Just as you wouldn’t go into an exam without studying or run a race without stretching, you need to do some serious preparation before you go into a job interview. In this section, I’ll provide some general suggestions about how to prepare, and then I’ll give you ideas about how to answer common, unusual, difficult, and behavioral questions; what to wear; and how to prepare for telephone or video interviews.
Make sure you have done research on the company before the interview. One of the most important things for you to realize about preparing for a job interview is that any interview is two-way street. You should be interviewing them every bit as much as they are interviewing you. They get to decide if they want to offer you a position, but you get to decide if this is the type of organization where you want to work. Before you go to the interview, you should:
- Be aware of their mission, product or service, customer or client base.
- Read about the interviewer(s) and other organizational members on LinkedIn.
- Know as much as you can about their hierarchy and structure.
- Have a good idea of where you would fit in and how you could contribute.
- Try to find out what the typical salary range would be for someone in this position in this geographical location at this type of organization. (However, do not ask about salary in the interview! Ask about salary and benefits when you are offered the job if it hasn’t been clearly communicated prior to that.)
Most interviewers are going to give you an opportunity to ask questions at some point in the interview, so be prepared with questions about the organization and the position based on your research.
- It’s okay to have the questions written out ahead of time.
- Think of several questions, because it’s likely that some of your questions will get answered during the interview.
- As your final question, ask what the next steps are in the hiring process. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask when they plan to make a decision or when you can expect to hear from them. You can also ask how you can contact them if you have additional questions (for example, by email or telephone).
If you can’t think of any other questions, you can ask the interviewer
- to describe a typical day for someone in this position
- what he or she likes best about the job and/or working for this company
- what a typical career path would look like for someone starting out in the position you are applying for.
Make sure you know how to get to the interview (by car or public transportation) so that you can be on time. You should plan to get there at least ten minutes before the scheduled interview to give yourself time to use the restroom and check your appearance in the mirror. And to give yourself a few minutes to try to relax and compose yourself.
Many organizations, especially large corporations, rely on a structured interview that focuses on behavioral questions, which I will discuss below. However, there are some fairly common or traditional questions that you will want to think about ahead of time as well. Occasionally, an organization will ask unusual questions, and I’ll make some suggestions below for how to handle those off-beat questions. Finally, some questions can be more difficult than others, and I’ll present suggestions for answering those as well.
You will want to prepare answers to questions on topics such as those listed below.
- What do you know about this organization?
- Why do you want to work for this organization?
- How did you learn about this organization?
- What made you decide to apply for this job?
- What is your strongest attribute?
- What is your biggest weakness?
- What personality traits make you suitable for this position?
- How do you handle deadlines?
- What sets you apart from other candidates for this position?
- What have you done that you are most proud of?
- Would you rather work alone or as part of a team?
- What experience have you had working on a team?
- Have you ever had experience leading a team?
- Tell us about your best and worst boss.
- What work experience have you had that is relevant to this position?
- What skills do you bring to this organization?
- What skills do you think you need to add to your repertoire? How will you get those skills?
- Do you have any specialized training or certifications?
- What college courses have you taken that are relevant to this position?
- Where to you see yourself in five (or ten) years?
- What are your expectations for your first job?
- What type of work do you expect to do in this job?
- What interests you about this type of work?
- Why do you want us to hire you?
- You may be asked to write a short essay based on a prompt such as “Why do you want to work for this company?” or “Choose an adjective that you think describes yourself and write a paragraph about it.”
- You may be given a workplace scenario and asked to write out how you would handle a problem described in the scenario.
- You may be asked to take a test to demonstrate proficiency with software, to show that you can write a grammatically correct response, or to measure your typing speed.
While most interviewers will not ask you unusual questions — by which I mean bizarre or ridiculous questions — every now and then an organization will shake things up a bit by asking you to think on your feet and respond to what you may see as a trick question. The thing to remember about this type of question is that the interviewer is probably not looking for a specific answer. He or she wants to see how clever or creative or innovative you are. You can find lists of unusual job interview questions online (just type “weird interview questions” into a search engine), but here are a few examples to give you an idea of what you might be asked.
- If you could be any kind of animal (or beverage or food or tree or car) what would it be?
- What is your favorite color?
- If you could be (or meet) any character from fiction, who would you be?
- How tall (in feet) do you think this building is?
- What do you think of garden gnomes?
Job applicants have told me that they find some questions much more difficult to answer than others. I’ll list a few of those questions below and make suggestions about how you can handle them. Be prepared for questions about:
- Salary requirements: To answer this type of question, rely on your research. When you prepare for any job interview, you need to try to determine a reasonable starting salary for this type of position in this type of organization in the specific geographical area. Your college career center may be able to help you determine a reasonable salary. Professional associations can also be helpful.
- Your strengths: You need to answer any question about your strengths honestly. Your mother may have told you that it’s impolite to brag, but in an interview, you’re not bragging, you’re demonstrating competence in required job skills. Just be sure you have evidence to back it up. If you’ve taken any type of aptitude test, you can report on the results of that test as evidence, but you can also use specific examples of your accomplishments. Be sure to choose a strength that is relevant to the position for which you are interviewing.
- Your weaknesses: You need to answer this type of question honestly as well, but in this case, you want to admit to a weakness and then tell them how you plan to overcome that weakness. Don’t try to present a weakness as a strength—sometimes people think they should say that they’re too meticulous or too agreeable. That type of response can backfire!
- Your five-year (or ten-year) plan: One of the safest responses to questions about where you see yourself in the future is to say that you would hope to be working at the same organization at a higher level of responsibility. This is not the time to confess to wanting to have a family, go to graduate school, write a novel, or play professional golf!
