Simulate a Real Experience to Get the Best Interview Practice
A system to prepare for an interview by practicing with a friend
The best way to practice is to experience the real thing. Runners practice running. Singers practice singing. Writers practice writing. By simulating the real environment, these people condition themselves to repeat the same actions they need to re-enact on competition day. But you can’t do this for interviews: You can’t get experience with interviews unless you go to an interview.
Most people prepare for interviews by going over their résumé, rehearsing answers, and giving themselves pep talks. These are reasonable approaches to practicing interviews, because, what else can you do? Most practitioners of their craft can practice alone because their art only requires one person’s actions. Interviews need two people. Asking yourself interview questions is different from having someone else ask them.
Enter: a friend.
🎎 Why Get a Friend to Interview You?
“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”
— Elbert Hubbard
Many people approach the idea of having a friend interview them but quickly discard it because it’s scary, uncomfortable, and requires an abnormal level of vulnerability. But that’s precisely why it works. In The Dip, Seth Godin explains that everything worth doing has a dip: a temporary setback that you can overcome with persistence. Everyone does the easy things, but barely anyone does the difficult ones.
My friends are both fun and career-oriented, but they’ve never seen me in a professional setting. Sure, we talk about work and recognize the challenges we all overcome, but we’ve never laid eyes on each other while we’re working. My circumstances mean that getting a friend to interview me opens me up to them in a new way, and if you have the same relaxed demeanor around your friends, it’s probably the case for you too. A friend interviewing you seems unfair. The interviewee is vulnerable and shares personal stories; the interviewer sits there asking prepared questions.
These barriers to entry are precisely why practicing interviews with a friend is compelling. There are so many mental challenges to overcome while practicing interviews with a friend that it’s almost guaranteed other candidates won’t be getting the same training. Everyone else is doing it the same way: rehearsing by themselves. If there’s a silver bullet to interview practice, this is it.
A different approach to interviews
I learned this method from my friend Adam Chew. I had an interview coming up (for my current role at Atlassian), so he asked if I wanted him to interview. I reluctantly agreed, believing this was another gimmick like power poses, but I really wanted the job, so I was willing to try anything to improve my chances.
I dreaded practicing with Adam. He would see a part of me he hadn’t seen before. I’m quite a genuine person (at least I think I am), but I still have a professional front: a socialized self who represses the crude thoughts of my everyday self. He had only seen me mess around: drinking alcohol, making vulgar jokes, mucking around in a foreign country. Now, he would see my professional self talking, persuading, and storytelling my way into a job.
I’m not going to tell you that the practice interview was slick, smooth, and without slips and drips. It was awkward. But as soon as we finished, the benefits were clear: I was more than well-prepared for my interview. Adam had spent two hours asking me every question he could find, and my interview was only an hour long.
Looking back, it seems silly and stupid that I never practiced interviews with a friend. How could I — and so many people around me — miss this brilliant technique? It’s obvious: The closer to the real environment the practice is, the better prepared you’ll be. David Goggins doesn’t listen to music while he runs because he doesn’t use it on competition day. Since then, I’ve taken this trick and interviewed many friends. Everyone I’ve done it with has found it supremely helpful.
If you’re in doubt, I urge you that if you have an interview, follow this guide once. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be more confident going into your interview.
📺 A Simulated Interview Environment
“True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.”
— Mortimer J. Adler
The ideal simulation would be to have your actual interviewer interview you, but that’s impossible. Having a stranger (who can be professional) interview you might work also, but I haven’t figured out how to convince a stranger to care enough. A friend already cares about you (I hope your friends do), but they might not take the practice seriously. I struggle with being professional around my friends; we banter, mess around, make rude comments, and do other immature male things.
The core rule
Solution: Be serious. Simple, but not easy.
The most important rule: You aren’t friends during the practice interview, but are instead interviewer and interviewee. You must imagine that you’ve gone into the hyperbolic time chamber, with your friend as the coach and you as the trainee. You’re preparing to compete against hundreds of other job applicants, so you better train your damn hardest.
Create more rules
Creating more rules sounds cool in theory, but is challenging to execute in practice. You can’t completely stop imagining your friend as a friend, but you have to try your best. I create more rules (that all align with not being friends during the interview) to obey that remove the possibility of friendship. Here are some:
- No talking as friends.
- No laughing.
- No side comments unrelated to the interview.
- No giving up with “hahaha, I don’t know if I can answer that,” “omg, can we take a break,” or “this is so weird, can we stop.”
- No answers you wouldn’t give in an interview.
