Job Hunting Summer School: Skills for Interviewing
This is part four of a five-part series. Be sure to check out the first three posts on resume writing, crafting your cover letter, and networking, as well as the final post on negotiating your salary.
While the prep required to get an interview can be tedious, the interview itself can be downright terrifying. There aren’t many of us who are bursting with confidence as we wait for an interview to start, and that could be due to a few reasons. One, you’ve put in a lot of effort to get to this point, so walking into that room for a face-to-face can feel like the championship round. Or the final lap. Or even the boss battle.
We’re human. We’re not meant for one tiny meeting to dictate our life. Part of this means loosening your mindset around the interview and while you want to properly prepare, you want to also make sure you stay out of your head!
Another reason interviews can cause stress is that while they last for about 45 minutes, 33% of hiring managers know within the first 90 seconds if you’re the person they want to hire. That’s not a lot of time to make a good first impression, so being prepared right out of the gate is essential.
Being ready for an interview is part practice and part energy management, and one leads to the other. Here’s what I mean: All other things being equal, a yea or a nay from a hiring manager oftentimes comes down to how well you can handle yourself when you walk into the room. And one of the ways to enter with aplomb is to anticipate and rehearse some of the tough questions that you know they’ll probably ask.
Having those answers in your pocket will lead to certainty and confidence, which will allow you to focus on remaining calm and staying present with the interviewer vs. scrambling to come up with answers on the fly. (Or worse? Freezing on the spot.)
Here’s a look at three of the most commonly asked interview questions, along with formulas and real-world examples for how to answer each one.
Big Question 1: Tell me about yourself
This is a common interview opener, but it comes in many different disguises. It might be presented as: What got you to reach out to me? How did you find me? Or What got you interested in this position?
No matter how it’s asked, the “tell me about yourself” question is an invitation to share something called an elevator pitch, a short statement designed to paint a picture of who you are and where you’re headed in your career. You won’t have a lot of time until one of you gets off at your floor, so what you say has to be right to the point, impactful, and memorable.
Developing Your Elevator Pitch
There are times when elevator pitches need to be short and sweet, but during interviews or networking conversations, it’s okay to go deeper. Remember, an elevator pitch doesn’t live in an email; it lives in conversations. Regardless of how much time you have, however, a strong elevator pitch has four key ingredients:
Your Story—but Not Your Timeline
Most people tell their story in chronological order, but let me be frank: That’s boring and no one will remember it. A far more powerful way to tell your story is to really paint a picture of who you are, because people perk up when they feel like you’re there for a purpose vs. just another job.
Your story can be approached in two ways. The first is an anecdote from your childhood that explains why you’re interested in the position you’re interviewing for. This is powerful because it tells the hiring manager that your career goals are rooted in something deep and lifelong, and that you’ve been on a path designed to bring you right to the interview chair you’re sitting in. It also gets the interviewer invested in who you are and makes them excited to be a part of your journey.
Here’s a real-world example: When I was at the Pentagon for an interview and the interviewer said “Tell me about yourself,” I spoke about growing up in a house where the news was always on, exposing me to the world’s big events and key players from a young age. It’s what led me to pursue political science in college, and eventually to apply for the job.
The other approach to your story is what I call the defining moment, and it’s a better choice if you’re looking to make a career transition or if there’s nothing in your childhood you can easily note that led to your professional interests.
Continuing with my personal example, when I made the switch from working at the Pentagon to a career coach, it may have seemed random to some hiring managers—the two don’t exactly correlate. When asked about this, I told them about how I was running a Pentagon program at age 23 when I realized that I was both the youngest person and the only woman in the room. The inequality was glaring, so I started hosting coffee groups on the topic of career success for millennials. Fast-forward a few years, and these groups evolved into a full coaching practice.
To find your story, take a trip down memory lane. Are you a computer scientist who took apart your first computer at age 5? Did you doodle a lot in class before realizing you wanted to be an artist? Or did you have a defining moment and revelation about your life’s goals after your corporation volunteered for a nonprofit? People are compelled by these stories because they paint a picture of why you’re heading where you’re heading, and what you’re doing to get there.
Your (Off the) Cuff
The second piece of the elevator pitch formula is your cuff, a quick and off-the-cuff statement that gives you the opportunity to either validate your strengths or address a looming concern that you anticipate the interviewer has.
Many people go into a job interview feeling confident about 99% of their application, but there’s just that one thing that might cause concern. It might be a huge gap in their resume, or a big industry transition, or having only just started their current job. If there’s something that causes a candidate to hesitate when they apply for the job, it’s likely that the hiring manager will share those concerns.
If this sounds like you, the cuff is your chance to address any doubts. Why? Because a lot of interviewers do harbor some sort of doubt about a candidate, but they don’t always give them the dignity of asking the question and allowing it to be aired out.
Here are a few examples for explaining a gap on a resume:
I left the workforce to travel the world, and I’m really glad to be back with all of this clarity on what I want to do next in my career.
I spent a couple of years working in research, but the ability to connect with people was starkly missing for me. That’s what brought me to make a transition to marketing and I’m so excited.
A few things to note: If your response to a concern is personal, tread softly. Get in, get it over with, and get out. For example: I’m so excited to be back in the workforce, as I had a health issue that was holding me back in the past. It’s no longer an issue, though.
If you feel as though your application is squeaky clean, however, and the interviewer would see your resume as a straightforward fit for the role, then your cuff is the spot where you play big and drop a humble brag. Share something that strengthens your status as a candidate, like graduating from a top college, speaking a foreign language, or receiving an award.
