Interviewing well as a candidate is a difficult skill to develop. There’s a ton of advice out there about what questions to expect, how to reply to them well, and what the most important things to keep in mind are when you’re preparing for an interview. A lot of them have some truth to them. Many of them are valuable and useful to read, even if you don’t apply all of the suggestions they have.
I have done many interviews from both sides, as a candidate and as a hiring manager. Having experience as a hiring manager makes it easier to understand what goes into interviewing well as a candidate. This is my personal list of things to watch out for when you’re a candidate, applying for a job, and you’ve gotten through to an interview stage. These are the ones that have stood out from my own experience leading interviews, where I’ve seen great candidates with amazing applicants fall short of the requirements of the position during the interview alone. None of these aspects exists in a vacuum and can be applied independently of each other. All of them build on and relate to each other in different ways.
If you manage to apply all of them, you’ll have had a great interview, irrespective of whether you end up getting hired or not. Getting hired is part of the process that you can’t control. You can dramatically increase the likelihood of you landing the job you’re looking for by putting effort into your application and your interview. I’ve written more about writing great applications in another article, so if you’re looking for advice for the first step, that’s where you can start.
Interviews are built into almost every hiring process I know. Some companies might only include written interviews in their hiring process – Automattic is known for this. None of these aspects is any less important in a written interview but they are definitely more impactful if you’re interviewing via video, phone, or in-person.
This will always be my biggest piece of advice to any candidate applying for any job. You need to be confident in your ability to do that job. The hiring process is a two-way street. On the one hand, the hiring manager is trying to find out if you’re a good fit for their position. On the other hand, you should be trying to find out if the position is a good fit for you. You have to approach an interview from this perspective.
The person leading the interview doesn’t know you and they’ve never worked with you. Companies rarely find someone who is truly a perfect fit, so in most cases, they will compromise on some aspects of the job description. You need to give them the impression that you know what you’re doing, that you’re a reliable person, and that you’d do a great job given the chance. You can only do that if you’re confident in your skills and this comes out through the interview.
It’s hard to give specific pointers for what you can do to bring that confidence across. Some of the points I’ll talk about further will tie into this. That said, a large amount of it will come through in your manner and how you talk during the interview. If you seem relaxed and laid-back, the people on the other side will get the impression that you know what you’re doing. If you can formulate your thoughts well and you’re able to ask critical questions nicely, that will also give the impression of self-confidence. This is the ultimate goal that you should have. You want to make sure the other person leaves the interview believing that you are capable of doing this job.
When you look at an interview that you did, whether it ended up being successful or unsuccessful, take some time to think about this specifically. Think back on your answers and your body language. What kind of impression did the person leading the interview have? This is a great way to start learning from an interview you do and to level up your skills across the board.
Confidence doesn’t mean being blind to your faults or refusing to admit to making any mistake. True confidence is knowing that you can and have learned from the mistakes that you’ve made. It’s easy to overdo this and come across as arrogant instead. That isn’t what you want. You want to show that you know what you’re doing, but you also know that there’s a lot you can do better. Being able to talk about your unique skills, the work you’ve done in the past, and what you hope for from the future fluently and with confidence makes a huge impact in an interview.
Interviews are especially difficult because you can never prepare for every question you’ll be asked. Some questions may come up that will just stump you or that you need to spend some time thinking about. You can mitigate the effect of that a little bit with good preparation – more about that further below. But some amount of it is unavoidable, especially if you’re being interviewed by experienced people, who have a good read on your reactions and can ask challenging questions. This is why it’s incredibly important that your answers are as precise and as concise as you can make them.
The most usual reaction when a question is asked that someone hasn’t prepared for is to start thinking out loud. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some questions are completely tailored towards that, and sometimes that’s exactly what the interviewer is looking for. The problem is that thinking out loud can turn into rambling very easily. It’s also easy just to start rambling and say everything that comes to mind. You want to avoid this as much as you can. Ideally, what you’re working towards is structured, precise, and clearly formulated answers. The more you ramble, the less precise your communication can be.
In most cases, the person leading the interview will also be trying to get a sense of how you approach problems, how you think, and how you communicate. If your communication is unfocused, that really makes a difference. It happens much more often than you’d think that the interviewer asks a question and the candidate answers something completely unrelated or talks continuously for 10 or even 15 minutes. The answer might have started on-track but usually, by about five minutes into an answer, most people will have started talking about something completely different. This is pretty frustrating as an experience when you’re interviewing. You don’t get the information that you’re looking for and the person on the other side also doesn’t give you the chance to lead the conversation into a direction that’s relevant and important to you.
As a candidate, you should approach each question as follows. When the interviewer asks you something, take a few seconds to make sure you understand what information they’re looking for. Give yourself another few seconds to figure out what you want to say. Then say exactly that and then either stop talking or ask a follow-up question if you have one. If you notice yourself rambling, wrap up your thoughts as quickly as you can. If you aren’t sure whether your answer actually answered the question or not, ask.
