Artwork by: Katya Simacheva
Nervous about an upcoming interview? Relax — we’ve got your back! In this article we’ll provide all you need to know to prepare for an interview and knock it out of the park.
Let’s say you got an interview — that’s great! But you can’t rest on your laurels just yet. There’s still a lot of work to do. Seems kind of ironic, doesn’t it? You have to work to get work? But the truth is that you can’t just “wing it.” There’s a lot of prep work that needs to be done before you ever set foot in the interviewer’s office. It might feel a little overwhelming, but don’t worry — we’ve got you covered, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know (and what not to do!) to pass an interview for the first time.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about preparing for an interview, including:
Doing your research
5 ways to improve your interview skills. plus examples of what not to say
Getting your personal affairs together
Want to nail the interview? Do your homework. Much of the interview process will focus on the position you're interviewing for, the company itself (including its core values), and even the context of the interview — i.e. what kind of interview is it, and who's conducting it. In essence, this means that you need to take the time to review your skills, job history, and goals as it pertains to both the position and the company.
Take some time to learn all you can about the company but not just by looking at their website or social media. This means reaching out to your professional network to see if you can talk to any current or former employees, locate recent press releases, and do an internet search. If you spend some time getting a bigger picture of what the company is like, you'll get a better idea if it's the right fit for you and what value you'd bring.
You can't know why you're the best person for the job without knowing what the job's about. Most job descriptions are fairly detailed, so that's a good place to start. See what skills and background they're looking for and what role this position plays in the overall company. How do your skills align with this position? That's what you'll be highlighting during your interview.
If it applies to the field you're in, try out one (or more) of the projects the company sells. Even if you're not in a sales or production role, you'd still be part of the company. It's a good idea to learn everything you can about the products or services the company provides. You don't need to learn every little technical aspect, but you should have a good idea of how it all works. If nothing else, it will show the interviewer that you're taking the opportunity seriously.
An interviewer is going to take a different approach to an interview, based on their particular role at the company, so it's a good idea to have this information in your back pocket so you can ask some questions that are specific to that person (and if you don't know who you'll be interviewing with, ask!) This will give you a chance to make a connection with the interviewer, either by asking about their job, industry news, or even a common interest. But don't be "stalker-y": stick to things that are easily found on a professional networking site or the company webpage.
Each company handles interviews a little bit differently, so you'll want to know what to expect so you can plan accordingly. Are you going to meet one-on-one, or will you meet with several people at one time, like a panel interview? Will it be in person, on the phone, or online? It's okay to ask the HR rep ahead of time what kind of interview it will be, and it will ease a lot of worries if you know what to expect.
When preparing for your interview, you’ll want to pay attention to your body language. According to experts:
55% of first impressions are made by what we see
38% is the way your words are heard
7% are the words themselves
Remember, the old saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression?" Along with crafting top-notch answers to common interview questions, make sure you're aware of the effect you have before you say a word.
You’ll want to practice some interview techniques as well as your answers to common interview questions ahead of time, so you’re not caught off guard. While there’s no way to know exactly which questions you’ll be asked, there are a few common ones that you can create answers for. Also consider putting together an “elevator pitch,” which is a good way to tell the interviewer, concisely and professionally, who you are, what you want, and what you bring to the table.
Take some time to figure out what skills, achievements, and personal attributes will "vibe" with the interviewer and are specific to that job. This is where the job description will be helpful again — what are they looking for, and what it is about you that makes you the top candidate. Your leadership skills? Your ability to work as part of a team? Your attention to detail? Make sure that these positive aspects are part of your answers, and you're sure to shine.
Sure, you've prepared answers to common behavioral or situational interview questions but don't let the "Tell me about yourself" or "Walk me through your resume" questions throw you for a loop. There's an easy way to construct an answer that you can practice in advance. Just use three elements:
1. Talk about your current job, its scope, and maybe something you've achieved there recently.
2. Briefly describe the path you took to get to your current position, incorporating any past experience that might be relevant to the job you're applying for.
3. Tie those elements into what you feel your next step is, and why you're interested in this new position (and why you're the best person for it).
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; it’s just a guideline so feel free to make any tweaks that you deem necessary. And don’t use this as an excuse to make a long, rambling speech — although it might seem like a lot of information to work in, keep it to no more than two minutes.
This question is almost a guarantee, so make sure you know why you want this job (beyond the need for a paycheck, of course). Identify a couple of key aspects of the job and company that match up with who you are, including your work style, values, skills, and strengths that have piqued your interest in the job. Even if they don't ask you this specific question, you'll be able to work these elements into your other answers.
There's a very good chance you'll be asked some behavioral or situational interview questions, so prepare some answers ahead of time. You don't have to have a rehearsed script, but you should have some stories at the ready. Consider using the STAR method to construct your answers so you can provide the hiring manager the context they need to get an idea of the story while remaining concise.
If you're not already familiar, STAR stands for:
Situation: Give some brief context to your story
Task: What was your role in the story?
Action: What steps did you take, and why?
Result: What was the outcome of those steps, and what did you achieve?
You'll need to adjust your answers based on what they're asking you about, but using this method will help you clearly construct a story that answers their question with a defined start, a midpoint, and a conclusion. And don’t forget about the numbers. Make sure you’ve made a mental note of any important achievements, budget issues, productivity, or sales numbers that will help communicate your impact on your previous position.
