I know what you're thinking: "What exactly do you get out of a job interview unless it's a job?"
But a hiring manager holds a lot more besides an offer of employment. It's all a matter of knowing what to ask and where to look.
Here are a few ways to get the absolute most you can out of a job interview:
1. Bring out your inner private eye
The first trick comes before you even reach out to a company. Keep your ear to the ground. Yes, of course you should do the cursory research for that awesome startup gig. But this is about taking what you normally do just a step further.
Don't just glaze over the company's website or press releases. Google the bigwigs by name. See where they've been and what they've written or created, if applicable. Read the local news where the company is based. You may find out about their expansion way before those job postings go up—and then, you'll be first in line.
Also, this gives you an idea of the job landscape in the surrounding area. Imagine Company A is looking for a product designer. If they're in a market epicenter, chances are higher that Companies B and C have product design needs as well.
2. Search for job postings before they even exist
When hunting for jobs, candidates usually look for openings on career pages and open positions on job boards. But instead of searching for titles and positions that companies already have, search for what they don't have. Try to fill in the gaps.
Maybe an organization is starting a new mobile campaign or is putting together a nonprofit project for the next year. (Now you see why the first step was important!) Even if they haven't posted open positions yet, you know exactly what they'll need: community managers, developers, event coordinators and more.
3. Find out what's in it for you
So you've snagged an interview, and your prospects look good. Great! You already know to dress professionally, arrive on time, check your breath and be prepared for those sticky questions about your weaknesses. You've got this. You know you should ask questions, but what questions? And when?
Aim for interview questions about the company culture, but focus more on the educational side than the dress code. Ask what kinds of internal training and enrichment programs they provide.
If the interviewer is at a loss (they don't get this question very often, unfortunately), be helpful and give them examples such as software training or mentorship programs. This tells you what track the company is following. If they're aggressive about in-house training, you know they take employee retention seriously.
If you think a skill set you want to acquire is in line with the company's specific industry, be more concrete and tell them, "I want to learn __________ within five years." (Yes, include a timeline.) In turn, express how you would be proactive within the office environment and share your talents with the team.
Besides the great impression this leaves with an employer, it puts you in a good position to make a personal connection with the interviewer. Y'know, just in case this particular opportunity doesn't pan out.
4. Reach out and connect with someone
At the end of the interview, ask if it's alright to connect with the interviewer on social media, as well as anyone else you may have spoken with during your time there. The idea behind this is to cement the employer's image of you so you won't blend into the pack of hundreds of other prospective hires.
Also, if you don't get hired, don't be sad; after the interview process has run its course, you can reach out to these people knowing they have a solid idea of what you're looking for and can kindly direct you to another opportunity. Be careful not to bug them about their connections at other companies, and only approach them if you know you're no longer being considered at their organization.
Remember, be tactful. And if they decline, don't push the issue. The person on the other side of that table is not just an HR manager. They are also human. Treat them as such, and you'll see results.
Well, now the interview is over. But instead of coming out on the other side simply sending thank you notes and waiting for the phone to ring, you have a better idea of the market than you did at the outset of your search. You have a more fleshed-out idea of what you want in an employer. And you have valuable connections that will follow you wherever your search takes you. Not bad for just one interview!
How else can job hunters make the interview process more rewarding?
Kim Gillus is a New York-based creative whose only true area of expertise is her rural Virginia hometown. She splits her time between social good PR projects and working on her first book. Find her at her tumblr and @kimgillus.