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How to Nail a Job Interview

Updated on July 30, 2014

Interviews Are Scary

We all get that feeling when it's the morning of the interview and you're getting yourself together. It's natural. There's a lot of pressure on you and you know there are other qualified candidates fighting for the same spot so you've got to somehow shine brighter than them. Seem impossible? I won't give you unrealistic expectations. It really depends on a number of factors like the proportion of applicants to number of positions available, the skillset required and whether you meet/exceed it, the hiring patterns of the company, etc. However, all else being equal, you can outperform your more qualified adversaries in the interview just by "doing it the right way". Is this the way the world should work? No. It's not fair but then who ever said life was fair? People get hired all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with whether they were actually the best choice from the pool of applicants or not. Sometimes it's because the hiring manager isn't just paying attention to what you know but your soft skills or how well you present yourself because perhaps those are also important parts of your job. Sometimes, they'll hire based on superficialities like appearance or personal interests, although that will never be revealed. They'll just try extra hard to downplay your faults and dwell on your strong points. So obviously, there is some statistical variation in the selection process that's inherent to the human temptation to hire the most appealing applicant rather than the one who strictly meets the most hiring criteria. You can either sulk over how unfair it is or you can exploit it. If you want the job there are specific things you can do to sell yourself in much the same way as a used car salesman makes a mediocre, run-of-the-mill car seem like a great choice for you.

I don't want to put too fine a point on the interview process being shifty or anything however because you can't walk in with nothing and expect to fool your interviewer into thinking you're this talented go-getter who's going to be a perfect fit for the company if you simply don't have the foundation to back it up. You have to apply for jobs you can actually do if you want to have a chance of beating your competition and you shouldn't lie or embelish too much because you'll get caught eventually and that won't exactly make up for your stellar interview performance. Realistically, you will benefit the most from this hub if you already have what it takes to do the job you're applying for but you know you're not among the very best and you have some issues with these stressful public encounters that prevent you from putting your best foot forward so to speak. What you want to do is totally rock the interview by showing the interviewers, "I got this yo!" and presenting an air of confidence in what you know, what you can do and being as likeable as possible WITHOUT being cocky or arrogant. The right attitude is one where the interviewers can smell the stench of success coming from your pores without you having to shovel it down their throat. I know that sounds awfully cryptic and difficult but it comes down to the way you think of yourself and convey your thoughts visibly to others.

We're going to cover certain things that are critical to success in an interview:

1) Your appearance (not just visual). This is the easy part.

2) Your preparedness. This amounts to anticipating your interviewers questions and actions.

3) Your attitude. This involves remodelling the way you think, which takes practice.

4) Your behaviour. Not the same as attitude, this is how you approach the various parts of the interview, how to act, what to say, etc. It's about strategizing and delivery.

Interview: Appearance

There's no reason for screwing this up. In the first 5 seconds after meeting your interviewer(s), they will invariably make some sort of an opinion of you in their minds. It may not be a fair opinion but you're the one feeding them the "inaccurate" information by how you present yourself and you can't blame them for being human so you may as well do the best you can to appear like a winner, even if you're wetting your pants.

Dress appropriately for the job you're doing. You don't need a full blown suit for every type of interview. What sort of clothes would you expect to wear to this job on a daily basis? Whatever level of formality you can gauge from that, dress it up 1 level. If you're applying for a job digging ditches, a pair of slacks and a nice shirt should suffice for the interview. If you're applying to be the V.P. of marketing, you'd better be wearing your best suit and remember that you're going to be publicly visible in your job so choose a style that is serious but not drab. Something modern and clean looking. The level of dress is important because, under dressed you look like you don't give a damn and over-dressed you look like you've got nothing to offer and you're fishing for the job by making your clothes do all the work. Also don't overdo the hair, cologne, bling or any other accessories that distract people from your face. The wardrobe is a catalyst, not a focal point. Wear something that allows your interviewer to spend 2 seconds being impressed that you look sharp and the rest of the time focusing on you.

