How to Prepare for a Job Interview
A job interview is a bit like a first date.
Prior to most first dates, you often have some communication. For example, if you met online, you’ve seen a photo of the person, read a little about them, and perhaps exchanged some information via text or email. Now, imagine two different first dates.
Date A: This person makes a connection between something you shared in your profile and something relevant to your conversation. They ask you a question related to something they saw in one of your profile pictures. They seem interested in you but not desperate.
Date B: This person doesn’t connect anything you shared prior to the date to the conversation during the date. They don’t ask you any questions about yourself. By the end of the date, it’s not clear how interested they are in seeing you again.
All other things being equal, the person from Date A is more likely to get a second date. Job interviews are similar. The same behaviors exhibited by the person from Data A are more likely to lead to a second round interview or job offer.
The person on Date B is like the person who doesn’t prepare for a job interview. They often use what I call “spray and pray” approach where they cast a wide net and hope something works out. When looking for a good job (or a serious relationship), I recommend a different approach. Be intentional. Only apply for jobs where there’s a good fit. You may get fewer interviews, but for the interviews you do get, you’ll be able to put in the time to properly sell yourself and assess whether you want to work for the company.
We like people who like us. But it’s not enough to exhibit generic liking behaviors. During a job interview, your liking has to be tailored to the position and company. This article walks you through an interview preparation process that, if followed, will increase your chances of success during your next job search.
Do Your Research
Many people I help prepare for job interviews want to begin by talking about how to respond to common interview questions. Anticipating common questions is a good idea, but before jumping to the interview itself, spend some time doing your research on what the company says about itself, what the job you are applying for entails, and what other people are saying about what it’s like to work there.
Read What The Company Says About Itself
Visit the company’s website. Note how the company positions itself to consumers. Then visit the career section of the site and read what the company says about its culture, diversity, benefits, and career development opportunities.
For publicly traded companies, visit the “Investor Relations” area of the site. This area is full of rich information that if referenced appropriately during an interview can set you apart from your competition. At the very least, you should understand the business model of the company before the interview.
Begin by downloading the company’s Annual Report (Form 10-K) from its website.
Read “Part 1, Item 1 Business” for a description of the company. In this section of the report you’ll find a high-level overview of the companies products and services, strategy, business segments, financials, risks and more.
Review "Part 2, Item 7: Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operation.” The MD&A, as it’s called, provides a qualitative assessment of the company’s financial results from the last year. Typically written in accessible language, this section is where the company presents the story of the last year in its own words. Take note of key performance indicators; these are measures of how the company aims to reach its strategic goals.
Listen to or read the transcript from the company’s last earnings call. These calls are highly scripted, but they give you the unique chance to hear the CEO and other senior leaders speak about company performance. Pay close attention to the question and answer session of the calls. What questions are the analysts asking?
Private companies might not have as much publicly available information online, but databases like Mergent Online and Nexis Uni may include helpful information. In addition, many nonprofits produce annual reports and larger organizations are required to submit an annual information return to the IRS each year that you can find online.
Your goal is not to memorize this information, but to be familiar with it. Keep in mind, the best employees not only excel at their assigned responsibilities, but they make efforts to understand the organization from the perspective of leadership.
Analyze the Job Posting Carefully
You can learn a lot about a company and a job by reading the job announcement like a detective. What makes the company unique? When you understand how the organization positions itself, you can send a signal to the hiring team that you “get” them. It’s similar to the feeling you get when someone you first meet seems to understand you.
Consider the following process as you analyze the job announcement:
Print the document and read through it to see if you notice anything different about the job since the time you applied for it.
Read the posting again and highlight key words and phrases that make you feel like you are a good fit for the position.
Read the posting again and underline any phrases that are unclear or that you have questions about.
Some job postings will include an employee value proposition. For example, Wyndham Hotels & Reports emphasizes the Three Es: Experience, Exposure, and Education. When you speak the company's language during the interview, you are saying, I am ready to join the team.
How does the position fit into the big picture of the organization? The job summary or overview can help you understand how the position you are interested in matters to the overall success of the organization.
When reviewing the position responsibilities, consider which tasks represent areas where you have expertise and which tasks present growth opportunities. Similarly, as you review the position qualifications, note the areas where you do not meet, meet, or exceed the requirements.
Plan responses to interview questions where you can share examples that not only demonstrate your strengths, but also prepare responses that emphasize transferable skills in areas where you may lack direct experience.
Find Out What Other People Say About Working There
Use your network to try to connect with people already working for the company. You might begin by searching the alumni database at your school. You can also enter the company name into the search on LinkedIn and then click “people” to find out if you are already connected to people who work there. You can also find out who in your network knows people who work there.
LinkedIn lists where people in the company live and where they studied. The results of a recent company search I did found 86 people at one company who studied at one of my alma maters. Because we have a common life experience, I suspect these individuals might be more open to a cold email than others.
Websites like Glassdoor, where current and former employees anonymously post about their experience working at the company, can be another source of information as you prepare for your interview.
Now that you better understand the company and the position, take some time to understand yourself by reflecting on how your life story has prepared you for this opportunity.
