(MoneyWatch) If you watch elite athletes right before a competition, you'll see they are fiercely focused. Whether they're quietly preparing or psyching themselves up as a team, all the attention is directed at the goal ahead. Last-minute job interview preparations are similarly important.
Take these 9 steps from the moment you exit your car or step off public transportation and before you sit down to snag your dream job, and you'll be at the top of your game at go-time.
Check Twitter one last time. Presumably you've done your due diligence prior to heading to your interview -- Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, the whole social media shebang. On your way in, tap on Twitter and the company's website one last time to see if there is any company breaking news you might be able to relevantly reference. "It will make you seem interested, informed and help you stand out from other candidates," says Meryl Weinsaft Cooper, co-author of Be Your Own Best Publicist: Using PR Skills to Get Noticed, Hired and Rewarded At Work.
Check yourself out, too. Especially if your appointment is after lunch, find a mirror and do a quick stain/spinach-in-teeth check. So simple, yet so often forgotten in the well-intentioned desire not to be late. "One of my clients, in her haste to dress and rush to the interview, discovered that she was wearing her blouse inside-out," says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide.
Respect the front desk. The security team or receptionist isn't just a gateway into the office, he or she may be a pseudo-spy for your boss-to-be. Act as if anything you say or do will be relayed to your interviewer. "Many candidates don't realize that the receptionist holds more power than you think. Starting on the wrong foot with the receptionist could prematurely end your candidacy for the position. And the worst part is that you may never know what happened," says Cheryl Palmer, founder of Call to Career, a career coaching firm. Part of showing respect means finishing any cell phone conversations before you enter the building and turning off your ringer.
Use the bathroom beforehand. If you're traveling a longer distance, try to leave time to use the ladies' or mens' room. "Nothing is more distracting than nature's call mid-interview. [You] may not be able to concentrate fully on questions that you are asked and those you need to ask to appear engaged and focused," says Cohen. Having to take a bathroom break during your meeting will make you seem unreliable and disorganized.
Scope out your competition. Being aware of the people around you and your surroundings from the time you enter the building until the time you sit down across from your interviewer can give you clues that you can use on the fly. "Often the person leaving as you are arriving is your competitor. Or you may be waiting in the same area as other candidates. See how they are dressed, how old are they, what are they carrying," says David Couper, career coach and author of Outsiders On The Inside: How to Create a Winning Career...Even When You Don't Fit In. He suggests tailoring your answers appropriately with the information you gather: "If they seem older than you they may have more experience. Be ready to talk about the quality rather than the quantity of your work knowledge."
Check out the scenery. Part of being aware of your surroundings is noticing what's on the walls, in people's cubicles, and in the lobby. This can give you nuggets about the company that can't be found with Google. "Sometimes looking at what is on a whiteboard in a conference room can give you valuable information. A client once saw three issues that were hitting sales on a board in the room he was asked to wait in. He was able to talk about them during his interview," notes Couper.
Get your mind revved up. Ever feel like you settle into an interview after a few minutes? That doesn't go unnoticed. "As a former recruiter, I would see candidates come alive three or more minutes into the interview," says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, partner with SixFigureStart, a career consulting firm. Unfortunately, that's a big strike against you: "That's three minutes too late, as I've already formed an opinion about them," notes Ceniza-Levine, a former Fortune 500 recruiter. She suggests taking five minutes in the waiting room to review an index card with key points or an inspirational quote to make sure you're operating at 100 percent the moment you sit down.
Organize your grand entrance. An interviewer is not a surprise situation -- you know you'll probably be in a waiting room and that at any moment you'll be called in. So be ready. "I can't tell you how many candidates scramble for their bag, their coat, their water, their book, and hunched over and arms full still try to shake my hand. It's hard to look professional and poised this way," says Ceniza-Levine. So pare down what you're carrying and leave a hand free to shake. She adds that you should make sure your first impression isn't a wardrobe malfunction (for women, that may be a skirt that rides up too far, and for a man, pants that are hemmed too short). "One job seeker wore Mickey Mouse socks that so distracted an interviewer, he went from front-runner to discard," recalls Ceniza-Levine.
Smile like you mean it. Of course you automatically smile when you introduce yourself -- you're a reasonably socially competent human being, right? But the thing is, when you're nervous, you may simply be breezing through the motions and a half-hearted effort can leave a bad first impression. So smile purposely, with confidence and with every person you meet. "Too many people are timid through the process of letting receptionists, security and others know they are there for an interview, as if the job seeker is putting people out. It's hard to turn that attitude around to one of power when you sit in the hot seat so I recommend starting with that confidence the moment you arrive," says Tracy Brisson, founder and CEO, The Opportunities Project, a career coaching firm for younger employees.