The purpose of an interview is for the employer to gather as much information about you as possible, in order to determine whether or not you are the best fit for the position. At the same time, this is your opportunity to interview the company to determine if you want to work there.
There are many components to an interview, and it takes time and commitment to be well-prepared. When given an option, try to schedule the interview several days in advance, giving you plenty of days to prepare. This guide will help equip you to succeed at your interview. Good luck.
Before the interview
There are several things you must do before an interview if you want to be optimally prepared:
- Research the company. Look at multiple websites to get as much information about the company as possible. Read recent press releases and news articles involving the company
- Choose your outfit and try it on. Make sure it is clean, pressed and fits well.
- Prepare all professional documents and any other items to bring to the interview.
- Ask for the names of those interviewing you and understand the company’s security and parking procedures.
Research the company
Now that you have an interview, more in-depth company research will help you determine if this organization would be a good fit. It will also help you formulate questions to ask during the interview. Some areas you want to investigate include:
- What is the focus of the organization? What product or service does it provide?
- How big is the organization? How is it structured? Is there potential for advancement?
- What are the values, mission and goals of the organization?
- Who are the organization’s officers, administrators, etc.? Know something of their background and recent achievements.
- Find out how the position for which you are interviewing relates to the whole organization. Identify some challenges, opportunities, policies or philosophies of the organization, and plan to focus on these during the interview. Research the company’s Annual Report and write down 3 to 5 interesting talking points.
- Research your interviewer(s) and write down anything about their professional background that resonates with you.
What to wear to an interview
Remember the adage, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”? Your interview is your first opportunity to make a real impression on the employer. Selecting the right outfit is essential; it shows you are a professional and that you care enough about the position to make an effort. Dressing the part can also help you feel more professional and confident, which will add to the professionalism of your answers.
- Neutral-colored pant suit or skirt suit, such as black, gray or navy.
- Coordinating button-down shirt or blouse.
- Dress shoes should be closed-toe with a heel no larger than 2.5 inches.
- Follow the rule of 13: no more than 13 accessories with your outfit. This includes buttons, jewelry, hairpieces, bags.
- Neutral-colored suit, such as black, gray or navy.
- Coordinating shirt, tie and dress shoes.
- Black socks.
- Clean shaven.
What to wear to an interview cont.
For some companies, it’s suitable to dress in business casual attire. There is no strict definition of business casual, so err on the side of conservative when making your outfit selections. If you aren’t sure, ask when arranging the interview.
- Slacks and coordinating button-down shirt, dress shoes.
- No tie or jacket.
- Dress pants or skirts with a dressy blouse or button- down shirt.
- No jacket.
General suggestions for men and women:
- Stay away from distracting colors or patterns on your clothing and bags.
- Hair should be clean, neat and out of the face.
- Bring a suitcase, bag, portfolio or folder for your professional documents. Don’t carry more than one bag.
- Shower before the interview; clean and cut nails.
- Wear little or no perfume or cologne.
- Visit the company, company website and/or ask someone you know who works there about appropriate dress.
- Aim to look slightly better dressed than the employees.
- When in doubt, dress more conservatively.
- Do not chew gum or candy.
What to bring to an interview
When preparing for an interview, you might be tempted to focus only on what you are planning to wear or what questions you might be asked. It is also important to think about what you need to bring with you to the interview. Here are the essential items that you should gather the evening before your interview, so you can make sure not to leave home without them.
- A portfolio that includes the following professional documents:
- A minimum of three copies of your resumé on resumé paper.
- A list of at least three-to-five professional references.
- Copies of any letters of recommendation you have received.
- Samples of your work.
- A list of questions to ask the interviewer.
- Pen and paper to take notes, including the names and contact information of the interviewers.
- Your calendar, in case you are asked to come back.
- Directions to the interview location.
- The job description, to review before the interview.
- A positive, confident attitude.
Common interview questions
With the limitless possibilities of questions that you could be asked in an interview, it is impossible to be prepared for all of them. However, many employers use some general questions that you will want to practice before your interview. While you practice, it is best to state your answers to another person or in front of a mirror if no one is available to help you. You never know how your answer will sound until you say it for the first time. Do not memorize answers, but rather create talking points. Here are some common interview questions:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Tell me about the experiences on your resumé.
- What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
- What is your biggest success and failure?
- Why do you want to leave your current position, or why did you leave your last position?
- Why are you interested in this position?
- What do you know about the company?
- What is your five-to-ten year plan?
- Tell me about a time when …
- You had to work on a team.
- You motivated someone else to do something.
- You saw a coworker do something unethical. (These will vary based on what the interviewer is looking for.)
