The Job Interview: Tips for Success and Common Interview Questions
To get your ideal position with a company you admire, you have considerations to address before, during and after the job interview. Here are some tips on how to succeed at a job interview, common questions employers might ask you and ideas on what to ask them in return.
How to Prepare for a Job Interview
You must prepare before the interview to be ready and competent during it. Research into the company and your desired role is key to performing at your best during the interview.
It’s important to know all you can about the product you are promoting – yourself – and the consumer you’re targeting – your potential employer. “It’s all the same thing: it’s sales,” said Ryan Bernier, a career advisor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and a former staffing specialist. “Figure out what the company needs, and explain how you can provide that. It’s simple, but not easy. It’s really about knowing what they need and what you can honestly provide.”
Before you even step foot in the hiring manager’s office, how you prepare for a job interview goes further than what you’re planning on wearing or how to give a firm handshake. Many career advisors and recruiters consider your pre-interview prep crucial for success. Here’s how to go in well-prepared.
Research the Company
If you really want to work at the company you've applied to, you will have done your homework on them before entering their premises. There's no excuse for not knowing the basic history, corporate culture and current industry trends for any business in the digital age. Information is widely accessible, often all with a close look at their company website.
But your research should go beyond basics if you want to show your potential employer you have a genuine interest in them and their mission. You should include industry publications and news articles in your research so you can discuss up-to-date information. You should know something about industry competitors as well.
“If you’ve done your reading of current articles, you can interject things like ‘I was reading about your expansion to the west coast, but I also know that your competition…’ – it shows engagement and research,” said Richard Grant, career advisor at SNHU. “Know what’s going on in the industry. Maybe you know law or compliance or legal issues and can ask, ‘how’s the company planning to adjust to this potential legislation?' That way, you are asking relevant questions germane to the job. It’s about striking a balance to show insight and interest."
In addition to knowing the company, you need to know what the company is looking for in filling the position. “I always say there’s a three-step process before you even apply,” Bernier said. “What are your key reasons they should hire you?”
His process is:
- See yourself from an employer’s perspective.
- Really look at the job description.
- Determine the top three things they want for that position and find examples of you doing just that.
Bernier noted that answering these questions will help you craft your resume and cover letter and assist in what you’ll want to get across to them in the interview. “Make a compelling case on your behalf. For example, it’s not always the best lawyer that wins the case; it’s the best-prepared lawyer,” he said.
Network and Query Insiders
Sometimes you can get great insight from current employees at your desired company. Using social networking platforms and other means of contacting these insiders can get you a leg up on the competition. “Find somebody on the inside that you can ask questions of ahead of time,” Grant suggests. “It might be a friend of a friend. Call and learn more about the company before the interview.”
Online platforms have made networking easier in many ways. “Research things like LinkedIn, Glass Door, and Handshake,” suggests Michael L’Archeveque, a career advisor at SNHU and a former corporate recruiter. “Millions of students and many schools use Handshake. You can see if any of your college alumni work at your desired company, and then ask questions about what it’s like to work there,” he said.
L’Archeveque notes that networking needs a light touch, though, if you’re not personally acquainted with your source. This advice is especially important in the case you don’t get the job. You can leverage the networking relationship to learn more about other teams and job opportunities.
Know the Job Applicant – Yourself
An important facet of job interview preparation is knowing all you can about yourself. “Job seekers need to know themselves. I recommend honestly assessing your own skills and knowing yourself inside and out, so ‘what would you bring to the company’ can be answered,” Grant said.
Sometimes, an honest self-evaluation of your potential, but also your limitations, can be sobering. “You’ve got to have the right job and the right fit. If you know you don’t have the qualifications, don’t waste your time,” Grant said. “There has to be relevant experience or skill, if not literal experience.”
L’Archeveque adds a reminder to check and see how you appear if someone is researching you. “Google your name. Your digital presence reflects on you as a candidate,” he said. “Be sure your LinkedIn is updated. Check all social media accounts. I once saw (an applicant) who was an ISIS supporter on their Twitter account,” he said.
