Job candidates say the darndest things. My favorite was a man who interviewed for a developer role. A small group—including Jeff, my then-boss—had gathered in the conference room, hoping he’d be the one. Jeff could be chatty, so before long he launched into his spiel about the company. The candidate stopped him mid-sentence and asked, “Can you please leave the room so I can ask questions without you here?” Jeff, who has a sense of humor, laughed and left the room. The candidate then explained to us that Jeff was “controlling the conversation.” Our would-be developer didn’t make it past the first interview. Probably not a good idea to insult the hiring manager.
As a gainfully-employed person for the past 20+ years (and many more, knock on wood), I have lots of cautionary tales, several from my own failed interviews. It wasn’t until I started interviewing job candidates myself and became a design researcher (where interviewing subjects is at the heart of my role) that I understood what makes a good interview.
As the interviewee, so much of what happens during an interview is out of your control. You might have been expecting to meet with a couple of people and ten show up. Someone could be having a bad day—including you! There’s a more qualified candidate. There’s a candidate who knows someone on the inside.
All is not lost, though. Once you start thinking like an interviewer, you’ll realize that you have more control than you think. Here are a few simple guidelines make your next interview a success.
Before the Interview
Give yourself some credit
They asked you to come in, right? You did something that got you this interview. Maybe your past experience. Maybe a great cover letter. Maybe your connections. Doesn’t matter, you’re here. No one has spare time to talk to candidates they’re not considering, so go in with the attitude that you could be their next hire.
You can’t predict every question you’ll get, but knowing what you want to do in the long and short term, your strengths, limitations, etc. will go a long way. This seems obvious, but if you don’t know why you’re interviewing for the job, it will be a long (or possibly very short) interview.
Do your homework
Learn everything you can about the organization. Know their website. Do some light googling. See what they’re saying on social media. Talk to people who work/ed there. People like knowing that you have a genuine interest in them, and companies are no different. Show that you want to work there by doing some reconnaissance. Not only will you have good answers to “Why do you want to work here?” and “What do you know about our company?” you’ll have fodder for some intelligent questions for them. Note of caution: keep your research professional, i.e., don’t dig into people’s personal lives.
Have a point of view
Have an opinion, an approach, a philosophy, a favorite source of inspiration. It’s great to meet someone who wants to learn, but interviewers want someone they can learn from, too. A good interview is one where you’ve left with a list of things to investigate further, and that goes both ways. Your point of view and ideas will make you memorable.
Plan your trip
Figure out where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and how long it will take you. Do whatever it takes to arrive 3-5 minutes early (but not too early or your interviewers may feel obliged to entertain you). The effort you make to be on time is minor compared to how hard you’ll have to work to recover from being late.
Dress for respect
This is a tough one because style is so subjective. As long as you’ve done your research, you should have a good sense of how to dress appropriately for the office culture. Don’t dress like an employee (you haven’t been hired yet), wear something that makes you feel confident and also shows a respect for the people you’re meeting. Still unsure? Err on the side of overdressing. And please, go easy on the cologne or perfume.
During the Interview
Sit down and take a deep breath. Have you ever been to a live show where the performer was struggling? Were you dying a little bit inside, willing them to recover? And when they did, you were relieved, right? Most interviewers are the same way. They are actually hoping you’ll get past your initial nerves. It’s more useful to a potential employer to hear about your skills and experience than it is to watch you struggle.
Show your interest in the company, the job, and the people who may become your colleagues. Ask them how they’re doing. This is disarming (in a good way) and surprisingly effective for starting on an upbeat note. Listen to their questions and give them thoughtful answers. Offer solutions to their challenges. And when the time is right, ask all those questions you’ve prepared—quality is more important than quantity, and make sure to listen closely to their responses.
About anything, especially about current/past colleagues. I’ve been surprised at how much candidates will trash their job, boss, teammates, the organization itself. It’s OK if your current situation isn’t perfect (if it were, you wouldn’t be interviewing), but they’re more interested in hearing about your solutions.
Be prepared to be stumped
Everyone has had an interview question that threw them. Mine were “Tell me about yourself” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?” As much as I hated those questions—they generally don’t elicit focused, meaningful responses—people kept asking them, so eventually I came up with canned responses that felt as authentic as I could make them.
No one wants to work with a liar. If you don’t know the answer to something, ask for clarification. If you haven’t mastered a particular tool or skill, use this as an opportunity to explain your level of knowledge (or interest in getting better), or talk about something analogous. A strong “I don’t know” is better than a weak lie.
You’ve made it through all the questions, now’s your chance to get people to remember you. Come up with a solid closing statement that leaves everyone in the room feeling positive. Thank them for their time and—as long as it’s true—let them know you want the job.
After the Interview
Your interviewer set aside time for the sole purpose of assessing your potential as a teammate, so take a minute to write a note to thank everyone you spoke with. There’s a running debate about handwritten note vs. email vs. both (which I won’t tackle here). Trust me—you need to write something. Even if the interview went poorly. Even if you’re sure you nailed it. You did your prep work, gave your best in the interview. Think of the thank-you note as the essential bow on the whole package.
Ask for feedback
If you didn’t get the job, be bold and ask how you could have improved your chances. Then be prepared for the truth (or crickets). If you do get a response, be gracious and thank the person, whether you agree with their comments or not. You may even hear what you did right. Either way, whatever they tell you is valuable information that you can use to do better next time.
Take the long view
You may not get this job. Or the next one. But with every interview, you’ll get to know yourself better and become more clear on your goals. You’ll also learn more about your field, and you’ll meet lots of people who may think of you the next time around for future jobs.
Get this job. Please.
Interviewing is a huge time commitment for everyone involved. You’ve been carefully crafting letters and thank-you notes (haven’t you?). Researching companies late at night. Shopping for new interview clothes. You’re ready to stop searching. You’re hoping that you get the job.
Here’s a secret: the interviewer wants you to get the job too. They’ve probably been covering for the job they need to fill on top of their regular job. And now they’re devoting hours to meeting strangers. They really want you to be the right person, so they can get back to work. With you on their team.
Next time you interview, you have a chance to share some very exciting and valuable news. What is that news? You’re here to help.
Now you’re thinking like an interviewer. Go get that job.