- Why should we hire you?
- What questions do you have for me?
- Why are you the best candidate for the job?
Behavior-based interviewing and the STAR technique
Employers often ask behavioral-based interview questions, or questions that provide examples of your behavior in specific situations. Your answers can help the employer determine how you might manage in a certain situation if it were to come up in the future, because past behavior tends to be indicative of future behavior. Therefore, be prepared to answer questions about your previous experiences with great detail.
Give the interviewer a clear picture of the situation you are describing, with enough information that she can gain insight about your performance and work ethic. Provide answers that have positive results; if you can’t come up with a positive answer, then state what you learned from the experience. These questions can be very challenging, and sometimes require extra time to recall the details necessary to provide a full answer. To help you prepare for behavioral or situational questions, review the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) technique. This technique will help you provide a complete answer in a logical, easy to understand format.
Situation: Describe the problem you faced in a current or past position.
- Explaining the details of the problem will allow the interviewer to get a good picture of the story you are trying to tell. Think about where you were working, who you were working with, and other things that were happening around you.
Task: Clarify your role or the goal.
- Briefly mention the task you were trying to accomplish.
Action: What action did you take?
- How did you execute your task? Make sure to provide relevant details.
Result: What was the result of your action?
- Interviewees often forget to explain the result, but it is the perfect opportunity to show how you accomplished something, thrived in a challenging situation or overcame obstacles. Answering the interviewer’s question without providing the result would be similar to reading a mystery novel that doesn’t solve the mystery!
Here is an example of an interview question and an answer that utilizes the STAR technique:
Interviewer: Tell me about a time when you worked in a group.
Interviewee: When I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I worked in groups all the time. One particular time was during my child psychology class. My team of five had to develop a presentation about childhood behavior issues and present it to the class (situation). My role was to make sure members completed their sections on time, complete my own section and then gather our work together into a presentable slideshow. I also had to make sure we all had enough time to present on our pieces, while maintaining the 30-minute time limit (task). To make sure I got everyone’s piece on time, I sent out reminder emails at set intervals, checked in individually to make sure no one was having difficulty with their topics, and emailed my piece to everyone well in advance so they would have something to refer to if they needed help with structure (action). Members submitted their pieces to me on time; we successfully completed the project before the deadline and got an A on our presentation (result).
Specific techniques for answering “difficult questions”
With all the interview questions you might be asked, you are likely to encounter some that are a real challenge to answer. Here are some tips to answering those difficult questions:
Buy yourself some time.
- Ask the interviewer to repeat the question. You can also say something like, “That’s a great question. Let me think about it a minute.” You aren’t expected to have a prepared answer as soon as the question is asked; this could appear unnatural or look as if you memorized answers.
Don’t overthink it.
- Most interview questions are not designed to trick you. The interviewer might want to see how quickly you can think on your feet, or check out your critical-thinking skills or creativity. If the question sounds overly complicated, try to get a better understanding of it by asking the interviewer to repeat the question or to provide clarification
Don’t look for the “right” answer.
- Many times there is no specific correct answer. Think about what the interviewer is looking for in their answer. Do they want to know if you work well with others? Do they want to know if you can meet deadlines? A better understanding of the question will help you come up with your most appropriate response.
Be honest about mistakes, but don’t offer more information than necessary.
- Maybe you missed a deadline, couldn’t get along with a coworker or were involuntarily terminated from a previous position. Reflect on your negative experiences and think about what you learned. Respond to the question truthfully, stating what you learned from it. After you answer, move on and don’t dwell on it.
Make it positive.
- For any question, try to give the most positive answer possible. Provide answers that show your skills and qualities.
Examples of difficult questions
Why did you leave your last job?
- NEVER speak negatively of your previous employer or colleagues. If asked about termination, address the question from a positive perspective by stating what you learned from it.
Tell me about a time when you didn’t get along with a colleague.
- Again, NEVER speak ill of colleagues. Don’t put the blame on yourself here either. Almost everyone knows someone who is a challenge to get along with. It might be a misunderstanding, a difference of opinion or something entirely different. Instead of providing detail on the relationship, speak of how you overcame your differences to get your job done.
Illegal interview questions
There is an infinite number of questions you can be asked in an interview, so it may come as a surprise that some questions are actually off limits. If a question opens the door for discrimination, it is probably inappropriate for the interviewer to ask. Oftentimes, it is in the wording of the question, as the topic might be something necessary to know for the job (such as your ability to lift a certain number of pounds). Keep in mind that there might be no ill intent on the part of the person who asked; it might have come up naturally in your conversation (such as questions about where you are from). Though these questions are off limits, there are related questions that are legal. Also, employers can require background checks and/or drug tests, which might reveal some of the answers to these questions.
