Employment Interview Preparation: A Writing-to-Learn Approach
Best Practices in Preparing Students for Mock Interviews
5,505 words with tables/target word count = 4,000
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Submitted: Feb. XX, 2008
Gary C. Oliphant
Associate Professor of Information Sciences
Becky J. Oliphant
Associate Professor of Marketing
Randall S. Hansen
Professor of Marketing
Previous studies have show the importance of employment-interview preparation in boosting the
confidence of students and job-seekers when they interview. What is not known – and is the focus of this
study – is which interview-preparation techniques best prepare interviewees. Results and implications
from a survey of 9 business communication classes are discussed.
College instructors seeking to prepare their students for success in employment interviews use various
methods, including, for example, mock interviews. In this study, we asked students which activities within and
simultaneous with a business communication class had best prepared them for the class’s mock-interview activity.
In addition, we offer descriptions of activities used to prepare students for mock interviews, as well as details
about the mock-interview activity.
Review of the Literature
This literature review examines employment interviews, employment-interview preparation techniques,
the relationship between preparation techniques (including training and coaching interventions), and the practice
of using mock interviews in the curriculum of business communication and related classes.
The employment interview, which according to Posthuma, Morgeson, and Campion, “continues to be one
of the most popular selection and recruiting devices in organizations” (2002), and which is intended to “predict
the future job success of applicants” (Dipboye & Gauglar, 1993, p. 136) is the subject of increasing research
interest (Posthuma, Morgeson, & Campion, 2002); in fact, Gilmore, Stevens, Harrell-Cook, and Ferris (1999, p.
321) assert that the employment interview is “one of the most thoroughly researched topics in human resource
Palmer, Campion, and Green (1999) note that a great deal of proprietary training information is extant on
interviewing preparation but is not available to the public (p. 338). Research by Perry and Goldberg (1998)
suggests that interview preparation is important because their study showed that when recruiters were asked about
college students they interviewed, interviewing skills surpassed the students’ background or experience in
recruiter assessments of the likelihood that their companies would consider hiring a given student. We can then
speculate that students who have better interview skills than others may have dedicated more effort to interview
preparation than others.
Most scholarly research on employment-interview preparation has been limited to narrowly defined and
limited populations (Palmer, Campion, & Green, 1999). These authors also point out that a great portion of the
scholarly research discusses improving various interview behaviors without empirically testing whether these
improved behaviors result in successful interview outcomes. Outside of scholarly literature, numerous popular-
press volumes on job-interviewing and general job-hunting offer advice on interview preparation. Palmer,
Campion, and Green (1999) observe that many job-seekers rely on these “how-to” books to prepare themselves
Most popular-press authors (e.g., Medley, 1993, Martin, 2004) agree that few interviewees prepare
adequately for interviews. Barone and Switzer (1995) go so far as to note that, while college students spend in
excess of 4,000 hours studying and attending class to prepare for their career, the average interviewee spends less
than an hour preparing for a job interview. Authors of popular-press books also agree on the reason for the lack of
preparation – job-seekers have no idea what questions will be asked in interviews, so they assume there is no way
to prepare. Finally, popular-press authors agree that this typical job-seeker rationale for lack of preparation is
faulty because interview questions – or at least general areas of interview questions – actually can be predicted to
some degree, and lists of frequently asked interview questions are available in any number of books, articles, and
on numerous Web sites. Richard Bolles (2007), author of job-hunting perennial bestseller, What Color is Your
Parachute?, in fact, asserts that all interview questions spin off from just five basic areas of inquiry.
Agreeing that it is impossible to predict exactly what questions a given interviewer will ask of a job-
seeker, Carole Martin (2004, p. 121) nevertheless notes that “the secret to success in any interview is
preparation.” Barone and Switzer agree that “preparation is essential in order to interview effectively” (1995, p.
213). Washington (1995) points out that since so few job-seekers prepare for interviews, those who do will “gain
a real edge over others through preparation” (p. 109).