Think about your paid and unpaid experiences. Consider patterns among your cumulative responsibilities and accomplishments. For example, for me, in almost all my life experiences I can identify times where my communication skills have helped me contribute in a meaningful way. What qualities, abilities, and skills do you intrinsically enjoy using? Feedback from others in this process is helpful, but you understand yourself best and are the only one who has to live your life. The question I like to ask is, “What gifts do you want to put forth into the world so you can make a difference?”
Over time, you’ll identify a unique set of transferable qualities, abilities, and skills. Ideally, you’ll be able to see how they make you a good fit for the position you are interviewing for. Without an obvious match, selling yourself to a potential employer will be difficult.
Knowing your core qualities, abilities, and skills will lay the foundation for a successful interview. This will help shape how you answer questions like, “Tell me about yourself” or “Why should we hire you?” Write down a few anecdotes that speak to each of your core qualities, abilities, and skills. You’ll come back to these short stories as you prepare and during your interview.
Remember, you are not your resume. This is about understanding who you are and what you will bring to the job. The best employers don’t care as much about what you have done, rather, they want to know about your potential or who you can be.
This process of developing a higher level of self-awareness will help you communicate to potential employers authentically. You will come to feel more comfortable when there is alignment between your true self and what you say, and others will respond more favorably toward you.
Anticipate Questions You Might Be Asked
I’ve written previously that you can reduce your speaking anxiety by anticipating objections. You can do the same by anticipating the questions you might be asked during a job interview. Begin by opening a file on your computer and collecting a variety of potential questions from each of the questions types below. Then outline succinct responses to the questions.
Standard Questions: Most interviews will include at least a few commonly asked questions. Not all these are necessarily good questions, but you should be prepared for questions like them.
Tell me about yourself.
What are your strengths/weaknesses?
What do you know about our company?
What motivates you?
What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
What criteria are you using to evaluate the company for which you hope to work?
What are your salary expectations?
Why should we hire you?
You can find hundreds of examples if you google “commonly asked interview questions.”
Behavioral Questions: These questions ask you to share an experience from your past, so the interviewer can learn how you might respond in a similar situation. Begin by identifying important job skill verbs from the position description and think of an example of a time where you have demonstrated that verb (the closer the situation to the work situation the better).
As you outline your answers to behavioral interview questions, use the STAR technique to structure your response
Situation: What was the context?
Task: What was your objective?
Action: What actions did you take?
Result: What was the outcome?
Situational Questions: Unlike behavioral questions, situational focus on hypothetical situations designed to test your problem solving skills. These question often include one of the following two phrases:
What would you do…?
How would you respond…?
Again, go back to the job posting to look for clues to try to anticipate some of the situations you might face in that position.
Technical Questions: These questions are designed to gauge your ability to complete the hard skill requirements of the position. Included below are a couple of examples of technical questions that could be asked of someone interviewing for an investment banking position:
What is convertible arbitrage?
Give me an example of a sector trade.
Many websites include technical questions for different industries. These are questions my students are often most nervous about, but technical questions are rare in first round interviews and do not seem to be widely used in general. Companies with standardized hiring practices will often let candidates know what types of questions will be asked.
The secret behind anticipating questions isn’t about correctly guessing the questions you will be asked. The real benefit is the time spent reflecting on why you think you are a good fit for the position and developing a bank of anecdotes you can use.
When I interviewed for the position I have at Cornell today, I don’t recall being effective at predicting the questions I was asked, but the time I spent thinking about what I would say and practicing thoughtful, organized, and succinct responses served me well the day of the interview.
Practice Your Responses
Once you have compiled a list of possible interview questions and outlined your responses using key words and phrases, practice speaking your responses out loud. Reading your answers on screen or thinking about your answers in your head will not produce the same results. As you practice your responses, consider the following tips:
Monitor how long it takes to respond. Some simple questions may only call for a 30 second response, while responses to complex questions could take three or more minutes.
Adjust your notes if you develop better answers while practicing.
Practice responding to questions in a different order each time.
Revisit questions where you do not feel as confident and spend less time on the questions you feel like you are ready to respond to.
Practice with someone else. Give a trusted friend your list of questions and ask them to randomly select questions to ask and to give you feedback on your responses.
Prepare Questions To Ask
In the process of selling yourself, don’t forget that you have to decide if you really want the job and to work for this organization. One of the ways you can assess your interest in the organization is to ask the hiring team questions. Prepare a list of questions in advance.
The Muse, a career website, suggests eight categories of questions you could draw from when asked, “Do you have any questions for us?” You can ask questions about:
Training and professional development
Next steps in the process
Any phrase that you underlined while analyzing the job posting could inform a question you have about the job. Tailor your questions to the person interviewing you. For example, you might ask a manager about culture and someone from human resources about the next steps in the process. And please, don’t ask questions you know the answer to.
The longer the scheduled interview, the more questions you should be prepared to ask. When I’m being interviewed by different groups of people throughout the day, I like to ask a similar open-ended question to each group to gauge the consistency of their responses. Just like a date, not asking questions is a sign you are not interested. In fact, some hiring teams will assess you on your ability to ask good questions. Don’t skip this step.
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If you decide the interview preparation process I’ve laid out here is a bit too much, consider how you may appear in the eyes of the hiring team compared to someone who takes the effort to prepare this way.