The bookends of a successful job search are a strong resume and savvy salary negotiations. But the true centerpiece is the interview. In this competitive job market, there are often hundreds of applicants for each job listing and postings can be closed within days. Standing out in a crowded field to obtain an interview is an achievement in itself and the opportunity to showcase your skills in front of a prospective employer should not be taken lightly. The most effective way to make the most of this precious commodity is to prepare.
anticipate the two most important interview questions
The job interview process is in some ways like dating. Employers and job seekers are trying to determine, through a series of social interactions, whether to enter a relationship and make a commitment. As a job candidate, it’s important to be ready, and one way to prepare is by thinking of the most common and important interview questions and crafting potential responses ahead of time. Below, I’ve highlighted a few key questions my career coaching clients almost always face.
question 1: ‘why should we hire you?’
The way to prepare for this blunt question, which may come in a gentler form, such as, ‘Tell me about yourself’ or ‘Can you share a little about your background?’ is to understand the subtext. The employer wants to know your strengths in relation to the job requirements and what you would uniquely bring to the company to help them with the problems they’re trying to solve. To effectively answer this question, you’ll want to do a thorough inventory of your strengths and be prepared to talk fluently about them, citing examples of when you utilized these strengths on the job to back up your claims.
When answering this question, it’s okay to include a few soft skills, such as communication and organization, but the strengths you’ll want to emphasize are the hard skills that are listed in the job description. For example, let’s say you’re interviewing for a marketing manager position and one requirement is building campaigns across multiple platforms. Your pitch should include describing why you are particularly good at this, specifically how you delivered on a campaign in a current or previous role and, when possible, relaying any quantitative results.
question 2: ‘why do you want to work here?’
Answering this question effectively requires research to learn everything you can about the company’s profile, its goals and the individuals you’ll be speaking with during the interview process. Most companies have a careers page on their website, where you’ll find a treasure trove of relevant information. This page might include photos and videos of employees at work, which can offer clues about the company’s culture. It can also provide insight into the general dress code, so you can dress accordingly for the interview.
One of the most important aspects of any company’s careers page is the overview of the organization’s mission and values. Read and absorb every word of this. See what resonates with you and, when relevant during the interview, highlight why the stated mission and values make you a good fit. Beyond the company’s website, search for articles, videos, podcasts and social media profiles that might include members of the executive and hiring team. As you’re preparing your response, beware of the tricky nature of this question. ‘Why you want to work here’ isn’t mainly about you and your career objectives. Focus more on how your skills and experience can help the team reach their goals, and how your personal values align with those of the company.
common behavioral interview questions and tips to respond effectively
Behavioral questions usually crop up in the second or third interview and they are designed to draw out concrete illustrations of how a candidate’s skills have been put to the test. A common theme of behavioral job interview questions come under the umbrella of ‘challenging situations.’ They’re asked in several different ways and it’s important to anticipate all of them. They mostly start off with the phrase, ‘Tell me about a time when...
- ...you were pulled in opposite directions by different stakeholders.’
- ...someone on your team wasn’t performing well.’
- ...you received a negative performance review.’
- ...when you let somebody down.’
In some cases, the question might be more direct, such as, ‘What is your biggest weakness?’ The function of this series of questions is to give the interviewer a tangible demonstration of how a candidate has previously performed under stress.
To prepare for behavioral questions, you’ll want to scour your memory banks for situations when you took a specific action that led to a positive result for your current or previous employer. Such questions can be a minefield because they sometimes require you to recount stories when you might not have been at your best. It’s up to you to take special care when choosing which stories to tell in a job interview. These anecdotes should be constructed carefully, starring you as the leading character, with a coherent beginning, middle and happy ending. This can mean presenting the anecdote as a learning experience that has enhanced the way you work ever since – even if you had some missteps along the way.