Numerous authors, both scholarly and popular press (e.g., Levine, n.d.; Barone & Switzer, 1995), suggest
that job-seekers review lists of typical questions to gain an idea of what types of information the interviewer
likely seeks. Barone and Switzer further suggest that would-be interviewees “organize their thoughts about what
information is important to share” (1995, p. 224). The authors then recommend that the candidate “consider
possible answers to possible questions.” Washington (1995, p. 7) advises the job-seeker to “jot down” the points
he or she wishes to make in response to typical questions. Similarly, Barbour et al (1995, p. 55) suggest
developing a list of what characteristics might be needed for success in the position for which the job-seeker is
Both the scholarly literature and popular-press work contain examples of advice that prospective
interviewees should engage in writing exercises to prepare for job interviews. Among these is the
recommendation of H. Anthony Medley (1993, p. 19), author of one of the earliest popular-press books devoted
solely to interviewing, who suggests that the job-seeker prior to interviewing write an autobiography, which can
provide insight into the candidate, as well as reveal areas that he or she may not wish to discuss with an
interviewer. Crosby (2000) similarly suggests that that candidates practice describing themselves, citing
professional characteristics with examples from school and work experience.
Karl Smart (2004) describes a technique in which college students are assigned to write “detailed proof
statements” (p. 202) about themselves. Equating these statements to “30-second commercials about themselves”
(p. 202), Smart describes them as statements that provide specific examples that demonstrate that students possess
the skills needed to perform jobs they would consider applying for. Smart suggests that polished “proof
statements” can provide potent fodder for such typical interview questions as “Tell me about yourself” and “Tell
me about one of your strengths” (p. 204).
Washington (1995) suggests as preparation for interviewing some detailed writing exercises – involving
identifying about 30 accomplishments and writing 100-400 words on the top 12 of these, and then isolating skills
demonstrated by each accomplishment (p. 198-202).
Rehearsal, Practice, and Mock Interviews
Rehearsal is frequently mentioned in advice about employment-interview preparation, particularly in
support of rehearsal’s positive effect on the interviewee’s self-assurance. Crosby (2000) notes that interviewers
themselves suggest that prospective interviewees rehearse interviews with a career counselor or friend “to gain
confidence and poise.” Seitz and Cohen (1992) write that “through mental rehearsal, job seekers can practice
interviews with a successful outcome until the unconscious mind believes it has already happened.” The
anonymous article, “Winning the battle of the nerves” (2003), also notes the confidence-boosting effect of
rehearsal: “… if you practice responses to interview questions you think you’ll be asked, you’ll feel more secure
during the real interview.” Washington (1995, p. 7) similarly suggests that practicing responses will help the job-
seeker feel “confident and relaxed.” Research on memory (Guest & Murphy, 2000) has stressed the role of
rehearsal and repetition.
Barone and Switzer (1995, p. 224) recommend “practicing interview answers aloud,” a process that
“provides the opportunity to actually hear how they sound.” Barbour et al (1995) also suggest rehearsing,
especially with someone who doesn’t know much about the position the job-seeker plans to interview for. In their
study of the extent to which interview-preparation techniques impact interview performance, Maurer, Solamon,
Andrews, and Troxtel (2001) used role-playing, a form of rehearsal, with their study participants, using five
sample questions. Rehearsal as a technique for successful interview preparation is the entire premise behind
Gottesman’s and Mauro’s popular-press The Interview Rehearsal Book (1999).
The literature reveals several instances of interview-preparatory activities and mock interviews in
business schools, communication classes, and business communication classes. Clark (2005) reports on co-
curricular program at Xavier University in which interview-preparation activities, including optional mock
interviews, are offered over a three-year period. Graded mock interviews are a component of communications
courses that served as the basis for a study by Young, Behnke, and Mann (2004), who suggest that instructors
whose curricula include job interviewing may want to provide activities that reduce interview anxiety. Lundelius
and Poon (1997) describe a mock-interview assignment in a business communication class in which students
interviewed members of other class sections based on the assumption that students interviewing peers in their own
sections would take the interviews less seriously. Marks and O’Connor (2006) detail a mock-interview
assignment that takes just one class session, preceded by one class period spent discussing preparation techniques.
We speculate that in some classes, mock interviews are seen as an end unto themselves; they are conducted
without preparation opportunities, with students expected to learn intrinsically about interviewing skills from the
mock interviews themselves, as was the case in research by Thompson and Williams (1987).
