As a Career Services professional who teaches interviewing to hundreds of students annually, each of them vying for some of the most competitive opportunities in the country, I geek out every time I get to talk, teach, or practice interviewing.
Whether you’re trying to break into a startup, mom and pop-business, fortune 500 company, or global NGO, there are a few simple and time efficient things you can do to prepare to absolutely crush your interview.
Before The Interview
Learn Everything You Can About Your Target Organization, Office, and Interviewers
I often find that candidates don’t know much about the organization to which they’re applying. At the very least, I suggest you know the following: basic information about the organization’s mission, competitors, industry or market, client base, flagship products or programming, and recent news/headlines. It’s obviously not possible nor practical to learn everything about your target organization, but 1-2 hours of research should provide you with enough baseline knowledge to understand organizational priorities.
Often overlooked, but just as important, is taking time to research the specific people interviewing you. Learn anything you can about individuals you’ll be spending significant amounts of time with (e.g., alma maters, work history, press coverage, social media presence, etc.). The more insight you have into the person that’s interviewing you, the better chance you have of identifying areas off which to build rapport. This can provide rich context for better targeting your answers and having more meaningful conversations.
Craft A Compelling (But True) Reason For Why You Want the Job
In almost every interview, “Why (Organization Name or Position Title)”, “What Interested You in This Position” or some kind of permutation therein is the first question asked.
The trick to answering these types of questions is to be specific, targeted, genuine, and, ideally, memorable. Think through what, specifically, about this opportunity is unique? Why do you want to join this community? What 2-3 experiences or character traits do you offer that makes YOU uniquely qualified?
For instance: “There are so many things I like about this job but, of everything, I’d say the opportunity to develop relationships in new and local markets is the most exciting. I’ve been working in the area for three years, and already have contacts at Organization X, Y, and Z that would be interested in partnering with us.”
Targeted research can also come in handy. Prior to your interview, try to speak with at least one person connected to your target organization to learn more about the culture and extrapolate potential talking points. If that’s not possible, focus on one or two specific aspects of the opportunity that are genuinely appealing to you, and connect them to your work history and/or personal interests.
The people sitting on the other side of the table from you want someone who’s not just going to be competent, but who is also interested in doing the work. Enthusiasm and warmth go a long way towards selling yourself and establishing rapport with your interviewers, while providing you with positive momentum for the questions that follow.
Prepare 6-8 Compelling Examples of Past Successes
Behavioral Interviewing, where you’re asked to cite specific examples of your past experiences, is widely practiced, as past experiences are generally the best indicators of future behavior.
To prepare for these questions, I suggest identifying a number of past successes and/or challenges you resolved that they’re particularly proud of. While I don’t think there’s a magic number, I find that 6-8 examples are usually easy enough to remember and can cover a lot of potential questions. The same answer you give to “Provide an example of a time where you launched a new program”, could very well apply to “Provide an example of a time you worked through a significant obstacle”.
For each one example, write out the context of the presenting issue, specific actions that you took, and the positive end result. Think of the acronym CAR as a shortcut.
- Context – “I had just started working for this Rent-A-Car company when an irate customer came in saying he was overcharged. I asked him which piece of his bill he was upset with, and learned his daily wasn’t discounted at the rate he was used to. As I looked into the matter more, I saw that he had been doing business with the company for years, and generally paid roughly 20% less than what he was charged for the week… a byproduct of our increased fee system and the fact that he didn’t book with his company credit card.”
- Action – “I let the man vent for a few minutes, and didn’t interrupt as he explained why he had received a discounted rate in the past through his company. I empathetically told him I’d be upset too, as I brainstormed potential solutions. I quickly calculated that two days of a free rental would slightly more than make up for the lost cost, and offered him two free rental days on us.”
- Result – “The customer shook my hand, thanked me for my patience, and told me he’d be back soon with more business. Sure enough, he continued to rent from us, and even referred a few clients our way.”
Like anything, the more you practice interviewing, the better you become.
Consider hiring a career/interview coach and scheduling a practice interview. A good coach will run you a few hundred dollars; money well spent if you get the job.
Day Of Your Interview
Body Language Priming
If you haven’t seen Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk: “Your Body Shapes Who You Are“, check it out. As silly as it sounds, just 15-20 seconds of “Power Posing” will go a long way towards making you feeling more confident.
Prime your mind and body to kick butt—you’ll thank yourself (and Amy!) later.
I’ve also found that quick, but intense, exercise sessions do a lot for activating your brain and elevating energy levels. Even 3-5 minutes of high-intensity exercise can help you feel sharper and more confident.
Ask Targeted, Insightful, and Inclusive Questions
Your fourth grade teacher lied to you… there are stupid questions. I’ve personally seen candidates ask about vacation time, benefits, and aspects of the job that either indicated they weren’t all that interested or could have been answered with a bit more research.
Another common mistake I see is the candidate not asking questions targeted towards, or inclusive of, the specific people in the room. Again – a tiny bit of research into the individual’s interviewing you can go a long way. For each specific question you craft, I’d suggest following one of two strategies or a combination therein.
- Ask something that shows your level insight into the organization and allows anyone to answer. For example: “In my time here, I’ve noticed ________. What makes (organization name) unique?”. Another question I like: “What are you looking for in an ideal candidate”, will oftentimes give you a read on how well you’re doing, as the interviewers will likely either repeat talking points from your conversation or point out some of your areas of weakness. Either way, I’ve found this question is an easy way to take the pulse of the room.
- Ask targeted and specific questions to each individual about their areas of expertise. This approach requires a bit more research, quick-thinking, and the ability to tactfully elicit quick responses. When pulled off well, though, it’s an absolute home run. During a Director of Career Services search, I saw a candidate address eight of his potential team members by name asking them a specific and relevant question about their role (.e.g, “what kinds of trends do you notice at the front desk”, “how do you incentivize programmatic participation”, etc.). This sealed the deal for our team, who made an offer to the candidate that very night.
Following The Interview
Nail the Follow-up
Send a quick, but thoughtful email or handwritten thank you note expressing your gratitude for the opportunity to interview with their organization. Be sure to reference one specific thing you discussed, and leave the door open for potential future correspondence.
Interviewing can be intimidating, but, like anything, gets easier with practice. 6-10 hours of targeted research, preparation, and practice will go along way towards making you feel more confident, and prime you for success.
Above are just a few of my tips. I’d love to hear from you, though… what do YOU do to prepare for interviews?