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Interviews are a key component to the recruitment process. They allow companies to evaluate your skills, and help the company, as well as you, assess fit for the opportunity and the company culture.
Before the Interview
It’s essential that you research an organization before you walk into your interview. You’re giving an employer the first taste of how you approach your work, so you want to show them how thorough and hard-working you are.
- Use resources like Vault, TheMuse, and GlassDoor to figure out as much as you can about this company, its culture, and how it positions itself within its field. Who are its closest competitors, and what are its advantages and disadvantages? What do current and past employees say about what it is like to work there?
- Read the organization’s website thoroughly. Know their mission, general company statistics, and what projects they are currently working on.
- Search for recent news stories about this company to contextualize their work in relation to the community.
- Social media gives organizations the opportunity to present the best version of themselves to the public. What messages are they trying to push? What successes have they had recently that you can talk about? How are they interacting with consumers in interesting or unique ways?
- If you are provided the names of your interviewers in advance, use LinkedIn to learn more about them. Knowing someone’s background, work responsibilities, and professional interests may help you figure out potential avenues of questioning they are likely to raise. But don’t go overboard: If you happen to find out that an interviewer is president of their local Britney Spears fan club, that’s information you don’t necessarily need to raise in your conversation with them.
There is no way for you to predict and prepare for every question they might ask you, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t undertake thorough preparations.
- Begin with the end in mind: What do you want them to think of you when you walk out of that interview room? If they write a summary of the interview, what adjectives do you want them to use to describe you? What stories do you want them to remember about your past? What key qualifications and skills do you want to be sure they know?
- Write down a couple of dozen questions that you think they might ask you. These can range from the generic (Why do you want this job? What are your main strengths and weaknesses? What do you enjoy about your current job? What are your long-term goals?) to specific questions based on the job description, the company, or your resume. Then, write a couple of bullets for each question, with main points or phrases you would want to use if you get that question. Lastly, practice... practice... practice! Sit by yourself, or with a friend, and practice your answers, reminding yourself of the main points you want to make, and noting any key points or turns of phrase you come up with as you practice. The key is to hit an elusive middle ground, where you sound confident but unrehearsed in your answers.
- The best way to prepare for the inevitable questions you were not expecting is to come prepared with many different anecdotes and stories from your professional experience. Interviewers love to hear examples: Anyone can claim that they are hard-working, but your story of how you voluntarily took on an extra task at work, stayed late to finish it, and won an award for the company at the conference demonstrates your hard work. When you arrive at the interview armed with stories, then it is just a matter of telling them at the appropriate time when those unexpected questions come up.
The interviewer, whether or not they know it, has an expectation as to the level of formality of your dress before you arrive. This expectation is based on the kind of job you are interviewing for, the company’s culture, and a host of other factors. Imagine, for example, if a presidential candidate showed up in a hoodie at a nationally televised debate (perhaps the ultimate job interview!), or if an interviewee showed up at an interview at Apple in a business suit (thus violating Steve Jobs’ maxim: “We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits.”)
By doing your research, you can know the company’s culture and figure out what their expectations are, and then meet them appropriately.
During the Interview
Let’s own from the start that this advice is based on an assumption that your interview is with a Western-style company. The qualities that go into a positive first impression are culturally-based, and vary around the world. Our Career Development Center (CDC) advisors can help you navigate interviews in other cultural situations.
You rarely lose in Western cultures by being enthusiastic, optimistic, and confident. From the moment you first meet your interviewers—whether in a formal setting or if they meet you in the parking lot—your job is to show them that you want this job, you are excited about this job, and that you can do this job well. Be sure to:
- Smile. You would not believe how much a smile helps. If you are having fun, your interviewers will have fun.
- Have an appropriately firm handshake. Not sure what to do interviewing in an unfamiliar cultural setting? Come see us at the CDC for help.