Examples of illegal questions
- Do you have any disabilities?
- How old are you?
- What is your height and weight?
- Do you have kids or plan to have them?
- What is your maiden name?
- What is your military discharge status?
- Are you a U.S. citizen?
- What religion do you practice?
- Have you ever been arrested?
- Do you drink, smoke or take drugs?
- Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?
- Are you a member of the National Guard or Army Reserves?
Appropriate responses to illegal questions
- You can answer the question. If the question doesn’t offend you and you are not worried about discrimination, you can choose to answer the question asked. You can also add something that will help your answer be seen in a more positive way. For example: If asked, “How old are you?” you can answer, “I am 63, and with my age comes many years of experience learning how to have effective relationships with clients and optimal productivity in the workplace.”
- You can respond with what you feel was the purpose of the question. For example: If someone asks if you have kids, you can say something like, “There is nothing in my personal life that will keep me from being able to perform well in this position.” They might notice that you did not answer the actual question, so be prepared for a follow-up question just in case your response was not what they were looking for.
- You can refuse to answer question. This is a risky move, as the interviewer might see you as uncooperative. If you refuse, be as polite as possible in your answer. For example: “I would be a great asset to your organization and would really like to talk more about how I can contribute.”
Verbal and nonverbal cues
When you think of communicating, you often think only of words that are spoken between two or more individuals. However, much communication involves no words at all. Rather, it is comprised of nonverbal cues you are yielding as you speak or listen. This can be in the form of body language, sounds, or even personal space. During an interview it is important to be in tune with not only your verbal communication, but also your nonverbal communication; it can say so much more than your actual words. Below are some nonverbal cues to be cognizant of throughout your interview:
- Facial expressions: Make sure to smile at everyone you meet.
- Gaze: Look at the interviewer often, especially while she is talking. But, don’t stare at her the whole time, however, because this will seem unnatural and will probably make her feel uncomfortable. If you have more than one interviewer, look at the one talking. When you respond, look at all of the interviewers.
- Fidgeting: Keep movements to a minimum when you are sitting down with the interviewer. If you tend to move your hands a lot or touch your face, try clasping your hands together in your lap. This can keep you from distracting the interviewer with your movements.
- Crossing your arms: Don’t sit or stand with your arms crossed, as this will make you look closed off and uninviting.
- Head nods: Nod your head when the interviewer is explaining something. He will be able to understand that you are listening and comprehending what he is saying.
- Posture: Sit up and lean forward to show your interest.
How employers evaluate interviews
You can expect that every company to which you apply will be looking for slightly different qualities in a candidate. Even if the job title is the same, company missions and employees can have big variations. This is another reason to research the company as much as possible.
The choice of interview questions will be designed to find qualities and skills that match well with the position. Read the job posting in depth so that you can get a very clear picture of the ideal candidate. Save the job posting to your computer in case it is removed prior to the interview. Make sure that you can relate yourself as much as possible to all the required and desired qualifications listed in the posting.
Remember that there is not always a “right” answer to the interview questions. Many times the employer is trying to learn about your personality and whether or not you fit well within the company. Below are a few additional questions the employer will be asking himself about you:
- Do the interviewee’s qualifications match the position?
- Did the candidate answer my questions appropriately?
- Is the candidate teachable?
- Will the candidate fit well with the other employees?
- Does the candidate understand the job, the company and our goals?
- Is the candidate excited about and interested in the position?
- Will the candidate want to stay long-term?
Your responses to the interview questions should help the interviewer answer these questions.
Questions you should ask
The interview should be a two-way street; the interviewer is finding out about you, and you are finding out about the company. Therefore, asking questions shows you are interested in the organization, that you are organized and thoughtful, and that you want to learn more. Is the environment a good fit for you? Is the work what you thought it would be? What will your co-workers be like? Do you want to work there? A good rule of thumb is to ask questions you cannot get answered on the website, and that don’t pertain to vacation, salary or benefits. Some example questions might include:
- If you were to hire me, what would you like me to accomplish in three, six and nine months?
- How would you describe the culture of the organization?
- Is this a newly created position?
- What is the biggest challenge of this position?
- May I have your business card?
- When can I expect to hear from you?
After the interview
You have now completed the hard part of the interview process! Give yourself a pat on the back for your efforts. Now you have just a few more steps until the interview process is complete:
- Reflect upon what you did well and also areas in which to improve. Write down anything you want to practice before the next interview, such as challenging questions you had.
- Write a thank-you note to everyone with whom you met at the company within 24 hours.
- Follow-up according to their hiring timeline, as appropriate.