Life after Résumés and Cover Letters: How to Succeed in the Interview

So, you’ve written a killer résumé, an inspired cover letter, and you’ve just received the news: “we’d like to have a chat!”. At this point, all of the work you’ve done on those documents has paid off, but now you have a different job: Make them believe not only that you are the person reflected in those documents, but that you are also the right person for the job. Most people don’t interview very well, either because they’ve never interviewed anyone themselves, they haven’t practiced much or because they haven’t taken the time to try to understand how it feels to be on the other side of the table and what they are looking for.

Mistake #1: Talking about yourself and what you want to get out of the job

This is the classic rookie mistake. Talking about yourself too much without speaking to what the employer needs is a quick and easy way to fail an interview. Of course, they want to get to know you better in order to assess how well you might perform in the role, but it’s best to let the interviewer take the lead in the discussion and to focus on specifically how your experience, skills, interests and personality will benefit the role, the team and the organization.

Mistake #2: Not understanding the company, the role, and the industry

Do your research. It’s not uncommon for an interviewer to ask you to summarize what the company does and why. It’s also a common pitfall to have weak answers when asked about the industry at large. For example, if you are applying for a role as a corporate attorney at a large company and you can’t converse about what’s happening in the news with regard to well known mergers and acquisitions in your industry, you’re probably not going to get a 2nd interview.

Mistake #3: Making yourself seem dull and uninspired

Active language is 100% better than passive language in nearly every interview scenario. For example: Imagine the interviewer asks you to briefly describe your career history. Saying, “…after college, I was hired into company x where I did y, and then I was hired into company z, etc….” is much worse than saying “after college, I looked for opportunities to do x and took a role at company y; I learned z which inspired me to look for opportunities working with….etc. ”. People who are running toward something vs running away from something (a bad job, a bad boss, etc.) stand out as people who can be counted on and people who will be good leaders (passionate, decisive, self-starters, clear on their motivations and goals, etc.)

Mistake #4: Not showing them that you would be a great co-worker

Research shows that one of the top factors in passing an interview is your personal likeability (as judged by the interviewer). Would they want to work with you? A cocky or abrasive attitude, a failure to smile at least a couple of times during the interview, or a humorless attitude in general may bias some interviewers against you. Remember that if you get the job, you’ll be spending 8+ hours per day, 5 days per week with this person indefinitely; it’s important to make a good impression.

Mistake #5: Not developing outstanding answers to the most common interview questions

Another classic rookie mistake. There are many resources online to find the most common questions, including this article from Forbes.com. Take a couple of hours to write out answers to each one and practice saying them aloud to a friend or family member. Bonus: The “what are your best/worst attributes” type questions trip up a lot of people.

  1. Best Qualities: Don’t be too modest, but also don’t be cocky. Give a real example to illustrate one of your best qualities. You might try polling a few trusted current and past colleagues for help if you don’t have this information at your fingertips already. Here’s one good example for a role which requires good project management skills: “I’m a strong project manager. Last year, I led a project to implement a new computer system at my company. I controlled a $1million budget and delivered the project on-time and within budget while managing 20 stakeholders, all of whom were at least 1 level above me. We received a 95% satisfaction score from end users within 2 months of the implementation.”
  2. Worst Qualities: Many people err on this one by actually saying shallow good things about themselves, such as “I’m a perfectionist” or, “I care too much sometimes.” Everyone has things they aren’t good at and should improve. Be candid without being self-deprecating. Here’s one good example for an entry-to-mid-level professional role: “I’ve struggled a bit with sharing my opinions in meetings in the past. Sometimes I worry that my comments could be perceived as rude or that they could disrupt the flow of the meeting, so I stayed silent. I’ve worked a lot on becoming more confident about sharing my thoughts in real-time, though, and have practiced with co-workers I trust. I’ve set a goal for myself to make at least 2 meaningful contributions in every meeting and I always ask at least one person for feedback after the meeting to make sure my comments were relevant well-received.” In this instance, the interviewer should be able to see a few things: a) Your are honest; b) You want to improve; c) You are taking meaningful and intelligent steps to improve

Mistake #6: Not being specific

This might be the most common interview mistake for professional-level roles. Imagine that the interviewer asks you something like, “How would you handle a situation where your team’s sales figures are looking worse and worse each month. How would you turn it around?” Here’s a bad response: “I would work really hard to improve those numbers; I would work long nights and weekends if I had to; you can count on me.” Here’s a better response: “First, I would drill into the numbers to understand where the bad performance was coming from. Is it isolated to a few salespeople or specific regions, was it related to a single product, or possibly being driven by changes in the industry? After speaking with the parties closest to the problem, I would develop a plan in collaboration with other sales managers to address the root cause and I would monitor and measure the changes closely to ensure that we really had discovered and properly addressed the root cause of the issue.”

Mistake #7: Not listening

Your interviewer will give you some subtle and not-so-subtle clues throughout the interview with respect to what (and whom) they are looking for. Listen carefully and you may be able to revise your stock answers in order to more directly address their specific needs and doubts. Pay particular attention at the beginning of the interview if they take the time to explain the role and the company to you; take notes if you have to. Here’s one example: Imagine that the interviewer mentions that they are looking for someone who can ‘hit the ground running’. That might imply that you would have little supervision or opportunities for training and would need to learn on your own, build relationships on your own, and otherwise ramp up quickly in the role. Tailor your answers to showcase how you have been a self-starter in the past and that you enjoy the challenge of learning a new role. Of course, if that scenario is scary for you, you might want to look elsewhere….

Mistake #8: Not asking good questions

There’s a good chance the interviewer will ask you at the beginning and/or the end of the interview whether you have questions for them. You must be prepared for this.

Good question examples:

  • What do you like most about working here?
  • What is the team culture like?
  • Does the role require travel? How much?
  • Can you tell me a little more about how the team is organized?
  • What are your team’s primary goals or success metrics?
  • What would a typical day look like for me in this role?
  • What are the key attributes which would make a person successful in this role?

Bad question examples (in some cases, it’s appropriate to ask some of these questions when you get an offer):

  • How much does the job pay?
  • When will I get promoted?
  • How many hours per week is the job?
  • Do you have flexible hours?
  • Can I work from home sometimes?
  • How much money does the company have right now / what do you think will happen to the stock price?

Mistake #9: Regurgitating your résumé

Remember: Your résumé’s job is done; it’s time to make your experience and skills come to life with great and targeted examples. You can assume that the interviewer has read your résumé (though it’s not always true!), so you should focus on telling rich, compelling and relevant stories to illustrate why your skills and experience translate well to the role you are interviewing for. Caution: Don’t take too long to answer a question; be smart but be brief :) The interviewer may have a long list of questions to ask you and will become frustrated if you ramble too long.

Mistake #10: Not being confident

If you don’t feel confident for an interview, practice until you do. Any seasoned interviewer will pick up on a lack of confidence right away and they will begin to feel like you do. As you practice, ask yourself (or a friend/family member) these questions:

  1. Am I believable?
  2. Could I answer follow-up questions?
  3. Do I completely understand what they are looking for?
  4. Do I understand what the company does or what the product is about?
  5. What are the toughest questions they could ask me?
  6. Are there any good reasons why they shouldn’t hire me?
  7. What are my best stories and examples? What are the best opportunities (in terms of interview questions) which would give me a chance to tell these stories?
  8. Do I feel relaxed and confident?
  9. Am I telling the employer how I can help them and not just talking about myself and what I want?
  10. What’s the worst that could happen? (hint: there are a lot of companies and a lot of jobs out there; the worst you can do is embarrass yourself and that has happened to us all at least once :)) Be bold!
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