Remember that you’re aiming for precise and clear communication. This is another one of those points that you can reflect on after an interview. Try to rewind through some of the questions and what your answers were, then figure out if you were able to answer them concisely or not. With enough practice and reflection, you can improve this dramatically.
This one is much easier to describe than it is to identify or to do but it’s extremely important. Considering there’s no lack of advice out there about how to answer typical job interview questions, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of preparing rehearsed answers to certain questions. I’ve seen this a lot with questions like “what’s your biggest weakness” or “why should we hire you.” So many people will tell you that you can prepare an answer like “I have very high standards” to the first or that you should go through the requirements in the job listing for the second. Neither of these is an authentic, genuine answer.
If a hiring manager or a recruiter asks a question like “what’s your biggest weakness,” they most likely want to see that you’re capable of identifying where your skills might not be at the level you want them to be at and that you’re comfortable with admitting that. If they’re asking something like “why should we hire you,” they’re looking for a unique response from you, something that you can say you bring to the table that no one else does. That isn’t to say that you should just “be honest” and say the first thing that comes into your head. Your response to “why do you want to work here” or “why did you apply for this job” should never be “because I need the money,” even if you’d consider that to be the most honest answer possible.
Ultimately, your answers should give the interviewer a sense of who you are, as a person. The problem with rehearsed, typical responses is that they give the impression that you’re trying to hide something. If you read a piece of advice that says you need to show that you’re a team player in the interview, you can’t do that by simply saying you’re a team player multiple times. You can only do that by talking about specific situations from your previous experience that display that you’re a good team player. But you can only bring up examples like this if it’s actually relevant in a response to a specific question. Otherwise, it’ll be obvious to the interviewer that you’re derailing the conversation to make a point.
When you prepare for the interview and also during the interview, you should aim to be as honest as you can. If you have a critical question about the company, ask it. If you get asked something like “what don’t you like about our product” or “do you have any concerns about remote work,” answer those honestly. Shying away from anything that might be perceived badly is going to work against you more often than it will work in your favour. What works in your favour is answers that are well-thought-out and genuine, where the person on the other side can tell that you mean what you’re saying and that you’re speaking something true to you.
If there’s one aspect that a lot of great candidates fail at displaying, it’s usually motivation. One of my observations from the hiring that I’ve done has been that applicants who are seriously experienced and know the job well are often unable to express why they’re motivated to work at that particular company, in that specific role. Candidates who are genuinely motivated by the company will often have less relevant experience. When you’re looking for a job, you should try to match your motivation and your experience to the job description you’re applying to. You’ll likely save yourself a lot of time applying for things that you don’t really want to do, just because you like the company, or applying for positions that your profile simply doesn’t match.
Either way, once you’ve gotten to the interview stage, you can generally assume that your CV was pretty convincing. Someone at the company has gone through your application and felt that you might be a good fit for the position they’re looking for. Now all that’s left is for you to convince them that you can do the job, that you’re a good fit for the team, and that you’re motivated to work at this company. Those are really the three key points you have to get across.
Motivation is incredibly hard to fake. If you’re in the lucky position as a company to receive a lot of applicants, you will always prefer the ones who are motivated to work at that company. This is because motivation can’t be trained, whereas hard skills can be improved upon with experience. In most cases, employees are most motivated when they first start working for the company. Starting with someone who already has lacklustre motivation is not likely to work out in the long-term.
So when you’re preparing for the interview, you have to seriously think about what appeals to you about this specific job, at this company. That answer has to be somewhat unique to the company. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you don’t regularly use the company’s product, for example, as long as you put in the time to understand how it works to the extent that you can answer this question well. When an interviewer asks “why did you apply for this job,” they don’t want to hear “I’m looking for a remote job” or “I was reading job boards and this one stood out.” There are a ton of remote jobs out there and there are a ton of different things that could’ve stood out about the job description. What exactly spoke to you? Why this remote job and not another one? They’re looking for something that gives them a sense of your motivation to do this job at this company.
Make sure you speak to both of those aspects during your interview. If you’re finding it really hard to come up with something about that job and that company that excites you, that you want to learn, or that you’re looking forward to doing, then maybe that isn’t the right job for you to apply to. You need to be able to articulate exactly why you’re applying and why you’re motivated to work here.
Engagement ties in very closely with motivation. Generally, if you’re truly motivated to work at a company, you will show this engagement naturally. But it’s possible that you don’t, for any number of reasons. It’s also possible that you’re pretty motivated and think the position has potential but that you still need a better impression of how the company works before you can go all-in. Treat the interview as your opportunity to understand whether you want to work at that company or not. Approach it with an open and curious mind.
