Often at the beginning of the fall semester I give my students my standard interviewing advice, the product of hundreds of interviews of would-be management consultants, software consultants and salespeople, senior executives, law professors, and Harvard undergraduates. I don’t give the talk to first-year students because they should be focused on things other than getting jobs. But I’ve learned from talking to a few that interviews for summer jobs are going on now, so here it is.
Most people find the experience of being interviewed for a job awkward and unpleasant. Most don’t think about the interview much beforehand, show up, and just try to get through it without saying something stupid. The interviewer asks a question and they answer it honestly, hoping the thirty minutes will pass so they can leave and go home.
This is not what to do.
As in many situations, you should begin by thinking about the interview from the perspective of the interviewer. And the first thing you should realize is that most interviewers have no idea what they are doing. In most cases, they are also just trying to get the thirty minutes over with so they can get back to work. They don’t really know what to ask, except for the usual list of generic questions (“Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge …,” “Tell me about a time you worked on a team …,” “Why do you want this job?” etc.), and they just hope that somehow they will form an opinion about whether or not to hire you. There are exceptions—companies like McKinsey and Google that have thought a lot about what they want in candidates and how to identify it in interviews—but most interviewers have no real idea what they should be doing.
For you, this is not a bad thing.
At the end of the interview, the interviewer has to decide if she should recommend you for the next round or for a job. This is difficult because the interviewer really wants to know how you would do in the future in this job, but she has to infer your future behavior from things you say about your past.
This is an opportunity. Your job is simple: tell stories about your past that give the interviewer specific reasons why you will be a great hire. You are there to score points, and every question is a chance to score points. The goal is not to survive the question by saying something reasonable that shows that you can carry on a conversation. The goal is to implant a positive attribute into the picture of you that is forming in the interviewer’s head. After you have left, the interviewer will remember something about you; the entire interview is an opportunity to make sure that she remembers the things that you want her to remember.
So now the task is straightforward. First, come up with a list of reasons why this company should hire you. You’re smart. You work hard. You adapt quickly to new situations. You relish challenges. You work well with other people. You are a natural leader. You have done exactly this job before. Whatever. If there is a particular weakness on your résumé—say, you have no experience in the industry—think of a positive attribute about yourself that cancels out that potential concern; for example, you learn quickly, or you have some other experience that is directly applicable to that industry.
These are the things you want the interviewer to remember about you. When she writes her email to the chair of the hiring committee (or if she is the chair of the committee), you want her to write, “We should hire so-and-so because she is XXX and YYY. She has no experience in our industry, but I’m not concerned about that because ZZZ.”
But, obviously, you can’t just say you are smart and hard-working. So your second preparatory task is this: for each positive attribute you want to communicate about yourself, think of a story you can tell about your past that demonstrates that you have that attribute. The story should be short—two minutes or so—and concrete. It should have details that the interviewer will remember hours later when finally writing that email.
If you want to communicate that you learn quickly, talk about a previous job that you went into with no relevant experience and how you succeeded. If you want to communicate that you work well with other people, talk about how your college robotics team brought together people with different skills and backgrounds to reach the semifinals of some competition. Whatever. Just remember: for every attribute, you have to have a story (and they have to be true). Practice the stories—not a zillion times, but two or three times each. Try to make them concise yet detailed. Remember what the point of each one is. Make sure you have stories ready for the obvious questions. For example, if you are asked why you want to be a lawyer, don’t just talk about the importance of the rule of law. Talk about some time when you thought something was unjust and what you did about it.
Then, when you walk into the interview, you will be ready. Whatever the question is, try to use it as an opportunity to tell one of your stories. Think of it like a political debate (but don’t be ridiculous about it—not every question will allow you to tell one of your prepared stories). You are there to score points, not to fill time. Tell your story and stop.
You’re not going to get every job you interview for. You can, however, make sure that the interviewer knows all the good reasons why she should recommend you. Don’t pass up that opportunity.