The need to effectively communicate one’s personality, abilities, and experiences to others is important from the day you begin playing with other kids and throughout your childhood and adult life. Your skill in the critical process of interviewing determines your friends, your spouse, your job, and career. Fortunately, interviewing is a skill that can be learned and improves with practice, whether your objective is to get that first job or a promotion in management ranks.
As a former senior executive as well as a small business owner, I have interviewed hundreds of candidates seeking entry-level positions to vice president promotions. I’ve also been on the other side of the table and understand the stress, even desperation, that accompanies an uncertain result.
Unfortunately, in today’s business environment, there are often hundreds of applicants for every job opening, and multiple candidates for every promotion. The ability to separate from the competition, to distinguish one’s self from the pool of equally qualified contenders during the job interview process is crucial. Yet, in my experience, less than one in four candidates were adequately prepared to create a winning impression.
The following tips will help you be ready when your next opportunity appears:
How to Prepare for a Job Interview
1. Get Into the Right Frame of Mind
President Bill Clinton, no stranger to the importance of conveying the right message, once said, “Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think, and it’s the time when they most need to think.” Learning to be comfortable in an interview environment is important and relatively easy if you’ve adequately prepared and understand the possible consequence of each outcome. Getting the job or the promotion is important, but success doesn’t mean you will live happily thereafter, just as failing will not be the end of your life.
2. Understand the Interview Objective: Get to the Next Step
Getting a job or promotion is typically a process that moves from one stage to the next, successfully completing each stage being a prerequisite to the next. The purpose of a cover letter and resume is to be invited for an interview, just as the intent of the interview is either a job offer or future interviews with higher positioned members of the management team.
The pace of the process is always controlled by the company organization, usually by detailed policies and procedures. Some companies publish their policies on the websites or make them available through their human resources departments to ensure that candidates know what to expect. Whole Foods Market, one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies To Work For,” explains that their process includes preliminary and full interviews, individually and in groups of company employees. Try to determine the process of the company for which you’re interviewing before your interviews to avoid surprises.
If you’ve been asked to attend an interview, you’ve already made the first cut of potential candidates for the job. Presumably, you and the other interviewees meet the necessary qualifications, so the interviewer is looking for reasons to keep you in the hiring process or toss you back into the pool. Your ability to interact and be personable or likable is important. Companies generally want to hire people who like other people, and can get along in the social environment of a company. Interviewers want to like you and for you to like them. If you can make the interviewer like you, the higher the likelihood that you will get a good score and be invited back.
3. Do the Necessary Research
There is no excuse for not knowing details about a company at which you’re applying to work. Most companies have websites that describe their products, history, locations, and management members. Large companies often have a special section dedicated to company information, which can be searched for financial information if they are publicly traded. Similar information can be found for competitors and the industry as a whole.
No one expects you to be a stock analyst, but you should be aware of the company’s financial condition. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest can provide information about the culture in the company, although you should be aware that disgruntled employees and customers are more likely to post critical information than employees who are happy and satisfied with their jobs.
Review the description and the requirements of the job for which you are applying, noting how well you fit the company’s needs. If your experience enables you to identify a particular area where you will be immediately productive, file it in your memory (and write it on a note card so you don’t forget) in case you have the opportunity to identify your strengths. Not all interviewers will throw you easy questions, such as, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” or “What can you do for my company?” If similar questions arise, you’ll have canned responses which you can modify to fit the interviewer and the situation.
4. Create the Right Image
Interviewers typically meet dozens of candidates each week – so many, in fact, that it can be difficult to remember each individual person. Impressions matter, since interviewers use these mental shortcuts to quickly discard or recommend the candidate for the next step. Everyone searching for employment should be neat and clean, and should practice proper body language.
- Dress. Unless you are interviewing on a college campus or in the unconventional offices of a trendy software or video game developers, dress semi-formal, rather than casual, and wear shined shoes. Don’t be afraid to show some individuality, however. Wearing a bow-tie instead of a long tie, for example, or bright socks signals that you think for yourself, but understand the formal rules of the occasion. Nonconformists are highly valued in some businesses with fresh perspectives and ideas, but no one hires an anarchist. In the highly social environment of most businesses, everyone has to conform to some degree.
- Smile. Did you know that it is virtually impossible not to smile when someone is smiling at you? Psychological research proves that smiling is contagious. In fact, mimicking another person’s smile is an unconscious automatic response triggered in the cingulate cortex of the brain. A smiling face also triggers the release of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin in the orbitofrontal cortex where you process sensory rewards. Study after study shows that people who smile are seen as attractive, reliable, relaxed, and sincere. Let your smile work for you – spread it around liberally and often.
- Interaction. Handshakes are standard business practice whether you’re meeting a man or a woman, so be sure you have a firm grip, neither bone-crushing nor dead fish. Stand until you’re invited to sit, lean forward in your chair, and maintain eye contact. Finally, take a deep breath and relax, knowing you’re ready for whatever the interviewer might ask.