- Make good eye contact. Look your interviewers in the eye when you walk in the room. Look at the person asking the question while they are talking. When answering, start by looking at them, but break eye contact by looking around the room. If you are talking with multiple people, start and finish your answer by looking at the person who asked the question, but spend the middle part of your answer looking at other people in the room too.
- Lastly, be polite and professional to everyone you meet at the company, from the CEO to an outside vendor who is cleaning a bathroom. Small interactions with everyone you meet say a lot about your character.
There is a simple yet highly effective way to structure your answers: The STAR method.
Concise, purposeful, and intentional storytelling is at the heart of the STAR method. Whether or not your interviewer asks you for an example (“What are your strengths?” vs. “Tell us a story that demonstrates your strengths.”), use the STAR method to create evocative, memorable answers:
- Situation: Briefly set-up the background to the story. Where were you, when, and who were the key players?
- Task: What needed to be done, and what was your role in it?
- Action: What, specifically, did you do?
- Result: What was the outcome of your actions?
Then, apply this outcome to your prospective employer: “And that is the kind of result I am excited about bringing to this company in this role.”
It is common for interviewers to invite you to ask them questions, too. Keep in mind that “Do you have any questions for us?” does not signal the end of the interview! It is itself another interview question, and the questions that you ask say something very important about you: They can demonstrate how much you have researched the company, how thoughtful and curious you are, and provide an opportunity for you to show them how you would approach this job. This is not actually a time for you to ask questions about the company which you want to have answered before you accept or decline their offer; those can come later on. Keep the focus at this point on convincing them that you are the right person for the job.
- Ask questions that demonstrate your level of research: “I see in last week’s New York Times that one of your main competitors has launched a new line in Asia. Do you see this company expanding overseas in the coming years?”
- Ask questions that demonstrate your critical thinking: "When I examine your company’s mission statement and values, I recognize aspects of a holacratic corporate structure. Can you tell me more about what this looks like and how it impacts your employees' day-to-day?"
- Ask questions that demonstrate how you will approach this job: “I see that this school has a large number of extracurricular activities for students, most of which are led by teachers. As a teacher here, how involved can I become in helping to lead some of those clubs and groups?”
Interviews can be stressful, and you might have an urge to bolt from the room at the first sign that your time is up. Resist that temptation! You have three main things you need to do before you leave:
- Reiterate your interest in the job. Remember that you are trying to show them how enthusiastic, optimistic, and confident you are about this position. One of the last things you want them to hear from you is that you want this job, you are excited about it, and that you are confident that you can do this job exceptionally well.
- Shake their hand and look them in the eye, and say thank you. They have taken time out of their day to consider you for this position, and you should thank them for doing so.
- If you do not already have their name and contact information, ask for their business card. You’ll be sending a thank-you note (more on that below), so you want to be sure that you have the correct spelling of their name and know where to send that note.
Good interviewers will usually give you a sense of their timeline for a decision, and how you will hear from them next. If they do not do so, it is OK to note that you are excited about this possibility, and are curious as to whether they have a sense as to when you might hear from them next, or what the next stages in the hiring process will be.
After the Interview
As soon as you get to a private spot away from the interview location, you should stop, take a deep breath, high-five yourself, and then take out a piece of paper and start jotting down notes:
- What did they ask you, and how did you answer those questions? If you were asked a question once, it is likely you will be asked it again in the future, either in another round of interviewing at this company, or with another. Were you happy with your answer? What would you change about it?
- Who did you talk to, and what did you talk about? Make specific notes about each person, which you can mention in the thank-you notes you are about to write.
- What did you learn about this company, and what questions do you need answered before you accept or decline the job if offered?
You must send a personalized thank-you note to each person who interviewed you within 24 hours. While a handwritten note on an actual thank-you card is traditional, use your judgement as to whether the employees at this company would prefer an email. In each thank-you note, be sure to:
- Say thank you.
- Connect one on one with that person about a comment they made, an answer to a question of yours that they gave, or an answer of yours that they seemed to respond particularly well to. Stand out from other interviewees by making that human connection to them.
- Reiterate your interest in the position once more.