Part of appearance is body language and the impression you cast in general. Posture and eye contact are key. Stand up straight but not like a robot. Move smoothly and not jerky. Make solid eye contact when you speak or when being spoken to but break off at natural intervals so you don't have a death stare that makes people uncomfortable. Don't have some crooked, slouched stance and talk at the floor. That turns people right off. Don't lean back in your chair like you own the place. Respect the space you're in, smile, be courteous and be pleasant. If the situation calls for it, a little circumstantial joke is a great icebreaker but you're not there to be a clown so cut it out when everyone's ready to get down to business. A circumstantial joke is something like, "The security here is great. I couldn't even get through the front door!". Your goal in "appearance" is to show attributes commonly associated with confidence and success while appealing to the human side of your interviewers. That is to say you want to display a likeable personality so these people WANT to work with you.

Don't forget to acknowledge the people you meet with appreciation and a positive attitude. Thank them for their time without making a big deal of it. Shake hands with a firm grip (don't crush them) at the beginning and at the end and don't forget to end the interview in the same positive way you walked into it. Thank them for the meeting, inquire about the next steps to show interest in moving forward and remember to either phone or email the next day or the same evening to formally thank them and re-iterate that you're looking forward to future correspondence.

Interview Questions and Preparedness

To really own an interview you have to put yourself in the interviewer's shoes and anticipate what they will do so that you can prepare for it. Knowing what's going to happen and having a response ready will prevent you from faltering and interrupting your scripted confidence routine to think. If a question or action causes a mental interrupt, you will be at high risk of messing up whatever else you were paying attention to, like your appearance or behaviour.

Interviewers could ask you anything under the sun but they tend not to. They stick to the same set of questions that force you to demonstrate worth, test your honesty, demonstrate initiative, show off your interpersonal/communication skills, establish your motives, etc. Let's go through some of them:

1) Why do you want this job?

Simple enough question you might think but it's deceptively hard to answer. Resist the temptation to say something stupid like, "cuz I need the money". What the interviewer is looking for with this question is a reason to believe that you are invested in the company and the role. They don't want to get the impression that you are being opportunistic and going wherever the breeze takes you so answer with specific knowledge about the company/role that you've researched beforehand and why you want to be a part of that. Explain what it is about the job that draws you to it and why you think it's a good fit. This will re-assure your interviewer that you are a good investment.

2) What are your greatest weaknesses (and how do you deal with it)?

They love to ask this question. It may be preceded by "What are your greatest strengths" to give the illusion of a balanced question. Don't be deceived though. They are testing your integrity here to see how honestly you can critique yourself when you know the answer is likely to hurt you. The best way to deal with this apparent "no win situation" is to pick a flaw that can easily be overcome and which doesn't impair your ability to perform your job function. I like to say "speed" is my biggest flaw because of how "meticulous" I am with my work and wanting to get it done to the best of my ability. Try not to spin it so it sounds like BS though. Your interviewer can smell BS a mile away so make sure you're genuine about the challenges you expect to have in your new role and how you plan to deal with them. An honest admission of imperfection is nothing to worry about if you follow it up with a realistic plan to overcome that imperfection.

3) Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond your job description.

You should never walk into an interview without having memorized several special or awesome things you did that nobody expected you to do and have a great success story about how you saved the day or something. Your interviewer wants to hire someone resourceful who can step outside himself and find an unorthodox solution to a problem and be motivated enough to see it through without being asked. More times than not, you well end up doing extra stuff that's not in your job description anyway and the last thing your boss wants is someone who needs his hand held every time a task differs slightly from what he's expecting.

4) Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone you didn't like or who was being very uncooperative with you. How did you deal with that?

This involves interpersonal skills and the question is designed to figure out what your social IQ is as well as your threshold for stress in the workplace. A durable employee who can defuse another volatile or difficult co-worker is a tremendous asset, especially in fast-paced environments where everyone is constantly overworked and stressed out. You'll be more productive and more valuable to the company's bottom line if you can perform more consistently despite interpersonal difficulties or being unable to get the resources you need to complete a task.

5) Tell me about any projects that you led or championed where you had to manage other people.

