In a social media group, someone posted a question about preparing for a job interview. It lead to a great conversation, and I trotted out all my standard stuff, gained from years as a hiring manager and a couple of years spent working inside an employment agency. Someone asked if they could share that list and I thought “why not put it all in one place” – where they can share it, and I don’t have to retype it every time this topic comes up! So here ya go – what I think I know about preparing for job interviews!
Before You Apply
Look at your Resume
Most people think of a resume as a list of ‘stuff they have done.” That’s actually the least useful bit. It’s used to get you past the initial screening, gets scanned lightly by the actual interviewer, and is rarely heard from again.
Think of your resume, instead, as a place to show off how well you have done it!
“I managed a project to install a new phone system:.” That’s nice.
“Served as the project manager for a multi-site telephone systems implementation, which replaced three disparate systems with a single unified system, added four-digit dialing between all business locations.” So, you turned the need for three different sets of expertise and procedures into a single skill set? And reduced the effort it takes for staff to communicate with each other?
The first description tells me what tasks you did. The second description tells me how you impacted your organization, and that you understand how the work you do contributes.
Compare your resume to the job description
Where you can, use the same words the employer does. You may know, and the hiring manager may know that “5 years working with WhammyDyne” is the same as “5 years working with computational systems” – but the HR wonk (or computer algorithm) tasked with screening your resume may not know it. If you want your resume to reach that hiring manager, make sure the gatekeeper can understand and interpret it.
So take a few minutes to consider why. Why are you a good candidate? What things should a hiring manager know about you? Make a short bulleted list and write it down. Take it with you to the interview, and try to craft your answers to help highlight that information.
Before the interview
Research the employer
I once got a job mostly on the strength of asking a question about a recent board meeting whose minutes were on their web site. Be prepared with a question or two about what’s happening in the company, not just the job or department you want. Show that you’re “joining the team” not just “looking for a paycheck.” Even bad PR is a chance to demonstrate your knowledge and attitude.
“I saw that Megacorp has had some challenges recently with diversity. What can you tell me about how we are addressing those challenges?”
Rather than putting the interviewer on the spot, you have given them a chance to tell you what good things the company is doing.
Whether it’s displaying a knowledge of and interest in the company, or giving them a chance to explain an area of growth or transition, demonstrating that you have paid some attention to the entire company, and not just this position, is an indicator that you will be invested in the organization.
There are certain questions you know they will ask. You have rehearsed the answers in your head a hundred times. That exercise is completely WORTHLESS. Write them down. Read them out loud. Do it again. Do it again. Read them out loud again while sitting in the car waiting to walk into the building.
When your brain freezes and you panic, muscle memory takes over. If you have SAID the right words, your mouth is more likely to form them. If you have THOUGHT the right words – well, your brain is frozen. No thinking is happening.
SAY it. Out loud. Say it again. Say it again. And when that moment of panic comes, you have a much better chance of saying the thing you meant to say rather than the first thing that pops into your mind.
At the interview
Before you walk in
As they say in the military, “check your gig line” before you walk into the interview office (gig line is the alignment of the buttons on your shirt with the zipper on your trousers, etc. ). Make sure tucked things are tucked, buttons are closed, etc.
Remember that you are “on” from the moment you enter the parking lot. The receptionist will observe your behavior as you wait. Your interviewer may be standing at a window watching as you exit your car. Your presentation of yourself includes everything you bring with you. Car dirty? Passenger seat covered in debris? No matter how neat your appearance, some observers will look at the car and decide that it represents ‘the real you’ and the neat, orderly candidate is just for show. Everything that comes within range of review counts. Never assume otherwise. (This includes the publicly-visible portions of your web site and social media accounts, too, by the way).
Someone pointed out that this can feel very inequitable, potentially creating bias against disadvantaged applicants. There’s a lot to be said on both sides of that argument. There are valid and viable things employers can take from that info – and there are invalid and biased things they can take from it. That’s true throughout the hiring process. There’s a lot that is based in emotion and bias and feel in a hiring process. If you become a hiring manager – make an active effort to influence away from biased practices.
