How to Ace the Interview Process: The Interviewee's Perspective
“Never turn down an interview” is advice my dad gave to me and my siblings numerous times as we have explored our careers. A job interview can give you information to quickly decide whether a position and company will be right for you. Even if you’re not completely sure you’re ready to make a job switch, the interview will give you the opportunity to explore what a new position could look like and allow you to practice honing your interview skills. Also, the interview process will inevitably introduce you to great people who might be good connections down the road. So . . . never turn down an interview.
That being said, interviewing can be stress inducing and emotionally draining, especially if the opportunity is your dream job (or if you’re desperate to exit your current job). This blog post guides you through acing the interview process, including the questions you should be prepared to answer and the questions you should ask during the process.
Also, check out my complementary blog post from the hiring manager’s perspective to gain insider tips on what the process should look like from the company’s perspective. (Hint: The way a company treats you during the interview process is indicative of their culture . . . if you don’t like the interview process, the company is likely not a good fit for you.)
1. Applying to Jobs
The focus of this blog post is interviewing, not applying, for jobs, but I think a few quick notes are worth mentioning:
Only apply for jobs you find interesting and know you have the skill set to match. I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve looked at from applicants who just graduated college but are applying for a senior-level position (as a note of humility, I’m pretty sure I was once this person, when I was applying for jobs right out of college and didn’t know any better).
When you do apply, ensure you have no errors in your resume, cover letter, or supplemental materials, and send these items as PDFs (unless otherwise requested) to avoid formatting issues.
Make sure that your resume directly relates to the position you’re applying for and include hard numbers and facts rather than just fluff. Which sounds better? “Managed projects for large organizations” or “Managed B2B and B2C digital projects for 3 accounts in financial industry (totaling ~$1M annual revenue).” Here's an even simpler one: “Managed a team” or “Onboarded and directly supervised a team of 3.” For more resume tips, check out this Forbes’ article: “4 Resume Tips You’ve Probably Never Heard of Before.”
Find a job through someone you know. I’m not talking about attending networking events (though those sometimes can be good). Rather, I’m talking about tapping into your network of friends, mentors, alumni, and past colleagues. Don’t have a network? Start volunteering for a cause you believe in, and you’ll meet like-minded individuals who might just be able to make a job connection for you.
2. Interview Prep
As soon as you have an interview scheduled, start preparing. In the past, I’ve personally found it helpful to write out or type up answers to the following:
A. Questions you anticipate being asked and your responses
B. Questions you should ask the interviewer
The act of writing everything out could help you clarify your responses, ideas, and questions. After you write out everything, read through the notes several times. The idea isn’t to memorize all of this information but to be really comfortable with it so that your responses come across as natural and thoughtful. It may seem like a lot, but when you’ve prepared this content once, it’s very easy to update it and tailor it based on your next job interview.
A. Questions You Should Anticipate Being Asked and Your Responses
To start, you should be able to articulate what you want to do in your career, why you’re leaving your current position, and why you've applied to the position. You should be able to explain any gaps or quick job jumps. Gaps and jumps should not be an issue for a good hiring manager as long as you have an honest explanation.
Next, you should prepare a few (2-5) different answers to the following questions:
What is a goal you’ve set and achieved?
What is a problem you faced and solved?
What’s an idea you’ve implemented?
An interviewer may not (or even likely won’t) ask you the above questions. However, if you have several answers prepared for these, you should be able to answer any question that comes your way. (Think: “Tell me about a time when…” questions.)
You should also prepare a few other items in anticipation of the following questions:
Basic elevator pitch about yourself: You know someone will say to you, “So, tell me a little bit about yourself.”
List of accomplishments: You may be asked, “What are you most proud of at X Company?”
Strengths and weaknesses: These are my least favorite questions, but hiring managers ask them all of the time. Your strengths should be easy to list (just don’t become too boastful), and be sure to frame your weakness as areas that you’re working to improve. For example, my weakness can be a lack of patience for others, but I have worked hard to make sure this lack of patience isn’t evident to others and have found ways to mentor or train people so that they learn more quickly.