The interviewer wants to know whether you're a good leader or not. Being a leader means being able to lead yourself (requires time management skills, stamina, motivation, organization, experience) as well as other people. To lead other people you have to have to be able to assert yourself without making people resent you. Rather, you gain their trust and confidence so that they look to you for guidance rather than follow orders reluctantly. Think up a time when you were able to see a project through to completion, relying only on your own judgement and the deliverables of people under you or in different departments.

6) Do you feel you work better in a group or on your own?

Trick question. You will of course be expected to do both. Autonomy is crucial in just about any job, as your company won't put up with someone who isn't self-sufficient enough to produce results without assistance. However you will not operate in a vacuum and of course you'll need to work in groups as well. The best way to answer this question is to call them out on the trick rather than "guess" the right answer, which might even make them embarrass you by pointing out your answer is wrong. Say something like, "That's tough to answer because for my entire career I've always depended on my ability to do both." It's kind of dodging the question but the point here is to respectfully point out the flaw in the question rather than fall into their trap. You'll want to humble yourself by saying you're continuing to develop both skills but that you're equally proficient working on your own or with others.

Always make sure to walk into an interview looking like you're prepared. Have a clipboard or something to write on. Bring several copies of your resume and perhaps a few business cards so you can distribute these if needed. Also carry at least a couple of copies of certain documents that might be of interest like any degrees, training certificates, letters of recommendation or pictures of things you've done, demonstrating worth. You don't want to be fumbling around, asking the interviewer for a pen, paper or saying "Sorry I don't have that on me" when asked for some sort of document.

You should always do some basic research on the company so you know the scope of what they do. Also memorize the names of the people you've already spoken with and expect to meet. Also nothing can be more embarrassing than getting someone's gender wrong or butchering their ethnic name. Believe me, it happens... and it will kill you. Finally, it goes without saying that if you show up late, you may as well go home because that will kill your chances right from the start. Show up 10-15 minutes early and you can't lose.

This is PRECISELY the WRONG attitude.

Your Attitude

There's a fine line between being arrogant or cocky and being confident. You want the latter. Conveying this starts with appearance but is so much more than that. You don't want to seem argumentative for example and being able to see ideas from other people's viewpoints is a tremendous asset. However, when you see an opportunity to express your unique point of view, especially when it differs from those of your interviewers, being able to do this carefully and with respect, in a conscientious way will impress the heck out of your interviewers and prove to them that you know what you're talking about and not afraid to speak up when you have a good idea. Go back to that trick question in the last section for an idea of what I'm talking about. There, you didn't bend over when asked a compromising question. Instead, you challenged the validity of the question, re-affirming yourself in the process, and you did it with respect and integrity. That's the kind of answer that exudes confidence without being cocky.

As with personal relationships, nobody wants to hang around with you if you're depressed, pessimistic or boring. If you're interesting and engaging to talk to, people will be drawn to you and interviews are no exception. Your interviewers are doing their job by interviewing you because their bosses said the company needed new hires. The process can be boring and time consuming for them. If you're just another face talking at them about credentials and references, they are going to fade quickly and move on to the next applicant without remembering anything about you except what's on their scratch pad. Showcasing the best parts of your personality and being "personable" will leave a lasting impression that can have more weight to it than all the stuff in your resume. Put a smile on the faces of your interviewers and elevate their mood with yours. This is guaranteed to make them "want" to hire you in spite of any evidence why they should or shouldn't.

Get an idea of how skewed your self-image is and what your competitors think of themselves.

