How to Ace an Interview: A Step-by-Step Process

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Ultimately, getting the job you want is going to come down to acing your job interview. And that can be good and bad. It’s bad in that many people hate interviewing and get extremely nervous for the whole process. But it’s good because there is often a pretty low bar for delivering a good interview. Because so many people are nervous and don’t like interviewing, if you get the basics right, you can go a long way. So within this article, based upon my ten years of working experience, and having interviewed others and been interviewed multiple times myself, I’m going to share my process and the best practices for how to ace an interview. Let’s get started.

Know Your Message

The place that I recommend that you start when preparing for your interview is to know your message. What I mean by that, is you have a well formulated message that you want to deliver as to why you are the right person for the job, based upon the job description. And then from the place of knowing your high-level message, you can then come into the interview with talking points, stories, and data to support your overall theme about why you’re the right fit for the job. In far too many interviews that I’ve been a part of, interviewees bounce all over the place, answering questions with no intentionality in mind. They respond to your questions, yes, but their answers do not tell a story of why their background uniquely positions them to succeed in the role. The advantage of formulating that overall message in advance is that you come prepared to continuously steer the conversation in such a way to highlight your unique strengths relative to the role. You’ve thought through why you’re a fit, why you may not be a fit, and are intentionally responding to things in such a way to position yourself in the best possible light, relative to what the company is looking for. Here are some examples of what different jobs you may be applying for, a relevant message that you could have for each, and data/stories that you’ll want to tell to support that message.

Job Title #1:

Entry-level Business Development Representative

Type of Job:

Sales

Responsibilities:

Book sales meetings for more senior sales representatives

Your Background:

Recent college graduate with limited work experience

Your Message For Why You Would Be a Great Fit:

Even though you don’t have formal work experience, you’ve demonstrated that that you can sell in a non work context

A Story Supporting Your Message:

In college, I was the recruiting chair for my fraternity. In that role, I was responsible for finding and convincing other studies why joining the fraternity would be a great experience for that. In fact, I helped to recruit one of my fraternity’s bigger classes, and we brought in over twenty guys to join the house.

Job Title #2:

Content Marketing Manager

Type of Job:

Marketing

Responsibilities:

Writing blog posts, writing guides, and editing marketing content.

Your Background:

Community college creative writing professor

Your Message For Why You Would Be a Great Fit:

You are an excellent writer that teaches how to write well for a living

Stories and Data Supporting Your Message:

While I don’t have a background in marketing, specifically, I have an excellent background in writing and story-telling. I’ve written numerous short stories over the years, and have taught hundreds of students how to write well. That story telling ability can help bring your marketing content to life, and make it a fun and compelling read for your audience.

Those examples are pretty short and high-level, but the point is that you’ll want to take the time to craft an overall theme and story as to why you’re a great fit for the role that fits the context of the job description and your own personal background.

Research the Company

The next thing that you need to do to be ready to ace an interview is to research the company in advance of the interview. In my experience, you are highly likely to be asked some sort of question regarding what you know about the company. And more than trying to assess your actual knowledge about the company or the industry, the interviewer is looking to understand if you took the time to do your research to prepare for the meeting. And if you want to ace an interview, you better have done your research. Here are the three big things that you’ll want to know coming into the interview:

Understand What The Company Does

The most important thing to have researched about a company going into an interview is what it actually does. Now, you don’t need to understand this in detail…particularly if you’re working for a technology company or a company that it’s a niche industry. But, you do have to know some of the key lingo to describe the company, and be able to articulate at a high-level what the company does. You’ll also need to understand what the company does to the point where you can ask good clarifying questions about the company’s product and services.

Understand The Company History

Understanding what the company does is an absolute must, and understanding some details about the company history is how to demonstrate the next level of preparation. What I mean here is that you’ll want to know who the founder is, understand details like if that person started the company out of his or her garage, when it was started, etc. This is all the more important if you’re talking to an early stage startup and will be interviewing with the founder his/her self. Typically, the founder is deeply passionate about the company, and the more knowledge you can show about the founding company, the more goodwill you can engender.