For example, in our organization, applicants are always met by a member of our HR team and brought to the interview space, limiting those opportunities to staff members who have explicit training in guarding against bias. Our interview question format includes reminders about the kinds of bias that exist in interpreting interview responses. But as an applicant, you can’t control that – so it’s better to at least be aware of it.
Take a small item to carry.
A small notepad is great. You can write your ‘questions for the company’ in it (making you look prepared and well-researched, while actually ensuring you don’t forget your gems). You can jot your bulleted list of ‘things I want them to know about me” on it. You can write everyone’s name and title in it, making you look conscientious. More importantly, you can HOLD IT in your lap if you are not seated at a table. This will help keep you from fidgeting.
Silence is there to lure you into babbling. Interviewers will be silent just to see what else you say. If the silence stretches – try “was there something specific about that, that I could elaborate on for you?”
Don’t fake it
If you aren’t sure you understand the question, just say “you know, I’m not sure I am really sensing what you want from that question. I wonder if you could:
- Reword it so I can be sure I am going in the right direction?
- Give a second example that will help me see what you need from that line of inquiry?
- Tell me a little more about how you see that, so I can speak specifically to what you’re asking, rather than generally?
When uncertain, buy time
“That’s an interesting question.” (Now, take a deep breath. Look! You just got 30 seconds of think time! Practice a few segues in case you need another few seconds.)
“I think, if I have to give a quick response, I might say…
And if you aren’t quite sure you like the answer you gave: “but I must say, that’s a multi-faceted issue, and in a more normal setting, I’d want to consult with my team, hear a few different perspectives before I was sure I had landed on a final direction.” (Use that carefully – but in the right circumstances, it can save you from a lame answer by showing that you value others’ opinions, and aren’t too good to seek advice and input when you hit a bump. )
Don’t be afraid to walk out
If you aren’t comfortable with the vibe, don’t hesitate to say “you know, as I listen to your questions, I am not confident that we are a good match. Rather than take up more of your time, I think the responsible thing to do is to free you up to prepare for your next interview. “
If it was going to suck anyway, this can be the difference between “do not hire” and “wrong match. consider for future postions.” Even if you don’t want to work for them, having their good opinion is better than having their bad one.
Frame your answers
When answering questions about your experience – nobody actually cares about your experience. Don’t tell me “I type 80 wpm.” That’s on your app. I can read. Tell me “I think the thing that sticks out for me with that position is that I was one of the few people to meet her document production targets consistently, over 95% of the time.” [Because I type really fast. But you knew that.]
“What is your greatest weakness?”
This isn’t normally part of my standard spiel – but someone asked it in the social media group, and it does come up, so I am including it here.
Classic advice says “use a weakness you can turn into a strength,” like “I am too much of a perfectionist. Some people find that pretentious. Some people interpret that to mean you will nag and annoy other team members.
Me, I like a good deflection.
“You know, we all have good and bad days/moments, with all of our skill sets. One of the things that helps me is to understand the team around me. When I am feeling that I am not strong in an area that I need, or am having an off day, it helps me to know who around me is strong in that skill, so I can rely on their expertise and learn from it.”
When asked if you have questions
Skip the salary/benefits/”what’s in it for me” stuff – that can happen when the offer comes. Remember that an interview is always about what you can do for the company.
- Prepare a list of questions about how this position fits into the company or team, and how it contributes to the larger mission.
- Ask about how the ideal candidate would perform or transform this position. How would a candidate excel in this position?
- Bring a question about the culture, climate, or vision.
“Your web site says you have a strong sense of camaraderie and team. Can you tell me a little about how that manifests in the day to day?” (Inferred: “I have reviewed your self-proclaimed corporate values and I care about successful colleague relationships. How does the culture here work?”)
