Interview Preparation: The Can’t-Lose Playbook

Interview Checklist

Take your Interview Preparation to the next level: follow this playbook to leave your competition in the dust.

Interviews are intimidating. What you say in these conversations dictates whether or not you get the job – so how could you not be nervous?

I’m here with some tips to help you prepare for the interview, make a great impression, and follow up like a pro.

According to Anxiety.org, a whopping 92% of US adults have job interview anxiety. Let’s get you into the other 8%!

I used to be so nervous about interviews, but now I love them. Yes, really! I interviewed for a Fortune 500 company a few years ago (and got the job). It was a three hour interview composed of six different sessions.

By the end of the day, I had answered nearly 50 questions. Since then I’ve been confident I can handle anything an interviewer throws at me.

I’ve also interviewed well over 500 candidates for a variety of roles (some paid, some volunteer). Sitting on the other side of the table and watching interviewees get nervous really puts things into perspective.

Leave as little as possible up to chance and walk into your interview knowing you’re going to put on a better show than your competition. How can you do that? Read on…

Interview Preparation Checklist

interview checklist table

BEFORE YOUR INTERVIEW

Think about how you will describe your best experiences

Many people prepare for interviews by searching online for common interview questions, writing out answers to those questions, and practicing/memorizing the answers. This is better than nothing, but I don’t recommend this approach.

Employers are now asking behavioral interview questions more commonly than typical questions like “what are your strengths?” Behavioral interview questions are asking about your past achievements, e.g., “tell me about a time when you…”

I recommend this Harvard resource about behavioral interview questions to learn more and see some sample questions. Some of my favorite examples from the post:

  • Tell me about a time you had to make a quick decision.
  • Tell me about a time you went above and beyond the call of duty.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult client or coworker.

When I interviewed for a leadership program at a Fortune 500 company, I was asked nearly 50 questions over the course of three hours. At least 80% of the questions were behavioral.

Beware the Google results for “most common interview questions” as you prepare for your interview. If you follow a list like this (which is at the top of the Google results), you’ll prepare all the wrong answers and get caught off guard when they probe you about your past experiences.

So, how can you prepare for behavioral interview questions?

If you try to memorize answers to specific questions, on game day you’ll be more worried about reciting everything you prepared rather than giving a nice, natural answer. If the interviewer asks a slightly different question, you could get tripped up. You might get nervous upon questions for which you didn’t prepare. And you won’t seem as personable as if you think on the fly.

Instead, I suggest reflecting on your top 5-10 experiences. What do you want to bring up in the interview? Think about those experiences, write out bullet points of what you did, and use these in your practice. How to answer interview questions is covered later in this post.

This way, when you’re asked a question, you have a bank of possible answers that could apply. Pick the best one, tailor it to the question, and run with it. You’ll already be way ahead of everyone else who prepared for “why do you want this job?”

Learn about the company

If you’re applying for an internship or entry-level position, you don’t need to be an expert on the company. For more senior-level positions, you may want to dedicate a bit more time to researching.

Nonetheless, you should take time to learn about the company prior to your interview. Read the company’s website and absorb key information. Make sure you know what the company does to avoid embarrassing situations.

I suggest heading to Google News and typing in the company’s name to make sure you’re informed about anything substantial. If the company just got a new CEO or launched a major new product, you’re going to want to know about that.

Google results can be overwhelming – did you know you can filter by time? First, make sure you’re in Google News. Then when you search the company’s name, click “Tools” then “Recent.”

Google News

I usually select “past month” and then “past year” and browse the results. This will help you read the latest news without sifting through thousands or millions of search results.

If you learn anything important, make a note to ask about it in your interview or to bring it up in one of your answers.

Learn about industry trends

Just like learning about the company, you need to learn the latest trends in your industry. This way, your interviewer will know you’re a strong candidate to help the company innovate and keep up with the times.

If you’re interviewing for a cybersecurity job: what are some of the latest exploits and tools? For accounting, have any laws been passed that might affect your work? You get the point.

You do not want to be blind-sided by a surprise question about something going on in your industry. That could cost you the job offer immediately.

Instead, turn your industry knowledge into an advantage by asking questions about how the company is adopting latest trends. For instance, let’s say you’re interviewing for a manufacturing position. You might ask: “has this company implemented any 3D printing technology or are there plans to do so?”

This would show you’re thinking about the future and connecting your job to the bigger picture.

Learn about your interviewer

It’s mandatory to study the company and industry trends. It doesn’t hurt to learn about the interviewer in advance, either.