Some of these rules might not apply to you (maybe you don’t have a habit of laughing); others will. Write down a list of rules you want to follow, and keep iterating as needed. Whenever you or your friend become undisciplined, create a rule to remove that behavior.
I’ll be honest: I fail. I break at least one of my rules in every interview I practice. Simulating a real interview is challenging because I can’t forget that my friend is my friend. If you’re like me, you’ll find it similarly difficult to switch your mindset and impose rules on yourself. There’s a certain level of discipline you need to do practice interviews perfectly. Luckily, you don’t need to be perfect; you just need to be good enough. And as long as both people are taking the practice seriously, it’s better than no practice at all.
📜 Prepare a List of Questions
“I will prepare, and some day my chance will come.”
— Abraham Lincoln
The interviewer should prepare a list of questions to ask, and the interviewee shouldn’t know what’s on it. (We’re simulating a real interview, remember?) Create a document to compile a list of questions. I use Notion for my notes, but you can use whatever documentation software you wish.
Before researching questions, write down every question that comes to mind. The idea is to get all original ideas out onto paper before being influenced by others’ questions. If you don’t have any, that’s fine. I usually have quirky questions in mind about my friends’ roles and companies that I like to ask to get them comfortable with the unconventional and break them out of a standard interview structure.
Depending on the nature of the interview, you may be asked technical questions. Consultants do case studies. Traders do mental math. Software engineers do algorithms. These questions come in their own unique form, so research the interview format. Research for these questions can come in different forms, but I’ve found that people have written books on most technical interviews.
To find questions directly relating to your friend’s upcoming interview, go to Glassdoor: a site where current and former employees review companies. On Glassdoor, you can filter your searches by “interview”:
There are two parts to every job:
You want to search for both of these while filtering by interview. Sometimes, you can find interview questions for the exact position and company. But if the company isn’t wildly popular, this might not be possible. So, search for the role and company separately. Not every question will be relevant, so communicate with your friend about what questions you believe will be asked.
This technique is a gold mine. Using questions from Glassdoor gives you questions that interviewers have asked in real interviews, which is as close to simulating the actual environment as you can get. When I do this with friends, we typically end up preparing for at least a few questions that end up being asked in the actual interview.
Interview questions typically come in these categories (other than technical questions):
- Tell me about yourself.
- What do you like to do on the weekend?
- How did you learn about this position?
Role and company:
- Why do you want this role?
- Why do you want to join this company?
- What’s your favorite value of our company?
- What’s your greatest strength/weakness?
- What motivates you?
- What makes you unique?
- Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and explain how you handled it.
- Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision your team didn’t agree with.
- Tell me about a time where you didn’t have enough work to do.
- What would you do if you made a mistake that no one else noticed?
- What would you do if you were asked to perform a task you’ve never done before?
- What would you do if a teammate wasn’t pulling their weight?
You can use these questions or google for more by searching the question category (e.g., behavioral interview questions). These are standardized questions, so it’s crucial to be comfortable with answering each style of question.
Before I learned the structure of each type of question, I went to interviews terrified that they could whip out a killer question that would shame me; in fact, I’ve embarrassed myself by giving convoluted answers many times. After practicing stories for each question over and over, I became comfortable with everything. Eventually, I realized I was answering questions in the same format, just with different stories.
🧗♀️ Make Practicing as Hard as Possible
“A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge.”
— China Miéville
One benefit of having a friend is that you can make the practice interview harder than the actual one. Why would you want to torture yourself like this? Well, have you ever studied so hard for an exam that when test day came, you were disappointed with how easy it was? That’s how you want to feel after an interview: so easy that it’s disappointing — because that means you killed it.
Set enough practice for at least double of what your actual interview will be. You’re probably comfortable enough around your friend to interview for this long. I always want to leave an interview (I get nervous), but I never want to leave a friend.
Ask challenging questions
Your friend should ask the most challenging questions they can. The practice interview is a safe place to learn how to answer the tough questions because there’s no risk of failure. Of course, there’s a delicate balance in creating a difficult practice environment. You don’t want your practice interview to be so hard that it destroys your confidence, but you want it to be hard enough that you’ve tackled most of the obstacles you’ll later face.
In my practice interview with my friend Adam, he asked me the most challenging questions he could, partly because he wanted to prepare me, partly because he wanted to break me. Honestly, I’m grateful he tried to make me crack. I was terrified of going to my interview and wondered whether my interviewers would ask me similarly challenging questions. It turns out the interview was laid-back, delving into personal matters rather than standard ones. I felt like I brought a concealed gun to a knife fight: glad I had it, but also glad I didn’t have to use it.
