You might be pretty good at interviewing for a job. You may have even searched for information on how to make yourself stand above the crowd. In today’s competitive environment, that’s a good start, but it’s not enough.
The real key to success lies in four steps you can take before your next interview. These steps will help you answer the tough questions better, decrease your nerves and increase your chances of getting the right job for you. These steps aren’t revolutionary; however, most people skip at least one, if not more. By completing all four, you will be on your way to giving your strongest interview ever.
STEP 1: Know Yourself
Sound simple? It might appear easy, but this first step involves critical reflection and self-awareness. It will help you with every aspect of the job search, not just interview preparation. It’s a step that ideally should be taken long before you ever apply for a job. And it’s probably the step that most people skip.
Knowing yourself starts with understanding your values and priorities. Your values can be lofty (e.g., I want to make a difference) or very practical (e.g., I want a short commute). They can include an interest in developing specific skills, making more money, being entrepreneurial or working on a particular issue. Once you’ve identified your values, you need to prioritize them. Which ones are the most relevant to your job?
After values and priorities, you’ll want to consider strengths and interests. Jan Fischoeder, career services consultant at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany, says, “You should consider your own strengths and weaknesses and how to present them. The crucial point in conveying your weaknesses is to present them as challenges or dynamic strengths. For example, if one has a problem delegating work to team members, it’s good to mention that one knows about this problem and has developed an open communication strategy to meet this challenge. This, in turn, makes you come across as open to learning and [having] a thought-through personality.”
Make a list in each category: priorities, values, strengths and interests, and focus on those relevant to your job search and, more specifically, your upcoming interview.
Using your four lists, you will be able to develop questions for your interviewer. Questions demonstrate your knowledge of the organization. They also show that you’re seriously interested in the position, have taken initiative and understand how you could fit in the organization. As you develop your questions, show your knowledge of the organization or industry, when possible.
This is also a time to prepare concrete examples or anecdotes that demonstrate your relevant strengths, skills and experience. Paul Binkley, director of student career development at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says, “Too many people don’t know their own résumé. This may seem obvious, but many don’t think they need to review what they included in their application. Remembering what you put on your résumé will help you remember different examples to use.”
This preparation is especially helpful for behavioral-based interviews, where the interviewer looks at past performance in similar situations as the most accurate predictor of future performance.
You also want to think about your salary requirements. What do you want, and what do you need? Research the field and learn what is realistic for compensation. By doing this ahead of time, you will be more prepared to handle any surprise salary questions.
Fischoeder notes, “Once you know your values, you are also in a much better position to present your value in terms of salary expectations.” Just remember, you want to avoid discussions related to salary until you have an offer; this is when you have the most negotiating power.
STEP 2: Know the Organization and the Job
It’s time to learn more about where you’re potentially going. Of course, you should have conducted extensive research into the job and organization before you submitted an application. Now it’s time to revisit that research.
Even if you examined it before, study the organization’s website. In addition to the obvious sections, review press releases, executive summaries, what other jobs are offered and even obscure pages. Leave no link unchecked. Know the organization’s mission, vision, history, accomplishments and current projects. Review all of the organization’s social media channels to see what it’s promoting and how it’s positioning itself. Follow the organization to stay informed of the latest announcements. Examine the online presence of the supervisor and team members—including social media, blogs, profiles and interviews—to learn about their background and search for common interests.
This is also the time to double check that your online footprint is professional. Make sure you have a LinkedIn profile that is consistent with your résumé. Remove any unprofessional or embarrassing text or pictures from any of your online sites. Employers conduct searches to see how you’re presenting yourself, and some can access password-protected platforms.
Review any other information you can find about the organization. Study similar organizations, including competitors. Talk to people in the organization or field. The more you know, the better answers and questions you will have at the interview.
Next, revisit the job description. Know exactly which job you’re interviewing for. But don’t just read the announcement, study it.
