Junior High Students Get Jump Start on Real-World Interview Skills

By Brandi Makuski

Mid-State saw an unusual brand of student roaming its halls on Friday — a group of young teens from Ben Franklin Jr. High, clad in business attire.

Seventeen students from the school’s College & Career Readiness class were on site Jan. 5 for mock interviews with one of several local companies. For most, it was their first interview ever, and organizers say the experience was designed to be realistic, as well as a little nerve-wracking.

“Even though they’ve been preparing for weeks, I don’t think they knew what to expect when they came into the interviews,” said teacher Art Greco. “I’m really stern about those basic concepts of expectations: how you introduce yourself, how you communicate and dress, and tie those components into how to be ready for college and careers.”

The event was sponsored by the Portage Co. Business Council, with participation from Skyward, AIG, Land’s End, Donaldson Company, CoVantage Credit Union, several local employment agencies, Mid-State and Great Lakes Educational Loan Services.

“I guess the communication is the biggest thing I got from this,” said Abby Orley, 13. “Just making sure you say the correct things, that you say them the right way, and that you don’t say ‘um’ a lot.”

Orley said she plans to become an orthopedic surgeon someday, and taking Greco’s class was a good introduction to the stress involved in preparing for an interview.

“Just making sure our resume and everything was printed out, and having to make sure it was perfect,” she said. “Mr. Greco wanted us to ask him questions in class about making sure we were prepared, and that made us kind of nervous too, trying to think of what to ask.”

Kayden Brooks, who turns 14 later this month, is no stranger to Greco’s classroom. He took the teacher’s World of Business class last year, and participated with 12 other junior high students in raising $10,000 — in one day — during a summer program run by Greco that reimbursed the Village of Plover for repairs to its 9/11 Memorial.

Brooks said the summertime experience opened his eyes to effective interaction in the business world, and yielded him a letter of recommendation from State Senator Patrick Testin.

“It’s like nothing else,” Brooks said. “You’re getting to experience a real interview, learning what it’s going to be like in the real world…you have to sit up straight, make eye contact, if you want someone to take you seriously. Not just in an interview, but also in everyday life.”

Interviewers say they were impressed.

“Honestly, they did better than some of the interviews I’ve had over at work,” said Derek Wolosek, a supervisor at Great Lakes. “What we look for is being dressed appropriate, posture, making eye contact, speaking confidently…having specific answers is important too, not just having general answers; someone ambitious and engaged.”

Wolosek said more often than he would like, he has interviewed adult applicants who arrived wearing ripped blue jeans — he even remembers one individual who showed up wearing pajama pants.

Greco (left) helps organize the event with Kayla Rombalski. (Metro Wire photo)

“That doesn’t look very good, no matter how good your resume is,” Wolosek said, chuckling. “But I wish I had this opportunity when I as younger, because it helps you know what to expect, it helps with the nerves.”

Students participated in two rounds of interviews: the first with questions students were prepared for in advance; and the second round, which Greco called a “no-holds-barred” interview.

“That first round of interviews, they kind of knew what questions to expect,” Greco said. “That was designed for students to gain a little bit of confidence. But that second round, interview questions were all over the map, so it threw the students off a bit — but they had that confidence from the first round to kind of stand on.”

While Greco’s class is an elective, business leaders say the class appears to offer lessons that would be helpful to all students in the district.

“Most students this age have no interview experience,” said Kayla Rombalski, Director of Talent Development for the Portage Co. Business Council. “But when they come from classes like this, the businesses are often blown away with how prepared they are.”

Rombalski said the PCBC has similar mock interviews scheduled for high school students at the Stevens Point Christian Academy, and has reality-based exercises scheduled for high schoolers from SPASH, Amherst and Rosholt.

“We’re open to doing this for other schools if we’re approached,” she said, adding as more students participate in the classes, the more local teachers can help “chip away at those soft skills issues” local employers say young applicants often lack.

“Because this is an elective course, these students want to be here and focus on bettering themselves, and I think that’s important to remember, there’s an attitude that ‘this will help me’ that the general population of students doesn’t always have,” Rombalski said.