- Ask if there’s anything missing from your conversation.
“The interview questions seem to have covered the skill sets, but I am not sure I have a complete grasp of the intangibles. Is there anything about your priorities for this position, or the qualities you are looking for, that we haven’t had the chance to address?”
If they give you an answer – you have an opening to patch any holes or address any concerns/doubts they may have. (Pro tip: don’t use the words “concerns” or “doubts” – it can be an indicator that you expect them to think poorly of you. Rather, focus on “gaps” or insights that didn’t come out in the conversation.)
If they don’t, then you have a chance to finish your bullet list.
“Well, actually, in my notes here I have a comment I jotted down – that in relation to this job, the thing I really wanted to be sure that I convey to you was my passion for excellence, and meticulous attention to detail…”
Say thank you.
Not “thank you for the interview, omg I am so impressed just to be in your offices!” but “Thanks for making time to talk with me about this position. While, of course, I hope to be your selected candidate, I hope that whomever you choose will be just the right fit for Megacorp and this position. Best of luck to you in the search!” (Message: “I am a professional, and I understand that fit matters. I hope you find exactly what you’re looking for. BTW, that I am able to put that ahead of my own selfish need for a job says that I am both gracious and able to conceive that sometimes the company’s need matters more than mine.”)
After the interview
Say thank you. Again.
When you go home, send a thank you note. Email is OK, but a handwritten note card is better. Don’t ask for information – most HR processes don’t allow them to answer inquiries anyway. Just a simple “Dear Bob, It was terrific to meet you and the team. I enjoyed our conversation and look forward to learning more about Megacorp. Best of luck in your search for a new DroneMonkey! Sincerely, Meg.”
A polite note makes you memorable as a civil individual. (Pro tip: have cards in the car. Plan a few minutes to fill them out [out of Megacorp’s sight!] and leave them at the front desk before you go. They will arrive on Bob’s desk within 48 hours that way. Mail can take longer and might miss the decision window.
If you don’t get the job, it’s OK to send a polite email to ask questions. I like this one best:
“Dear Bob. I’m so pleased that you found just the right DroneMonkey to support the Megacorp team. I am also, of course, disappointed that I wasn’t the DroneMonkey you were looking for. I wondered whether your schedule allows time to sit down over a cup of coffee and help me understand what things the team felt I can do better the next time I interview at Megacorp, or what gaps in my skills I could be addressing to better prepare to join your team at a future date?”
Half of the time, Bob will brush you off – busy, HR rules don’t allow him to comment, blah blah. Smile, say “thanks” and walk away. But remember that a significant portion of jobs are filled because someone knows or remembers someone. The message you send with that inquiry is how Bob is going to remember you the next time he needs a DroneMonkey.
Bob will remember that you asked – and that is the real point of the request. “Getting the meeting” is a nice plus, when you can manage it, but the point of the question is for Bob to hear you ask it. To hear that you wish to know how/why you lost, that you seek feedback to improve your performance, that when you don’t excel you want to know why and adjust your course. These things are characteristics Bob will remember next time he is hiring. THAT is why you ask the question. If you can get the answer, by all means use the info – but that’s just icing on the cake.
Finally, two things to remember
No matter what happens – it’s rarely about you
Interview teams are looking for something specific, and not all of it is in the interview questions. Not all of it is stuff you can do anything about even if you know.
If the person who left the team was also the one who always planned the after-work gatherings – they may be looking for a morale-builder. If (s)he was the organized one, they may be looking for a herder and scheduler. In addition to the job elements, they are looking for the person who can fill in a gap – and you will never know what that gap was, unless they decide you are the one who can fill it.
And above all, this:
One of two things is true: either you’re the right person for the job, or you’re not.
If you’re not – it doesn’t matter what you say or what happens.
If you are, one of two things is true: either they can see it, or they can’t.
If they can see it, then short of real disasters, it doesn’t matter what you say or what happens.
If they can’t – do you really want to work for them?