There are two key ways you can display this engagement and both will be a valuable use of your time, not only in helping you land a job that you want but also in helping you find out if that really is a company you want to work for. The first one is engaging with the company’s product. If they have a free version, use it. If they have a free trial, sign up for it. Check their documentation, look at their website, and find out what their target audience is and how their product works. Does the product resonate with you in any way? Is it useful and valuable for its target audience? Does anything about it make zero sense to you? It’s much more fun to work on a product that you like. It’s great to work on a product that you would use or buy yourself.
Spending the time to do this will show that you aren’t just applying for any old company with any old product. It’ll also always give you something to talk about during the interview. You should definitely try to structure your impressions and build a picture of how the product is intended to work. Going through that should also help you come up with questions around the product that you might want to understand better. All of this is a great opportunity for you.
The second way is by asking questions during the interview. Asking no questions at all can imply two things. Either you aren’t really curious about the company and how they work, which gives a bad impression, or you’re so desperate for a job you’d take any job no matter what the working conditions are like. Neither of these options sends a great signal. You want to show that you’re interested in the job, to show that you care about the company, and to show that you’re also interviewing the company. The interview is your chance to also get to know the people you’ll be working with or reporting to, and to build an impression of whether this is a company you want to work for or not.
Some interviewers will sometimes say that there is such a thing as too many questions and you should be careful to not be too dominant in the interview. This isn’t bad advice but I’ve always felt that it’s ultimately up to the interviewer to moderate the interview and lead the conversation the way they want to. For example, if a candidate interrupts the interview to ask their questions, the interviewer should stop them and say “we’ve accounted some time for questions at the end, please wait until then.” Either way, there is less risk of this happening than there is of the alternative: asking no questions or asking too few questions.
One other point to remember when it comes to asking questions is that the questions you ask do signal the type of topics you’re interested in. If all of your questions are about a timezone limitation or working from a different location, that implies that this is what you’re focused on. It’s good to try to ask a breadth of questions that also signify your interest in the company as well: where’s the company heading, what do they want to achieve, what are they looking for from their new hires. Pick the aspects that you’re interested in and want to know about. Depending on how much time you have available, ask the ones that matter the most to you. The more engaged you are in your interview, the easier it will be for the interviewer to get a sense that you’re motivated and excited by the role you’re interviewing for.
Never show up for an interview unprepared. It’s almost impossible to do all of the above reliably if you don’t properly prepare for the interview. Preparing for an interview doesn’t mean that you look at giant lists of interview questions and rehearse answers to them. Here are some tips to get started:
- Go over the job description. Identify the skills and the experience they’re looking for. Then come up with some scenarios from your career where you’ve displayed these skills. Their questions will likely target these skills somehow, so being prepared will reduce the amount of time you need to spend thinking.
- Research the company. If you didn’t do so before writing your application, you definitely need to do it before an interview. Try to build an impression in your mind of what the company is like based on the information you have available. Come up with questions related to those, so you can either confirm or correct your impression.
- Play around with the product. Build yourself an understanding of how it’s meant to work. Try to identify the aspects of it that you think are fun or interesting, and the ones that don’t make sense to you.
- Think long and hard about your motivation. Why are you applying for this job? What appeals to you about this company? What do you want to learn from this job?
- Go through your CV and pick out the most relevant experience that you want to talk about. It happens very often that people go through their entire CV in an interview – it’s much better to focus on the aspects that tie into the job you’re applying for.
Try not to keep too detailed notes about these points. It makes sense to write down the questions that you want to ask but you don’t want to get caught up in looking at notes during the interview itself. The conversation should flow naturally and easily. You want to be relaxed and comfortable. None of your preparation is about hitting certain points to sell yourself. It’s rather about making sure that you’re equipped to sell yourself to the best of your ability because you’ve already thought about the most essential points beforehand.
You definitely improve your skills here with practice. The more interviews you do, the more comfortable you’ll get with the format of an interview and the types of questions that people ask. One of the things that will always be valuable is going over the interview for yourself afterwards and trying to figure out how you performed. Think about which questions you answered well, which questions maybe didn’t go so well and try to prepare better answers for them in future. Whether you get the job or not, getting through to the interview stage is never a wasted experience. It can always help you improve and the experience of going through it and learning from it will set you up for success in future.
A lot of the questions that get asked in interviews are pretty similar. At the very least, they will usually target similar things. There’s a fine line between rehearsing and having a clearly formulated and coherent perspective that you’ve thought about. You’re aiming for the second. When your answers are authentic and honest, they’ll basically always come across as the second. Some people will recommend that you apply for jobs even when you aren’t looking for any, just to stay used to it. You can judge for yourself if you need that much practice or if some of the lessons that you learn stick for a longer period of time. If you don’t have the opportunity to do a proper interview, it does help to have a friend ask you questions and to practice that way. You don’t want to learn what you’re going to say by heart but having to say it a few times makes it more fluent.
Next time you’re looking for a job, try to make sure you touch on all of these points in some way. Whether you get the job or not, they will dramatically improve your chances. Good luck with the search!