Sometimes this isn’t possible if you don’t know whom exactly you’re interviewing with. If you know your interviewer’s name, check their LinkedIn, personal website if they have one, and other professional profiles.

If you learn about her career, you can ask her targeted questions. You can even say “I saw on your LinkedIn” so they know you’re not a creeper. In fact, this is yet another data point towards “this person does their homework!”

Speaking of creepers, I’d stay away from their Facebook page or other personal profiles. It’s probably not appropriate to bring up her son’s birthday party or the awesome dinner she had last week…

Triple-check the job description

I can’t emphasize this enough: know the job you are applying for!

This is often the difference between getting a job offer and getting turned down.

I’m not talking about knowing the title. That’s obvious. I’m talking about knowing the responsibilities of the position – what exactly will the company ask of you?

Before you walk in the interview room, you need to have a clear understanding of the role you’re applying for. That way, you can spend the entire interview talking about why you’re the perfect person to solve their problems.

You will wow your interviewer if you show you understand the objective of the position and frame every answer as “here’s why I’m perfect to execute this objective for you.”

I’ve interviewed dozens of outstanding candidates before and ultimately didn’t offer them the position. They were extremely qualified and intelligent, but better suited for another role. For instance, people have applied for IT positions and failed to mention a single IT accomplishment in their answers.

Leadership and general accomplishments are important, but tailor your answers as much as possible to the objective of your role.

Of course, sometimes job descriptions are vague. Absorb as much as you can and come prepared to ask questions about anything you didn’t understand. You don’t have to wait until the end to ask questions, by the way – you can ask for clarification during the interview then tailor your subsequent answers on the fly.

Jobscan Blog further explains using the job description to prepare for your interview.

Come prepared with “insider insights”

This one is advanced and definitely requires pre-work. I’m assuming you have a network in your industry – whether it’s robust or you just have a few professional contacts. If you don’t have a network already… check back for a post soon about networking!

Let’s say you’re interviewing for a position in marketing with a Fortune 500 financial services company. It would be ideal if you know someone who works for that company in marketing already, or just works for the company in general.

If you don’t, think about who you do know. Do you have any colleagues or friends in similar roles at other companies? Or colleagues knowledgeable about the financial services industry in general?

Meet with them. The closer to your position, the better. They may even be able to introduce you to someone more relevant – don’t be shy about asking.

When you meet with them, tell them about your upcoming interview and just ask for their advice and perspective. The perspective they’ll give you about what’s going on in the company and industry will likely far exceed what you can learn on Google.

trends

Refine your “elevator speech”

This is the one question you can memorize an answer to! It’s the dreaded “tell me about yourself…”

I suggest framing your elevator speech as a story and making it more interesting than the information already available on your resume.

Tell them the basics about you, perhaps add an anecdote about how you got interested in your line of work, and end with why you’re excited for the opportunity. Your elevator speech should be about 30 seconds. Think zippy elevator to the 22nd floor with a few stops – not freight elevator.

Think in advance about what you want to say. Then practice by yourself, with friends, with mentors, and so on. Now you’ll be able to start your interview on a positive note, knowing you nailed the first question.

Practice!

When I interviewed for the Fortune 500 company I mentioned above, I took preparation very seriously. I practiced with my friends. I practiced with my mentors inside and outside of the company. I practiced with people who had just gone through the same interview process.

All in all, I probably practiced more than 50 hours for my interview. It was definitely necessary and I went through the day with confidence, feeling fully prepared.

Think about how much you want the job and how competitive the interview process will likely be. Then calibrate how much practice time you need from there.

You should practice more for a position you really want at a very competitive company, than for a position you’re hoping to set aside for other offers. Think of yourself as an NFL player practicing for the Super Bowl.

The good news is, even if it doesn’t work out, your practice will carry over to other interviews. Just be mindful of how you allocate your practice time.

Here’s my trick to interview practice: actually go through a mock interview. At least make it through the question – preferably several or an entire interview session.

Some will even suggest getting dressed up for mock interviews. I didn’t, but it might work for you.

If you hypothetically practice, you’re only getting so much value out of the time. Pretend you’re really interviewing and answer the question accordingly.

You’ll find your nerves will emerge and you’ll feel awkward doing this with a friend or colleague. Good! This can help defuse your anxiety when it comes time for the real interview.

I’ve forced friends to do real mock interviews with me before when they asked for my help preparing for jobs. At the time, they hated me. After their real interviews, they thanked me.

