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In-Depth Review: Coursera’s Interviewing and Resume Writing in English Specialization

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“Fortune favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

Few events in your life can change it as much as a job interview can. Getting prepared for such a chance is essential to put all chances on your side. Yet, so many people just fail to consider this task as seriously as they should… and thus end up missing key opportunities. If you do not want to be one of them, register to the “Interviewing and Resume Writing in English” Specialization, offered by the University of Maryland, on the Coursera platform. If you are in the process of looking for a job, do it… TODAY!

“The future depends on what you do today.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
 

BACKGROUND

I work as a research engineer, for a big company, in France, in the field of “Science & Technology”, and my laboratory recently opened a position for which we started interviewing applicants. As a member of the team the position was opened to work with, I was involved in the early phase of the interviewing process. I was just appalled to see how unprepared the applicants were: those we interviewed made mistake after mistake… and mostly contributed to clearing the way for the guy we eventually recruited.

Because we have interns and PhD students in the lab, who will soon have to search for their first job, I found that it might be worth having a look at the MOOC offer on the topic “Preparing for Job Interviews”, in order to see what advice I could provide for them to get prepared for this key step in building their career. I registered to the “Interviewing and Resume Writing in English” Specialization, as an auditor, and started browsing through its video lectures and accompanying documents. I just got caught in right away!

I realized that, if the job applicants we had interviewed in my lab had taken this remarkable specialization prior to their interviews, this could have saved them so many basic mistakes. If you never had the opportunity to reflect on what a job interview process is, and are applying for job interviews, just give it a try: I bet you will benefit from this experience a lot… and it might simply change your life!

THE PROFESSOR

The specialization is coordinated by Charles Duquette, who gives most of the lectures: primarily those relating to the “theory” side of the interviewing process. The rest is taught by Daniela Wagner-Loera and John Geense, who mostly cover the “practice” side of the interviewing process, through illustrative interviewing simulations, which they debrief step by step. All of them do a great job!

SPECIALIZATION OVERVIEW

The “Interviewing and Resume Writing in English” Specialization has been proposed in the self-paced format since the beginning of this year.

It consists of four five-week Courses and a Capstone Project, which can be taken independently, although the successive courses are designed in a progressive way, to introduce concepts and propose practice exercises which are probably best coped with if considered according to the prescribed sequence.

In order to allow students to participate without the penalty of having to catch up with a tight schedule, or simply have to wait for months before they can benefit from the certification process, the specialization is run in sessions launched every three weeks, for each of its four courses. The last part of the specialization, which is a capstone project should run only about four times a year.

Lectures and supporting documents are accessible for free, but participating to most assignments (which are based on peer evaluation) requires than you register as a paying student: 80$ per course.

The specialization consists of four courses
Interview Research and Preparation
Successful Interviewing
Advanced Interviewing Techniques
• “Writing Winning Resumes and Cover Letters
and a capstone project.

COURSE BY COURSE

“Find out what you like doing best, and get someone to pay you for it.” – Katharine Whitehorn 

The first course covers the interview preparation phase, which it addresses in two independent parts.

The first part (two weeks) could be summarized by the ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself”. It emphasizes the critical importance of identifying who you are and “what you have to sell” prior to “jumping into the interview pool”.

The lectures and the related practice tools are first targeted at helping you recognize your interests/goals/expectations and your personality/strengths. Then, the lectures move on to the basic strategy to sell yourself, by using what you just learned to build a Story File.

The Story File concept is key to the rest of the specialization, and is best summarized by Charles Duquette through the saying “Facts tell, but stories sell”. The idea is simply to teach you how to communicate your skills and competencies through some storytelling derived from a synthesis of your professional and personal experience: not the least of the challenges, considering that communication skills rank at the very top of the list of the ten most wanted skills in the professional environment.

Although not exclusively so, the “Interviewing and Resume Writing in English” Specialization is primarily targeted at non-English students looking for the opportunity to work in an English-speaking professional environment. As such, it proposes, as a valuable bonus, some teaching on important features of both the English language and the English culture, through a few dedicated modules (the last two weeks of the first course) as well as through some short sections integrated in general lectures (in the following courses). This part can be skipped if you are quite familiar with English, but it is really useful if you have any doubt on your communication skills in English.

The next two courses cover the interview phase itself.

The lectures successively cover “theoretical” aspects (general information that structure preparing and conducting a job interview) and “practical” aspects (applied techniques to put the theory into practice). They emphasize key issues, for which my own recent experience of interviewing job applicants taught me that they play a critical role in deciding of the interview outcome.

The first such issue is about proving that you did not apply for the opened position “just by chance”. An interviewer will expect you to you show some genuine interest for the job, the team, the company… In order to meet his/her expectations, you need to do some research ahead of the interview, to build some convincing story, by combining items from your storyfile that relate to the interviewer’s interests. In my recent experience, I was truly amazed to see how disastrous it felt to interview persons who did not know about the company they applied to work for, persons who never asked any question about its projects, persons who showed no interest whatsoever for its values and organization… The course teaches precisely how to avoid such pitfalls, and although this might seem like stating the obvious, be sure that it is not as easy as it may look.

