“Tell me a little about yourself.” It’s the bane of any interview — the kind of non-specific, open-ended request that can cause you to ramble and fidget. Job interviews can be stressful and subjective, and many interviewers can be untrained and unprepared.
Luckily, there are ways to ensure that you remain confident and composed throughout the process. We asked top human resource executives and recruiters to share their perspectives from years in the hiring trenches. Here are their top tips for nailing your next interview and landing that dream job. `
The critical first step to your interview prep is two-pronged: Visit the company’s website and seek out the LinkedIn profile of the individual(s) you’ll be speaking with. “You should be looking up those people and learning about them. Look for connections and commonalities to help build rapport,” says Heather Ritter, vice president/director of human resources at Daily Herald Media Group.
And never assume you know all you need to about the company you’re inviewing with — no matter how prominent it may be. This can be a big miss. “Only about 60 percent of candidates do any kind of research on McDonald’s,” says Melanie Steinbach, chief talent officer at McDonald’s Corporation. “We are so public with our strategy (called the “velocity growth plan”) that it’s mind boggling to meet a candidate who doesn’t mention it.”
The higher the position, the more in-depth the research should go. John Myers, senior executive coach and CEO, Kensington International, says, “Investigate a company’s major initiatives, how they’re doing, and network with people who have been with the organization.”
In his book, “101 Job Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again,” James Reed urges candidates to speak from the heart, avoiding exaggeration and waffling. “An interview room is an artificial environment, one that can easily prompt artificial behavior, stilted conversation, and awkward pauses,” he says, admitting that being yourself is harder than it sounds. He says, “It’s risky too, certainly in terms of getting a job. It’s not risky in terms of getting the right job.”
The right job is one that matches your skill set and provides a good cultural fit, which, Myers says, is the most important thing for both the candidate and the company. “The reality is that if that’s not a fit then it won’t work,” he says. Any hiring process is a two-way street — both sides are eager to learn more about each other to see if they might make a good long-term match. Ritter says, “People get nervous when in reality an interview should be no more than a conversation about how we can work together.”
She urges candidates to figure out what’s important to them then ask questions that will measure those things. “Would you prefer a more lighthearted or serious organization? One that’s large or mid-sized? Are employee gatherings important? Volunteerism?” she asks. Ritter’s team once interviewed a candidate who, upon being offered the job, asked to speak with potential fellow co-workers in advance of making his decision. “It indicated he was really seeking a strong cultural fit,” she says.
LinkedIn and similar networking sites are invaluable for sussing a company’s culture. You can easily find a list of people who work at an organization to see if you might have any connections who can put out feelers for more reliable information. All of our experts urged candidates to take the company feedback on sites like Glassdoor with a grain of salt. “People who are happy at work are less likely to post reviews,” Myers says.
Most Common Questions
Every candidate’s preparation should also include thinking through answers to expected questions. According to Dr. Allen Huffcutt, professor of industrial psychology at Bradley University (as cited in the book “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrationality” by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman), there are 10 questions that interviewers ask most frequently:
- What are your strengths? Weaknesses?
- Why did you decide to pursue this position?
- Tell me why I should hire you.
- What do you see yourself doing in five years?
- What do you hope to earn in five years?
- What do you know about our company?
- How would you describe yourself to others?
- Which college subjects do you like best? Least?
- Why did you leave your last job? (Why are you leaving your current job?)
- What do you really want to do with your life?
Steinbach says that number six on the list is the single most important question an interviewer can ask. “What do you know about our company” gets at the very heart of preparedness. “It shows interest level, seriousness, and is an indicator of other behaviors that become really important down the road,” she says. She cites the approach of a hiring manager she used to work with: “She wouldn’t hire anyone who didn’t come to an interview armed with a notebook and pen.” For Steinbach, though, asking the question, rather than evaluating whether the candidate brought the right office supplies, is a more direct way to assess preparedness and interest level.