DURING YOUR INTERVIEW

You want to make sure you don’t act like these people…

Basic mechanics

Here are a few very basic tips to get started. I’m assuming you know most of these things already as an Uneven Odds reader, so just a quick refresher…

Bring your resume – and don’t forget it! Print multiple copies to bring to your interview. Sometimes you’ll have as many as 5-10 interviewers throughout a longer interview day, so just be prepared.

Resume paper isn’t necessary. It won’t hurt, but I’d rather you spend 30 minutes running interview practice than running out to Staples to pick up resume paper.

Of course, make sure you aren’t making any of these most common resume mistakes.

Dress to impress – I wish I didn’t have to put this on the list. I’ve had people show up to interviews wearing pretty interesting attire.

Make sure you dress for the culture of the company. Most companies will be business professional, but some startups / new tech companies may actually laugh at you if you show up in a suit.

As you dress business professional, make sure your clothes fit the culture of the company. Banks may be more conservative and look for a black or navy suit and solid tie. Marketing firms may be OK with a modern charcoal suit with a slim tie. Do your homework to find out what to wear!

And, please… make sure your clothes fit. Too big and too small are equally bad.

Bring a padfolio, pen – don’t show up empty handed. Bring a professional black padfolio and a nice pen. I’m not saying spend $40 on a pen, but ideally you’ll bring something nicer than the clicky pen from the car wash up the street.

Eye contact – I’ve sat across the table from hundreds of interviewees who got nervous and didn’t maintain eye contact. Obviously don’t stare your interviewer down, but maintain reasonable eye contact.

If you are getting nervous or distracted and need to look away, look somewhere nearby – just to the right or left of your interviewer, down at your resume, etc. Anything but staring off into the distance at one of the corners of the room.

Answer questions “just right” – this warrants an article itself, but try to be very cognizant of the length and content of your interview answers. Don’t tell your life story; don’t leave them hanging with a weak short answer either.

Based on the question, an answer of 1-2 minutes is generally good. Remember, an interview is a conversation, so save time for followup questions!

We talked earlier about behavioral interview questions. You may have heard of the “STAR” or “CAR” method of answering these questions. STAR is Situation, Task, Action, Result; CAR is Context, Action, Result.

Use this strategy to answer your behavioral interview questions. Don’t miss any of the components, either… if you talk all result and no context, the result might seem as significant. If you skip the result, the interviewer won’t know if you’re successful. All three components are important.

If you’d like to brush up on the STAR Method, here’s a tremendous article on TheGuardian.com.

Now, back to more advanced tips…

Look at the interview as a conversation, NOT judgment day

For those of you who have interview anxiety (probably most of you!), this is huge.

Don’t psych yourself out over your interview. Worrying too much will only decrease your performance.

Look at the interview as a conversation. Forget about the fact that they’re going to make a decision on whether to hire you when you leave. That doesn’t matter.

An interview is an exchange of information between two parties. They’re trying to learn more about you and you’re trying to learn more about them.

In your interviews, you should have two objectives of equal weight: demonstrate why you’re a good candidate for the position, and also find out if the position is a good fit FOR YOU.

That’s right – you’re interviewing them too! You might ask questions about the position during your interview and find out you’d really hate the job. Sometimes job descriptions are deceiving…

Remembering your interview is just an exchange of information will reduce your interview jitters and increase your confidence.

Keep your cool – don’t let one bad answer throw you off

Odds are you’ll get at least one question that somewhat stumps you. It’s OK. Sometimes interviewers even try to stump you to see how you deal with the pressure.

If you give a bad answer, just move on. Sure, if you realize it immediately and want to save yourself, you can give it a shot. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary though.

When you leave the interview room, they’re going to talk about their overall impression of you. If you had a great interview with one mediocre answer, that’s not going to stand out to them. So don’t let it stand out to you either!

People will often miss one answer halfway through the interview and never recover. I’ll ask a question that stumps them, they’ll realize they didn’t give a great answer, then their performance seriously suffers for the rest of the interview.

So let one bad answer be ONE bad answer and remind yourself it’s probably not a huge deal.

Be deliberate in your speech and body language

If you’re nervous, just try to be natural and get through the conversation seeming comfortable. I promise that’s how you can help yourself the most.

If you’re feeling good about your interview, turn it into a performance of sorts. Pay attention to every component of how you’re communicating.

How are you sitting? Are you leaning on the table or against your chair? What are your hands doing? If there are two interviewers, how are you splitting your eye contact?

How long are you pausing between sentences? How much time are you spending talking about context versus result? Are you taking advantage of opportunities to use words that match the company’s jargon?

Sorry if I just stressed you out. Once you’re comfortable with interviews, you can pay attention to these things with practice. And if you’re in control of your body language, content, and speech, you’re going to make a phenomenal impression.

