How to Ace a Job Interview with Radical Preparation
Understand what your interviewers want and get the job you want
Job interviews are terrifying. Every interview I’ve been to has petrified me, and I’ve been to a lot of interviews. I passed some; I failed others. I’ve tried various techniques to mask my naive, nervous, and neurotic self. I tried drinking coffee. I tried positive affirmations. I tried not preparing at all (I thought it would make me appear natural).
Nothing worked, except for preparation. But of course, when I introduce a buzz word like preparation, it begs the question: What does preparation mean? I can’t capture its essence in one line, but in essence, it’s training for competition day.
Not preparing for interviews is like blindly shooting at a target and hoping to hit the mark. Preparing for interviews is like being a sniper who knows how to aim. Sure, you still might miss, but you have a better shot.
Learning to prepare for interviews changed my life. I mean it. I went from being jobless to becoming a tutor, sales assistant, software engineer, business analyst, management consultant, and now, a writer. Of course, the changes didn’t happen overnight. I spent years iterating on my process. I failed, learned, improved, and created a repeatable system to follow. Most importantly, I now never go into an interview without knowing what I’m doing. In success, I get the job I want. In failure, I know I tried my best.
This guide is for standard interviews. The same concepts can be applied to technical (and other) interviews, but I haven’t included specific details about those cases here.
🤷♀️ Why Prepare?
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
― Benjamin Franklin
I spent a lot of time debating whether I should include this section. I decided it was too important to leave out, because, for some strange reason, we humans have an aversion to preparation. There’s something taboo about preparing for interviews: it feels naughty. Part of it comes feeling that you’re not your true self; the other part comes from the pain of trying and still failing.
I wish I had a lovely narrative about how preparing for interviews isn’t being inauthentic and that trying but still failing is an opportunity to exercise your growth mindset, but I won’t do that. Let’s brush ego-satisfaction aside and understand that an interview is a competition. It’s a battlefield with hundreds (if not, thousands) of other applicants who applied for the same role.
If you want to win a competition, you must treat it like one.
Treat interviews like competition
If you were competing in a sport, you would prepare, so treat interviews the same way. Other people are preparing every day, and if you want to win, you need the same training.
So, the first thing to do is to take your interview seriously. Get your mind right: bring out a competitive mindset and understand you have to try your best.
I used to hate thinking of interviews as competition. It felt toxic. But there were always other people in my interviews who prepared, and they consistently outperformed me. I was sick of it. So I accepted the competitive nature of interviews, and I haven’t looked back since. Sure, it has made every interview hurt more, but since it forces me to try, it has made me perform better.
There’s one caveat: competing and losing hurts.
Lose your ego
When you don’t try, you can tell yourself you didn’t care. When you try and fail, you have no excuses. You have to tell yourself that you tried and failed. Your inadequacy sucker punches your ego, and it hurts. Someone stared into your soul and didn’t like what they saw — a horrible feeling.
You need to get yourself out of this mindset and take each interview as a learning opportunity. You can’t learn if you don’t try. It’s like taking an exam without studying, failing, and then not knowing where you went wrong.
Being rejected isn’t the end of the world. Failing after you prepared means you made the most out of the opportunity, and you got a little closer to acing an interview. Your interview preparation doesn’t go to waste; the training comes with you to the next interview.
Before I let myself get hurt, I couldn’t bring myself to take interviews seriously. I wanted to take the safe route and tell myself that I didn’t care about getting a job. But I was sick of being unemployed. So, I put my ego aside and gave every interview my best shot. I still failed, but I kept repeating the process, and eventually, I got a job offer (multiple ones).
Treating interviews as competition and losing your ego weaves together to put you in the mindset of someone who cares enough to prepare, and tries enough to risk getting hurt.
Now that you’re ready to prepare, what can you do?
🕵️♀️ Prepare for the Questions They’ll Definitely Ask
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This step appears to be obvious, but somehow, many people (including myself) forget to prepare for it. If you know beforehand what interviewers will definitely (or very likely) ask you, prepare. If you need to show a design portfolio, prepare. If you need to solve a case study, prepare. If you need to unravel a programming challenge, prepare.
If you don’t know what to prepare for, there are two questions you’ll almost definitely be asked in every interview:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why do you want this role?
It’s elementary to prepare for these two questions above all else: they are the fundamental building blocks for every other question. I’ve been asked a variation of these two questions in every interview I’ve had. I ask these two questions every I interview someone.
Tell me about yourself
This question is usually the first of every interview. It’s a simple conversation-starter, but it’s also an opportunity for the interviewee to showcase their best qualities and to steer the conversation in a favorable direction.
This question is not a time to recall everything on your resume, not a time to brag about your about all your achievements, and not a time to dive deep into your personal life. It’s a time for a fast overview of your professional personality (with a hint of personal).