Understand The Competition

Understanding the competition is the cherry on top, and it may be overkill in some cases, but I’ve known hiring managers to whom this was very important. I also personally have asked about a company’s competitors and had not researched it. Burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice…well, you know the saying. Anyway, understanding some of the key competitors in the industry, and proactively bringing them up within your interview, is a great way to show next level preparation for your interview. And here’s the thing about this question, if you don’t know the competition, you can’t give a generic answer here and try to dance around it. You either know it or you don’t. So, when in doubt, come prepared. You may not be specifically asked about the competition, but if you bring it up on your own, I promise you that level of preparation will go noticed and help you to excel in your interview.

Research Who Is Interviewing You

Another important part of preparing to ace an interview is researching the people that you’ll be talking to. LinkedIn is going to be your best source here. Basically, what you’ll be looking for is talking points with the interviewer…things that you share in common or interesting facts about them that you can discuss in the interview. Here are some good places to start:

  • Where they live
  • Where they went to school
  • Previously places that they’ve worked
  • How long they’ve been with the company

Going into the interview knowing those things does two things — first, it gives you something not related to work to talk about to build some personal rapport. Second, it shows that you prepared for the interview by doing some homework about the interviewer. Both of those things are going to help you within your interview. Generally, you’ll want to ask them about one of the interesting facts that you found about them at the start of the interview when you’re first beginning to chat with one another.

One other comment here — be somewhat cautious about bringing up a mutual connection that you may find on LinkedIn. You don’t know the extent to which the interviewer actually knows your mutual connection, and you don’t know the interviewers experience with them. I’ve found bringing up mutual personal connections can sometimes lead to an awkward dead end in the conversation.

Be Prepared for Common Questions

You can’t write a post about acing an interview without referencing common questions that are likely to be asked in an interview, right? Here is a good post with a robust list of questions that you’re likely to be asked in an interview. I’ve listed a smaller set of the most common ones that I’ve been asked in my experience below, along with recommended answers. Take a look!

Tell Me About Yourself

Tell me about yourself is the question that you’re most likely to be asked in any interview so you need to be ready for it. And while many people get really nervous for this question in particular, it’s a great opportunity because it’s an open ended question that provides the most general opportunity for you to make your pitch about why you’re the right fit for the role. Basically, you’ll want to leverage the preparation that you did in the “know your message” portion of your preparation, and consolidate it down into a tight summary that can be used to answer this question. You’ll want to craft a story about yourself and your background that builds the narrative of why you’re a great fit for the role. This question represents your best chance to do it. Oh, and I want to emphasize that this should not be an overall narrative about all of your personal and professional background. Keep it tight and focused on your message. I once interviewed someone who took a half hour to answer this question…and our interview was a half hour. We did not hire him.

Walk Me Through Your Resume

This question is a variation of “tell me about yourself” and some people will ask it in place of that question. My guidance for how to effectively answer this question is very similar to how to answer tell me about yourself — you need to be able walk through your professional background, including brief comments on each role that you’ve listed on your resume, and craft those experiences together into a tight narrative about why that positions you as a great candidate for the role to which you’re applying.

Why Are You Looking for a New Position / Looking to Leave Your Role?

This is another question that you’re extremely likely to hear and, even if your real answer is because you hate your boss, work in a toxic environment, etc., I recommend that you keep your answer focused on why you’re applying for the role that you’re interviewing for, specifically. There are a couple of reasons for that recommendation. First, even if you do truly work in a toxic environment, the people that are interviewing you are not going to have the context to understand you or the environment that you’re in. Thus, the question will emerge — is the environment toxic, or is the interviewee actually the one who is toxic? Unfortunately, I’ve seen many cases where a difficult individual will blame their environment, when it really is them that is difficult. Secondly, a company will want to hear that you’re excited about the role that you’re interviewing for. So keep it focused on that, and the specifics of what attracted you to that position, specifically.

Why Is There a Gap in Your Resume?

If you have a gap in your resume between work experience, you’ll need to come prepared to address that. My best advice here is to answer honestly. If you were laid off or fired, explain what happened, take accountability for your role in that, discuss what you learned, and how it makes you better for this opportunity.

What Interested You In This Role?

If you “know your message,” this question provides another good open ended opportunity for why you would be a fit for the role. Here, I’d recommend that you get into specifics as much as possible. Come ready to discuss specific job responsibilities that excite you, and speak to your experience in those areas and how that experience sets you up for success here. Additionally, this is a good opportunity to show that you’ve done your homework and speak to some of the unique and special things that attracted you to the company.

What Are You Looking for in a Team and Culture?

