The dreaded job interview. It can feel like the most stressful part of a job search, but it’s also the most important. Whether you’re seeking your first job out of school or looking to switch to a new employer – or even a whole new career – the interview process will be a major part of landing the new position you want.
Job interviews are the best way for a potential employer to understand who you are and what you bring to the table. And interviews are an essential time for you as a candidate as well – it’s the time for you to get to know the company on a deeper level, meet potential coworkers, and discover if the position is a good fit for you.
The best way to take the stress out of interviewing and ensure success is to be prepared. Easier said than done, right? Not anymore. With our three-step guide, we’ve broken down the interview prep work into three simple stages: before, during and after.
Before – Research, review, rehearse
During – Engaged listening and enthusiastic responses
After – Go the extra mile
Each step of the way, there’s a goal to accomplish to ensure total preparation. Before the interview, your goal should be thorough research, deep-dive reviews, and thoughtful rehearsing. During the interview itself, focus on being an engaged listener and answering questions with enthusiastic responses. Finally, post-interview, be sure to go the extra mile with your thanks and follow-ups in order to stand out from the crowd and clinch that offer.
Below, we’ll break down each of these three steps into more specific categories with some actionable advice and examples.
Before the Interview
You landed the interview at your dream job – congratulations! But before you even think about showing up to that swanky office in your best interviewing attire, it’s time to get to work. The more preparation you can do prior to the interview itself, the more relaxed you will feel on the day of your interview, confident in the knowledge that you truly know your stuff.
Your pre-interview goals can be loosely categorized into three stages: research, review, and rehearse.
Now is the time to gather all the background knowledge you can about the company. Before you step foot in the interview room, you should have a strong understanding of:
- What the company does (broadly)
- Key individuals (C-level executives, HR/hiring manager)
- What someone in your desired position will do (specifically)
- The broader industry the company is a part of, the state of that industry, and ongoing developments
- The company’s position within that industry
- Company culture
Study the job description
This information source is simple, because it’s what the company has actually already given to you. You applied for this job based on a description of what the company was looking for – so they’ve basically given you all the answers upfront! Re-read the job posting, ignoring the generalizations (everyone wants a “hard worker”) and isolate the more specific, descriptive phrases. For example, are they looking for someone “analytical”? Brush up on your numbers and problem-solving skills. Does they job description mention a “client-facing” position? You’ll want to be armed with examples of your strong work and communication skills with partners or customers.
Hit the web
This is where you’ll do the majority of your research – and there is more to it than you may have guessed. Leverage online sources, from social media to aggregation websites, to get all the information you need.
- Company website. If you haven’t already, now is when you want to spend some quality time on the company website. Focus first on the About Us page, as well as any pages specific to the position you’re applying for. Then, move over to a News section or Company Blog. Not only will this ensure your knowledge is incredibly up-to-date, but you can also start to get a sense of company culture.
- Company social media pages. Almost everyone has a Twitter account these days, and many companies have gone all out, with Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and even Snapchat! Take a quick glance at these as another way to understand company culture. If the company you’re interviewing at doesn’t have their own pages, still do a search of the company name or nickname on social media sites, as employees will surely have been posting about their jobs on their personal pages. This is how you’re most likely to see what goes on beyond the cubicle. If you can find something that connects you to the company more personally, such as a shared involvement with a charitable organization, that is an excellent thing to bring up in an interview. And if you’re feeling bold, there’s nothing wrong with throwing some likes, or even a (positive) comment!
- LinkedIn connections. Leverage LinkedIn to find your in! A quick LinkedIn search could very possibly reveal first- or second-level connections at the company where you’re interviewing. These people are an awesome source of information, and they could possibly even mention to hiring managers that you’ve reached out, which demonstrates your genuine interest in the position. Just be sure to frame your conversation as “wanting to learn more” about the employer rather than something more direct, like “asking for interview advice.”
- Today’s tools. Today more than ever before, online tools for jobseekers are endless. Websites that aggregate information on companies for prospective employees are on the rise, providing a deeper look than your average Google search. The Muse, for example, has videos produced by companies that show behind the scenes views of the office, employee profiles, and answer FAQs. Levo is another example, and a great source specifically for female jobseekers.
- Outside sources. A reminder: be sure to go beyond company spokespeople for your information. Get a different perspective by reading news articles, social media commentary, and Glassdoor reviews about the employer you’re interested in. Just remember, this is the internet – don’t believe everything you read, and know that some commentary may need to be taken with a grain of salt.
You’ve done tons of research on the company you’re interested in – now is the time to turn the microscope on yourself. It’s a good idea to review your:
- Resume/cover letter: Polish up your resume to perfection and print at least five copies – you’ll need to bring them with you on the day of your interview. Your cover letter probably doesn’t need any more editing, since you’re past that point in the process, but it is still important to review to remind yourself what this company knows about you so far, and what they’ll be expecting.