Ask questions

Actually, ask good questions…

Bad questions show you didn’t do your homework. Do not ask questions that were already answered in the job description. The interviewer will most likely realize this and think you didn’t care enough to prepare.

fail
Don’t be this guy…

Instead, you can ask a follow-up question, like “I saw in the job description I would be driving a new initiative to consolidate our data, could you tell me more about that?”

It also never hurts to ask questions about the interviewer. A few good example questions:

  • What would you say is the hardest part of your job?
  • What attracted you to the culture at [company]?
  • How did your career lead you to this position?

Asking these personal questions will help you establish a deeper rapport with your interviewer. That’s important since interviewers hire people based not only on their qualifications but who they want to work with.

Yes, you have to somehow be both professional and social at the same time. I have faith in you!

I encourage you to prepare some of your questions in advance, especially those questions based on your research. Just write them down in your padfolio and open it up at the end of the interview.

Some people ask me if that makes you look unprepared or nervous – in fact, I’d say it’s not a big deal, but if anything it makes you look more prepared.

For more ideas, check out TakeYourSuccess.com for top questions to ask at the end of an interview.

Advanced tip: ask questions throughout the interview, not just at the end! In many cases this will help the interviewer to see it as a conversation too – which is where you want them.

You’re applying for a data analytics position. You just gave a great answer to the question, “describe a time you used data analytics software to solve a real problem.”

At the end of your question, you can follow up with, “I was actually wondering: I used [software package] in this project, what do we use at [company]?”

There are plenty of ways to naturally work in questions. Don’t interrupt your interviewer if it seems like they are trying to get through their questions. But sometimes asking a question will open up an interviewer and completely change her demeanor, so give it a shot!

Align your answers and questions with company objectives

When you go to McDonald’s, you pay them money for a burger. You’re exchanging something (money) for something else (food).

Wait… aren’t we talking about interviews?

interview drive thru

Yes. Companies don’t hire people just because the office was getting lonely. They’re exchanging money and benefits for someone to solve problems for the company.

Your work will likely either generate revenue or make the company more efficient (so it can generate more revenue).

Before your interview, figure out how your role would tie to the bottom line. Think about how your skills connect to that. Then knock the interview out of the park.

Your last question: next steps

If you’re looking for a solid last question, go with the tried and true “what are the next steps in the process?” or “when can I expect to hear something?”

I strongly encourage you to ask one of these if the interviewer hasn’t already brought it up. If you’re actively pursuing other opportunities, this timeframe will help you with your job search.

You can also use this information as you’re following up after your interview, if necessary.

AFTER YOUR INTERVIEW

Send a personalized thank you email within 24 hours

Don’t forget this one. I usually just say send the thank you email as soon as you get home – then you won’t forget.

This is a common practice, and it never hurts to have another positive touch point with your interviewer.

Stand out from all the other generic thank you emails and mention something from your interview. This will help the interviewer remember who you are and demonstrate you really were enthusiastic about the conversation.

Here’s a nice example from TheBalance.com:

Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name:

I enjoyed speaking with you today about the assistant account executive position at the Smith Agency.

The job seems to be an excellent match for my skills and interests.

The creative approach to account management that you described confirmed my desire to work with you.

In addition to my enthusiasm, I will bring to the position strong writing skills, assertiveness, and the ability to encourage others to work cooperatively with the department.

I appreciate the time you took to interview me. I am very interested in working for you and look forward to hearing from you regarding this position.

Sincerely,

Your Name
Email Address
Phone Number
[LinkedIn URL]
[Website URL]

Send something similar and you’ll be in good shape.

Follow up per their schedule

The waiting game is honestly awful. Some companies are ultra-prompt. Others are… well… not at all. For a variety reasons, companies can take up to a month or even way longer to make a hiring decision.

This is why I said you need to ask about next steps at the end of your interview. Write down the date they said you’d hear something by.

If you haven’t heard something by that date, wait another day or two then feel free to reach out. This is totally acceptable and not pushy, as long as you don’t sound entitled.

That is, you don’t want to say “um, you told me I’d hear back by Friday, now you’re two days late, what’s up?”

You can just send a nice “hi, I’m just checking in on the Data Analyst position for which I interviewed last week. I think Scott said in the interview decisions would be sent last Friday. I’m excited for the opportunity and would love the chance to work for DataCorp!”

That’s all. Then you can find out if they’re still deciding (and what the new timeline is) or if you didn’t get the job. Even though that sucks, it’s good information, since you can dedicate your energy to other opportunities.