Katharine S. Brooks, Evans Family Executive Director of the Career Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, recommends, “When you read the job description, note the characteristics or skills the employer is seeking and then match yourself to them. Be ready to tell stories that illustrate your skills—don’t just tell an employer that, ‘yes, I am a hard worker.’ Instead, explain how you’re a hard worker, as in, ‘I noticed that your job description mentioned the hard work involved in this position. You might be interested to know that last year I worked on three projects simultaneously while also …’ or any story that illustrates how/why you have the skills or knowledge the employer is seeking.” Have two or three anecdotes for each skill or experience sought.
At this point, you should develop additional questions. Beyond the regular interviewing questions you have, what do you want or need to know about this position or organization? Write the questions down, and take them to the interview. An interview can be stressful, so don’t assume you’ll remember all the questions you have.
In the corner of the page in small print, make a concise list of the key items about yourself that you want to mention. You can refer to this throughout the interview to ensure you’ve covered all you have to offer.
STEP 3: Practice
Now it’s time to practice. Answer typical interview questions, including the ones offered in the sidebar to this article, and anticipate questions related to the job description. Just like Table Topics, make sure you answer thoroughly but concisely. Focus on any questions that challenge you.
Research and try the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) or CCAR (Challenge, Context, Action, Result) techniques, especially for behavioral-based questions. Practicing with questions from different interview systems can help you add more clarity and depth to your answers.
As you practice, always answer in the most relevant way. (Of course, do this in the real interview too.) Don’t share a fact, such as where you grew up, unless it matters. Brooks notes, “It’s great to know your strengths generally, but you need to articulate them in a manner that speaks to the position and the organization. Bringing up strengths that aren’t needed for the position will indicate you haven’t done the research and don’t understand the position.”
“Be ready to tell stories that illustrate your skills.”— KATHARINE S. BROOKS, A CAREER CENTER DIRECTOR
If you can, demonstrate knowledge of the organization by paralleling what you’ve done and inserting examples of projects, approaches or techniques similar to what the organization is doing. Be concrete, positive and naturally enthusiastic. Take a moment to think about your answers. And don’t forget to smile.
It’s also important to practice out loud. Catherine Stace, career education advisor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, says, “If you’re a student, visit your career center for a mock interview. If you’re not a student, there are many community organizations that offer interview skills workshops and practice sessions. If all else fails, ask a friend to find someone you don’t know to conduct a mock interview.”
Of course, your Toastmasters club meeting is also a perfect place to practice. Arrange a Table Topics session dedicated to interview questions or videotape yourself practicing with fellow Toastmasters. If you are interviewing via a web-based video platform, such as Skype or Google Talk, practice with it. This will ensure you can use the system properly and understand what will appear onscreen so you can prepare the most professional presentation not only by what you say but also by what is visible to the camera.
Regardless of how you practice, it’s important to vocalize your answers. Don’t memorize answers word for word. Instead, work to reach a comfort level. You might be asked a tough question—one you never anticipated—but your research and practice will make it easier to handle.
STEP 4: Make the Right Impression
Unless you are told differently, dress in standard business attire. Most often, this means a suit. Look completely polished. Take a briefcase, professional bag or portfolio. Bring extra copies of your résumé, and consider bringing references or samples of past work. And don’t forget your sheet of questions, with the list of items you want to share about yourself.
Arrive 10 to 15 minutes before your interview. Any earlier will be an imposition. You can arrive earlier to the general area, as long as you don’t go into the office. Arriving extra early can help you regain composure if you’ve had a stressful day or travel experience. Visit a nearby restroom to put that final polish on your appearance and recheck your portfolio items. For video interviews, log on at least 10 to 15 minutes beforehand to ensure you won’t be surprised by a last-minute software update or technology glitch.
Now you’re ready. Take the time to go through each of these four steps and you will find yourself giving your best interview ever!
Jennifer L Blanck, DTM is a member of the Conestoga Toastmasters club in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a regular contributor to Toastmaster magazine.