Links among Preparation Techniques, Interview Performance, and Perceived Level of Preparation
Research is limited on the relationship between job-interview preparation and interview performance. In
an early study, Harrison (1973) found that job applicants received more job offers after a one-day training session
than they had before the training but he concluded that too many other variables precluded declaring the training
the reason the applicants garnered more offers.
Campion and Campion (1987) conducted a study that found no difference in performance between groups
that underwent a half-day training program and those who had not participated in the study, nor did they identify a
performance difference between those who had attended the training and those who had employed self-study
Maurer, Solamon, Andrews, and Troxtel (2001), replicating and extending the work of Maurer, Solamon,
and Troxtel (1998), found that “voluntary attendance at an coaching session was positively related to situational
interview performance” (p. 709). The authors describe coaching sessions of up to 2 hours in which activities
included “modeling, behavioral rehearsal, role-playing, lecture, discussion, programmed materials, videotape, and
verbal feedback” (p. 709).
Largely missing in the literature is research on how well interviewees feel various employment-interview
preparation techniques in fact prepare them for job interviews, although 78% of training participants in the 1987
study by Campion and Campion reacted positively to the program and indicated that it had enhanced their
interviewing skills and effectiveness. Further, Maurer and Solamon (2006) conducted a study showing that
interview coaching sessions of up to 2 hours assisted in preparing public-safety candidates for interviews in which
they sought promotions, and the coaching also played a role in interview performance.
The objective of this study was to survey students on which activities they participated in during or
simultaneous with a business-communication class and which activities they found helpful in preparing them for
the class’s mock interview exercise. Participants were further asked to identify the single most helpful activity in
preparing them for the mock interviews.
Three semesters of a junior-level business communication class were surveyed for this study. Each
semester consisted of three sections of the class, with roughly 24 students in each section. The sample consisted
mainly of college juniors, though a small number of sophomores and seniors also participated. The survey was
administered after students had completed the mock-interview activity; they knew their grades and had received
feedback from the instructor, so they had a sense of how well they had performed in the interviews. In all, 201
students were surveyed.
The survey presented the following options that students could choose as having been activities in which
they participated and found helpful in preparing them for the mock interview. Explanations of the preparatory
Actual job interviews(s)
20 interview questions assignment
Perfect Interview simulation in Career Services
Quintessential Careers Job Interviewing Tutorial
Playing the game “Pitch a Story”
Explanation of Preparatory Activities
Approximately six 75-minute class sessions and several out-of-class assignments prior to the mock
interview activity were devoted to preparing students for these interviews. Of the activities that surveyed students
could cite as having helped them prepare for the mock interviews, most were required elements of the class.
Given that the literature (Campion & Campion, 1987; Maurer & Solamon, 2006) points out that most interview-
preparation interventions comprise multiple techniques (lecture, discussion, role-playing, practice, feedback,
modeling), a variety of preparatory activities was offered. A description of each activity follows:
Actual job interviews(s): Actual job interviews, of course, were ancillary to preparation provided by the
instructor and out of the instructor’s control. Some students happened to undergo interviews for jobs or
internships during the time they were enrolled in the class or up to a year before.
Informational interview(s): All students were required to conduct at least one informational interview
during the semester; they could also conduct two additional informational interviews as one of the options for
their final project. Informational interviews were not framed as a preparatory activity for mock interviews except
to the extent that the format of the interviews bore some resemblance to employment interviews. Students were
advised to dress and act professionally. They were assigned to find out more about a job that they might be
interested in pursuing and thus, in some cases, interviewed individuals with hiring power. Unlike in an
employment interview, however, the students were the interviewers, not the interviewees. The informational
interview assignment took place outside the month during which students prepared for mock interviews. The
technique aligns with an assignment described by Sincoff (2004) in which students interviewed professionals to
practice communication skills.
