How to Ace Your Job Interview: An Expert Explains
Professional tips for landing your dream job.
Posted Sep 25, 2017
Interviewing for a new job can be an incredibly stressful experience. From a psychological perspective, the nervousness makes sense: One 30-minute conversation with a discerning stranger will determine whether you fit the bill and whether the future you've imagined for yourself (encompassing a whole host of psychological processes including self-worth and identity) will be achieved—or not. These may be the underlying motivations which incentivize some to lie on resumes or during interviews (particularly if high in extroversion, according to research by Weiss and Feldman) or why being primed with feelings of power and thus feeling worthy, according to Lammers et al.'s work, increase our odds of getting the job. For Barry Drexler, a 30-year HR veteran turned Madison Avenue interview coach, acing the interview all comes down to the sell:
MB: Is there value in practicing for interviews, and, if so, what is the best way to prepare?
BD: One hundred percent! You want to do what other people don’t do you don’t want to wing it. It's almost a rhetorical question to ask because you never want the answers you give to be the first time you're thinking about them. For instance, new grads are often asked what their career aspirations are, and it'll be the first time they're thinking about it; that's not a good thing. When it comes to preparing for an interview, the first thing you do is study the job description: Everything is driven by the job description, but often people don’t read it. From there, you try to predict the questions you'll get.
MB: Are there any common questions that are asked across all fields?
BD: You'll always get three types of questions: behavior questions, situational questions, and frequently asked questions (FAQ).
Behavior questions are asking about your soft skills; your ambition, work ethic, honesty, integrity, etc. Most jobs will say "we need people that are great on a team", so they'll likely ask you about a behavior like teamwork. When companies list their values on their website, for instance, those are the behaviors they want to see in you. If a company values ambition, they'll ask you to describe how you're a go-getter. Another behavior that's popularly valued is multi-tasking; almost every company wants someone that can multi-task, so they might ask you "how would you handle conflicting priorities or a hectic day?," in which you would describe how you handle multiple tasks at once.
Situational questions are hypotheticals. For this, again, look at the job description. Let's say it’s a financial analyst position and it says "generate cash flow analysis." An obvious situational question would be "how would you generate cash flow analysis?" Take each bullet in the job description, and as you prepare, put "how would you" in front of it and practice answering.
FAQ can be predicted because they are always the same questions asked differently. If you're a recent grad, it'll be why did you choose your major? What are your thoughts about your career? If you're experienced or working, you'll always be asked: Why are you in the job market? Why do you want to work for us? Where do you see yourself in five years or where do you hope this job progresses to? What are your strengths? Weaknesses? For that one, in other words, they are asking what would your boss want to change about you.
MB: That last one's an unnerving question that, I find, either leads to something inevitably self-deprecating or terribly cheesy like "I'm a perfectionist." How do you answer that with honesty and grace?
BD: Avoid the clichés [like] "I work too hard." There's a formula you want to follow: What's your weakness, what are you doing about it, and what's the result you're getting. Sometimes people say something that isn't a weakness. For instance, saying "I'm hard on myself" isn't a weakness unless you add, "because it prevents me from being productive." You want to tell them, for example, "I get hung up on my mistakes and my weakness is that I dwell on it too long and it holds me back from moving forward. Now I'm learning lessons more quickly from my mistakes, so I can let go and not dwell on them, and I'm able to move on." Putting off challenging or confrontational conversations is a good response too because the interviewer probably has the same issues. "I don't trust my instincts" or "I don't ask for help" are similarly relatable.
MB: Are all interview questions that straightforward or are there any tricks interviewers use to keep you on your feet?
BD: Yes, there are definitely tricks. On Wall Street they might take on an attitude purposely, saying "I've just met with three other people more qualified than you, so why should we hire you?" They just want to see if you can stand up for yourself. Another trick is saying, "We have two different jobs available, which one would you want?" If you answer [that you'd prefer] one of them, you've discounted yourself. It's better to say, "I'm qualified for both and I'd do well in both." I've seen some exceptional examples, like a manager knocking pens off his desk to see if the candidate helps him pick them up, but these are exceptions. Mostly, expect to be put on the spot. I coached someone who just interviewed at Google and they picked up a product and asked him to sell it during the interview. Boom.
