A career advisor's guide to preparing for a job interview
By Elizabeth Exline
May 25, 2021 • 10 minute read
At a glance
Interviewing is a nerve-wracking, but essential, part of any job search. Ease your nerves by knowing how to prepare for a job interview (both in-person and virtual) ahead of time.
Practice common job interview questions before the big day to boost your confidence. If you’re caught off guard by a question, don’t be afraid to pause or ask the interviewer for clarification.
Keep in touch with your recruiter and send a thank-you email to your interviewers after a job interview.
If you need more help, download our Interview Guide on how to prepare for an interview, which includes additional tips and resources.
Job interviews 101
There’s a reason why job interviews are the stuff of nightmares. The idea of being caught off guard when you’re trying to impress someone is enough to give even the most confident person pause. But interviewing is an essential part of any successful job search. The key to doing it well is to prepare, practice and perhaps reframe your perspective a little. An interview, after all, is more than just an opportunity to prove you’re a good candidate for a role. It’s also a chance to see if the role is something you really want.
Standing out in an interview can be difficult, especially if you haven’t been interviewing for a job in a while. To make a great first (and second and third…) impression in your job interview or interviews, we’ve compiled some of the best advice, job interview strategies and virtual interview tips. Read on to learn how to stand out!
Even the bravest person can get nervous before an interview! For more tips, read our Interview Guide, which includes additional interview guidance.
Click on the image to download our step-by-step resume guide
“Always research the company to understand the style of dress appropriate for the workplace,” says Steven Starks, senior manager of Career Advising Programs and Operations at University of Phoenix. “You can even ask a human resources representative [at the hiring company] if you don’t know. Every workplace is different in terms of level of formality, but it’s safe to dress one level up from the normal work attire. And it goes without saying that you should be well-groomed with an outfit that is clean, wrinkle-free and comfortable but not loose.”
Select an outfit the evening before your interview. Be sure to try it on and check yourself out from every angle to make sure it creates the impression you want it to create. Doing this in advance will save you time and frustration in the morning, which means you can devote any extra hours you have to prepare for the hard part: job interview questions.
Here’s what to do:
Review the original job description. If it’s no longer available to you because the posting expired or you can’t find it, email the recruiter or hiring manager to request it again. Then print it out and make notes, either on paper or mentally, of how you meet each qualification. Think about examples that illustrate your abilities.
Research the company. Check out what other employees say about working at the company (Glassdoor is a great resource for this) but also look at other perspectives. Is the company involved in any corporate responsibility projects? How big is it? When was it founded? Who comprises the leadership? Knowing these facts can make your interview more of a conversation where you and your interviewer are speaking the same language.
Compare your resumé with the job description. If, for example, you are being hired to work in PR, look for phrases in your resumé that you can match to the ones in the job description, such as “draft press releases” or “manage social media campaigns.” These are clues about where your conversation during the job interview will take you.
Anticipate interview questions and your answers. Starks notes: “The most common interview questions prompt you to talk about your background, motivations, strengths (and weaknesses) and knowledge of the company and position. No matter how the questions are phrased, these topics are nearly universal to any job interview.
“You should also expect behavioral questions that ask you to share specific examples of how you’ve demonstrated certain skills. When answering behavioral questions, use the STAR format, which stands for situation, task, action and result. It’s a helpful way to structure your responses by providing context about the situation, explaining the task you set out to achieve, describing the specific actions you took, and sharing the results or outcome of your actions,” he says.
And, to all of this, add the inevitable curveball question. You can’t prepare for what you don’t know to expect (e.g., “What was the biggest mistake you ever made at work?”) but you can expect the unexpected. If you can’t think of an answer on the spot, ask to return to that question later in the interview. Thinking clearly to provide a good answer can take time, and it’s okay to ask for it.
5 experts tips for your next job interview
1. Change your lens
For anyone anxious about going into an interview, it can boost your confidence to remember that you’ve already passed the first test. If a hiring manager wants to meet you, it’s because he or she agrees that your skills and experience line up with those required by the role.
Consider a job interview a way to learn more about both a position and a company. Just as you are more than your resumé, the work experience at a company is more than a job listing.
In the end, a job interview is a two-way street. You’re not there to perform or impress. You’re there to share and to learn.
2. Preparation is key
It’s important to prepare to make the most of a job interview. And this begins with due diligence. Research the company where you’re applying to learn about its history, mission and achievement.
Similarly, check out the LinkedIn profiles of anyone interviewing you. It helps to know how you can relate to the person, and if you have contacts or experience in common, so much the better.
Next, pull together everything you’ll need for the interview. Try on your outfit ahead of time to make sure it fits well, looks professional and is clean and ready for your big day. Make sure you bring several copies of your resumé, a list of professional references and a notepad and pen to take notes during your interview.
Much of this applies to virtual interviews as well. It’s important to dress appropriately, make eye contact and practice professional body language. (No slouching!) But instead of making copies of your resumé, you should test your technology ahead of time to ensure it’s in working order. Also, find a quiet, distraction-free space where you can take the interview.
Finally, it’s a good idea to use all the research you’ve done to come up with a list of thoughtful and relevant questions for your interviewer. Questions about job responsibilities, company culture and expectations help pull back the curtain on what working in that position would be like on a day-to-day basis.
3. Tips for extroverts and introverts
When it comes to presenting yourself in an honest and positive light, there are some universal tips out there. It’s a good idea, for example, to master the STAR method of answering questions. But it’s also wise to consider your personality’s strengths and weaknesses in the context of an interview.