An effective answer to this question includes: displaying qualities that fit the company culture, appearing as if this role was made for you, and a quick fun fact. Example:
“I’ve spent the last six years as a product manager for Cool Company Inc., where I changed the product from X to Y. On the side, I’ve recently started working on building a social enterprise that uses art to empower homeless young people. If there’s one thing I love in life, it’s the creation process, which is why I’m interviewing for this position.”
Write down your answer. I always thought I could answer this question without preparing, but after giving an unsatisfying answer more than a few times, I decided to write it down. It seems evident to me now: starting an interview with a rehearsed but genuine answer puts me in the driver’s seat. I get to guide the interviewer to questions I want them to ask. I’ve found that preparing for a simple question like this is similar to making your bed: you get it out of the way not only to focus on more important things, but also to prepare yourself for what’s ahead.
Why do you want this role?
This question can come in many forms. Why do you want to join this company? Why do you want this job? Why do you want this position? Interviewers have asked this question for centuries (perhaps even millennia). It’s an open-ended question designed to interrogate your motivations.
The best answers to this question come with a certain mystique. They make the interviewer believe that the interviewee was destined for the role: that their whole lives have led to the moment they’re in now, and it’s time for them to live their fates.
It’s hard to break down exactly what’s required to deliver an answer to this question that completely engages your interviewer. But here are some topics that those answers talk about:
- Career trajectory
- Outside-of-work experiences
“I’ve been creating things my entire life. Like I said, I was a product manager for Cool Company Inc., and I’m currently building a social enterprise. Before that I was running an eCommerce site selling figurines, and before that, I built my own skateboards and sold them. When I was a kid, I was always playing with Lego, building figurines, or making my own card games.
Hot Company Inc. builds amazing products. I use X product every day, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed using it, but what would be even better, is if I could work on it and improve it. To follow one of your values, honesty, I’ve heard great things about your collaborative culture. I spent a large amount of time in my previous role siloed, which I didn’t hate, but I found myself missing teamwork — something that I know Hot Company Inc. values highly.
Sure, this sort of response is a little overkill. But you likely don’t have that problem: most people underkill rather than overkill because they don’t have enough to say.
A pitfall to avoid is dishonesty. When displaying a high level of enthusiasm, don’t lie: it’s harder to fool an interviewer when emotions are high. If you read the example above with a disinterested or overly interested voice, they’ll see through you (unless they have low emotional intelligence). Interviewers have sat through hundreds — if not thousands — of other interviews: they know how to spot a faker.
I used to fear this question. Why do I want this role? I want money. I want to fit into society. I want my friends to think I’m cool. There are a lot of reasons to want a role, and there’s no time to say all of them. Once I learned what interviewers were looking for (someone who genuinely wants to be there), I learned to bring out the qualities that interviewers wanted. The result? I now love this question, because I have a rehearsed answer that gives me an in.
🌳 Reflect on Your Experiences
“If I speak of myself in different ways, that is because I look at myself in different ways.”
― Michel de Montaigne
Before battling the external, fix the internal. Take a look at yourself and understand your nuances and quirks. Everyone has different characteristics that make them who they are, and without understanding your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll enter the interview with no self-awareness.
There’s a lot of general advice: correct posture, power poses, sleep well. Sure, they might work, but none of them can compare with getting to know yourself.
Recall feedback from interviewers, but be critical
Getting feedback is essential for growth, but it’s difficult to get genuine feedback. In the context of interviews, most interviewers don’t care about the rejected. They interview so many people, and spending their time on people who will work with them is a better return on investment than wasting it on people they reject.
A lot of feedback from interviews will be arbitrary and even blatantly incorrect. But sometimes, there’s a gem. Treasure them, because good feedback is hard to come by. Look back on your experiences and recall what your interviewers have said. Ask yourself:
- Did my interviewers give me any feedback?
- Is the feedback legitimate?
- If the feedback is noteworthy, how can I improve?
I use this technique after each interview experience to reflect on what I could improve. There’s always room for improvement, and when an interviewer gives non-generic feedback, I write down everything they say. Real feedback often appears as a lengthier discussion rather than a get-it-over-and-done-with monologue. By integrating interviewer feedback into my preparation, I’ve been able to catch weaknesses that I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.
Once you finish with external feedback, it’s time for some self-reflection.
Give feedback to yourself
Two questions to ask yourself after every interview:
- What went well?
- How can I improve?
The first helps you understand your strengths; the second helps you understand your weaknesses. Self-reflection promotes a growth mindset. It enables you to take a birds-eye-view perspective on yourself, building self-awareness: a critical skill in interviews (and in life).