20 interview questions assignment: Students were assigned to compose written responses to frequently
asked interview questions. They could choose one of two Web-based questionnaires through which to submit the
assignment: either a mix of traditional and behavioral job-interview questions aimed at college students and new
graduates at http://www.quintcareers.com/interview_question_database/college_student_mixed.html or a mix of
traditional and behavioral job-interview questions aimed at established job-seekers at
http://www.quintcareers.com/interview_question_database/jobseeker_mixed.html (for nontraditional students or
those with significant job experience).
Perfect Interview simulation: This commercial product is described on its vendor’s Web site as a
“multimedia software package complete with over 1,500 interview questions, answers, and hints, which have all
been professionally produced on digital video.” Students had the option of participating in the Perfect Interview
simulation, which is housed in the university’s Career Services office. Students were offered bonus points toward
their final grade if they chose to participate in Perfect Interview.
Partner interviewing: One class session during the month-long preparatory period was dedicated to an
activity in which students were randomly paired with a partner and asked to interview each other outside the
classroom. They were given a list of frequently asked interview questions and were also free to pose other
questions. Students were also encouraged to give each other feedback on their interview performances. The
partner interviews took place the same day that students were required to submit the 20 questions assignment.
Class lecture/discussion: Class lecture and discussion periods in the month preceding the mock interviews
consisted of the following:
• A session on interview preparation and nonverbal behaviors, presented in a game-show format.
• A session on traditional interview questions in which each student was asked to research a given
questions or genre of questions and report to the class: (a) employers’ motivation for asking this type
of question (b) strategies for responding to this type of question.
• A session in which students were assigned to prepare five “success stories” about their
accomplishments and then asked to draw from those stories while responding to behavior-based
interview questions in round-robin fashion. This technique aligns with research by Ralston,
Kirkwood, and Burant (2004) describing how to help interviewees tell their stories in response to
behavior-based questions, as well as Martin’s recommendation that job candidates write “success
stories” to prepare for interviews, particularly behavioral interviews (2004, p. 127).
• A session with a human-resources professional as a guest speaker, offering pet peeves and advice
about interview content and behavior.
Class texts: Students were assigned to read the interviewing portions of How to Get a Job with Any Major
by Donald Asher, as well as an article on behavioral interviewing at
Quintessential Careers Job Interviewing Tutorial: Another reading, the Quintessential Careers Job
Interviewing Tutorial at http://www.quintcareers.com/job_interviews/, was treated in the survey separately from
the other class readings because it was foundational to the month of mock interview preparations and was referred
to throughout the month.
Playing the game “Pitch a Story”: Students played this storytelling board game (described at
http://pitchastory.com/) during the class immediately before mock interviews began. The rationale for using the
game at this time was to loosen students up, spark their creativity, and encourage them to communicate
spontaneously. Although students played the game during all three of the semesters in which the survey was
administered, it was only in the latter two semesters that they played the game immediately before mock
interviews – with the intent of enhancing their interview preparation; thus, this item was not included in the
survey during the first semester.
The Mock Interview Activity
While the actual mock interviews were only peripherally a part of the methodology of the study, we
include a description of the activity to provide context for the subjects’ survey responses. In this business
communication class, the mock interview activity in which these preparatory activities culminated was conducted
over four 75-minute class sessions. Interviews were conducted in panel format, with 3-4 students comprising the
bulk of the panel. The other 2 panelists were the instructor and a guest human resources professional. Only the
student panelists asked questions, which were provided to them. To ensure that each student was evaluated based
on the same set of questions, no ad-libbed or follow-up questions were allowed. Some questions were taken from
the 20 questions assignment. About 8-9 questions were asked in each interview. The instructor (70%) and student
panelists (30%) all contributed to the student interviewees’ grade. The guest professional’s feedback was limited
to comments. Each student had the opportunity to serve as an interviewer on the panel and be an interviewee, so
each experienced the interviewing process from both sides. After grades were tallied, students got feedback in
one-on-one sessions with the instructor in which comments from all panelists were shared.