- Social media profiles: Remember how we recommended you check out a prospective employer’s social media pages? You can bet they are doing the same thing to you! But don’t worry too much about censoring everything you’ve ever posted – it’s mainly important to focus on job-related content. Are your Facebook status updates all complaining about a previous manager? Get that cleaned up. Have you ever (gasp!) bashed a client on Twitter? Delete! Also make sure to delete anything egregiously unprofessional that might paint you in a bad light – whether it’s pictures from a party or profane political rants.
- Job experience: This part will be more of a mental review process. Take some time to remind yourself about your own employment history. Think back to each role you’ve had, your accomplishments, challenges you overcame, and what you took away from your time there. Knowing your own story inside and out will be essential the day of the interview, because it will ensure you never get stuck without examples to back up your strengths – you can always refer back to your previous experience.
Practice makes perfect! Whether you’re on the shy side or consider yourself the world’s best conversationalist, answering interview questions can feel a tad awkward. It’s not your typical chat with a friend! So practice, practice, practice – in a variety of ways.
We recommend starting in front of the mirror, and starting with the first thing you’ll be asked to do at the beginning of the interview: some some variation of “Walk me through your resume/experience,” or the even more general, “Tell me about yourself.”
This is exactly why you’ve been reviewing your own resume and experience – you need to be able to give the highlight reel of all your previous experience, specifically focusing on that which applies to the position you’re applying for. Practice for content, tone, and timing. You never want to be speaking for more than two minutes straight, because of humans’ naturally short attention spans – any longer than that, and you’ve lost your interviewer completely.
Once you’re feeling confident in your answers, you can move on from the mirror and try doing mock interviews, either with friends and family or at a career center. These are especially helpful if you tend to get extremely anxious, as these more formal practice runs can calm your nerves before the main event.
You’ve researched the company, reviewed your resume, and rehearsed plenty of questions. You’re practically ready for the big day! A day or so ahead of your interview, just run through a quick 5-point checklist to ensure you’re ready. This will prove to yourself – and, upon your arrival at the interview, your potential employer – that you are organized and prepared.
Expert Advice: What's Your Favorite Question to Ask Job Candidates?
We asked 7 recruiting and human resources pros from some of the country’s top companies to tell us about their favorite questions to ask job candidates during interviews. Read their responses below:
During the Interview
It’s the day of your interview! Put all longer-term preparation aside; there should be no need to do any last minute research. You can do some simple day-of preparation, just to keep yourself relaxed. Then, focus on making the interviews themselves a success.
On the day-of, the first and most important step is calming your nerves. You’ve done all the preparation you need – feel confident in that, and don’t let yourself get too stressed. If you’re the type of person that tends to get extremely anxious, try some calming techniques.
- Do some deep breathing exercises when you first wake up the morning of the interview to start your day in a good place.
- Give yourself tons of time to get ready – nothing adds to stress more than rushing around.
- At a certain point, stop running through answers in your head – you’re not going to remember anything new at this point, and you’re only adding to your nervousness. Switch instead to listening to some of your favorite calming music – or pump-up jams, if that’s more your style!
- Are you an athlete? Think of the interview like your next big game. Do some of the rituals that make you feel good before a match, like enjoying your favorite breakfast or even following your usual pre-game superstitions.
- Have some fun! Watch inspirational speeches on YouTube – there are tons from movies, ranging from very serious to completely hilarious. Let them pump you up, and remember that laughter is the best medicine!
You’ll also feel more confident if you are dressed for success. Of course, your interview attire should always be polished and professional, but beyond those basic guidelines, what you should wear is entirely dependent on the type of workplace where you are interviewing. Use the research you did on the company’s culture to make outfit choices; your goal should be to dress as most employees do every day, but with a slight step up in formality. And be sure to wear something you are comfortable and confident in – there’s nothing worse than spending an interview pulling down a too-short skirt or fidgeting in a too-tight shirt.
Feeling calm, confident, and well-dressed, you’ll be fully ready for that first interview of the day. Make a great first impression with a smile, handshake and steady voice during your introduction to your interviewer. At this point, and throughout the day, remember to speak slowly – we tend to speed up our sentences when we’re nervous.
Once the interview itself begins, try to let your nerves melt away completely and think of the interview as just a normal conversation. Keep in mind that the whole interview will be a dynamic process – even when you’re not answering a question, you need to be actively listening.
Engaged listening will make you more successful for a number of reasons. First, because most candidates forget this step! Candidates tend to be so focused on their own answers to interview questions that they sit back and take a breather (i.e., zone out) while the interviewer is talking.