Practicing for a Job Interview
The outcomes of your interviews are influenced by the quality of your responses to the interviewer’s questions. Your answers should be brief, complete, relevant, and reflect your personality and experiences.
By using the following process to prepare, you’ll appear enthusiastic, natural, and in charge:
1. Identify the Likely Questions to Be Asked
An interview is intended to be an interactive process during which the interviewer and the interviewee exchange relevant information through structured questions and answers. Some companies emphasize questions based on history or facts – education, experience, previous jobs – while others emphasize more open-ended, behavioral-based questions, such as, “Describe a difficult situation with a customer and how you handled it.” Some companies use a combination of both. The intent of either type is to discover as much about you as possible, including how you might react in certain situations.
Prepare for both types by writing those questions that you are likely to be asked. If you need help getting started, perform an Internet search for the term “sample interview questions.” You can even find likely questions for specific occupations. Select the 10 questions that you believe are most likely, and put each on a separate file card. Underlining the important key terms can help you appropriately respond, regardless of the phrasing of the question.
2. Prepare Your Best Answer to Each Question
Write your answers on the reverse side of your prepared question note cards. Some people prefer to use complete sentences, while others note only the key concepts and terms that they want to emphasize when answering. Either method works if you can deliver the response naturally – stilted, rote answers are only excusable when explaining technical issues.
Behavioral-based questions are best answered in a format which demonstrates your understanding of the question and a logical method to approach problems. The answer should proceed through the SARL format:
- S: Description of the Situation
- A: Report of the Actions Taken
- R: Results of a consequence of the actions
- L: Explanation of the Lessons Learned, if any
For example, if I were asked to describe a difficult situation with a customer, I might respond:
- Situation: Mrs. Jones complained that her new television set, purchased two weeks prior, had stopped working. She was irate and wanted a full refund, threatening to complain to the Better Business Bureau.
- Actions Taken: I assured Mrs. Jones that we would rectify the situation, then checked our sales records to confirm the date of purchase, the store’s policy on returns, and the manufacturer’s warranty. I asked Mrs. Jones to return the set to the store for a full refund the next day and pointed out another make and model that she might consider as a replacement for the defective set. I left a note for the store manager the next day regarding the situation in case I wasn’t available when she returned.
- Results: Mrs. Jones returned her defective set the next day and purchased the model I had suggested as a replacement with her refund. She remarked how happy she was with the store’s service and intended to come back for future purchases. Upon inspection, we discovered faulty electronics and returned the set to the manufacturer for a replacement.
- Lessons Learned: We learned two things: Our inspection procedures need improvement to better identify defective products before they are stocked on the retail floor, and, secondly, responsive customer service can overcome defective merchandise – at least some of the time.
Analyzing and answering a behavioral question in this manner can be applied in almost every situation. Once you’ve identified the interview questions most likely to arise, develop your answers in the SARL format with the same note card system.
3. Use Dress Rehearsals to Your Advantage
Once you have prepared the questions and your best responses, memorize the file cards and have a friend or family member ask you questions to check whether your answers correspond with your intended response. Ask them to rephrase questions while using the key terms so that your mind automatically responds to the terms. Practice orally whenever possible, since brains sometimes work faster than mouths, and you don’t want to become tongue-tied.
Try to create a setting as close to possible as the real interview – for example, use a table and two chairs, rather than sitting casually on a couch. Your practice should include introductions and handshakes as well as the questions. Time your rehearsals and limit them to no more than 20 minutes for the full interview. Your actual interview may be longer due to social niceties and nervousness, but brevity is better than rambling.
4. Be Prepared With Your Own Questions
Because the interview is interactive, the interviewer will expect you to ask questions of your own. Interviewers often judge candidates by the questions they ask. Some great examples, according to Inc., include:
- What do you expect me to accomplish in the first 90 days?
- What are the common attributes of your top performers?
- What are the things that really drive results for the company?
It is your opportunity to find out about company details that are not generally available to the public. Questions relating to culture (for instance, “Do you promote within?” “What is your annual employee turnover?” and “Do you like working here?”) are appropriate, while questions such as, “How many vacation days will I get?” are not.
Even if your interview is unsuccessful, you can still learn from the experience and the job interview mistakes you made and go on to have a successful career – either with another company or with your own. Soichiro Honda, passed over after a promotion interview, subsequently founded an international automobile company; Vera Wang’s interview with board of directors for editor-in-chief of “Vogue” magazine was unsuccessful, leading her to become a premier fashion designer at age 40. Will not getting the offer be disappointing? Yes, but at the very least, use the information to better prepare for the next interview, and take opportunities where and when you find them.
What other job interview preparation tips can you suggest?