As shown in greater detail in Table 1, more than half the surveyed students participated in informational
interviews, the 20 questions assignment, partner interviews, class lectures/discussion, and the Quintessential
Careers tutorial and found those activities useful in preparing them for the mock interviews. A quarter to a third of
respondents participated in actual job interviews, the optional Perfect Interview simulation, assigned texts, and the
Pitch-a-Story game and found these activities useful in preparing them for the mock interviews. The “other”
category for preparatory activities was cited by 11% of respondents as activities they participated in and found
useful; responses in this category usually comprised practice interviewing with a friend; additional responses
included interviewing oneself, undergoing interviews for campus organizations, participating in career-related
activities in another class, preparing a resume, and talking to friends who had previously taken the class.
Asked to identify the single most helpful activity for preparing them for mock interviews, students by a
wide margin (52%) cited the 20 questions assignment. Distantly trailing among activities singled out as most
helpful in preparing were the partner interviews (13%) and class lectures/discussions (11%).
No significant differences were seen in responses among responses from students at the sophomore,
junior, or senior level.
While 66% of respondents had undergone at least one actual job interview (and some had undergone
significantly more) in the year preceding the mock interviews, only 5% of those who had undergone them cited
real interviews as the most helpful preparation activity for mock interviews. Some students who said they had
undergone real interviews did not even cite the interviews as having been at all helpful in preparing them for
No students singled out assigned texts as the most helpful preparation activity. We should note, however,
that in this class, students were not tested on this reading material and thus may not have been motivated to do the
Although we did not directly intend to gather qualitative data, the open-ended nature of some of the
survey questions prompted students to offer comments, the most salient of which appear in Table 2.
[Insert Table 1 about here]
[Insert Table 2 about here]
Why the 20 Questions Assignment Prevailed
The literature may provide clues as to why students so overwhelmingly selected the written 20 questions
assignment as the most helpful in preparing them. While the type of mock/practice interviewing and rehearsal that
Gottesman and Mauro (date) tout can be helpful to interview preparation, Emig (1981) points out that “writing
tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking” (p. 72).
In studying the extent to which interview-preparation techniques impact interview performance, Maurer,
Solamon, Andrews, and Troxtel (2001) determined that a preparation behavior that correlated with high-scoring
interviews was “organization,” in which participants described such activities as: “Used the pencil and paper
provided to write notes before giving my answers,” and “Organized my answers in a chronological, logical, and
easy-to-follow manner.” Demonstrating thoughtfulness and organized thinking was positively associated with
interview performance, the authors assert (similarly, Maurer & Troxtel, 2006).
Although this organization behavior took place during the interview itself and not beforehand, it is not too
great a leap to extrapolate that the advantages of composing written responses to typical interview questions
before an interview may be similar to the benefits of jotting down organizational notes during the interview. “By
using the organization strategy, the interviewee can think carefully about all of the behaviors that he or she would
engage in given a specific situation and then organize them in a manner that makes the most sense given the
hypothetical scenario,” write Maurer, Solamon, Andrews, and Troxtel (2001). “By outlining his or her thoughts
before speaking, his or her answer can be of higher quality than if he or she just begins to freely spout thoughts
and behaviors as they come to mind.”
Gottesman and Mauro (1999) emphasize writing as a form of rehearsal and a way to organize one’s
thoughts in advance of a job interview. “The simple act of getting some thoughts down on paper,” the authors
write (p. 4-5), “… will help you to think more clearly and specifically about what you have to offer potential
employers.” Gottesman and Mauro provide numerous writing exercises in the book and stress that simply
thinking about the answers to these exercises is not sufficient; to remember good ideas, writing is highly
Research by Hansen and Hansen (2006) explored the exercise of composing written responses to
frequently asked job-interview questions. Attempting to connect this practice with Writing-to-Learn theory, the
authors found trend-indicative results, though not statistically significant outcomes, when comparing interview
performance (as evaluated by an impartial human-resources professional) of participants who had composed
written responses to commonly asked interviews questions to subjects who had not done so.
Support for the Partner Interviewing Activity
The literature also mentions activities similar to the partner interviews that 13% of students cited as most
helpful. These interviews align with an interview-prep activity that Young, Behnke, and Mann (2004) describe
and also bear a relationship with Maurer’s and Troxtel’s 2006 results in which preparing by observing others
performing mock interviews was associated with higher performance.
