How Job Interviews Really Work

And how to make them work for you.

Posted Mar 22, 2018

Production Perig/Shutterstock
Source: Production Perig/Shutterstock

One day while interning at a counseling center, my supervisor handed me a stack of resumes. "Here, we need to hire a new counselor," she said. "Pick a few candidates I can interview." And off she went. Just like that, I became the de facto applicant screener. Since I was an English major, I probably picked the resumes with the fewest spelling errors.

I mention this, because sometimes a hiring process is a formal process involving recruitment systems and resume scanners, and other times it's a nervous intern in ill-fitting Dockers. As applicants, we don't know what's going on behind the scenes of a company, so we must take every aspect of the job search seriously. That means learning how to create a great resume, a tailored cover letter, and a standout LinkedIn profile, as well as preparing for the interview process.

The interview can be a mysterious swamp beast. Churchill once said (not of job interviewing), "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key." To make the process uniform and fair, larger companies often provide interviewers with an outline or a worksheet full of response factors on which candidates are to be rated. Then there are usually follow-up discussions, in which the hiring committee reviews the pros and cons of each candidate. Which factors influence them the most? What are they really looking for? Perhaps there is a key.

We can Google "How to answer tough interview questions" and practice our responses until we know them by heart, but here are some other important influences at play.

Job Interview Success Factors 

1. Show up in professional/business attire, even if it's casual Friday, unless HR tells you otherwise. 

If you're not good at piecing together an outfit, ask for help from a salesperson at a department store. If you need professional attire, but find it difficult to afford, reach out to an organization like Dress for Success. When you wear an outfit that's tailored to fit and makes you feel good, you're more likely to present yourself with confidence

2. ... but the best Paul Smith isn't enough to land you the job.

You still have to be friendly, smile, greet everyone you meet with a handshake and eye contact, and most importantly, maintain self-awareness. Most of the items below address the latter.

3. Make sure you're speaking clearly without mumbling or using too many filler words like "cool," "amazing," "awesome," "like," and "umm." 

And don't use "whatever" or "I don't care." Clear communication is given high value across all industries. On the other hand, Churchill sure did mumble. 

4. Make sure you're not slouching in your seat (even if they are), checking your phone (even if they are), or failing to turn off your phone (vibrations are essentially ringtones).

Keep your hands above the table, not twirling a pen or picking at things.

5. Make sure you're engaging everyone in the room.

If it's a panel interview, with three, four, or more people interviewing you, make a point of speaking to all of them, rather than favoring the primary facilitator. Make eye contact with each one and pull them all into the conversation with smart questions. 

6. Monitor the length, pace, and tone of your responses.

Telling a couple of stories can be highly effective at exhibiting your skills and accomplishments, but don't become "the storytelling guy" who used a long story to answer every question. Vary the length of your responses from clear and concise to descriptive and engaging. A bit of natural humor can be great, but notice I said a bit and natural. Don't rehearse one-liners and wait for guffaws. Awkward!

7. Does your voice get loud and rapid when you're excited, or quiet when you're nervous?

As you prepare, make a point of being conscious of your pacing and tone. Practice with an interview buddy or career coach. Allow your natural enthusiasm and personality to shine, but let's not frighten people. The interviewer(s) should be left with the sense that you really get the company, and you're excited to work there, but you're also composed.

8. Composure is especially tested when they ask, "Describe one of your weaknesses," or "Tell us about a time when you failed at something." 

Avoid the old switcheroo response that at first sounds like a weakness or a failure that you then cleverly twist into a positive. The only person who thinks that's clever is you. Be honest. Tell them about a weakness — how you've become aware of it, and what you've been doing to improve. Tell them about a failure and what you learned from it. The intent of their question is not to embarrass you. It's to: a) see how you handle difficult questions in the moment; b) observe your self-awareness; and c) assess how you learn from mistakes and grow as a person when presented with the insight to do so.

9. Which brings us to authenticity.

We all put on a good face in these situations, but that doesn't mean we have to scrub away that which makes us interesting and unique. You want the interviewer(s) to remember you. Perhaps you are intelligent but humble, fascinating yet concise, highly accomplished yet personable. Whatever your unique combination of traits, that's you. Be that. Go ahead and share an interesting ice-breaking tidbit about yourself. If they don't respond to your authentic self, then you probably wouldn't fit into the organization anyway and would end up miserable.

10. Ask good questions, and try to avoid asking questions just for the sake of asking questions.

Think of some insightful questions beforehand and bring them to the interview in a folder that also contains copies of your resume for every person on the hiring committee. If you don't know who will be present at the interview, ask HR or your recruiter beforehand for their names. Then research their company bios and LinkedIn profiles. Research. Research. Research. You should learn the past, present, and future of the company to the extent that it's publicly available. Your research will pay off in your ability to ask smart questions and illustrate your fit within the company's mission and culture.

An interview is so much more than coming up with the right answers to tough questions. The interviewer is consciously and subconsciously assessing how you will fit into the organization. Were you agile and able to go off-script to handle curveballs? Would your presence and poise represent the company well in future interactions with customers and stakeholders? Did you represent yourself as a dynamic team player who is willing to grow and change as the company does? Skills and experience are important, but likability and that certain something can give you the edge.

Job Interview Response Factors

Ready for more insider tips? Here are some "check boxes" that interviewers look for in your responses.

  • Demonstrates a positive attitude and eagerness to be part of the team.
  • Is on board with the company's mission and expectations.
  • Completes assigned tasks, yet is able to make independent decisions.
  • Is open to constructive feedback/criticism and learns from mistakes.
  • Has insightful feedback and is willing to make suggestions for change.
  • Is always ethical and responsible.
  • Has communication savvy and can respond flexibly in various situations.
  • Considers everyone's contribution and listens to all sides of the story.
  • Can think both analytically and creatively.
  • Makes logical and informed decisions.
  • Is motivated and motivates others.
  • Demonstrates “outside the box” thinking.
  • Completes short-term tasks on time, while monitoring long-term goals.
  • Shows mentorship and leadership qualities.
  • Able to delegate, yet willing to jump in and do whatever it takes.
  • Expects and fosters excellence in self and others.
  • Listens to and values everyone's contributions.
  • Shares knowledge and insights for the benefit of all.
  • Embraces continuing education and professional growth.
  • Able to illustrate how to solve problems creatively and methodically.

Pre- and Post-Interview Tips

  • Before the interview, rather than cramming last-minute responses, use the time to relieve your anxiety by doing some deep breathing and mindfulness exercises (and maybe throw in a confidence-boosting affirmation or two).
  • After the interview, try to go somewhere where you can decompress and spend some time conducting a "process recording." A process recording is a wonderful tool for honing your interview prowess. Take notes on everything you can remember about the interview. What were the interviewers' names, and where did they sit at the table? What questions did they ask? How did you respond? Which responses went over well? Where did you stumble? What did you forget to say? This document can be immensely helpful next time you interview.
  • The next day, send each member of the hiring committee a thank-you note.