- Things you don’t know: Sometimes you just can’t think of an answer, and when that happens, you can ask for a minute to think about it. You wouldn’t really want to take a whole minute, but give yourself a few seconds to see what comes to mind. If you still can’t come up with an answer, ask if you can come back to that one later. Your mind can work on it while you answer other questions. If they are looking for a specific fact that you know you don’t know, admit that you don’t know, but add that you’ll be happy to find the answer and get back to them. Just be sure you make a note to yourself and do get back with the answer.
Many organizations rely on behavioral questions to get a sense of how you have responded to situations in the past and to make a judgment about how you might respond to other situations in the future. Behavioral questions are often asked in settings with multiple interviewers taking turns asking you questions and scoring your responses. These are difficult, intense interviews, and you don’t have a lot of time to think before you respond. I’m going to give you some examples of behavioral questions so you can practice how you would respond, but I encourage you to also look online for other examples so you can be as prepared as possible.
There’s a simple acronym that can help you remember how to answer behavioral questions: STAR, which stands for Situation or Task, Action, and Results. When you are asked to respond to a behavioral question, you need to first describe the Situation or Task, explain what Action you took, and tell about the Results. As you look at the list below, try to think of situations you were in or tasks you were assigned that could be relevant, and then recall what you did in that situation (or how you completed the task) and what happened as a result of your action.
- Tell us about a time you effected a change.
- Give us an example of a situation that didn’t work out well.
- Tell us about a time you took a unique approach to solving a problem.
- Tell us about a time when the pace of work was fast. Tell us how you handled it.
- Interacting with others can be challenging. Have you ever had a problem with someone at school? How did you handle it?
- Complex problems may require extra help. Can you tell us about a situation where you had to ask for help?
- Tell us about a time when you did more than was expected.
Dressing for the interview
There’s a lot of great advice available on the Internet about how to dress for an interview, but I’m going to break it down into a few simple rules. Keep in mind that you really only need two interview outfits as it’s unlikely that you’ll see any one interviewer more than twice. If you don’t have two good interview outfits, go buy them. They don’t have to be expensive, but they have to fit well and look professional.
Attire tips for everyone:
- Make sure you are clean. Use deodorant. Clean your fingernails. Wash your hair.
- Avoid wearing any type of scent, such as perfume, cologne, scented lotion, or aftershave.
- Wear professional or casual business attire. If you’ve done your research, you should have a pretty good idea of how people dress in the organization. Dress slightly more formally than you think that they dress.
- Avoid flashy jewelry.
Attire tips for men:
- Wear a long-sleeved, button-down shirt with a collar.
- Wear a conservative tie—that means no crazy patterns, no pastels or bright colors, and no bow ties.
- Wear either a suit or a good sport coat and nice slacks.
- You don’t have to shave your facial hair, but if you DO shave, make sure you are clean-shaven. If you have facial hair, make sure it is neatly trimmed.
- Wear hard-soled, hard-toed shoes. No sneakers or sandals.
Attire tips for women:
- You can wear a suit (which could be a pants suit), a dress, or a skirt and blouse. If you wear a dress or a skirt and blouse combination, think about adding a nice jacket.
- Wear shoes with a low-to-medium heel that are comfortable for walking as an informal tour may be part of the interview. No sandals or sneakers; no bright or flashy colors.
- Keep your makeup simple. A touch of foundation, mascara, and lipstick is sufficient.
- If your hair is long, wear it pulled back away from your face.
- Don’t dress like the professionals you’ve seen depicted in dramas on television or in movies. No four-inch heels, no plunging necklines, no short skirts.
Many companies will conduct the initial interview over the telephone, especially if there is a significant geographical distance between your location and that of the hiring manager. You should prepare for a telephone interview with as much care as you would for a face-to-face interview. Here are some suggestions specific to preparing for a telephone interview beyond what was given under “general preparation” above.
- Use a landline or make sure you have identified a spot where you know the conversation won’t be dropped.
- Print out information about the company and have it on the desk or table where you will sit during the telephone interview. Make sure you have read all that material carefully and can refer to it during the conversation. This can include web pages, email messages, or any other communication you have had with the company. You will want printed copies so that you don’t have to search on your computer during the interview, which could cause a lull in the conversation or cause you to miss something that the interviewer has said.
- Print out a copy of your resume and any other materials that you have submitted to them.
- Prepare a written list of questions that you want to ask when given that opportunity.
- Have a pencil and paper available. Don’t take notes on your computer or phone as the sound of the keys could be distracting. . .and even if the keyboard is silent, typing is more distracting for you than jotting a few penciled notes. Take brief notes during the call. Jot down follow-up questions and use them as appropriate. Interviewers appreciate the ability to participate in an evolving conversation where you contribute more than what you had prepared in a scripted set of questions.
- Crazy as it sounds, you should dress as if you were going to a face-to-face interview. Research has shown that the way you are dressed actually affects the way that you talk. If you are dressed professionally, you are more likely to respond professionally.
- Here’s another non-intuitive suggestion: Smile. Professionals who regularly interview over the telephone tell me that they can “hear” a smile, and they want to know that you are happy for the opportunity to interview and excited about the possibility of a job.
Video Chat interviews
Some employers may ask you to interview using a platform such as FaceTime or Skype. If they do, follow all the advice above for telephone interviews, but also make sure that you can arrange for Internet access, know what type of software you need to download (if you don’t already have it), and log in ahead of time. Be sure that the area behind and around you is neutral and that the area is clean and tidy.
If possible, test out the software or connection ahead of time. Be aware that not all communication software works on all browsers. You may need to download or have available more than one browser option.