Limitations of the Research
This study looked at techniques that might be effective in preparing students for mock interviews. It did
not, of course, demonstrate that methods that students perceive as preparing them well for mock interviews also
prepare them for actual job interviews. The study also did not examine how effective the preparation methods
were in aiding participants’ performance, only which method the students felt had prepared them the best. The
sample size of the study was relatively small (201), and limited to just one university.
Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Research
In this study, students significantly cited an exercise in which they composed written responses to
interview questions as the most helpful activity for preparing them for the class mock-interview assignment. We
speculate that the extensive amount of time dedicated to preparing students for mock interviews in this class was
unusual. Since many instructors do not have the luxury of that much time, it may be useful to identify activities
that are most helpful in preparing students for mock interviews.
The study raises questions that could be explored with future research: How do the preparation methods
correlate with performance, as rated by grades or by a professional observer? What differences in student ratings
of the preparation methods might be uncovered if students were asked before the mock interviews which method
helped them feel most prepared (results that could be compared with post-mock-interview data)? Would any one
of the cited methods have been as effective if not bolstered with all the other methods? And, importantly, how
well do these preparation methods apply to real interviews? The fact that so few of this study’s participants who
had participated in real interviews singled out those interviews as helpful in preparing them for mock interviews
raises cautions that mock interviews in an academic setting may be significantly different from actual job
interviews. We might also speculate that the students’ real job-interview experiences were negative or that since
they may not have undergone the same level of preparation for the real interviews that they did for the mock
interviews, the real interviews did not prepare them for their mock counterparts.
Activities participated in that may have helped prepare for class mock interviews
N = 201
20 Pitch a QuintCareers
Actual job Informational Perfect Partner Class Story*
questions Texts interviewing Other
interviews interviews interview interviews lecture/disc tutorial
30% 59% 95% 25% 71% 72% 34% 37% 63% 11%
*Data collected for 2 of the 3 semesters for which other data was collected
Qualitative comments by students
20 Questions Class lecture/discussion
“…was the best because it simulated on-the-spot thinking.” (citing 5 Success Stories activity) “My
nervousness is usually what holds me
back, and that definitely made the
“good to practice responding and the see examples of an ideal response.” interview less stressful.”
(citing 5 Success Stories activity) “It
“… it gave me a solid base to know what would be on the mock interview.”
was good to see how others answered
questions and think about how I would
“… by far the most beneficial because it gave me the opportunity to really think.” answer them differently based on my
“got me thinking ahead of time for good answers.” Partner Interviews
“I would have rather done this prior to the class discussion.” “… most helpful to begin preparing and
thinking about a professional interview
“They were a pain to do, but I found them most helpful.” setting.”
“… after you had given your answers, you had sample answers that you could “… because I received helpful
review it with.” feedback.”
“… [made me] aware of what was
“engaged my critical thinking the most.”
being done wrong.”
“… really helped you get in the mindset to answer behavioral interviewing “… most rewarding because you got to
questions.” sit and be interviewed by someone.”
“…matched up better [than
“… it allowed me to record stories that I could incorporate in the interview.”
informational interview] content-wise.”
“I had concrete questions and solid, visible answers.” “… it went through the possible
questions and partners could work
“… got me thinking in the right mindset.” through to find an answer.”
“…It gave me insight into what employers look for and how to answer correctly.” Informational Interview(s)
“… made us think about our answers in advance.” “… trains me to use actual interviews
informationally as well and show some
“… because we had to write down our responses and really think about it.” initiative in seeking info.”
“…made me think about questions I would not have expected.” Actual Job Interviews
“…they were off-the-wall and different.” “… helped me know I was qualified.”
“… made me think of specific examples for the qualities I have.” Perfect Interview
“… helped me think of skills, experience, etc., that I could use to answer a variety
“It was very similar and fun to do.”
of interview questions.”
“… I could see where I need to perfect
“… helped me to organize my thoughts so I have a basic idea of how to respond.”
“… forced me to look at my answers and see where I could improve.” “… I liked how realistic it was and how
you could see yourself and go over
many different responses to the same
“… because I like to prepare and write down my thoughts first.” question.”
“… it gave me the chance to answer the kind of questions I
“because you could view yourself.”
would be asked.”
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