Her resume and cover letter were thoughtfully prepared, and she dressed more carefully than she would have on an ordinary cold, dreary day.
Then, with six months of preparation behind her, Crystal Benton nervously strode into the nearly empty room, introduced herself to interviewer Dennis Maher and told him why he should hire her as a delivery room nurse.
"I'm responsible, and I have a love for the job. It's not just that I want money," she said. "I have a passion for it and, honestly, I'd do this job even if I wasn't getting paid for it."
Maher is a systems engineer with Sun Microsystems. He has no authority -- nor any reason -- to hire a nurse. And Benton is a 16-year-old 11th-grader with years of schooling ahead of her before anyone would consider hiring her to deliver babies. But the exercise yesterday -- a mock interview with a real employer -- gave Benton and other South Carroll High School students a chance to try their hand at a real-world job hunt before their casual responses, fidgeting and the occasional choice of jeans and T-shirts could hurt their career chances.
Drill for real world
It's a drill practiced at schools across Maryland and one that educators say can benefit most students, whether their post-graduation plans include college or immediate jobs.
"There's almost a blurring of the experience because employers are looking for the same things that admissions counselors are looking for in college interviews," said Lynne Gilli, program manager for the career and technology education instructional branch of the State Department of Education.
Career Days can take many different forms at different schools, Gilli said. Some teachers recruit speakers from a variety of careers to describe their jobs to their classes. Others schedule job-shadowing days, during which students skip class to experience a typical day with a working adult.
Many others choose to give students hands-on experience, through real internships or through fictitious applications for internships or jobs.
Such was the case at South Carroll High in Winfield yesterday, where applications -- and applicants -- ran the gamut.
Harry Alles, 17, chose black dress pants, a crisp blue shirt with a darker blue tie and a mirrorlike belt buckle for his interview for a lifeguard position. He exhibited military-perfect posture, peppering his answers with "ma'am" as he recounted to interviewer Susan Hebble his experience as a lifeguard at South Carroll Swim Club and the Health Unlimited fitness center in Mount Airy.
"I have never done a resume before, so it was good to have to do something like that," said Alles, who hopes to find a job in the military or with a government agency, such as the FBI or the National Security Agency, after college. "And I learned to keep good eye contact because an employer's impression is based on the first 30 seconds of the interview."
Across the cafeteria, Sean Bittner, 16, struggled to explain why he arrived in rolled-up jeans, a red T-shirt and black sneakers to apply for his fictitious job as an accountant.
"I know I put myself in a hole on this one," he told interviewer Maher. "Our teacher told us, like, a month ago that we were coming in for this sometime. It's a miscommunication."
In about 2 1/2 hours yesterday morning, Maher interviewed faux job applicants wishing to work as a Blockbuster video store clerk, an orchestra musician and an accountant. Allie Armitage, 17, was seeking a loosely defined marketing position similar to her aunt's.
"It's a great growth opportunity for them to experience a job interview before it really counts," said Maher, who graduated from Carroll County schools. "The only thing that's a real challenge for me personally is when they're interested in an area that I don't know much about. Trying to open any meaningful dialogue about something like that is very difficult, and I don't know anything about being a nurse."
That did not stop him from offering Benton suggestions on ways to polish her interview skills.
Maher suggested she try to make more eye contact, despite her expressed discomfort with it and her concern that such boldness increases her nervousness. He recommended she take a trinket to hold, giving her an outlet for fidgeting that's less obvious than the hand-wringing and foot-tapping she fell victim to yesterday. And he urged her to tighten her answers.
"Your enthusiasm is way up there, and your best selling point is that energy," Maher told her.
"If you can find a way to focus and find a more concise way to deliver that passion, it will be even more effective. But I don't want you to stop being energetic about it."