Reflect on your interview

The last thing you want to do after your interview is think about another interview. But you should.

Don’t worry, you can celebrate soon…

After every interview, take a few moments as soon as you can to jot down some notes about your experience. Write down every question you can remember. Point out which questions you thought you did well on and which you could have improved on. Make any other general notes about how you could have improved as well.

Then close the notebook and relax – after sending your thank you email of course. You can use these notes when the time comes to prepare for your next interview!

Ask for feedback if you don’t get the offer

Rejection hurts, but make the most of it: ask for feedback. Whatever you do, don’t be bitter or resentful. Other opportunities with the company may arise in the future.

There’s no harm in asking for feedback. They may ignore your question, or they may give you useful input that can help you improve for your next interview. It’s all about continuous improvement.

Don’t take it personally if you aren’t selected

It’s hard to remember this in the heat of a rejection, so try your hardest to beat this into your brain. There are tons of reasons candidates don’t get selected for positions. “He was terrible” is not the only reason.

You may have been over-qualified. You may have been beaten by the CEO’s nephew. You may be brilliant but missing some specific niche skill they’re looking for.

The hiring manager may have thought you’re a better fit for another role. (This can happen if you inadvertently express more passion for another industry than the one you’re applying for.)

The point is, look at it as a learning opportunity rather than a black mark on your self-esteem. Feedback is a gift and any interview result is certainly feedback.

If you get the offer:

I’ll write a separate post about this someday, but just to bring this mega-post full circle…

Negotiate salary if you can – the time to negotiate salary is before you accept your offer, not after. If you accept the offer, you have demonstrated you’re willing to accept what’s on the table, so you’ve given up your biggest bargaining chip.

If the salary isn’t flexible, remember you can try to negotiate other benefits as well: work from home, vacation days, flexible work hours, and so on. TheMuse.com has a fairly comprehensive post on negotiating your salary.

Ask for more time if needed – you may be interviewing for multiple positions and waiting to hear back from other companies so you can weigh all your options.

Don’t be shy about asking a company if you can have more time to make your decision. They may say no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. I wouldn’t ask for more than an extra week… maybe ten days… but anything in that range isn’t going to offend.


You made it! Taking the time to read this monster of a post shows you’re serious about nailing your next interview. Great!

If you follow the advice in this post, I promise your likelihood of getting hired will significantly increase. Applying for jobs is a full-time job itself – take it seriously and it’ll be over in no time.

As a closing thought, I’ll relate job interviews to the overall theme of this site.

Interview Preparation – Uneven Odds Style:

The defining principle of Uneven Odds – and my professional philosophy – is to maximize the odds of achieving your goals by playing your cards just right. You should also play many cards at once. Make it so it’s highly unlikely someone else can beat you.

I hate toss-ups. When I interview for a role, I want to feel like there’s a 100% chance I’m going to get it if I’m a good fit for the position.

This doesn’t mean I’m arrogant and think I can waltz into any room and get any position. I’ve been rejected plenty of times. But I’ve embraced that rejection is good, and if I get turned down for a role, it’s probably a good thing in the long-run.

But I’ve developed the confidence to know I’m going to perform well in my interviews. You can develop the same confidence by practicing and by following as many steps in this post as you can.

How can you maximize your odds of getting hired? One final tidbit to tie everything together: play the player. (Yes, I’m really loving the poker references…)

Incidentally, your interviewer is probably not a cyborg. He’s a guy, with a personal life, just doing his job. It’s impossible to be an emotionless agent of the company.

Test the waters and adapt to his personality.

If you tell a joke and he laughs, tell another one in a few questions. If he doesn’t laugh, maybe he’s a stoic guy so you should convey your excitement while talking about your work.

If you ask a question mid-interview and he gives a short answer or seems frustrated, don’t ask anything else until the end. If he gets chatty, just pretend you’re at lunch with a friend and keep going.

If you’re reading him and he looks really impressed about what you’re talking about, talk more about it. If he looks like he’s about to fall asleep, talk about something else.

No one can offer advice to help you guarantee you’ll get a job. The perspective I’ve offered here will definitely set you apart from most of your competition.

Good luck! I’d love to hear about your upcoming interview and answer any questions. If you have feedback about anything in this post, if you disagree, if you think I missed something – let me know. Hit me up in the comments or on social media.

Your to do list:

  • This whole post is a checklist, so read it again! If you have an upcoming interview, schedule practice sessions and start doing your research as soon as you can.
  • Jot down your top experiences so you can start framing them in terms of different interview questions and different job opportunities.
  • Read the other links in this post for more great information.

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