Position-specific answers: For example, if a job mentions that a specific skill is needed, like Google Analytics, be prepared to explain how you learned Google Analytics, how you’ve used it in the past, and how you stay up to date with trends.
Check out my complementary blog post, “How to Ace the Interview Process: A Hiring Manager’s Guide,” for more potential questions a hiring manager might ask you.
B. Questions You Should Ask the Interviewer
The company is interviewing you to determine whether you’ll be a good fit for the company and the position, but remember you’re also interviewing them to determine whether they are a good fit for you. The best way to discover this is by asking questions.
As you’re formulating your questions, be sure to research the company, too. Look at their website, and don’t forget about reviewing the company and employees’ social media accounts (especially LinkedIn) and reading recent news articles. Jot down some notes about your research, and incorporate your research into your questions about the company.
You can ask basic company questions to anyone that interviews you. In fact, it’s a great idea to ask everyone you talk to at least some of the same questions. In doing so, you can learn how much (or how little) the team is in alignment across the company. A few examples:
Can you explain the company’s mission, vision, and values? (Example question that incorporates research: “I saw on your website that one of your values is integrity, can you explain to me what this means to you or how employees live out this value?”)
What are the company's growth plans? (Example question that incorporates research: “I see from a recent news article that you closed your Series B funding. How does closing this funding enable your company’s growth plan?”)
What are the company’s current challenges?
In your opinion, what are the company’s biggest accomplishments?
Why do you, personally, enjoy working at the company?
You’ll want to ask position-specific questions. These should really be saved for your potential boss but you can ask others, too.
Is this a brand-new position within the company, or are you backfilling this position?
What’s your management style?
Who will I be working with on a routine basis (and, if applicable, who will I be directly supervising)?
Can you describe the team's dynamics?
How does this position and team fit into the larger company?
What does success look like for this position?
What is the performance review structure at this company?
Are there opportunities for professional development and growth? (Be careful with this one . . . you want to convey that you’re interested in this current role and not just looking to the future, but you also want to show that you’re motivated.)
What does new hire onboarding look like at the company?
Of course, you’ll have salary, benefits, and perks questions. Definitely save these until you’re further along in the interview process. Obviously, these are important, but if you ask them upfront, it may seem like you only care about the perks and not the position itself. (Hint: A good company will share these details with you fairly early on in the interview process.) Similarly, you will want to ask how much travel the position requires but can probably wait on asking those questions, too.
Want more questions to ask your interviewer? The Muse has published “51 Great Questions to Ask in an Interview.”
Now that you’ve prepared, it’s time for the interview or, more likely, multiple interviews. Typically, the interview process will start with a phone screening (this may be done by an HR person or the actual hiring manager depending on the size of the company). This first interview is to determine whether you have the skills and apparent personality fit to interview in person with other team members. This interview is just as important, if not more so than any other interview, so prepare for it in the same way as an in-person interview. You likely won’t have an opportunity to ask too many questions so just pick your top two or three. One of your questions should be regarding next steps and understanding the interview process: Whom else will you be meeting with and when? What will the interview format be? When will you interview with your future boss?
For phone interviews or video interviews, choose a quiet space with good phone service. Phone interviews are particularly difficult, because you can't rely on facial cues. Therefore, make sure that your energy level is high, and physically smile before you pick up the phone (this sounds crazy, but it actually affects how you sound on the phone). For video interviews, choose optimal lighting and good angles. Dress as you would for an in-person interview and try to keep the background as plain as possible. Also, if you haven’t used the video technology before, download it ahead of time, and test it out to ensure it’s working prior to the interview.
For in-person interviews, make sure you know where to park ahead of time and allow plenty of time to get there. Do not be late to an interview! I can’t stress this enough. If you get there really early, go over your questions and answers for a few minutes. I was very late to an interview early in my career (there was an accident and terrible rush-hour traffic). Despite my tardiness, the interview actually went really well. But I still didn’t get the job. I’m sure there were other reasons, but I imagine being late didn’t help my case.