For this question, you can go in a lot of different directions, and I definitely recommend answering honestly as to the type of culture that you enjoy and thrive in the most (autonomous, collaborative, creative, etc.). However, two big pieces of advice here — first, is to do some homework to see if you can understand the company’s stated values in advance of the call. In many cases, they’ll list them on the about section of the site. If you go through them in advance, you can find the ones that resonate with you the most and highlight those in your answers. That will help you to communicate the aspects of a culture that are important to you, but also align with things that you need are important to the company. Secondly, I recommend avoiding topics like flexible work schedules, remote work (if it’s a local company), etc. at this point. If those are important to you, you’ll want to discuss those, but that comes in the offer negotiation phase. At this stage, bringing up that you want a flexible work schedule as one of your most important things could bring up red flags that your priority is finding a role that suits your specific desires, rather than balancing that with service of the organization.

Why Are You a Good Fit For This Role?

If you know your message going into the interview, you should be ready to nail this question.

Tell Me About Your Experience with X?

If an interviewer asks you this question, that will tell you one of two things — that it’s an important skill for the job and/or that it’s a skill you’ll need as a part of the job that they don’t see on your resume. As you’re preparing for the interview, you’ll want to be able to speak to your experience with all of the major job requirements. If you don’t have experience in a specific area, you’ll obviously need to be honest about that, but you’ll want to be ready to speak to how related experience will enable you to learn that skill quickly. One other hint as you’re prepping to talk about specific skills and experience — skill and experience requirements are typically listed in hierarchical order on a job description. The time that you put into preparing for how to answer questions about specific skills can roughly be based upon that priority.

Tell Me About X on Your Resume?

Similar to the last question, your interviewer may ask you about a specific line item on your resume and want more detail. Going into the interview, it probably goes without saying that you need to know your resume well and be able to speak in more detail to everything you have on there.

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

This can be a tough one to answer, because many people may not know. Or, if you do know, it may not necessarily be the type of answer that a company wants to hear. For example, maybe you’d like to have kids and be a stay at home parent in five year. Great for you, but probably not a helpful answer for the purposes of getting the job. My high-level guidance here would be to answer honestly, but in a way that is going to position you well for the job. Typical things that a company will want to hear is that you’d be looking to grow into a manager, or continue to focus on work that is aligned with the job description.

How Do You Like to be Managed?

Generally, you’ll be asked this question by the hiring manager and they’ll be looking to understand if the way you like to work is a good fit with their management style. While all managers have different styles, I can tell you that pretty much every manager will appreciate somebody who is proactive, takes ownership of their role, is able to take direction and operate autonomously from there, and works diligently to achieve their goals. Craft your answer accordingly.

What Do You Like to Do Outside of Work?

This is a fun question that enables an interviewer or interview team to get to know you a bit personally. Answer this one honestly, but there are two things that I would avoid here — any interests you have that some may consider controversial, and any answers that may make it seem like you don’t have any interests or hobbies. Regarding potentially controversial interests, in general I’d say avoid sharing things that are the center of any level of political debate around them (i.e., shooting guns, advocating for political issues), or things may be illegal in some places. For my latter point, my biggest advice is to avoid saying things like “I don’t know, I watch a lot of Netflix.” That may be true, and it’s a perfectly fine thing to do, but it’s not interesting, and you may be perceived as a couch potato, which is not ideal when looking for a job. Share a unique interest or hobby and you’ll be fine here.

What Are Your Salary Expectations?

This is always an awkward one and, personally, my least favorite part of the interview. My high level guidance is to come in with a salary range that you’re looking for and always share a number on the high end. There will be a salary negotiation process when you get an offer, and let me say that you shouldn’t expect the company to give you an offer above the number you share…so start high and then you can decide if you’re willing to accept an offer lower than that when the time comes.

Practice Answering Each Question

Once you’ve prepared for common questions, the next thing that you’ll want to do to prepare to ace your interview is to practice your answers for each common question. You may think that this goes without saying, but I’ve sat through enough interviews where it’s clear that folks had not practiced in advance at all that I need to state and stress…you need to practice your answers before the interview. The most basic thing that you can do is just practice the answers by saying them out loud. Just actually going through the process of taking what is in your head and in your notes and articulating them in an actual verbal answer will work wonders. If you want to go to the next level in your preparation, you can practice your answers in front of a mirror, or with a friend or partner. Alternatively, I think the best way to practice your answers is to set up a Zoom call for yourself and record it. It may be painful to watch yourself answer questions, but seeing yourself and dealing with that acute pain is the best way to improve yourself. So watch how you answer the questions, improve what you don’t like, and practice again until you feel like you’re prepared enough to ace your interview.