As we all know, it can be pretty obvious when someone isn’t listening to you, so don’t think the interviewer doesn’t notice when a candidate has mentally checked out. You can be sure this is noted, and not in a positive way.
Another reason to actively listen is to be sure you’re fully – and accurately – answering the question. Too often, interviewees start to spout out one of the pre-rehearsed answers they’ve memorized, and it becomes painfully obvious mid-way through that that particular story doesn’t really fit the question asked. It’s better to take your time and provide an answer that fits exactly what the interviewer asked than to rush into an answer as soon as the question leaves their mouth.
But what if, after truly listening to the question, it sort of stumps you? There is nothing wrong with taking a few seconds of silence, or buying yourself some time with a filler. Try slowly saying, “That’s a great question, I had not thought about it that way. I would have to say…”
Yes, the interviewer will know you are buying time, but that’s okay. That’s not something they’re going to hold against you, especially if you follow it up with a detailed answer that shows thoughtful consideration. Just don’t let a few seconds of silence derail you or bring back your nerves – it’s not a big deal to the interviewer, so don’t make it a big deal for you.
Another reason to be an engaged listener is so that you can ask excellent questions at the end of the interview. You can be sure you will always be asked as a final question: “Do you have any questions for me?”
If you’ve been listening, and even jotting down a few notes, you can reference something specific the interviewer said about the company in your questions. And you should always ask at least a few questions at the end of the interview – if you don’t, you run the risk of looking like you weren’t listening or you’re not really interested.
The final reason to listen extremely well throughout your interview is for your own personal benefit. The company has to decide if they want to hire you, but you have to decide if you want to work there, too! Listen for hints about day-to-day life, advancement opportunities, and general company culture. There is no better way to tell if you and this employer are a good match.
While listening is obviously important, the thing that will make or break your interview is, of course, your answers. You may be wondering why we’re placing so much emphasis on enthusiasm – shouldn’t your responses be intelligent, thoughtful, and creative? Of course they should. But, as many hiring executives and experts on the subject will say, it’s not always about what you say, but how you say it.
When you leave the interview, what will be remembered most about you is not your precise responses, but the overall feeling the interviewer took away from your conversation. Presenting each of your answers with enthusiasm will guarantee you leave a positive impression. Show enthusiasm for the job you’re interested in, as well as passion and pride for your past experiences.
In addition to putting a focus on enthusiasm, try to answer questions with a story. Experts agree that stories are more memorable than a list of statements, and showing you are a good storyteller and communicator is a plus in any job field.
Interview questions tend to fall into a few different general categories. There are different approaches for each category, but each can be based on storytelling with enthusiasm.
- Questions about your experience: Tell stories about how you shined at your previous roles, particularly in ways that easily translate to the position you’re interviewing for. Keep in mind that job description! Use specific examples whenever possible; numbers are particularly good. If the interviewer asks for an example of a particular type of situation (i.e. “Tell me about a time when you faced a disagreement with a coworker”), that easily sets the stage for storytelling mode. Just be sure to always finish with what you learned, or your main take-away, from past experiences.
- Behavioral questions: This is the time to get enthusiastic – about you! Explain your strengths with zeal. Sometimes interviewees, particularly women, feel awkward about singing their own praises. Don’t! You are not bragging – you’re being honest about your accomplishments and personality traits. If you back up your attributes with examples, it becomes clear you’re not arrogant – just honest.
- Brain teasers: This category of interview question can be your favorite or your worst nightmare, depending on how you feel about puzzles and problem solving. In the case of brain teaser-style interview questions, how you get your answer is much more important than the actual solution you come up with. Don’t get too caught up in getting the exact right number; instead, focus on showing the interviewer your creativity and problem-solving skills by walking them through each step of the puzzle. Make statements that may seem obvious in your head – for example, facts you already know, and what you’re trying to solve for – so it becomes clear you’re thinking through every step of the problem. Whatever you do, don’t let frustration overtake you, and don’t give up! Nobody wants to hire a quitter.
- Group interviews: Many companies are now incorporating a group setting into their interview process. This is a great way for them to see some of your skills firsthand – including teamwork, communication, and leadership. Don’t feel like you have to jump in and lead the group alone; this can actually come off as aggressive. Instead, show leadership and confidence by proactively contributing your ideas. You can also stand out by being a positive and enthusiastic voice in the room – giving praise to team members when they have a good idea shows what kind of manager you’ll be in the long run, and that won’t go unnoticed.
At the end of a day of interviews, you will likely feel exhausted. But you’re almost done, so hold it together until you leave! End the day with a genuine thank you to each person you met with, and, if you’re feeling great about the company, reiterate your enthusiasm about the position to the hiring manager.