Tips for a Successful Interview
Your research is done; your resume, cover letter and application have all been submitted; you’ve waited to hear. And now, at last, you’ve secured a job interview with a desirable company. Getting past that daunting hurdle is already cause for celebration. But you’re only just starting the most challenging part of obtaining a plum position in your field. Now you have to nail the interview.
“An interview is actually about how you can help your future employer succeed. It's about finding out what the employer’s requirements and hopes are – along with their pain points – and matching up your background and experience with what they need,” Grant said. “It is critical to consider the employer’s perspective because you need the interviewer to walk away from the interview thoroughly impressed with how well you fit into their hopes and aspirations for the role you are interviewing for. The more interest you show in the employer’s needs, the more likely it is that the employer will want to commit to you with a job offer.”
One of the most important things for you to remember as an applicant is that your job interview is a two-way street. While the company representative is evaluating you as a candidate, you are also there to determine if the offered position, as well as the company and its culture, are the right fit for you. You are interviewing them, just as they are interviewing you.
Preparing yourself for both sides of the table will help you do well in the eyes of your potential employer and allow you to gain insight into the company and how you might fit in and thrive there.
This Isn’t a Skills Evaluation
If you’re sitting in a job interview, someone already thinks you’re ostensibly qualified for the job – at least on paper. Unless the position requires some kind of literal skills testing before the hiring decision – e.g., perhaps a career in the STEM fields – this time is more likely about how you present yourself as a person and as a potential co-worker.
“If you’re in the interview, they already feel like you have the skills,” Bernier said. “You should view the interview process in stages. The resume is the skills stage; this is the personality stage.”
Show Them Who You Are
“You have to put your personality into it and convey it in an appropriate, professional manner,” Bernier said. “You can be humorous, but still be professional. They’re trying to figure out ‘do I want to communicate with this person 40-plus hours a week?’”
The job interview is where you can highlight your personality and the positive interpersonal traits known as soft skills. “Sell your soft skills and personality; know your self-inventory,” L’Archeveque said.Be Engaged and Enthusiastic
Now is the time to show them you’re a person who’s curious about the company and its future, and you’re enthusiastic about helping them reach their goals and achieve your own. “Show curiosity, interest, energy and engagement,” Grant said. “Express your personality, use eye contact.”
He sums up the three traits employers look for as skills and culture fit, personality and agility. “Companies need to hire people who can do the job, but they also look for personality traits. They’re looking for collaborative problem solvers with strong interpersonal communication skills. They want to hire low-maintenance, easy-to-work-with people who would get along well with the team. Someone with fresh knowledge, a fresh perspective, who is flexible and who can get things done.”
What Are Some Common Job Interview Questions and Answers?
It’s difficult to predict what questions you will be asked during a job interview. Career advisors explain that it’s contingent on the company and industry, as well as the position sought.
Job interview questions are sometimes more about how you answer them than the answers themselves. This goes back to Grant’s previous explanation of agility as one of an applicant's attractive traits. “Agility is how you operate, how you make decisions, having integrity,” he said. “A curiosity to learn new things. For example, noting ‘I’m teaching myself to do xyz online’... I’m not as much interested in what they say, but rather if they articulate something to show their thought process and self-awareness. It’s not the literal problem that was solved in the ‘was there a time where you had a problem at work’ standard question."
L’Archeveque tackles another old standby: the "Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?" question. "I’d suggest you focus on your own education and training goals and self-improvement intentions,” he said. “It will open a conversation about advancement opportunities and (show your interest in) longevity. It shows you’re focused on improving your skills.”
Here are some more examples of common interview questions, along with suggested ways to answer them, according to Nicholas Botto, director of career services for SNHU Career Advising:
- What’s your greatest weakness? The best strategy with this question is to identify a true weakness and follow up with actions you are taking to improve. An example may be, “I can struggle with time management, so recently I’ve been meeting one-on-one with my manager each week to go over status updates and establish priority lists for the different projects I’m working on.” This question is not designed to indicate to an employer why they shouldn’t hire you, or serve as a “gotcha” question. Instead, it demonstrates to the employer that you are capable of self-reflection and growth – both important qualities in a strong team member. Avoid twisting strengths into weaknesses or insisting you have no weaknesses.