At a recent interview, one of my clients shared her ‘weakness’ about not being a strong delegator. She explained how it came from wanting to make sure all the deliverables were perfect. But she turned this weakness into a positive by sharing how she learned that by bringing her team into the process and letting them actively engage from the beginning, they took more ownership of results.
addressing questions related to compensation
During the first screening interview, it’s not unusual to be asked, ‘What are your compensation requirements?’ My strategy for handling this question might sound counterintuitive, but I often recommend that my clients don’t answer the question directly. In the early stages of an interview process, most candidates don’t have leverage, as a company hasn’t gotten to know them or the value they’ll bring to the organization. In almost every case, recruiters and hiring managers come to the interview with a salary range in mind.
I often recommend that clients flip the question (graciously, of course), by saying something such as, ‘If you tell me your salary range, I can let you know if we’re in the right ballpark.’ This will give you a chance to respond, rather than risking coming up with a number that’s too low or too high, both of which I’ve had my coaching clients do, to their disadvantage. If you prefer, you can duck the question entirely by saying, ‘I’ll need to learn more about the scope of the job first.’ Or ‘I’m confident that the company will pay the market rate.’ Your leverage for compensation changes dramatically once a company reaches the offer stage and has emotionally invested in you joining the team. No matter how you choose to address compensation, do your research ahead of time and come to the interview with a sense of the going rate based on your field, level of experience and the local job market.
five baseline job interview tips
Whether you’re answering broad questions such as, ‘Tell us why you want to work here,’ negotiating salary or at any other stage during the job interview process, the following tips can help you be perceived in a positive light by hiring managers and stakeholders.
tip 1: be honest
No matter how much you want a job, there is no value to overstating your work history to fit the employer’s needs, either on a resume or during an interview. If you don’t have much experience using a particular software application that’s listed in a job description, for example, be candid when asked. If necessary, describe your experience as a fast learner, along with a specific anecdote about how you quickly learned a new software application or process in a previous role. Blurring the truth will eventually be uncovered, so it’s a very short-term gain. While it might lead to a job offer, you might struggle to get up to speed, which will be frustrating for both you and your new employer.
tip 2: be strategic
As much as honesty is the benchmark, oversharing is not the goal. Regardless of how it’s framed or how comfortable you’re made to feel, an interview is not just a casual conversation. If you really want the job, everything said should be in the service of what you’ve learned about the company’s goals and why you’re the person who can deliver. For example, when asked to run through your background, strategically highlight details that directly relate to the job description and the company’s specific needs.
tip 3: be concise
As you prepare answers for potential interview questions, make sure you know where your stories are headed, and that you can complete each one in under three minutes. If it helps to write them out or make bullet points, do so. Then, practice your stories in advance using a timer and consider asking a friend, mentor or career coach for feedback. Interviewing for a job is not the time to be winging it.
tip 4: be camera-ready
Video interviews are the norm right now, but even post-pandemic, they will probably remain a part of the process, at least in early interview stages. Your technical setup is one of the few parts of the interview you can control, so it’s important to be ready for prime time. Ensure, in advance, that the lighting and audio are tested and working well. Know what’s in your shot, keeping the background neutral and uncluttered – and, if necessary, blur your background or add a virtual backdrop. Unintentional interruptions – like a dog barking or kids walking in the room – might be inevitable in your household. Do your best to minimize distractions but be prepared for a seamless transition if that happens.
tip 5: be authentic
Interviews can be stressful events, particularly for those who aren’t natural conversationalists, and they often aren’t truly reflective of how someone will ultimately perform at work. Once you’ve adequately prepared, all you can do is show up and do your best. During an interview, you might find yourself tongue-tied, or the opposite – way down the rabbit hole of a story. At these moments, it’s okay to take a breath, ask for a bit more time, or even admit to being nervous, which is a feeling most interviewers will understand. You can turn a vulnerability into a strength by letting your authenticity shine through.
As a career coach, I debrief with all my coaching clients after interviews – especially their most challenging ones – asking about any unexpected questions and ways they wish they were better prepared. An interview may not always result in a job offer, but it’s always an opportunity for practice and reflection. One final essential tip for job interviews is to learn from each experience and be kind to yourself along the way.