In college, I was a member of a dorky professional business club in which we conducted loads of mock job interviews and passed around revelatory tips like “over-prepare,” “be yourself,” and “ask a lot of questions.” Now it makes me laugh. (What the hell does it mean to “be yourself”?) Ten years later, after having actually gone through real interview processes and, most helpfully, conducting hundreds myself as an HR Partner, I’ve picked up some tips I think are more helpful. Here’s what I tell my friends when they have pre-interview jitters.
When preparing, work through your answer out loud.
Listing out questions you may be asked and thinking through your answers isn’t enough. Neither is writing them out. You have to say them out loud. I’m always shocked at how I think I have an answer nailed in my head, or on paper, then proceed to stumble over my words as soon as I try to communicate it verbally. Especially if you’re new to interviewing or a little rusty, have a full out-loud interview with yourself. Ask yourself question after question — and answer them to completion over and over. The interviewer may not ask you the same exact questions, but practicing talking about yourself will help you avoid rambling.
Don’t under-dress, but don’t over-dress, either.
People always say you can’t over-dress for an interview, but that wasn’t true in my experience. If you’re massively over-dressed for a casual workplace, it might hint that you don’t understand the company culture, or haven’t done your research. Before the interview, figure out the dress code and then kick your own outfit up a notch, out of respect. If it’s a jeans-and-T-shirt place, wear flats and a blazer. If it’s a flats-and-a-blazer place, go business casual. If it’s a business casual place, go full professional.
Remember this is just a person getting through her busy work day.
You know how it’s freaky when you get older and watch people you know become doctors and realize doctors are just the random doofuses you partied with in your twenties? (If this hasn’t happened yet, just wait! It’s scary.) The same can be said for recruiters. These are just kids who chose a recruiting career path, with their own biases and problems. They’re not all-knowing. If your interview isn’t with a recruiter, even better: She isn’t a professional interviewer. You’re just two people, seeing if there is a match between person and open role. Interviewers won’t remember everything you say, and in some cases may be distracted or trying to come up with questions to ask, and they’ll mostly remember how you made them feel because people are self-absorbed.
Be as conversational as possible.
When an interviewer asks you a question, it’s not a test! You don’t need to deliver a prepared speech in return. Avoid buzzwords or speech patterns you wouldn’t normally use; this is just a conversation. Turn the question over in your mind, feel free to think out loud as you do so. “Ah, I’ve actually thought about this myself. It reminds me of X. My instinct is to say Y, but I can see the draw of Z too because of Q…”
Flip the convo back to your interviewer: Does she know what you mean? Has she experienced that, too? An interview doesn’t have to be this stale game of question/answer/question/answer. Lob it back, include the interviewer, make it more dynamic, just like you would while networking or talking at a cocktail party. Whenever I was interviewing and it turned into a casual chat, the person usually got hired.
No more fake weaknesses. It’s obvious.
If an interviewer asks for your biggest weakness, claiming to be a perfectionist or something similar is an obvious ploy. If you’re confident enough in your ability to do the job, I think the best approach is to be honest about where you struggle and what you’re actively doing to grow in that area. A sort of “working” problem, something you’re in the middle of (and at least somewhat successfully) tackling. Of course, don’t shoot yourself in the foot, but being mature enough to admit an area that needs growth reflects well on you. You could also admit a weakness that’s not overly important for the job, but I think the authentic route is ideal.
Definitely ask questions, but real ones!
By now everyone knows to ask questions at the end of an interview, but if you do so out of obligation, the interviewer will be able to tell, and answering them will feel like a chore. Instead of the lazy question (What’s your favorite thing about the company?) or the canned question to make you look smart (What are the company’s five-year objectives?), consider what it is you actually want to know. Are you curious about the company culture? The interviewer’s most memorable project? The management style of your would-be boss? What the company values most in its employees? You can ask anything, just do it from a genuine place.
Interviewing gets much easier as you get older, gain experience and no longer have to sell yourself on potential. But even if you’re green, remember you have something to offer (and something they’re looking for), and that an interview, like a date, is two-sided. If you spend more energy trying to connect than impress, you’ll probably do both.
Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis.