While writing one’s resume can be a tricky business, and cover letters continue to bamboozle even the best of us, I doubt anybody out there looking for work at the moment would disagree with me when I maintain that the hardest part of the job hunting process, at least in the current climate, relates to landing interviews.

Interviews are so challenging to pin down at the moment, in fact, I wanted to re-emphasize the importance of conducting uncommonly thorough preparation in order to maximize your odds of a successful outcome.  Sure, there will be cases when the deck is stacked against you and they’re going to end up hiring the CEO’s mentally-deficient nephew, no matter what you say or do, but in most cases you owe it to yourself to put in at least several hours of preparation — if not several days — in order to tip the scales in your favor.  Think of it as a $100,000 sales presentation.  Or as a court case where the burden of proof is going to rest on you to prove you’re the best available candidate for the job.  How can you go the extra mile to show the employer you want the job more than the next person?  And will work harder at it?  And have the skills, talents, and strengths to excel in each of the responsibilities the job will entail?

How can you use preparation as a strategic weapon to take the risk out of hiring you, from the employer’s standpoint?

One of the reasons that interview prep is even more crucial right now, compared to other times, is that few candidates at the moment can assume that their resume alone (and the data it communicates) is going to set them apart convincingly from the other “options” the employer has available to them.  With hundreds of resumes getting sent in to most published leads, it’s a safe bet that there will be somebody out there who can beat you out on paper credentials alone or who can offer direct experience in the employer’s industry, if you cannot.  So you simply can’t afford to rest on your laurels or assume that the interview prep you’ve done in the past (or lack thereof) will get the job done again, this time around.

If you’ve got an interview coming up, therefore, it’s time to round up all of those great qualities you claim to possess — i.e. creativity, praoctivity, results-orientation, etc. — and put them to work for you in the preparation process.  For starters, you should scour the web until you feel you have a totally clear picture of the company’s business model, what they offer, who they sell to, what sets them apart from their competition, and how they make money.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re targeting a receptionist position or a senior VP role; nothing is more attractive than a candidate who understands the nature of business and is already searching for ways to increase a company’s profitability.

Beyond this basic digging, you should then consider arriving at the hiring conversation with a sample work outline, some relevant work samples, a list of ideas related to the company’s needs, or some form of tangible evidence that demonstrates your competency for the job.  Few people take their prep efforts to this level, but it can make all the difference in the world, since it shifts the interview beyond just idle chatter and sends the signal “I’m willing to work hard for you even before you decide to offer me a paycheck.”

I’m even a big fan of candidates putting together a short PowerPoint presentation (perhaps 4-5 slides) demonstrating their qualifications for a job — and then asking the hiring manager for permission to walk through these slides either at the start of the interview or at the very end.  Few employers will be able to resist this assertive request, and assuming that what you put together is quality work, it will leave a memorably positive impression!  If you really want to be slick, in fact, try uploading your PowerPoint file to a free Microsoft Office Live or Google Documents account where the employer can then log into it after the interview to review it again — and share it with others.

The bottom-line?  As stated earlier, landing an interview is a big deal right now.  So don’t let these precious opportunities go to waste with a laissez-faire attitude or anything less than full-court-press preparation!