Ideally, you’ll interview or at least meet a few people on the team, but you’ll definitely want to make sure you interview with your future boss and can have all of your questions answered to get a good sense for their management style (see questions above).
During the interviews, try to be confident in your answers (after all, you’ve prepared for this!), but avoid being condescending or a know-it-all. Also, be prepared to interject appropriate comments based on what your interviewer is saying, even if he/she doesn’t ask you a direct question. For example, if the interviewee is talking about efficiency within the team be sure to respond about why efficiency is so important from your perspective or how you’ve helped improve team efficiency in the past.
Most interviews will include an office tour (except for a remote position, of course). If one is not offered, be sure to ask. It’s valuable to feel comfortable with the space that you’ll potentially be working in. More importantly, as you’re on the tour, you can observe how people within the company interact with one another. You can also notice how people treat your interviewer and get a sense of the culture. During one of my interview experiences, my future boss gave me a tour. It was a fairly large company, but she knew everyone’s name, joked with people, and asked how current projects were going. It immediately instilled confidence in me regarding my future boss. If it is a remote position, make sure you understand and are comfortable with how the team keeps in contact (e.g., virtual meetings, chat, etc.).
Also, the way you’re welcomed upon arrival to the interview can say a lot about the company. There’s a big difference between being greeted immediately and told your interviewer is on the way to meet you versus not being greeted at all or having to wait 15 minutes for the interviewer to meet you (yes, this has happened to me . . . more than once).
Before you leave the final interview in the process, make sure you’re clear about next steps and when you can expect a decision.
4. After Interviewing
After you leave an interview, jot down notes about your perceptions of the interview, and ask yourself some questions: Will I be successful within this team? Can I thrive in this environment? Will this company and position help me achieve my career goals? (It’s also a good idea to jot down notes during the interview—be sure to bring a professional-looking notebook for this.)
Shortly after the interview, thank every person you interviewed with. A short email is fine (though some people still send handwritten notes). Send a thank you even you’ve discovered you have no intention of taking the job or the interview experience was less than great. You should still thank the interviewers for their time.
If you haven’t heard back from the company when they said they’d get back to you, it’s okay to reach out. Just remember, they’re probably interviewing lots of candidates and possibly hiring for other positions—all while managing their day-to-day responsibilities.
If the company is planning to call your references (Hint: a good company should do this), then plan to give your references a heads up via email or a phone call. Let them know what the opportunity is, why you’re excited about it, and anything you want them to emphasize.
5. The Offer Stage
Hopefully, by the time you’ve concluded the interview process, you’ll be presented with a job offer. It’s an exciting time, but take time to understand all components of the offer. For instance, you want to ensure you understand all details, like bonuses, health benefits, 401Ks, vacation time, flexible work schedules. It’s fine to call HR or your future boss to discuss these things. Now is also the time to negotiate. (Glassdoor has a helpful guide about negotiating.)
Once you are satisfied with the offer, it’s time to make a pro and con list. Pro and con lists have helped me make every job decision in my life. Place all positives of the job (e.g., more responsibilities, better pay, opportunity to work in a field you want to be in) on one side of the list and the negatives of the job (e.g., longer commute, less vacation time, leaving a team at a current job that you like) on the other side of the list. The act of writing down your thoughts in a clear-cut way should help you come to a decision (I promise!). It’s also helpful to discuss your pros and cons with someone close to you, like a spouse, close friend, or family member. Just don’t take too long to decide. The company should tell you when they need an answer, but you probably don’t need more than a few days or a week to decide.
My dad has another great piece of advice worth sharing: “Just because you get an offer, doesn’t mean you have to accept it.” If the cons outweigh the pros, or you have a pit in your stomach when you think about the job and company rather than an excited feeling, it’s okay to turn down the offer. Explaining why you are turning down the offer is a nice courtesy. (Hint: a good company will ask you why.)
Interviewing for a new job can be stressful, emotionally draining, and time consuming. Following these tips will hopefully make your next interview process easier and more enjoyable.
Have any recent interview stories you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them, so please email me.
Additional Reading for Acing the Interview Process