How to have a better interview

Over the years I’ve been on a lot of interviews, and I’ve interviewed a lot of people. After talking to a couple of friends about interviews recently, I decided to get my thoughts out of my head and into a post. These are several things I think are important when preparing for, and taking part in, an interview. Oh, and they’re not in any particular order.

I plan to follow this post up with Tips for Interviewers because it’s an area every company can do better in.

Know who you are talking to

This seems obvious, but if you’re in the midst of a job search and you’ve got a dozen interviews spread out over the course of a week or two, it’s easy to get confused. Know who you’re talking to, what they do, and of course, be prepared to answer the inevitable “Why <company name>?”

After you make sure you have a good handle on what the company does and why you want to work there, the next step is to get some information about the individuals you’ll be talking to. I look up recruiters and anyone else involved in an interview on LinkedIn. Seeing any common connections is great, and I’ve used that as an ice-breaker. I also like having a face to the name and knowing a little about their background.

A related tip is, during your job search, pay for LinkedIn Premium. It’s a great way to see who is looking at your profile.

Be a STAR storyteller

Interviewers don’t want one or two-word answers. In my experience, stories are a good way to answer questions and talk about your experience. “Tell me how you’ve failed” is one of those questions that just begs for a story. So does, “tell me about the most complex project you’ve worked on” or “tell me about a difficult conversation you had to have, and how did it go”. Stories work. I would also say you should have multiple stories for each of the hard questions because if you have a series of interviews with different interviewers and they all ask you the same question, do you really want to give them all the same answer? When they compare notes, will they think you only ever failed once, or that you only worked on one complex project? Have a few stories prepared, but don’t rehearse so much that they sound, well, rehearsed.

Now when it comes to telling those stories, I really recommend the STAR method.

Situation: set things up
Task: What was it I was trying to do
Action: What did I do to carry out the task
Result: What was the result

I even had a recruiter tell me once to answer questions in this way because it’s what the interviewers were expecting. It takes a little practice, but it’ll be worth it.

Don’t BS

The last thing you should try to do is BS your way through something you don’t know. A good interviewer will pick up on it pretty quickly.

A little over 20 years ago, I talked to a recruiter who gave me great advice that I’ve remembered ever since: Do NOT hesitate to say “I don’t know”. If memory services, I said “I don’t know” in that particular interview many times.

If an interviewer asks you a question and you don’t know the answer to it, it is absolutely acceptable to answer with, “I don’t know”, BUT I would follow that up with how I would fill that particular knowledge gap. Interviewers want you to show a growth mindset so if you just leave it at, “I don’t know”, it can be a red flag.

Have questions prepared

Almost every interview ends with the inevitable, “So, do you have any questions for us?” When I was young (and dumb) and not prepared, I would say, “Nope, I’m good.” and the interview would end.

That’s a mistake.

What I’ve learned over the years from being on both sides of an interview is that being prepared for this question is really important and can sometimes make the difference between moving on to the next step and not.

I have several questions prepared, and time willing, I’ll ask multiple. There have been times that the questions I’ve asked have kept the interviewer talking for another 15-20 minutes beyond the scheduled time. Now, that definitely leads into the next bullet, so you have to play this by ear.

Oh, as for the last question, I always try to ask what the next steps are.

Be mindful of the clock

Whether they’re asking me questions and I’m answering, or it’s my turn to ask them questions, I always try to be mindful of the clock. I want to make sure I’m answering the question they asked, but I want to make sure my answers are clear and concise, and I’m not just talking to run down the clock.

As the time runs out, and it’s my turn to ask questions, I try to make sure the questions I ask will get me as much information as possible in the time I have left. As I said above, if it keeps them talking and we go over, I’m ok with it.

Look up

If you’re participating in a remote interview (Zoom, Teams, etc.), make sure you’re looking at the camera and not staring at your desk or something else. If you were in the same room, you’d make eye contact, right? Looking at your camera is as close as you can get. It shows you’re present and paying attention. I have a sticky note right next to my webcam that says, “Look here!” to remind myself because I tend to look at my video feed instead and need the reminder.

To be fair, I will let them know that if I’m looking away, it’s because I’m taking notes.

Talk about yourself without rambling

When I’m asked by an interviewer to introduce myself or tell a little about my history, I always start with my current position and work backward.

“I am currently a Principal Analyst for…and I’m responsible for…Day to day I work on, and over the last few months I’ve spent my time working on…prior to this job, I was a Sr. Software Engineering working for…”

I tend to go back 3-4 jobs, but I also try to read the room and not go back too far. Depending on who I’m talking to and whether or not I feel there’s a good connection, I may toss in a few personal things as well like “I also enjoy backpacking with friends and I read a LOT.”

Send a thank you email after

When it’s all said and done, I follow up with an email. If I don’t have contact information for the individuals in the email, I email the recruiter asking them to thank the team for their time and consideration.

I could probably have written another dozen things, but in the end, interviews suck, and these are just a few things you can do to make them suck just a bit less.

Good luck!

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