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Interviewing for Success


When it comes to job interviews, I have spent a lot of time on both sides of the table (though there’s not always a table). There is advice all over the Internet about how to interview successfully. You probably already know the common themes: dress well, bring a good resume, don’t be late, smile, etc. I’m not going to cover those here, but rather dig into some of the less common advice and offer more detail than is usually provided by advice sites.

Know and be able to explain why you want the job.

I don’t mean have a vague, pat answer for, “Why should we hire you?” I mean know enough about the company and the position that you can say with some confidence what you can bring to the position and the business. Be specific and concrete, but also don’t oversell yourself. If you are being interviewed for an entry-level position, for instance, don’t suggest that you have plans to move into management in 6-12 months. (Yes, I have had people say this to me, as an interviewer.) For that matter, don’t give the impression that you really want some other job. Speak as if this is the job you really want, even if it isn’t.

Also avoid focusing on what the company can or should do for you. You are not there to tell the interviewer how much this position can advance your career, but to make the case that you are the best candidate for the job because of your skills, experience, and personality.

Answer questions honestly but don’t overdo it.

It’s inevitable: awkward questions may come up during an interview. Do you have a lengthy gap in your resume? Do you have a position that lasted only a short time? Don’t dig yourself a hole by lying about the situation. If you were laid off, say so. If you got fired, be prepared to explain what happened and also how you have learned to avoid repeating the same mistakes. If you were jobless for a long period, talk about what you did in the meantime to maintain your skills, health, and connections to the community. Did you volunteer or do freelance work? How did you occupy your time while you were unemployed? How you answer questions like this will tell an employer a lot about you.

But there is such a thing as being too honest. Be up front about troubles like long-term joblessness, just don’t go into excruciating detail about the situation. It is enough to know that you fell on hard times and are trying to work your way out.

Be able to back up what’s written in your resume.

As I mentioned in my post about resume writing, the accomplishment statements you create for each job you list under your experience are largely unverifiable, so you are free to take some creative license with them (short of outright making things up, of course). However, anything you put in your resume, an employer may ask about, and you need to be able to explain in some depth both what you accomplished and how you measured that accomplishment. If you used a real number–a dollar amount, a percentage increase/decrease, etc.–you must be able to articulate how that quantity was determined. Most employers are not looking for scientific rigor here, just a straightforward explanation, such as comparing numbers both before and after you completed a particular project.

If there is a job you would be embarrassed to discuss in an interview, for whatever reason, leave it off of your resume. Again, only include what you are willing to talk about in an interview!

Likewise, don’t list skills that you are unwilling to be questioned or tested on. Don’t say you know a particular programming language or are experienced with a specific tool or platform if you’d be able to demonstrate even the slightest proficiency. You won’t be expected to be an expert in everything you’ve listed, but you’ll be expected to know at least what you say you do!

Don’t badmouth current or previous employers.

This should go without saying but sometimes I am amazed at how loosely some people will talk about a current or past employer. Don’t do this. It is unnecessary and unprofessional. If you had issues with management or coworkers, it is enough to say that you decided the job wasn’t right for you and you opted to look elsewhere. It is also acceptable to say that you are looking to advance your career–that is often the goal when seeking a job!

Display confidence, not arrogance.

If you are looking for job interview tips, odds are you intend to work for someone else–that is, you will have a boss. This means you need to be willing and able to take direction and understand the chain of command. However, many jobs also want some degree of personal initiative and proactive behavior. And given that a job interview is essentially your opportunity to sell yourself, as a prospective employee, the best approach is to show that you are confident in yourself, your skills, your experience, and your ability to serve the company well, without making it appear that you are self-centered and egotistical. Your resume is a useful tool in this regard as it gives you specific accomplishments to talk about. Interviewers appreciate candidates who can enthusiastically describe past accomplishments–it shows pride in one’s own work, and a focus on getting things done, without coming off like an empty sales pitch.

Make a personal connection with the interviewer.

If at all possible, get to know the person interviewing you. This does not mean you should ask personal questions unbidden, but if you know the interviewer’s name beforehand, you might be able to learn something about them from their (possible) LinkedIn profile. During the interview, pay attention to see if you can glean any specific interests they might have, and attempt to nurture those. Many people approach interviews as a situation in which the interviewer and candidate talk at each other, or a mechanical process in which boilerplate questions elicit canned answers. While it can work this way, interviews work a lot better when they flow more like conversations. If your interviewer seems bored, it may be because they’ve done a lot of these already and you’ve not said anything to get their attention–find something!

