How to Prepare for and Succeed at Job Interviews
Back at the end of February this year, I was let go from my job. Over the course of the following 8 months, I applied to 30–40 jobs. Out of those job applications, I was invited for three job interviews. I had to decline one because I already had full-time employment. But with the other two job interviews, I received job offers.
I don’t have any hard facts to back it up, but I can say with reasonable confidence that when I get a job interview, I think of myself as an odds-on favorite to get a job offer. It’s happened to me before too — when I was applying to co-op jobs, I would get one, maybe two interviews a term, and then get a job offer right away. Coming out of university into the recession, I had three or four interviews and then got a job that propelled me on the path I currently am on.
What I would like to share in this article are all the preparation strategies I use for job interviews. I will cover strategies for before the interview, during the interview, and after the interview, and my hope with this article is that it can one day help you prepare for your job interview (and get an offer).
Assuming you have an interview and that is mostly behavioral-based:
Before the interview
- Set the interview time to when your energy is high. I like interviewing in the mornings when my energy and brain are sharp and focused. If not in the mornings, I like to interview in the early afternoon. I dislike interviewing late in the day — it’s when everybody’s energy is low and not only are you probably not at your best, but the interviewers may not be at their best either.
- Research. Do as much research as you can on the company you are interviewing with. By research, I mean, look at recent news articles about the company (focus on the positive ones, breakthroughs, or recent announcements). Look through the company website to understand what the values of the company are. Note these down. Finally, some company websites talk about what it is like to work there. Look at that and then find if something is interesting to note or a question you may have. All of this research should and will feed into your answers, or inform the questions you have for the company (at the end of the interview).
- Prepare stories for questions. Using your favorite search engine, search for “interview questions” + “the job title you are interviewing for”. I created an Evernote page and transferred over as many questions as I could find. Then, I started writing answers to these questions, typically based on ideal answers (also found through your favorite search engine). And it’s not about preparing for the most common questions, it is also about building up a database of stories in your head about the different situations you have faced, and how you handled them. See the next section.
- Remember STAR. I’m sure there are lots of acronyms out there — but the one I like to use is STAR. When you are answering an interview question, identify the Situation you are in. Provide as much context and background for the interviewers to understand what is happening. But don’t be excessive. Next, identify the Task you needed to do. This is usually related to the challenge or obstacle from the question (such as “Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult stakeholder” or “Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss”). After the Task, identify the Action you took. What did you do to work around the difficult stakeholder? How did you get support from your boss around your idea and convince them your idea was better? Finally, talk about the Result of your Action. Did you get buy-in? If not, why not, and what would you do differently next time? Once you have the framework in your head, practice telling a story (your story) using the framework.
- Link the company to you. There are a lot of non-question questions. For example: tell me about yourself. You think it’s a great way to tell the company about you, your accomplishments, and all of your strengths. But that’s not the right way to answer the question. You always have to ask yourself “how can I answer this to show I can add value to this organization?” So even though you may talk about your strengths, talk about your strengths in what you can bring to that organization. Remember the research you did earlier? Use that research to your advantage. “I saw a recent news article is thinking about doing X, and while it’s not on my resume, I have worked on several projects where I did A, B, and C, which are related to X”. Or link one or more of your stories to the values the company has. “I know one of your company’s values is Creativity, and that is one of my passions in life. In fact, my company called me a creative genius because of the different approaches I used for marketing our software”.
During the interview
- Get there early, smile, and start strong. Whether your interview is in-person or remote (more likely), get there early. And yes, even if the interview is remote, I still dress up because dressing formally primes me into the ‘serious’ mindset. And it shows I’m taking the interview seriously (this is a plus if other job candidates are dressed casually). I know good interviews will try to put the candidate at ease at the beginning of the interview, and even if they don’t, I try to point out something funny and get myself (and the interviewer(s)) laughing to make us all comfortable and at ease.
- Breathe and take the time to think if needed. A lot of the time during my interviews, the interviewers will ask a question I had not prepared for. Or they will ask a question and rather than hearing about the same project being used over and over, will want to hear about a different project where the same problem was faced. In these cases, I take a moment by asking them for some time to think. And then, thinking through the stories, I will proceed into the STAR framework and describe the story through the framework. When you are prepared with a database of stories, you don’t have to worry about these ‘anomalous’ questions, but even if they show up, you are prepared.
- Questions for the company? Here are the questions I have used for the end of the interview that I like the most. I will caution that sometimes, the interviewers will answer the question, either in their intros or in responses to questions, and you will have to listen carefully to make sure you are not answering a question already answered (though often, if you ask something already answered, the interviewers will probably chalk it up to nervousness). My favorite questions are: what are my strengths and possible weaknesses; and what are your top concerns I can clear up to be your top candidate? What are some of my key priorities 30, 60, and 90 days in? What would be some of my biggest challenges on the job? What is your company culture like? And what stories can you share that exemplify your company culture?
After the interview
- Debrief after the interview. While the interview is fresh in your mind, take a moment to debrief and reflect on the interview. What did you do well? What questions did you absolutely nail? Where did you fall short? Which stories or situations did you struggle to come up with? How receptive were the interviewers to your stories? Were they nodding along? Bored?
- Thank-you notes. With in-person interviews, you can ask for business cards (many times, they are provided at the beginning of interviews). With remote interviews, usually, HR is setting these up and if you don’t have the emails of your interviewers, you can kindly ask HR to forward your thank you note to all interviewers. Again, while the interview is fresh, type out a draft thank-you note you want to send. The thank-you note is not only a chance to thank your interviewers, but it is also a chance to reiterate why you want the job, why you are the best candidate, and if you thought you did not answer a question well OR if the interviewers expressed concern for a particular skill or weakness you have, use the thank-you note as a way to address the question or concern. “In my interview, you noted that I tend to ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission. This is a style I adopted for working in a highly bureaucratic company, but it is also a style I adopt to the company I work with because I do know the importance of stakeholder engagement and input in the work that I would do.”
- Update your stories. Using your notes from the debrief session, take the chance to update your stories, or to pull in alternative stories from your career into your database. For each interview, you need to do all of your preparation again, but with each interview, your stories get tighter and more focused. The research you do will inform the stories you tell. It might be that 80% of the stories, questions you ask, and approach are the same, and you only need to tweak 20% of your preparation for another company.
Preparing for a job interview is difficult. But you can see that after doing several job interviews, you have done most of the hard work with the first job interview prep. You can tweak the 20% or so of your material to the company you are interviewing with. But don’t get complacent. There are always opportunities to improve your stories. Create tight answers. And to share an even better self.