commonly asked, and how to link my experience to the role in question. The goal was to paint a picture for the interviewer illustrating how I could succeed in the role.

After each phone interview, I would debrief with Mr. Caven. A strong first call coupled with a referral was usually enough to secure an in-person interview.

The preparation continued, as we focused on which past experiences would be best to highlight for different behavioural questions. This was not an exercise in scripting answers, but in organizing facts. The answer structure used is called STAR (situation/task, actions, result).

To expose my strengths and weaknesses, and to provide practice, Mr. Caven organized a mock interview with a colleague. We used the job ad for a role I was pursuing and videotaped the practice in order to score and analyze how I performed.

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We reviewed the tape and discussed where I should focus my energy before my real interview. Days later, we received the scored report, which reaffirmed our analysis and provided suggestions on ways to improve. I refined my answers and prepared questions to ask interviewers.

On the morning of the interview, my mind was racing and my stomach was full of butterflies. The preparation done, it was time to perform. My thoughts raced back to my last major one-shot performance at Olympic trials, when my doubles partner and I underperformed in the final selection race and came up short.

I could still feel the wave of emotions following the final stroke of that race, the disappointment in failing to achieve my goal, while at the same time having a sense of calm that we persevered and never gave up. I reminded myself of that as I walked through the front doors of the office to greet the receptionist.

Editor's note: According to Statistics Canada, between 2014 and 2016 the rate of full-time employment for men aged 17 to 24 was 59 per cent for men and 49 per cent for women. In 2015, according to the federal government's 2015 Labour Market Assessment, 40 per cent of university graduates were underemployed, and 66 per cent of parents were supporting adult children financially, according to a CIBC poll.

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