Work typically involves collaboration with others. A self-aware job applicant is easier to work with than an unconscious one.
I started by journaling answers to the questions in a journal, and sure, there are benefits to writing it down, but it’s unnecessary. Remind yourself (or set reminders) to question your experiences. If you’re neurotic like me, there will be emotionally charged moments in interviews that don’t erase themselves for weeks. Hold onto those moments, because they teach the most: treat them like a puzzle to figure out why your body is carrying heavy feelings.
Once you know your strengths and weaknesses, it’s time to build an interview strategy around them. Understanding yourself takes further reflection to understand what works and what doesn’t work. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so I can’t give you a blueprint.
This article isn’t an ethical discussion, so I don’t want to get into whether lying is right or wrong, but let’s discuss the ability to lie.
Every time I lied in interviews, I could tell by my interviewers’ faces that they sensed ingenuity. Sure, I’ve passed white lies, but serious lies are something I can’t deliver. So I stopped lying. On the other hand, I have friends who can orchestrate stories out of their asses and present themselves in a fictitious glory of bullshit. For them, lying is a strength; for me, it’s a weakness.
You want to know your interview style. I learned that my primary skill is creating an authentic connection with the interviewer (possibly stemming from my inability to lie). I love understanding how people live, and my investigative nature has displayed a curiosity that most of my interviewers appreciate. I have a knack for shifting questions from the mundane to the personal: a skill I now use to my advantage.
📝 Keep a List of Every Story You Have
“Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.”
— Hilary Mantel
Most questions will be about your experiences. These are called behavioral questions, and they require you to answer with a story.
You can’t anticipate every single question, but you can adapt the stories you have to them. So keep a list of stories. I keep all of my stories in an Evernote notebook, but you can keep them wherever you wish. Make sure to find a place where you can iterate: a place where stories can be added, edited, and removed as you grow.
Write every story you have
Once you’ve decided where to keep your list, it’s time to create the list. You won’t be able to do this in one day; if you’re anything like me, you can’t recall every story in your life at once. You can improve your list later, so just try to create a habit for now: every time you remember a story, write it down.
Soon, you’ll have a compiled of stories to answer every question interviewers throw at you. A hidden benefit of this approach is that it lasts for your next interview. Your stories don’t die.
Start with your most impactful experiences: competitions, projects, jobs. If your hobbies display work ethic, like a food photography Instagram, write out these experiences too.
If it helps, write your stories out as if you’re answering: Tell me about X. Start with an open-ended approach. For more specific questions, find patterns in your stories and create questions to them. Here are some examples:
- Tell me about a time you worked with someone you didn’t like.
- Tell me about a time you had to compromise.
- Tell me about a time you had tight deadlines.
Every story-based question can be rephrased into a “tell me about” question. If you run out of ideas, google lists of behavioral questions.
Keep improving your list. If something new happens, write the story. If you remember a story, write the story. If you create something, write a story.
The STARL-P method
You can answer behavioral questions however you want, but there’s also a standard way to answer them: the STARL-P method. The structure:
- Situation: The context.
- Task: What you had to do.
- Action: What you did to resolve the task.
- Result: The outcome of your actions, relating back to the situation and task.
- Learning/Planning: What you learned.
Situation: When Pokémon Go first came out, my friends and I decided we wanted to create a complementary app for it, in hopes of going viral but also to learn mobile app development. We decided to develop an app for setting up Pokémon Go events, plotting events on a map to suit the Pokémon theme.
Task: My team of five, including me, decided to create the MVP for our app while learning iOS development at the same time. But we had to do it fast, so we gave ourselves a two-week deadline.
Action: We committed all of our free time to it. We learned from every resource possible. We sat in the same room and helped each other with bugs. We used as many APIs (Application Programming Interface) as we could to reduce the amount of time we would have to spend to create an MVP (Minimum Viable Product).
Result: Since it was our first time doing mobile app development, we didn’t create the most beautiful app. But after two weeks, we had an MVP that worked. We shipped to the app store. It was the first project I had ever completed that was out in the world, shipped for anyone to use.
Learning/Planning: The obvious answer is that I learned mobile app development. But more than that, I learned that we all had the power to create things that had an impact on the world. Since then, the idea that I can change things around me has stayed with me for every project I’ve done.
This story is a real example of mine that I’ve actually delivered in interviews. It’s not my go-to choice for an answer, but when I find that my stories are bland, I add in a little bit of Pokémon Go to spice things up.
If you ever struggle to structure your stories, default to the STARL-P method. There are other ways to answer behavioral questions, and if you believe you can be more engaging than copying others’ standards, then, by all means, follow your heart. But the structure is there for you whenever you need it.
