Testing, Testing

Four guys sit in a library conference room, passing a bag of Krispy Kremes and taking turns at the chalkboard. "Name the three basic numbering systems used by modern computers," one man orders another. Another fellow fills the board with lines of programming. They look like computer-science majors cramming for an exam--except these men graduated from college decades ago. Instead, they're unemployed tech workers who meet weekly in suburban Boston to bone up for job interviews. "I used to know this," says Stephen Anthony, a lanky software engineer, scrunching his face as he tries to answer a question about "multitasking mechanisms." If he's going to flub a question, better to do it here than in front of a hiring manager.

Remember the good old days of the long boom, when job applicants held the upper hand? Back then it seemed like any qualified applicant who gave semi-coherent answers to standard interview questions ("Where do you want to be in five years?") might have a job offer by lunchtime. But in today's slo-mo economy, the number of unemployed workers vastly exceeds the number of open jobs, so companies can afford to be choosy. As a result, they're putting applicants through job interviews that resemble the obstacle-filled, sudden-elimination gantlets of reality television. Companies are moving away from chatty, conversational interviews, and instead hitting applicants with technical or problem-solving questions. They're doing more drug testing, background checks and credit checks. They're also trying to use personality tests to better fit applicants with jobs. Says Mark Oldman, cofounder of the career-research firm Vault: "Companies are being more aggressive in their questioning."

Nowadays there's no need to worry about finding the right tie or pantsuit for a first interview: many firms are conducting extensive "prescreening" interviews over the telephone. Folks who've gone through this process say it's tougher than it sounds, since it can be hard to read body language or make a personal connection over the phone. For applicants who make it to the next round, the in-person meetings can drag on maddeningly. Alex Paul, who holds M.B.A. and law degrees and has been laid off by two Silicon Valley firms, almost landed a software job recently. But first he had to spend three long days interviewing again and again with the same group of execs. "By the third time I was driving down there, I was thinking, 'My God, what do you have to do to get this job?' " he says. Passed over for that position, he applied to a temp firm to review litigation documents. Despite being overqualified, he still had to interview twice with the temp firm, then endure six half-hour meetings with employees. "I was interviewing for the equivalent of a mail-job position,'' Paul adds. "It was ludicrous."

That rigmarole might be a welcome relief to folks hit with the "math-camp" brainteasers that Microsoft has made famous (graphic). "You're getting all types of companies using these puzzles--Boeing, Wall Street, a pretty good cross section of Fortune 500 companies," says William Poundstone, author of "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?," a new book on how to ace this kind of interview. Poundstone recalls one applicant being ordered: "Describe November." Uh, could you be a bit more specific? No, just describe November. After some blather about orange leaves and Thanksgiving, the interviewer lowered the boom: bad answer. Engineers should be precise, like "November consists of the 30- day period situated 20 days before the winter solstice." Buh-bye.

For a more scientific method of matching applicants and jobs, 30 percent of companies now use personality tests, according to a survey by Management Recruiters International. Thomas Mahan of the Work Institute, a consulting firm that administers such tests, says a company hiring a police officer or nuclear-control-room operator might look for "emotional stability," while a creative firm (like an ad agency) might be more interested in applicants' "dominance requirement," which could affect how well they work in groups. But these tests have limitations: experts say applicants often aren't informed how they're used and may find them offensive.

For job hunters who trip over one of these new hurdles, take heart. Even people who flop at a job interview can actually go on to build successful careers. At an awards dinner in Washington last month, two old friends described their disastrous first meeting, when one applied for an internship working for the other. "The interview lasted about 15 minutes," the applicant recalled. "He thought I was some kind of airhead academic, and I thought he was rather an arrogant young member of Congress." But when the congressman, Donald Rumsfeld, took a new job, he hired the young man for his staff. And despite flunking that first interview 34 years ago, today Dick Cheney has a high-paying job--and at least 19 more months of job security.