- Tell me about yourself. Given its open-ended nature, it’s easy for candidates to get off track with this question. In essence, the interviewer is interested in learning more about who you are – specifically pertaining to the role you are pursuing. A good strategy is to reflect on your previous professional or personal experiences and how they have helped you develop the specific skills that will make you successful for the role you’re interviewing for now. Avoid long anecdotes and respect the interviewer’s time; if you go too long, they may not be able to ask all of the questions they were hoping to ask during the session.
- Why are you leaving your current job? Regardless of how you feel about your current or previous employer, make sure to keep your answer to this question positive and forward-focused. Reflect on what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown in your last role, and translate that into how it will add value to the experience you are interviewing for now.
- Can you tell me about a time…? Situational and behavior-based interview questions like, “tell me about a time you worked with a team to achieve a goal,” or “share an experience where you and a team member disagreed on something” are designed to shed light on a variety of factors. Your response offers an insight into your work style, communication capabilities, time management skills, and approach to teamwork. Utilizing the STAR (Situational, Task, Action, Result) strategy for these questions can ensure you present a concise and impactful take on the given scenario. Begin by shedding light on the situation presented to you and the task asked of you. From there, lay out specific actions you took to meet the challenge. Finally, provide some insight into the results of your efforts.
- What makes you interested in this role? Research is critical to this question. While it can be easy to regurgitate job responsibilities directly from the posting, standout candidates can understand and convey how the role they are interviewing for connects back to the organization’s larger mission, vision and brand and why that is important to them. A solid answer to this question can help you demonstrate why you are a good fit for the position and why you are the best choice for the team, department and organization.
How Do You End an Interview?
The interviewer will likely signal the interview is coming to an end by asking you a round-up type question like What questions do you have for us?
“While this question typically indicates that the interviewers have completed their formal inquiries, it does not mean the interview is over," Botto said. "On the contrary, the quality of a candidate’s prepared follow-up questions can convey or reiterate to hirers a level of enthusiasm, research and commitment that can put you ahead of the larger candidate pool."
This portion of the interview is not only meant for inquiries regarding any next steps and the hiring timeline, but it's also another chance for you to understand the team's dynamics and challenges as well as see how you might be a positive addition.
Questions to Ask in an Interview
Just as revealing as your answers to their questions are their answers to yours. Go into your job interview armed with specific and intriguing questions that are well-thought-out and helpful in your job search.
When Grant does mock interviews with advisees, he asks, "So, what questions do you have for me," and that catches many by surprise. “And if they do come prepared for that, the questions might be too basic; they could find that information on the company website, like benefits. Show you're thinking about the job, that you have insights, show you can connect the dots.”
Grant offers these five focus areas to consider:
- What would the "perfect" candidate look like? How do you assess my experience in comparison? What gaps do you see? – This line of questioning will help you position yourself as the perfect fit.
- If we have a very successful (upcoming) year, what will that look like? What will we have done over the next 13 months to make it successful? How does this position help achieve those goals? – These questions help show your ability to look beyond today's duties to the future more than a year away. It shows that you want to do well and, if you get the job, it helps you focus on the important stuff.
- Asking the "pain points" or "what problems keep you up at night" type questions will help you figure out what solutions you can offer them.
- What type of people are successful here? What type of people are not? – The goal here is to find out what they deem important. What are they looking for?
- If I get the job, how do I earn a "gold star" on my performance review? What are the key accomplishments you'd like to see in this role over the next year? – This helps figure out what's important to them. What are the priorities?
The goal with questions is to get a conversation started. Bernier suggests having five or more to choose from. “Preparation is important, but so is attitude. The personality of the interviewer could inform what you ask,” he said. “Anything that gets a thoughtful dialogue going. ‘What's an average day?’ ‘What is success in this role, and how is it measured?’ Ask the department head how they solve problems they’re facing.”