The second big issue, covered at large by courses 2 & 3, is how to handle traditional interview questions (such as “Tell me about yourself”, the salary question, or reviewing your weaknesses, for instance), and how to prepare specific pieces of speech that cannot be improvised on the spot. You will realize, through the illustrative mock-up interview sequences performed by John Geense (and debriefed together with Daniela Wagner-Loera), that this task is far from trivial. You will understand that it is not just what you say that matters, but also (and possibly mostly) how you say it. You will learn about qualities that most influence interviewers… and much more!

These two critical learning outcomes, which are covered by course 2, are further discussed through course 3, which reviews, at some advanced level, a variety of different interview types and some methods that are used to deal with them.

The last course covers the pre-interview phase dedicated to writing resumes and cover letters, which are critical to get an interview.

It might seem surprising not to start there, and students who are under a tight schedule could benefit from taking this fourth course before the second and third courses, but I would not recommend taking it ahead of the first course of the specialization, in any case.

At this stage, things run quite smoothly (particularly if you have already taken the first three courses), and I must confess that I only lightly browsed through this part. Enough to note that it relevantly covers essential items to get you an interview, though.

My personal experience is that students tend to deal with this part better than with the rest of the interview process. Yet, the most recent instance I can refer to clearly showed that the best candidate (whom we hired for the position offered in my lab) was nearly decisively showing as such at the stage when we explored resumes & cover letters. So, this part of the course must be taken seriously too, by anyone who does not want to bet on chance to “open the gates of the interview realm”.

GRADING

Since I did not register as a paying student, I did not participate in any of the peer assessed assignments. So, I cannot comment neither on the grading process nor on the interest of the assignments. I just expect that the practice opportunity they offer can be quite profitable. However, I am not sure I would personally rely on a peer-review process to prepare for such a challenge as a job interview.

COMMITMENT

The time commitment for the specialization depends on how deep you go into the proposed material, of course.

A simple overview, like just watching the video lectures and browsing through the supporting documents, requires only about one hour per week: this is basically what I did. This “theory-only” level is a small investment that will undoubtedly prove very rewarding for those who are new to the “job” of preparing for job interviews.

However, although this minimal commitment is certainly sufficient to avoid the most basic mistakes (that so many inexperienced applicants make without even realizing it), I would recommend to anyone who is truly committed to getting the best of their job opportunities to step up to the “theory-and-practice” level, which probably requires at least three hours per week, and possibly more if one actively participates in all peer-assessed assignments.

Never forget that practice is the basis for proficiency. As Charles Duquette states it in one of his lectures, quoting Erich Fromm: “Without effort we cannot attain any of our goals in life, no matter what the advertisements may claim to the contrary. Anyone who fears effort… will never get anywhere.” If you want to take the most out of this course, you will have to put its teaching into practice: building a solid story file and being able to navigate the various types of interviews will require some significant effort on your part… and failing to anticipate this task ahead of the interviews will undoubtedly prove a mistake.

FORUMS

The main weakness I noted about this course is that its forum is not much active. This is a side effect of the recent platform evolution made by Coursera, I think. You only have access to the forum of the session for which you are registered, on the one hand, and the course team is probably less involved (if any) in monitoring the forum of a self-paced course (that is offered on a continuous basis) than for a course that runs for time-limited sessions (once or twice a year), on the other hand. So, do not expect much help from the forum… unless maybe if you register as a paying participant who can benefit from some feedback through peer-assessed assignments.

SUCCESS

Whether you take it thoroughly or only browse through some of its lectures, this specialization can truly change your life. If you are in the position of applying for a job that really matters for you, but represents a challenge (because of the competition you may face, for instance), you will most likely benefit from the strategy taught through its courses. It offers plenty of useful recommendations and a multitude of opportunities to practice. Give it a try, and see for yourself: I am quite sure that the first taste will only make you more hungry!

CONCLUSION

The best way to advocate for this specialization, maybe, is to mention the experience of a former colleague, who worked for my lab (as a temp) for a year, applied for the opened positioned I referred to earlier, performed quite poorly in the interviews (despite his knowledge of our activities and his personal qualities), and ended up missing a job opportunity that clearly was at his reach. His failure saddened me and led me to taking this specialization, which I recommended to him. He dived into it, with the hope that it would help him handle subsequent applications more successfully. He was not disappointed. He enjoyed the courses. He put them into practice. As he progressed through the lectures, he was able to get several interviews; significantly more easily than through his previous attempts. Today, a couple of months after his setback with us, he is in the position to choose between several interesting job offers.

Maxime Zabiégo is French, 48, married and father of 2 kids. He works as a Research Engineer. He discovered MOOCs in 2014 and has been passionate about them since then.