The fact is that many hiring decisions are based less on documented qualifications and more on personality characteristics. You may be very good at what you do, but if you come off like a jerk in an interview, you are unlikely to get the job. Likewise, if you seem too shy or sheepish to make a case for yourself during an interview, it casts serious doubt on how well you could handle potentially stressful situations with coworkers and/or customers. However, if you try to interest the interviewer and make the overall process enjoyable, you are doing yourself a huge favor.

Acknowledge a real weakness and how you are working to address it.

You may well be asked what you think your greatest weakness is. Don’t give a ridiculous answer such as, “I’m a perfectionist” or “I never know when to quit.” Think of a genuine weakness that might impact your job performance, but also describe how you are attempting to address it. An interviewer wants to know how self-aware you are, and if you truly can’t come up with anything you’d change about yourself and how you work, you might have bigger problems when it comes to performing your job well.

As noted above, of course, there is such a thing as being too honest. The purpose is to give an answer that makes you seem human, not something meant to terrify the interviewer out of ever seeing you again. A good example of a weakness: “I don’t always have the best organization skills, but I have been learning about different organizational strategies in order to improve that so I can work more efficiently.” A bad example of a weakness: “I sometimes come to work high on coke.” Some things, you are better off keeping to yourself. (Seriously, though, don’t come to work high.)

Learn how to negotiate your salary.

This advice is aimed mostly at folks applying for positions where the pay rate is unknown and likely to be well above minimum wage, since jobs that pay little aren’t going to have a lot of room for negotiation.

That said, interviewers like to spring salary questions on candidates because they are often unexpected, and candidates caught off-guard can be made to divulge valuable information and commit to lowball salary offers. Don’t fall for it!

If you are asked how much you have made at another job, that is none of the interviewer’s business. Of course, you shouldn’t say “that’s none of your business.” Instead, explain that what you negotiated with another employer is between you and them, and that you take the full combination of salary, benefits, and job expectations into account, therefore you don’t feel that a specific dollar amount from one job translates into useful information for a prospective employer.

What you can provide instead is an expected salary range, based on research done before the interview. Sites like can provide good data in this area, based on the position and where it is located. If pressed for a specific amount, pull from within that range–in the middle, if you want to be safe, at the higher end if you want to press your luck a bit (and have the qualifications to merit it), or at the lower end if you care more about getting the job than being paid the average salary for it. But you should also make clear that you are not concerned with salary alone, and instead want to take the full scope of pay, benefits, bonuses, job duties, etc. into account to help make your decision. If an employer gives you a low salary offer, don’t be afraid to counter with an amount more in line with the industry median for your job and region, but do make it clear that you are open to negotiation.

Just don’t go into an interview not thinking about the salary step! An employer can easily use this against you because, in the end, they want to get you as cheaply as possible.

Follow-up appropriately.

There is a lot of confusion as to what makes for acceptable follow-up behavior. It is much less complicated than it seems.

Shortly–within a day or two of the interview–send a thank you letter or email to the person or persons who interviewed you.

Do not harangue the employer about when they will make a decision. If they mention that a decision will be made within a specific timeframe, contact them once that timeframe has passed. If they do not specify a timeframe, give them two weeks, and a little more if any holidays were involved.

The high points to remember here are to treat an interview as a combination of a sales pitch and a conversation. Speak confidently of your accomplishments when asked about them. Show a genuine interest in the interviewer as well as the company. Don’t be caught off-guard by salary questions. Remember: if you got in for an interview, you’ve already passed the resume filter than culls 90% or more of the applicants. At this point, it’s about making a personal impression. Establish a rapport with the interviewer, be gracious in your follow-ups, and try to keep a positive attitude.

Above all, try not to take it personally if you aren’t called back after the interview, or passed over in favor of someone else. Some positions are highly competitive and it is often a very difficult decision for an employer to decline a candidate, especially if you had a great interview. If you get the chance, ask why they went with someone else–that could very well help you ace the next interview. This is a skill, like any other, and it only gets better through study and practice.

Photo by Alan Cleaver