At the end of the interview, the hiring manager will likely ask if you have any questions for them. You must have a few! Have some questions that are job and company-specific, and have a few more than you think you'll need, as some of them might be answered during the interview.
What not to say in an interview
While you’re preparing fabulous answers to common interview questions, you’ll also want to keep in mind anything the interviewer might consider a “red flag.” Some phases you’ll want to avoid are:
“My last company was terrible…”
“Everybody was out to get me.”
“Oh, just look at my resume.”
"I guess one of my weaknesses is…I'm a perfectionist."
“Errr…umm…I don’t know?”
“How much vacation time do you give?”
“I’m going through some tough personal stuff right now.”
Avoiding these verbal gaffes will help ensure that you’re remembered for all the right reasons.
Once you’ve done your company research and prepared for the interview, you’ll want to pay attention to some small elements that can make a big difference in your attitude, how you present yourself, and your state of mind.
Deciding what to wear to an interview isn't a superficial thing — your outfit will tell the interviewer a lot about you before you open your mouth. Unless it's a phone interview, appearance does make a difference (and if it's a Zoom interview, please don't forget to wear pants. Really.) If you're not sure of the dress code, it's fine to ask the HR person or take a look at the company website, which will usually feature photos of employees. It also depends on the company's environment — for a law firm, you'll definitely want a simple suit, but for a start-up, business casual is appropriate for an interview.
When putting together your interview outfit, remember the details. Don't wait until the last minute to ensure that your clothing is clean, free of stains and tears, and fits you. Consider a haircut, manicure, or even a totally new outfit — anything to help you feel your best. And if you are short on funds, don't stress out about it. You have options for low-cost, professional attire, such as your local Goodwill. Some organizations provide interview outfits for people in need for free or at a steeply discounted cost. Looking your best will boost your confidence, which is never a bad thing!
If your interview is in person, print out several copies of your resume so that everyone you're meeting with will have one, plus one for yourself. (If it's a phone or video interview, have one printed out for yourself so you can refer to it if necessary.) You'll also want a list of your references, even if they didn't specifically ask for you to bring one. A reference list should include each person's name, title, company, department, phone number, email address, and a brief sentence describing your relationship — for example, "John was my supervisor for three years, during which we worked together on six major ad campaigns." Have a hard copy for your interview, and be prepared to send an email copy if you're asked for it.
Pack your bag — purse, briefcase, messenger bag — at least the night before your interview so you're not scrambling to remember everything you need to bring. This is not the time for a cute clutch bag or a fanny pack — it should be roomy enough to hold your basic essentials, plus your extra printed resumes, any materials you'll be presenting at the interview, and even "emergency supplies" such as Band-Aids, an umbrella, breath mints, wet wipes, and a small mirror. And make sure you've cleaned out the bag. You don't want used tissues, gum wrappers, or hair ties to fall out when you're pulling out your resumes.
Make sure you've looked up the directions to your interview ahead of time, especially if you're unfamiliar with the area. Research the parking situation, put gas in your car, buy train tickets or a metro card (if using public transportation), and make sure your car tires are inflated properly. Estimate how much time it will take you to get there, taking into account any possible traffic issues or weather delays. Giving yourself plenty of time will assure that you're not frantic by the time you arrive — never a good start for an important interview!
In addition to getting a good night's sleep, have a small breakfast or a light snack before your interview — you don't want a case of the "hangries" to bring you down. Make sure you've had some water so you're not dehydrated, which can also negatively affect your mood. And don't go overboard with the coffee; you want to be alert, but not jittery. And no matter how nervous you are, take a few minutes to center yourself. Focus on your breathing, and visualize the interview going well. This will help you appear confident, positive, calm, and ready to "wow" them.
Immediately after the interview (once you’ve left the building, that is), you’ll want to follow up with the interviewer in the form of a thank you note. The purpose of this note is to remind the interviewer about your concentration and show them that you are serious about the job. It also gives you a chance to briefly bring up anything you forgot to mention during the interview.
Remember, your interview begins the moment you set foot on the company’s property. Don’t wait until the interview officially starts to bring your “A-game.” You never know who you’ll be encountering in the elevator, in the restroom, in the reception area, or even in the parking lot, so make sure you treat everyone, from the janitor to the receptionist with the same level of respect you’d show the interviewer. And remember, the whole point of an interview is to show them why you’re the best person for the job, and what you can do for them. If you’ve properly prepared, you can focus on making a human connection with the interviewer, and have a great interaction.
Need more help getting ready for your interview? Check out our Interview Prep service to ensure you ace it!
Make sure you do company research before the interview, so that you understand both the position and how it relates to the company at large.
Polish your interview skills and prepare answers to common interview questions ahead of time.
Before the interview, it’s important to choose what you’re going to wear, how you’re going to get to the interview, and to get into the right frame of mind. Be confident and positive.
Jennifer Inglis is a freelance writer and content creator with extensive professional expertise in advertising, media analysis, teaching, writing, and literature. Prior to working for Career.io, Jennifer was a public school teacher, teaching courses in college and career readiness, writing, and public speaking. Jennifer has a master’s degree in Teaching, and is the author of two published novels.