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posted: 10/21/2012 7:43 AM

Work advice: A modest mouse gets no cheese

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Q: I am a new college graduate, and I have been bombing interviews. I have studied manuals on answering standard interview questions, but I am modest about my skills and capabilities. This leads employers to think I won't be able to do the job. Are you supposed to be "dishonest" even if you are freaking out about whether you can perform the job? I am tired of getting rejected for entry-level jobs because employers think I don't have enough experience!

A: Dishonest is saying that you're skilled at aeronautical design because you can build model planes from pre-cut balsa wood. Don't invent degrees or skills you don't have -- but don't discount the ones you do have, either.

Maybe you struggle when employers ask you to rate yourself using subjective measures. For example, are your skills "superior" (too arrogant) or "adequate" (buh-bye)? If describing yourself in those terms troubles you, try to anticipate what skills are essential to a particular job, and think of specific tasks you've done -- for pay, as a volunteer, in class -- that demonstrate those abilities. For example, if you're asked about your word-processing expertise, describe how you've produced newsletters or designed your own macros to automate routine formatting tasks. That gives the interviewer a concrete idea of your expertise.

If you want to get better at spinning your skills, put down the manuals and ask a friend or mentor to bounce practice questions off you. If you haven't already, take advantage of your alma mater's career center for guidance on presenting your best self in your resumes, in your cover letters and in person. Attend networking events that let you practice your pitch with strangers who aren't subjecting you to an up-or-down vote. (Bonus: Those events can sometimes lead to better jobs than the traditional application/interview process.)

Now, let's address your freaking out about whether you will be able to do a job you haven't even landed yet.

Employers just want the best bang for their buck, and job descriptions are usually their (not always realistic) wish list. They don't expect you to know everything on Day 1 or 14 or even 366. You will stumble. You may occasionally feel like an oxygen-wasting idiot who should be fired on the spot. Keep those thoughts to yourself. The important thing is that you are enthusiastic, committed and always trying to improve. Trust that you can do the job, because you can.

If hope is a feathered thing perching in the soul, insecurity is the warty lump in your stomach croaking, "I stink . . . I stink. . . . " Squash it down until you finish the interview and can drown it in cheap beer.

Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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