Prepare Your Questions for the Interviewers

In pretty much every interview, you’re going to get the chance to ask the interviewers questions. And if you don’t get that opportunity, that’s probably a sign that you didn’t get the job. And this is actually a critically important part of the process, because this provides a chance for you to learn more about the company, role, and team, and because it also provides another chance to show your level of preparation and thoughtfulness by asking good questions. So, here are some high-level recommendations about preparing your questions to ace an interview:

Good Questions to Ask:

  • What do you expect a typical day will look like for this role?
    This is a pretty basic question, but an important one. In general, job descriptions are fairly broad and open ended, and it can be difficult to truly understand the specifics of what you’ll be doing from the job description along. So to make sure the position is a fit for you, I think you’ll want to learn as many specifics as possible about the role and this question is a good place to start.
  • If you were to look back in one year, and say that this was a great hire, what would have happened?
    This is my favorite question to ask of an interviewer. It is great for a variety of reasons. First, from your perspective, it provides wonderful insight into the most important things that you need to deliver on as a part of this role. Out of the interview team’s answers emerge their most important measurements of success, the highest priority roles and responsibilities, and the way that they would want you to operate within the team. In addition, you’ll see if they envision this role evolving into something broader over time, and where they’d ideally like to see it go. Lastly, if you’re interviewing with multiple individuals at a company, and you ask all of them this question, you can get a sense of if there is alignment on this role. If you receive multiple different answers here, there could be a red flag that there’s not clarity on what the company expects out of this role. Additionally, from the company’s perspective, it shows that you can care about delivering on their most important expectations, and that you’re trying to assess what those are up front.
  • What are your favorite and least favorite things about working here?
    Similar to the first question, this one is also pretty basic, but it helps to get some insight into the company culture. Additionally, based upon the way that you’re asking it, you’re working to get specifics into things that are great and not so great about working there. And to reiterate, you want to get as many specifics as you can about the company, team, and role out of your questions.

Bad Questions to Ask

There are two high-level things that I would recommend that you avoid in asking your questions — first, questions about the extent to which the company will accommodate your personal work preferences and, second, anything that’s off the wall.

Regarding the first point on questions about the company accommodating you, I generally recommend holding on questions about flex work schedule, remote work (if it’s a local company), and things of that nature until the job offer/negotiation process. In general, it’s important to remember that your goal is to convince the company why you’re a good fit. Yes, you want to ensure that the company is a good fit for you too, but you don’t want to approach it in such a way that the company feels like it has to accommodate you to a larger extent than other candidates…particularly early in the interview process. Secondly, avoid any unusual or off the wall questions. I was once part of a group interview where we were all asked what our spirit animal was. That person did not get the job and we still joke about how odd that was to this day.

Send a Thank You Note

My last piece of advice to help you ace an interview is send a thank you note to everyone that you interviewed within 24 hours of the interview. Personalize your thank you note to each person and make it relevant based upon what you discussed, including any personal commonalities that you shared. And remember, this is your last opportunity to sell yourself, so reiterate why you would be a good fit for the role. As far as the thank you note format, I think an email is actually the best way to go. Job offer and advancement decisions can be made pretty quickly, and you don’t want to risk a thank you note not arriving by snail mail before that discussion takes place.

Conclusion

Interviews can be stressful and, frankly, the interview process is one that many people don’t enjoy. But with the right level of preparation you can come ready to ace your next interview. Start from the foundation of knowing your message for why you’re a great fit from the role. From there, have that message cascade down into how you’re answering the different questions to paint a picture as to why you’re a fit. Practice your answers, research who is interviewing you, and come ready with good questions, and you’ll be well prepared to ace your interview.

About the author

Dan Slocum

Dan is the founder of Best Fit Work and is a business professional with over 10 years of experience. He has been a hiring and people manager on multiple occasions, and has also gone through the hiring process himself at a variety of different companies. Dan serves as a career counselor on the side. He writes to share content, tools, and resources to help people discover and thrive in their own best fit work.

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