Preparing yourself for a job interview
The best interviews are genuine conversations where you can exchange your thoughts, ideas and expertise to the interviewer. Sadly, most interviews are traditionally a psychological game – saying the correct replies to the correct questions, if simplified to a fundamental level. This is most common in very structured interviews with a line of questions that test the candidate.
This article offers guidelines on interview behavior and presents an interesting approach with the express goal of changing your mindset towards interviews.
Interactive table of Contents
From traditional to contemporary
I despise traditional interviews. An excessively formal and inflexible structure, going from question to question until the process is done. The typical three sections: "Tell us a little bit about yourself", then "how have you best solved situation x and y at work?" and after several similar questions, "Do you have any questions for us?". I dislike this structure a lot.
If you just answer the questions and if you say the right things, you might get a job. But you don't necessarily get to have a real conversation or connect with the interviewer. This is fundamentally important, because when you get on the same page with them your chances increase dramatically. Sure, you can answer the questions with example answers like every other candidate, but then you're just one among many. It is much more challenging to stand out if the interview is closer to an interrogation than a conversation.
The modern interview is a discussion where I express my ideas, ambitions and expertise. It's not an interrogation but a chance to demonstrate my knowledge – this is why I always try to direct the interview towards a conversational style. Then, I can ask the interviewer questions and see if I agree with them on important topics. I also get a glimpse of what working in the firm might be actually like. Having an interview this way is natural and interesting since you don't need to imagine arbitrary situations or problem-solve fictional scenarios.
Should you prepare for interview questions?
The importance of interview questions seems to be fading, as interviewers are moving towards more genuine conversations. This has led to many not preparing for interview questions. Still, some consider it worthwhile to mentally prepare and practice for knowing how to answer specific questions like "Tell me about the toughest decision you had to make in the last six months" or "When have you last been in a stressful situation at work and how did you handle it".
I strongly dislike specific questions as they are often not relevant. What if I'm very consistent and do not experience many "tough calls" at work? Maybe my planned schedule keeps things running smoothly and any tough decision would be of small proportions? I'd obviously state that as my answer, but it goes to show how some of these questions are very irrelevant.
Regardless of this criticism, I feel that some questions are worthwhile to learn. The most important thing to know by heart is the answer to the first question, "Tell us a bit about yourself" or any of its very common variants. It is like your elevator pitch to the employer on why they should hire you. It is your first opportunity to introduce and present yourself, and it sets the tone for the rest of the interview. Your answer should be concise, descriptive and it should provoke intrigue:
Your introduction segment should be longer in practice, but this is a great example on what general progression could look like.
I highlighted this question because I've had situations where I've bombed an interview just because I didn't have my introductory words planned out. I tried to talk about how I'm a strong worker working and studying hard at the same time but I ended up just rambling about how hard coffee shop work is – it wasn't very relevant for the corporate internship I was interviewed for.
You should not obsess over interview questions, but try to focus on the ones that you struggle with. Another one of my least favorite questions is having to tell about my greatest weaknesses and I generally need to think for a bit to come up with good answers. I prefer to do the logical reasoning beforehand so I can be quicker with my replies in the interview.
Benefits of a conversationalist approach
Being able to transform the process into a conversation isn't just about connecting better with the interviewer. It shows initiative and independence as you demonstrate that you can take the lead with your own questions. It's also a great way to get your important points across if the structure of the interview is otherwise very strict.
Let's suppose that I want to highlight the importance of teamwork. In a structured interview, there might not be a single direct question on teamwork, so a transition has to be created from an interview question:
After you are done with your analytical conclusion, you can direct the conversation towards the interviewer: "Functional teamwork is an essential element of any workplace. Would you say that functional teamwork is a crucial part of [company name] as well?". This prompts the interviewer respond, and these observations indicate your analytical assessment skills which every employer appreciates.
Although your verbal performance might be top-notch, it is crucial to focus on your general appearance, too. How you look, act and respond are like your personal brand, your own image – it is crucial especially during the interview process, so guard it dearly.
Humans base their initial opinions on small things – a loose handshake, a wrinkly shirt, an shy gaze. Very few act perfectly calm during interviews and your physical appearance should be entirely irrelevant in theory. Your skills, expertise and background are more relevant than the quality of your outfit, but this is the world we live in. That is why you need to show the interviewer who you truly are.
You need to be the best version yourself on interview day. You need to be sharper than DiCaprio playing Jordan Belfort in the Wolf of Wall Street – just as long as it matches your personality. There's no use acting offhand, but highlight the best features of your personality. During interview days, I put intentional emphasis on being more analytical, approachable and straightforward.
It is very hard to prime yourself to be positive and excited for interview days, but converting nervousness into excitement is a proven way to cope with interview anxiety, and even Harvard research agrees. I like to think of it this way: Having an interview is always a big day, and I've always considered it to be a formative event – you get the chance to demonstrate your goals, ideals and the very essence of what drives you, regardless of the job opportunity. I've connected and had equally valuable conversations with retail store managers as I have with business owners.
The main takeaway is that it is crucially important for you to be in the right headspace for your interview. Focus on turning every feeling of insecurity and nervousness into excitement and curiosity. Whenever I'm walking to the interview (or waiting at home for an online interview) I put high-energy music to drive my energy up: Stayin' Alive or Don't Stop Me Now – anything that gets you in that good mood. It makes you feel phenomenally determined that you're ready to give the interview your best!
Fixing the final details
Now that we've established the importance of a good headspace, you just need to take care of the small details. Make sure you're arriving to the interview clean and tidy and with appropriate and smart clothes, and a confident stature. Come in with a firm handshake and a confident smile and look the interviewer in the eyes with confidence. I'm somewhat introverted myself qualities, so this is tough for me, sometimes. That's why I focus on it, reminding myself to keep a confident smile, eye contact and a good overall impression.
You don't need to be perfect. But if you leave the interview feeling fulfilled, like you've had the opportunity to say everything and talk about everything you wanted to talk about, you've succeeded. There is nothing in your power to do anymore, and that is where you should leave it at.
There is no use in stressing about if you'll get the job or not because you've given your everything. This is not in vain either, as every interview leads to another one, and you should be reflective after every interview. So if there is something to think about, reflect on what you could have improved and you will remember that for next time.
If you liked this article of the Career Skills: Master the job hunt series, you might find the other posts in the series useful as well!
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