Introverts and extroverts handle social situations very differently and accordingly bring their own assets and challenges to the table.
If you feel energized after social interactions, if you are what’s commonly known as a “people person,” you can put that rapport-building talent to work for you. Being enthusiastic and a good storyteller can burnish your image, for example. But take those qualities too far, and you can appear disingenuous or sales-like, which might hinder you.
Keep in mind the importance of being yourself but not selling yourself, asking questions about the company and interviewer, and responding to the social cues the person you’re talking with is giving you.
For people who identify as introverted, interviews present a unique challenge: Feeling comfortable with someone takes time for an introvert — and time is one thing you don’t usually have in an interview. Still, there are ways to hack this structural disadvantage. For starters, you’ll need to practice reviewing your experience and answers to common interview questions.
Doing this with a friend is best, but you can also do it alone. The goal is to become fluent in talking about yourself, your experiences and your challenges and successes. Do it frequently enough, and you don’t have to overthink it in an interview. It may even help you relax to be in familiar territory.
It can also help to write out responses to standard interview questions. This process not only solidifies your responses but also can help clarify your message and allow you to deliver it succinctly and efficiently.
4. When time is against you
While the ideal interview situation might include a few days of lead time, the real world doesn’t always allow for that. So, what do you do when you’re invited to interview … that afternoon?
There are a couple of ways to set yourself up for success in a situation like this. First, ask for a detailed job description, do basic research on the company and then figure out where you need to be and how much time you need to get there. (Or, for virtual interviews, download the requisite platform and identify a quiet place to take the meeting.) Even having a top line understanding of the company’s history, mission, size and partners will help you develop relevant responses to interview questions.
Next, think about some situations that underscore your skills and achievements and get ready to talk about them during your job interview. You won’t be able to rehearse this extensively, but identifying a few key experiences that you can reference during your interview will help you get your point across.
The good news? If you don’t have a lot of time to prepare, your interviewer may give you a little more latitude during the conversation.
5. The end is just the beginning
After your interview, be sure to follow up with everyone you talked to. Whether it’s an email or an official thank-you note, express appreciation for their time and let them know how much you’d like to work with them in the future.
If you’ve been informed of when a decision will be made, or if further interviews are required, mark your calendar to follow up at the right time. Being proactive with this step, after all, is just one more way to demonstrate you have the skills and the drive to take on the job.
Addressing salary expectations
The toughest part of a job interview process may just be the salary negotiation. If you’re asked about your salary expectations (which can happen before the interview itself), think about answering this without getting too specific. (If your salary is too high and you seem inflexible, it could be a dealbreaker for the company.)
For example, if the range in your industry is about $90,000, don’t ask for $150,000 and hope the company will meet it. That kind of “highball” offer could put off a company, especially a small one. Instead, consider phrasing your salary requirements as negotiable: “Given my qualifications and achievements, my salary requirement is $60,000 (negotiable).”
“Effective negotiation begins with research,” says Starks. “You should have a thorough understanding of the salary range for the role and for the market you’re in. Use multiple sites like Salary.com, Payscale.com, Glassdoor.com or LinkedIn.com/salary to get an average. Also, research professional associations that may have salary data. Leverage your network to inquire about the kind of compensation package to expect, depending on certain levels of experience.”
Starks also recommends that, when negotiating, you concentrate mainly on your “must-have” requirements and separate them from things you’d like your employer to offer you as part of the role (aka the “nice-to-haves”).
Says Starks: “There’s more to a job than just compensation, so be prepared to negotiate for what matters most to you instead of just negotiating for the sake of ‘getting more.’”
He adds that: “Negotiating is about creating a win-win scenario, not a loser-and-a-winner outcome. When engaging in negotiation, do not leverage emotional arguments or personal reasons, but rather make a business case for what you want. For example, asking to work remotely because you want to save money on car repairs isn’t going to serve you. Instead, build a case for how it may lead to increased productivity.”
Need additional career support? Visit the University of Phoenix YouTube channel to hear 5 steps to preparing for a successful interview from UOPX career advisor Jason Robert.
Virtual interview tips and surprises
In today’s work-from-home world, virtual interviews are increasingly the norm. Be prepared with the following:
Have a quiet space with a neutral background where you can conduct the interview.
Make sure your internet connection is good, your camera is on and you have the right platform installed on your device.
Check for any time differences and plan accordingly. Your interviewer may have booked you for a 2 p.m. call, but if that person is in a different time zone, you may need to be ready earlier or later than that.
Look at the camera during your interview, not your screen.
Minimize disruptions, even if that means turning on a movie for the kids in a different room while you take your interview.
Finally, if your interviewer surprises you with a highly specific question and you don’t know the answer, don’t panic.
As Starks says: “Make your best attempt. Without an answer, the interviewer is unable to evaluate you as a candidate. Therefore, having no response, or simply saying “I don’t know,” is the worst response you can give. To the best of your ability, think about the question out loud and let the interviewer understand your thought process as you arrive at the best possible answer.”
Starks suggests having an example ready of a time you were stumped by something in your working life and how you resolved it. Maybe, he says, “you reached out to your network to crowdsource the collective wisdom of your contacts or rapidly upskilled by reading books or taking online courses.”
Overall, standing out in an interview requires time to prepare and practice, with the patience to know that interviewing itself is a skill and one that improves with every experience. So even if you don’t get the first job you interview for, know that the interview alone has served you. And there’s always the next one!