Handling the Toughest Question
You know it’s coming — that moment when interviewer zeroes in on the one thing you’d rather not talk about. “Tell me about why you left your last job?” or “Why were you at Company Z for such a short period of time?” Or any one of myriad questions that poke holes in your carefully constructed image.
“Don’t lead with it but don’t hide it either,” Steinbach says. “I need to be a little invested in you before I’m willing to overlook or understand potential difficult situations.” She encourages frankness when asked, “If anyone is well-networked, it’s a recruiter. Lying to a recruiter is a very flawed strategy.”
Ritter says that another poor strategy is blaming the employer. “Accepting some responsibility is a sign of emotional intelligence,” she says. “Focus on what you learned from the experience.” It’s also important to remember that in the current job market, it’s not expected that you’ve been in the same job for 40 years. Not every company is a perfect cultural fit; not every boss is a perfect interpersonal fit. Steinbach says, “While it feels very unique and painful for you, most people have empathy for what you’ve gone through.”
Pitfalls to Avoid
Make sure to prevent distractions during interviews. It’s seems like a no-brainer, but as interviews increasingly are conducted remotely, it’s imperative to make sure that your surroundings are interview-appropriate. “We were recently conducting a phone screening for a role and the candidate gave us a time to call,” Ritter says. “She spoke to us while she was walking to the train. There were sirens, wind, honks, and the call dropped. It showed a lack of professionalism that she didn’t plan better.”
Steinbach adds that there’s no time during the interview process when it’s appropriate to ask about vacation time. That’s a detail to be discussed or negotiated once an offer is made. Surprisingly, though, she assures it’s OK to discuss salary earlier, especially if you sense there might be a mismatch. “There’s a way to bring it up that’s organic. Indicate that you’re interested, but don’t want to waste their time or yours,” she advises. “Then unapologetically share your compensation to ensure that the job is in your range.”
Another way people often stumble is by getting off track with a story. Steinbach suggests preparing some clear work examples that have a beginning, middle, and end. “Often people start giving context then get lost,” she says. “Succinctly explain the situation, your actions, then the impact.” Following this pattern will sidestep rambling.
Your Own Questions
“Don’t go in with too many set questions or things you want to make sure you say,” says Myers. Your questions should arise organically out of a genuine interest in the conversation and company. He adds, “Listening is the most important skill to ensure that your answers address what the interviewer is asking.”
Steinbach concurs. “I’ve never once in my 20-year career had a client or hiring manager say that the candidate didn’t talk enough,” she says. “Countless times, they say that the person wouldn’t stop talking.” But, she adds that it’s a good idea to have a couple of specific questions that indicate that you’re prepared. For example, “I can tell from looking at your financials that your strategy is working in certain areas of the world. Why do you think it isn’t in other countries?”
Another question worth considering is asking managers how long their staff has been working for them. “If tenures are short, that might be a red flag,” says Ritter.
The long-standing post-interview courtesy of a thank-you note is still the best follow-up. “Make sure to get contact information for everyone who interviews you,” Myers recommends. In this case, speed trumps formality — an email is fine.
But, don’t fall into the trap of using your thank-you note as an opportunity to elaborate on your interview responses. “You don’t know how important that is or whether you answered to their satisfaction. You can make things worse by highlighting something that you’d just as soon not highlight again,” Myers adds.
It’s also fine to follow-up if you don’t get the job to ask for feedback. Ritter suggests asking if there are specific skills that gave someone else the edge. It’s a great way to identify areas of improvement as you conduct your search.
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Pamela Rothbard is a writer and photographer living in Glencoe, Illinois. Her work has appeared in various literary and mainstream magazines and on National Public Radio and her parenting and baking blog, Flour on the Floor, was featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Pamela has been a regular Make It Better contributor since 2013. When she’s not behind a keyboard or a camera, she’s trying new recipes and restaurants and adding another layer of clothing because she’s always cold. Pamela is also a supporter of no-kill shelters and animal rescue organizations (her favorites are PAWS Chicago and Best Friends in Utah). Find her on Twitter and Instagram @pamelarothbard.