Expert Advice: What Kind of Questions Should Job Candidates Ask?
You know how important it is to ask smart, engaging questions during your interview. So we asked our 7 experts another question: What types of questions can a candidate ask that make you feel like they are really prepared for the interview – and potentially a good fit for the position?
Mark Brooker, Expedia:
“Questions which display evidence of some research into the company and/or industry, plus questions which inquire about what it takes to be successful at Expedia.”
DeLisa Alexander, Red Hat:
“During an interview, we like to hear questions that demonstrate the candidate’s passion for and curiosity about that particular role. I like when candidates seem interested to learn about the current state of the team and its projects, and pair their enthusiasm for shaping the future with respect for what’s worked to date.
As a new graduate, one of the best ways to prepare for your job interview is to reflect on your unique skills and capabilities and to ask questions that show you’re excited to use those strengths to contribute to the team and company.”
Melvin Kohr, Nestle-Purina:
“Any question that shows they have researched the company, whether it be in our company reports, in the news, etc. So questions I like to hear , for example might be, ‘You recently rolled out a new pet food product, how is that performing for you?’ or ‘You recently expanded into Europe – do you see expansion into other countries being a long term move for the company?’ These types of questions prove they’ve done their research. Another favorite is, ‘Tell me about the best employee you’ve ever hired.’ This tells me they are interested in learning what types of people are successful with us.”
Ashley White, APQC:
- “‘What are the biggest opportunities facing the company/department right now?’
- ‘What are the biggest challenges facing the company/department right now?’ If I answer something ‘fluffy,’ they’ll know it, and if I say something that’s honest, I can gauge their reaction. Are they freaked out? Intrigued? Already searching for a solution?
- ‘What do you like best about working for this company?’ If I ‘drop the mic’ with a cheesy response like ‘I love the people’ and the candidate doesn’t respond with more questions or a bored look…they aren’t for us.”
Keith Bevans, Bain & Company:
“During the case interview, questions that show they are sensitive to the nuances of the situation are the best. Too often, people over-prepare and ask the same standard questions regardless of the situation that was described. For example, if we are considering a geographic expansion, the questions shouldn’t start with a focus on our marketing spend. After the case, there is usually time for some non-case questions about Bain. It is always good to get questions that show they’ve read the content that we’ve shared online and in other forums. Questions that show an understanding of why Bain is truly distinct from other firms are a plus.”
Greg Muccio, Southwest Airlines:
“There is so much information available that you can get very granular, down to the role or type of work they will be doing. I love to hear a candidate ask me about something they read and researched about the business, and if it will impact the role or department they are joining.”
Bridget O’Malley, Protiviti:
“When a candidate asks me why I love what I do, she is clearly aware that a career is about bringing your whole self to work and being passionate about opportunities to have an impact, every day.”
After the Interview
You did it! You crushed a day of interviews because you were fully prepared, and you should feel proud. There are only a few things to do post-interview, but they are essential to keeping up the good impression you made on the day-of. It could be helpful to mark these in your calendar to keep track of what follow-ups you should be doing on what days.
- Evening post-interview, or next morning: Send a thank-you email to the hiring manager who you’ve been working with most closely. Include something specific that you remember from your day of interviews – such as a particular part of the role that excited you or someone you particularly enjoyed talking to – to show you’re genuinely interested. If necessary, ask for the names of anyone who interviewed you that you may not remember – you need them for thank you notes.
- One or two days post-interview: The most formal way to go is to send a thank you note (via snail mail) to each person who interviewed you. If this is something you’re comfortable with, we still say – go for it! No one dislikes getting an old-fashioned letter. However, if this feels too old school for you, you can send a thank you via email instead. Make sure each individual gets their own personalized note, ideally with something you remember from your conversation with them – no mass emails!
- One week post-interview: Haven’t heard back from the hiring manager? Time to send a follow-up email. Reiterate your interest in the role and ask about next steps.
- Ten days to two weeks post-interview: If you haven’t heard anything back at all, around ten days to two weeks is the time to follow up with the hiring manager again. If you did hear back from an earlier communication and were told they were in progress on a decision, you can wait a bit longer to make that contact – around the two-week mark or after.
Overall, be polite but persistent in your follow-ups. It does not come off as nagging or desperate; follow-ups are merely a sign that you are responsible, organized, and care about the position. And don’t get discouraged if there’s a longer wait time. Some people get hired on the spot at interviews, and some don’t hear for weeks! It’s often solely based on need and hiring schedules.
By preparing for the before, during, and after of each interview, you can rest assured that you have a solid plan for interview success. And remember, with each interview, you’ll feel better and better about your skills. With that confidence, you can ace the interview that will land you your dream job.