How do you think you stack up to other candidates in an interview

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Your Behaviour

Behaviour goes hand in hand with the other categories and sort of ties it all together. It's the sum total of what you do in front of others. There is some strategy involved in how to behave to maximize your chances of winning a job. Some of the more basic points can be premeditated and practiced at home such as how to greet people, how to walk, how to talk (tempo, eye contact, facial expression, intonation) but there are things you will have to work out in-situ like what makes your interviewers tick. When you first meet someone, anyone, you will be given subtle amounts of unspoken information. You have to be astute enough to pick it up however and alter your behaviour to suit your audience. For example, when you first shake hands and say hello, listen to the tone of their voice, pay attention to the pressure they apply to your hand, watch their head movements and look around their body for any signs of unique signature items like keys, a school ring, tattoo or anything else that reveals something about the person, which could later become a conversation piece. Your goal is to first of all figure out how dominant/submissive this person is based on their body language and mannerisms so that you can match their "aura" so to speak. This is important because you're over-the-top confident routine may be excessive for some interviewers who are more introverted or cerebral by nature. You will have to slightly modify your energy level to match your target in order to avoid a major upset between the two of you. Paying attention to details on a person that paint a picture of who they are may give you a clue about what interests this person has. Maybe they like cars or food or golf or something. If you can't figure this out from visual cues, listen very carefully to their first words and if you can get away with it, cue them to talk about themselves by engaging in some harmless small talk, briefly. If you can figure out something about the person you can then engage with them using that topic of "common" interest, whether in fact you share that interest or not. When someone finds out there's another person who like the stuff they do, they immediately open up more and are less defensive. You won't be inappropriately derailing the interview with small talk, as that will hurt you but you may have other opportunities like breaks or transitions from one room to another, where you can fit in a real quick exchange about something the interviewer is interested in. As always, such tactics gain favour with other people and make them more inclined to listen to and agree with you, which helps you stand out when it comes time for final selection. A final word about conversation: Try to avoid going anywhere near a controversial topic or forming an opinion about groups of people into which your interviewer may fall. If you stir up the hornet's nest by saying something disagreeable, you will very likely have no idea what you've done because the interviewer will be mature and not say anything but in their head they'll be thinking, "Oh no U didn!".

If you have multiple interviewers, be sure to share your eye contact and posture with all of them. Don't close your body off to 1 person or it will seem rude. Try to address each person equally unless impractical to do so. Don't proportion all your attention to the "alpha male" of the group either. Often times, the natural leader of the group will take charge but he will leverage the feedback of his peers later to make a sound decision so if 3 people are interviewing you and you only appeal to the leader, guess what... you're outnumbered 2:1 by the interviewers you blatantly ignored.

Try to avoid odd behavioural quirks that you have, which distract the interviewers and make them think you're weird. If they offer you water, take it and thank them instead of leaving it on the table right next to you the entire time. Don't show up with a tiny mustard stain on your collar. Don't lecture them on your veganism or your pet peves or your cat and if you're a little OCD, try not to spend your time adjusting things on the table while you're being spoken to. Don't tap your pen or fingers, rock back and forth in your chair, clear your throat excessively, adjust your hair, interrupt with "right, right" every 2 seconds, fart or do anything that's in any way irritating or distracting. There are all sorts of nervous ticks that people are scarcely aware of but you have to make yourself aware of them and practice arresting them so you don't draw undue attention to yourself.

In Closing

Looks like there are a lot of things you have to be aware of huh? Well, yes and no. When you break it down academically and list out all the things you should and shouldn't do, you could write a book on it, yes but many of these strategies are the same ones you are already aware of and hopefully using on a daily basis with other people. The reason it's so important to remind oneself of what they are and to practice them for an interview is because unlike an existing relationship where you have a continual impression on someone over a very long period of time and your standards are somewhat relaxed, your friends or partners, less judgemental, the interview is a highly scrutinizing experience compressed into the timeframe of an hour or 2. You have to form a quick, tactical relationship with the interviewer(s) that contains all of the good stuff and none of the bad stuff, which means you don't get second chances or lenience. You're not using any new skills you've never heard of before. You're just ramping up your focus and execution speed by a factor of 10 so that you can see a couple of steps into the future and avoid every mistake that ordinarily would be forgiven by your drinking buddy or wife. Add to that your persistent analysis of other people's signals so you can appeal to their specific personalities and you've got a chore and a half on your hands. That's what makes the interview hard, not learning the do and don't part. The good news is once you've gone to a couple of interviews and used some of these tactics successfully, it will become a feeling that your body remembers so you don't have to think about it. You will simply remember the rhythm you went through and repeat it over and over again. It'll become second nature and you will become a master interviewee. You will obliterate every interview you attend and companies will be making small statues of you and putting them in the lobby :D Wouldn't that be nice?


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