In addition to gathering your information, your questions should reflect well on you. “You really win when you ask follow-up questions that show you’re listening,” Bernier said. “If you can show that, especially in sales, they will hire on personality. I’ve been hired based on showing my interest.”
What Not to Say in a Job Interview
There are things not to mention or ask about during a job interview. Usually, this is centered around asking questions that might quickly be answered through basic pre-interview research. Botto adds that “it is poor practice to discuss salary and benefits through (your) questions” as well.
If you’re going to ask anything, ask good, thoughtful questions – visionary types of questions. “Interviewees should ask things that will yield answers that will help them and not ask questions that sound fancy but won’t result in learning anything useful,” Grant said.
Relative to faltering confidence, some younger job seekers or career changers can stumble by diminishing their accomplishments and knowledge. Again, they saw something in you that compelled them to invite you to the room; let them make their own decisions and evaluations of whether you’re a good fit for the position.
Bernier said a lot of job seekers don’t want to seem like they’re overselling themselves, but they should simply “state how what you did relates to the (current) job, and let them decide how qualified you are.”
“Hiring officials look for applicants who have ‘it,’ but ‘it’ can be tricky to define,” Grant said. In his research, he found that “several recruiters described the ‘it’ factor as having energy, passion, genuine interest, confidence and a positive attitude.” These positive attributes can be eclipsed by candidates who describe their experience as “I was just a server” or “I have only worked in retail.”
Bernier also encourages job seekers to “avoid negative self-perceptions of your own past jobs. Try not to be your own worst enemy. Train yourself against your negativity bias to overcome that. It’s not about deluding yourself; it’s just awareness that you can choose what to focus on," he said. "It’s one of the biggest obstacles; I can’t teach someone how to think about themselves. They have to be their own best advocate.”
Keep it Real
Bernier said the best strategy is to be honest – about yourself, your past, your capabilities. “You can’t fake it. If you have a hard time avoiding conversational landmines, you might need to overcome personal problems and mindset, frankly," he said. "You have to go into it lighthearted and confident. A sense of humor exudes positive energy and goes a long way in an interview. Just be yourself. It’s not always what is the answer; it’s what is the best possible answer? Do the best you can with it; determine ‘what do they need, and how have I done it?’”
Other tips for job interview success include:
Remember Your Confidence
Many times, job seekers end up being their own worst enemy instead of their best advocate. This friction can manifest when you’re trying to change careers or are just starting in a professional capacity and don’t feel like you’re as capable as you’d like. But remember: They invited you to this job interview. They are interested in you. Remind yourself of this when your confidence flags.
“A lot of job seekers are scared to be assertive and confident – especially women of color, versus white men,” L’Archeveque said. “Don't be afraid to show your passion. Some are afraid to show excitement or laugh ... Being able to engage and show that animation is something hiring managers pick up on. People want to hire people, not robots. Show your personality!”
‘Not a Zero-Sum Game’
Keep in mind that this job, and this interview, aren’t necessarily the end of the line for you if you’re not hired. This experience and interaction may open doors you weren’t expecting and lead you to new opportunities. “You can always get something out of the conversation, if not a job. It’s not a zero-sum game,” L’Archeveque said. “Building relationships is just as important. Making a connection over something simple or personal – for example, a picture on a wall during the interview. Maybe you both like fishing, whatever.” You never know where things can lead you.
Final Tips for Your Job Interview
The bottom line for career advancement success is this:
- Job seekers need to know themselves by honestly assessing their skills, strengths and weaknesses, and know what opportunities are a true, genuine fit for them.
- They need to understand the job requirements, the prospective employer, and the industry.
- Applicants must be able to clearly and concisely articulate a vision and value proposition to that employer.
If you can determine their pain points and how you can solve them – Grant even suggests offering a solution in your follow-up thank-you letter – you can show your value and obtain that job offer.
Kathleen Palmer is an award-winning journalist and writer.
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