A curated list forever
I’m not searching for jobs right now (happily employed), but I still have my list. If I ever needed a job again, I wouldn’t need to start over and remember every story I have. That’s the main idea of the list of stories. I used to scramble for stories before every interview. It was not only exhausting; it made me perform worse in interviews.
Our minds can only hold so much information. It’s harder for us to recall information than to recognize it. So, before every interview, read through your list of stories. There’s a good chance you won’t have to memorize anything (I don’t) because they’re your stories: you can remember what happened if someone reminds you. In this case, it’s a list reminding you.
During your interview, delivering these stories should be much more comfortable than if you didn’t read your list. If you have a diverse enough list, you’ll be able to tackle most questions with ease. When interviewers ask me a behavioral question, I immediately remember my list of stories and choose the one that fits it best.
🍁 Understand the Structure of Other Questions
“All things are ready, if our mind be so.”
— William Shakespeare
To go through every interview question would be impossible. But there are — in general — three other types of questions:
Most of these questions can’t be answered with stories, but even within these categories, the questions vary greatly. The best thing you can do is to understand the high-level purpose of these questions and to practice answering them.
Write down answers to these questions in the same place you have your other answers.
Company questions are questions about the organization that’s interviewing you for the role. Interviewers ask these questions to check if you care about the industry, culture, and company itself.
Sample questions to answer:
- Why do you want to join Hot Company Inc.?
- What separates Hot Company Inc. with its competitors?
- What is your favorite value of Hot Company Inc.?
To prepare for these questions, research everything you can about your company. Here are some things you should find out:
- Core mission
- Competitive advantage
- Recent news
- Industry trends
There are different ways to find this information, and it varies between companies. Sometimes companies can be so secretive that you may not find this information at all. I would start by searching through the company website and with rigorous googling.
Personality questions are designed to test your self-awareness. Work means collaboration; collaboration means communication; communication is improved by self-awareness. Interviewers are looking for someone who understands themselves because a person who understands themselves knows how their actions influence the world around them.
Sample questions to answer:
- What is your biggest strength/weakness?
- What do you do outside of work?
- What would someone who doesn’t like you say about you?
The best answers to these questions come with a little bit of a surprise. Unique answers to these questions beat cookie-cutter ones because they appear more genuine. Saying that your biggest weakness is that you work too hard is weaker than saying your biggest weakness is your open-mindedness.
Other than practicing these questions, journaling helps with answering this self-awareness. Putting your thoughts to paper forces your feelings out and enables you to understand your thoughts.
Situational questions attempt to draw out your thought patterns to understand how you think and what you prioritize. Interviewers look for people who take into account all variables and prioritize reasonably, which typically means considering the self-interests of others.
Sample questions to answer:
- Your manager demands you to stay overtime, but you already have family commitments that night. What would you do?
- Your manager asks you to do a task that — from your previous experience — you believe will fail. What would you do?
- Your colleague presents your ideas as their own, receiving praise. Your ideas then start being implemented. No one knows, except you and your colleague. What would you do?
When answering these questions, think of all the variables in the situation and mentally categorize them based on importance. Then, explain why you believe something is more important than another.
No need to memorize every answer
I’ve provided some example questions, but of course, there are many more questions out there. If you need more, google them, because there are so many lists of questions that there’s no one place with all of them.
More importantly, you can’t predict every question, so don’t try to memorize them. The idea is to keep practice different questions, learn the structure of them, and apply what you learned to other questions with the same structure.
I tried memorizing answers. I would go into interviews hoping my interviewer would ask me questions I had already written in my notebook. This strategy didn’t work: there are so many questions, and eventually, the interviewer would ask a question that stumped me. I would panic and give a half-assed answer with no understanding of what made a great answer.
The Results: Better Equipped for the Interview
Your interview doesn’t stop at preparation: you still have to do the interview. But with preparation, you’re better equipped for the interview. Instead of getting hit by the bullets of questions, you’ll be prepared to swiftly catch them and let your best self shine — even if you’re nervous.
The beautiful but dangerous thing about preparation is that it never ends. How much is enough? That’s a difficult question because it depends on how much you want the role, how prepared other interviewers will be, and how prepared you already are. So I would stick with one rule of thumb: prepare as much as you think you need to.
Preparation isn’t wasted if you don’t get the job. It comes with you to the next interview. Every time you go through an interview, you become better. And you become even better when you reflect on the experiences you had because you’re using personal data points to understand what you can do better.
Like I said before, there’s a painful part of preparing: it hurts when you fail. I’ve tried and failed interviews: it cut deep. But it made me stronger than if I didn’t try. I kept improving, and now I’m happily employed with a job I love.
I’ve never regretted preparing, but I’ve regretted not preparing. Life is too short to live with regrets.
Good luck with your interviews.