Here’s an example: I’m very excited to be named a Power 30 Under 30 leader because it’s given me an incredible network of people that I can bring to the table for my next job.
Just like addressing a concern, the humble brag should be quick, succinct, and relevant to the position you want to land. And if you just don’t feel comfortable promoting yourself, approach it from a place of gratitude: “I’m so grateful that…” It cuts right through the bragging energy and is a gentle way to talk about your accomplishments.
Whether it’s to address a concern or a humble brag, just remember that it’s called a cuff because it should be quick and off-the-cuff. Spending too much time on either topic can get awkward on both sides. (If you ask me what I was up to this morning, for example, and I tell you that I had breakfast with Oprah, well, that’s pretty interesting. But if I went on and on, it would get old quick.)
The third part of the elevator pitch is your skill. Translated, this means the one thing you think or know that the interviewer wants to hear that you can do. If you’re applying for an event-related job, for example, it’s key to tell them that you’re an incredibly detail-oriented planner. If you’re interested in a research job, maybe it could be your ability to identify patterns in data.
The most powerful way to present your most important skill is via testimonial, which means relating it through the voice of someone else.
Here’s an example: A boss of mine always used to tell me that I had a unique ability to identify patterns in data. Think of it as “Don’t take my word for it.”
Like your story, this part also requires some reminiscing to track down a memory or someone complimenting you on a skill. But to be most effective, your testimonial shouldn’t come from just anyone. Ideally, you’ll be able to quote a direct boss. If not, you can reference a colleague, someone you went to school with or a professor, as long as they’re in an authority position to evaluate your work. The weakest testimonials are from family members or friends. (After all, your mom is kind of obligated to tell you that you’re a great writer.)
Your Goal Statement
Stating your goal is a strong way to close your elevator pitch, and there are two different types of goals you can share. If you’re networking, the goal is to get the person to help you out. And if you’re interviewing, your goal is to get the job offer.
This might seem obvious, but it’s important to let the interviewer know that you really want to work specifically for their company. Think of it like dating—no one wants to date the person who’s willing to go out with whoever will have them. They want to find the person who really thinks they’re special.
That said, here’s one way to start off your goal statement: I’m particularly excited about this opportunity because… and finish it by sharing that their mission statement resonates with your core values, or that you’re impressed with their corporate responsibility, or their client roster, or their press coverage. Whatever it is, make it clear that you want to work for them—not their competitor, not anyone else. A little flattery goes a long way, and this can really put you at the top of the candidate list.
When you put it all together—your story, your cuff, your skill and your goal—and you have a succinct, impactful elevator pitch that’s ready when the question comes. In order to make it work, though, yours needs to be so practiced and so ingrained into your psyche that it just flows out of your mouth without any effort. One way to make this happen is to write it down, memorize it, then repeat it until you can say it in your sleep.
The “Tell me about yourself” question is usually one of the first, which means it happens during those all-important, initial 90 seconds. When you can give yourself the gift of a well-rehearsed answer, you create a great start to your interview.
Big Question 2: What’s your biggest weakness?
Ugh. Raise your hand if you hate this question. It feels like such a trap, and who wants to outright tell an interviewer what they’re not good at? When someone asks this question, they’re looking for how you view yourself, your self-awareness, your ability to be candid, and your grace under pressure. It comes back to the energy that I discussed earlier: How much does the question make you squirm?
We all have our weaknesses, and they’re all personal. But the biggest call-out with this question is that the answer should never (ever) be something along the lines of “I’m a perfectionist, and I never stop working until I get everything right.” That’s not a weakness, and an employer is going to see right through it.
Here are five key parts to answering this stress-inducing question, along with some practical examples:
• Pick a weakness that you’ve been working on. For example, public speaking is something that’s likely to cause anxiety for lots of people.
• Talk about how it used to be a weakness: In the past, public speaking was a huge challenge for me. I’d sweat. I’d get incredibly nervous when I knew that I had to stand and speak in front of a crowd.
• Then, share what you’ve been doing to work on it: Since I knew this was a challenge, I signed up for public speaking classes.
• Next, show how you’re making progress: Thanks to these classes I have to admit, public speaking is actually something I’m learning to enjoy.
• Finally, drop a humble brag about how your efforts have been noticed: I’m proud to say that my colleagues now tell me I’m one of the best public speakers on the team. They now put me in front of the client, and that means a lot to me. (Bonus points: This one also includes a testimonial and gratitude.)
Big Question 3: Tell me about a time when you failed
Or, “Tell me about a time when….” followed by anything. Like many other interview questions are likely to be, this one is situational. The interviewer is looking for honesty, problem-solving skills and humility, so make sure that your answer includes three elements: What the situation was, how you handled it, and what the result was.
Regardless of your answer, however, the most important element is your energy and how composed you are when answering. When sharing the problem itself, be brief (just like the cuff of an elevator pitch) and spend the majority of time on this answer talking about the solution you came up with and how you’re a better employee because of it. Never share negativity, and approach it from a neutral, reflective energy. Finally, always end on a positive note.
Practice Makes Perfect
Generally speaking, one great way to prepare for an interview is to know your resume well enough to be comfortable when someone asks you for a walk-through. Take some time to think about what you want to convey about each job, especially as it relates to the next position you want.
Come prepared with at least one key accomplishment or high-impact contribution for each job so they’re top-of-mind when you’re talking about them. The more you know, and the more you prepare leading up to an interview, the less likely you are to lose your composure if a curveball question is thrown your way.
Bottom line? Practice creates certainty… And certainty breeds confidence.
Do the prep and you’ll be ready.
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