MB: It's no wonder the interview process can be so nerve-wracking. Let's say in the middle of it, your nerves get the better of you and you say something you didn't mean to or lie, as research shows what tends to happen; should you backtrack and correct your mistake?
BD: I would correct it instantly. Say, "That's not exactly what I meant to say." Don’t admit that you lied, just say "I'm sorry, I misspoke." Do it instantly or let it go.
MB: Speaking of interview missteps, what should you do if you're late?
BD: Email immediately and call. Do both. I would just say "I'm running late," no need to give them an excuse. Don’t show up too early either; no more than 10 or 15 minutes early. Give yourself enough time to go to the bathroom, go through security, and calm your nerves. Any more time than that can make it awkward for the interviewer.
MB: What if you're really late, like over an hour?
BD: That's a tough one. If you have extenuating circumstances that are really odd— a car crash or whatever it is—I would show up and explain.
MB: We're often encouraged just to apply to jobs, no matter if we fully meet the description. If you aren't an exact fit for the position you are interviewing for, how do you make your case?
BD: That’s an interesting question. It's almost a non-sequitur. I always say, if you’ve got the interview, the job is yours to lose. No one has time to waste interviewing someone that isn't qualified for the job, so by the time you're there, you're qualified. A job description is a wish list; a company tries to find 70 to 80 percent of what they listed in the job description in a candidate, so a candidate is always going to be missing something. Even in the rarest chance that HR accidentally called you without looking at your résumé at all, you're still sitting there and they have the ability to hire you, so impress them. Pull it out of a hat and say, "Well, this is how I can help you."
Interviews are sales; you're the product, they're the customer, so you have to be good at selling yourself. I always say, "Hire for attitude and train for skill." You may not fit the mold, but do your best to demonstrate your personality. Be eager, ambitious, collaborative, have a good work ethic and the ability to get along with people. Any smart person can learn anything, but you can't teach someone ambition.
MB: What if you're just not that good at selling yourself, or, as some people see it, bragging?
BD: I tell people you don’t have a choice. They don’t expect you to be boastful; you're a candidate! People say, "I'm going to be arrogant," but it's very unusual to meet someone truly arrogant. You can be humble and passive after they hire you, but not during the interview; you're not going to get hired being humble. If you find it difficult, I recommend self-affirmations: Sit down, in advance, reviewing your resume, and convince yourself of all your qualities and all you've accomplished. Keep reminding yourself of those things and then you'll have an easier time saying them. You can try and be confident, but once you try, you're not. It's counter-intuitive, but it really has to come from within you.
MB: Let's say the interview isn't going well and you've lost your footing; is there any chance of turning it around?
BD: Focus on them, not you. Say, in some way or another, "I can help your company with XYZ" [in terms of] what you've read in the job description. Take the focus away from you [as a person]; maybe you said the wrong things, but, if you can, convince them that you can help them. You have to make it about them.
MB: Regardless of how the interview went, should you always send a thank you note afterward?
BD: Send a very short thank you note, but make sure your grammar is impeccable. It’s another opportunity to show how you communicate. Thank them, explain how you add value to them (by adding a few sentences explaining how you can help), and that's it. For instance, "Great meeting you. I appreciate your description of the firm and job. I am excited about this opportunity and believe I can add value in such and such regard. Looking forward to hearing from you!"
MB: What if you don't hear back? Do you follow up?
BD: People want what they can't have. Be very subtle, and in about 10 days say something to the effect of, "Touching base, I am very interested in this opportunity and will keep you informed as I interview with other companies, but yours is my first choice." In another two weeks, you might say "looking forward to next steps." In a few more weeks, you might say, "I'm in final discussions with another company" to light a fire under them.
MB: At what point do you stop?
BD: At what point do you give up? I would keep at it until they say you aren't qualified. People are busy, they have other things going on and may have forgotten about you. There's no harm unless you're too pushy or too desperate. But keep interviewing; the more irons you have in the fire, the more options you have.
MB: Any last words for interviewees?
BD: 1) Prepare. 2) Study the job description; I can't emphasize that enough, and 3) Learn to sell yourself.
Lammers, J., Dubois, D., Rucker, D. D., & Galinsky, A. D. (2013). Power gets the job: Priming power improves interview outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(4), 776-779.
Weiss, B., & Feldman, R. S. (2006). Looking good and lying to do it: Deception as an impression management strategy in job interviews. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(4), 1070-1086.