🌡️ Take Notes and Rate Answers
“Failure is constructive feedback that tells you to try a different approach to accomplish what you want.”
— Idowu Koyenikan
Many people hate getting feedback: It’s like someone staring into your soul and telling you what’s wrong with you. In Mindset, Carol Dweck explains the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is when one believes their character, intelligence, and skills are static. In other words, they think that they can’t change or improve. A growth mindset is the opposite: You believe you can cultivate these necessary qualities with effort and progress.
Take every opportunity you can to exercise a growth mindset because it’s a key indicator of success. Feedback is growth, and a practice interview is a place to get feedback.
During the practice interview, the interviewer should take notes on positive and negative aspects of the interviewee’s answer, and then give a rating. This act of note-taking doubles as a benefit of simulating a real interview (interviewers typically take notes to review later).
Keep a laptop open to take notes. I create a table with the columns: question, notes, and rating. During an answer, I take notes, and after the interviewee has finished answering, I give them a rating.
Note-taking is an art in itself. It’s not about jotting down exactly what the interviewee is saying; it’s about carefully listening for anything they can improve and anything they did well. Listen with empathy, and write down notes on everything that stands out to you. Make sure every interview answer has enough feedback. If you want to be exceptional, don’t just find problems in their responses, but suggest solutions to the problems (because you know your friend and their stories).
Don’t be afraid to keep writing notes after your friend has finished answering a question. They’re probably happy to sit while you keep working on giving them feedback silently. The better your notes are, the better the feedback will be, and the more your friend can improve.
There are a lot of rating systems. Choose whatever rating system you want. But I’ll suggest mine: a semantic scale with the following options:
- Strong fail
- Weak fail
- Weak pass
- Strong pass
I don’t use a neutral because I like to force myself to decide whether an answer was on the positive or negative side. Add a neutral in the middle if you want. Update the rating system until it works for you.
The idea is that you want to give the interviewee instant recognition of which questions they did well on and which questions they can improve. Paired with notes, this provides easy scanning for feedback.
Discuss the interview afterward
Take a break after you finish asking and answering questions: This is an excellent time to break the simulation. Get out of your interviewer and interviewee role and go back to being friends.
After the break, discuss how the interview went. Go over the notes and point out places of improvement and places of success. Then, send the interviewee a copy of the document so they can review the feedback in their own time.
Interviewers typically give me one-liners as feedback, so I never understood how I could improve. Getting longer feedback is exciting for me: I get to go over every question I’m insecure about and learn to grow in a safe place. I get an external opinion on how well I answered each question (something I’ve never received from real interviewers). Having a doc of notes about how I performed enables me to review feedback at any time. It’s not every day that you get feedback paper, so I treasure it.
Compassionate feedback is important
You don’t often get compassionate feedback from interviewers, but you can from a friend. Feedback works best when your friend is a skilled interviewer, but honestly, anyone with basic social awareness can give feedback.
The only time getting feedback is useless is with a lazy interviewer. If your friend doesn’t want to be there, that’s a problem. Either motivate your friend or find an interviewer who wants to help. If both you and your friend have interviews coming up, you can mutually benefit by interviewing each other and swapping between interviewer and interviewee roles.
The Results: Maximum Preparation
Following this entire guide isn’t easy, which is why most people won’t do it. Many people go into interviews, lazily preparing because they don’t want to admit they have to prepare for an interview.
If you prepare in this way, practice will reward you. I can’t promise you’ll get your dream job, but you’ll be more prepared for the interview than everyone else in the interview (unless they’re practicing with a friend too!). I believe in leaving no stone unturned, and this method will ensure that you’ve tried your best. You won’t look back and wonder if you should’ve tried harder because you know you tried your best.
After the first time I practiced interviews with a friend, I got my current job. I don’t know how much it contributed to me getting the job, but it prepared me more than adequately. Since then, I’ve played the interviewer role with many friends, and they all have loved the process. When you do it once, you can’t go back to practicing by yourself: It’s so much worse than practicing with someone else.
Practicing interviews with a friend doesn’t just improve your interview skills. It teaches you to be vulnerable, to show your faulty professional self to your friend, and realize that they’re not judging you. It trains your discipline because you self-impose the uncomfortable role of either an interviewer or interviewee—no one is forcing you to practice like this; you’re doing it out of your own will. It helps you understand yourself because a friend will likely pick out your unique interview habits that no one else has dared to mention.
Good luck with your interviews.