Open Thread: What is Your Best Interview Advice?

The Best Interview Advice | CorporetteHere’s a question for the readers today: what is the best piece of interview advice you’ve ever received?  (Or: What’s the best tip for interviewing you learned the hard way?)  As millions of job-seekers flood career fairs at business schools and law schools, this seems an apt time to talk about it. (Pictured: Will Work for Cheese, originally uploaded to Flickr by walknboston.)

For my $.02, the best interview advice that I got was to figure out what wasn’t on your resume, but is a great employee trait.  Are you a great team player?  Extremely creative?  Can you think outside the box but in a practical way?  Lovely — now try to remember stories from your past that illustrate those qualities.  Try to do this with two or three traits (and memories that illustrate those traits).  I wouldn’t advise you to rehearse these stories — you never want to sound rehearsed in an interview — but you may want to spend 5 minutes and bang out an email to yourself putting the memory to words.   Not only does this a) boost your confidence, but b) it gives you a go-to story if you get asked one of those odd questions that interviewers sometimes throw at you.

Ok, readers — what’s your best interview advice?

Check out all of our old interviewing posts here.

Comments

  1. Blonde Lawyer :

    There are only so many ways to ask the same questions. I would have ideas of what you would say to the most common interview questions. You can then tailor those answers to fit whatever questions they throw at you. Remember to have a criticism of yourself prepared that you can spin positive without sounding cliche like “I work too much.” Mine was something along the lines of “I can be defensive when criticisized even though I really appreciate constructive criticism. On the spot, I tend to try to explain why I did something my way and I am working on showing appreciation for the criticism rather than debating a moot point.”

    • I did the same thing Blonde Lawyer suggested, completely accidentally, of course. And even worse it was a phone interview so I couldn’t really judge their reactions.
      They asked what I think is a flaw about myself and I stumbled onto the answer that unless I trust the abilities of someone, I have difficulty not being in control of a project. After I said it I figured that I had just blown my shot and made myself sound like a control-freak, but they really liked it. Showed that I would step up to the plate if a project wasn’t going well.

      In one of my interviews one of the last questions I was asked was “What is your favourite colour and why?” I doubt they were going to judge my choice, but it totally threw me off balance and really made me be myself. If I’m ever in a position to interview someone I will definitely use that trick, ask something mundane and harmless but completely unexpected.
      Be yourself, I like to chat up my interviewers and will often lead them away from the typical interview format and just have conversations.

      • Chicago S :

        My favorite last question when I am interviewing someone is why did you decide to go into accounting (I usually interview accountants).

      • In my current job, the last question was “What is the last book you read for fun and what did you think of it?”

  2. If you’ve gotten to the interview, they’re no longer really interested in your skills. Clearly, you’re qualified for the job. Now, you have to convince them why they should hire YOU, why they can’t live one more day without YOU on their team. It’s about you, as a person and as an employee, not the fact that you can execute the tasks of the job.

    • This isn’t necessarily true in engineering or the sciences. I’ve been on interviews where I was grilled on my technical expertise, and I seriously doubted the interviewer had the skills necessary to judge whether I would be a good employee!

      But I agree that in many cases, you’ve passed a high bar to make it to the interview stage and that’s good to remember and give yourself confidence face to face.

      • I agree with Marcy and Louise. Your resume is the marketing tool, and usually by the time you’ve reached a face-to-face, your skills have been established, with some notable exceptions. So, the interview is your ‘sales pitch’. What’s the intangible something that make you a great addition to the team?

  3. This is timely because I have an interview for the VA position I mentioned in the weekend thread last week this afternoon!

    Best advice I ever got was from my mom – when asked if you have any questions – is to ask what the organization/interviewers/etc. is most proud of. If there is a project or accomplishment that really stands out.

    I’ve used it for all my interviews and always get the “what a good question” line…. it’s nice because gives the interviewers a chance to brag about themselves or their org. and usually you can find some way to relate to their story (“I’ve done similar project X.” “How interesting it seems similar to my experience with Y.”) and that way you can tie yourself to something they see as a big accomplishment. I think it also helps you to stand out because it redirects the normal give and take that happens during an interview.

    • That is an excellent idea! I’m definitely going to use that in my next interview.

      My brother gave me some good advice a few years ago when I was interviewing for my first “real” job out of college. He suggested closing the interview by asking the interviewer if there is anything else s/he needs to know about why s/he should hire you. I don’t remember exactly how I phrased it, but it worked nicely and showed confidence and desire for the position.

    • I just wanted to thank you for this advice! I just had an interview with a firm and asked what the firm was most proud of. The interviewer stared at me for a second, told me that was the best question he’d heard in 3 years, wrote it down, and told me he’d remember me because of it. If they call me back, I owe it to you!

  4. Be willing to say “I don’t know.” If you don’t know the answer to a question, or are unfamiliar with the subject. Be honest. Tell them that you cannot speak authoritatively on the subject, but that you are equipped and prepared to learn about it should the need arise. Faking your way through an answer is rarely successful.

    I got my first job for just this reason, and now that I’ve been on the other side of the table a few times, I know I prefer candidates who know their own limitations than those who will go off half cocked with no knowledge or direction.

    • When asked if I had expertise in an area that I did not have expertise in, I simply said “Not yet, but in this role working 60 hours a week I will definitely get there quickly.”

  5. I’ll agree with Marcy. Having sat on the hiring committee for my firm this past go around about 70% was personality and fit the rest was whether we could see them handling the actual work. Some people, even though they can tell us all day that they want to litigate just won’t be able to handle the day to day and it shows.

  6. Chicago K :

    The best advice I’ve received is not to forget you are interviewing them to see if the job is really a good fit for you. It can be easy, especially in this economy, to do whatever it takes to spin yourself/sell yourself/etc and land the job, only to find out it’s not at all what you want to do, who you want to work with, or that you aren’t even comfortable with the job duties – not that you CAN’T do them, just that it’s not something you feel comfortable doing given your experience or personality.

    As an example, when I was 23 I landed myself a management position, only to be terrified of having to supervise people who were old enough to be my grandparents! It wasn’t that I didn’t know the right things to say or do to manage a team, it’s just that I didn’t have the confidence/experience/personality to really feel comfortable and enjoy doing it.

    In addition to this, I find that trying to reach a partnership on what you can do for them/what they can do for you presents your in the best light. So does asking questions so you have a clear undesrtanding of the job, the company, etc. Do your homework and get as much of this answered as you can up front.

  7. Know your audience and tailor your answers to them! Over-prepare by researching and having a billion answers ready to the common questions (and these are easy to find online). And most importantly, be yourself :-)

    • Anonymous :

      I couldn’t disagree more, personally.
      You research your answers online? Do you mean research the company or search “common interview questions and answers”? I would be terrified of sounding generic, rehearsed, and not like myself at all.
      When I rehearse I think of what the employer will want to hear, not of how I would honestly answer.

      Now, researching the company is definitely something I do.

      • Blonde Lawyer :

        I think she means research commonly asked questions.

        • Yes, research the “top 50″ most common interview questions or something similar. I come up with my own answers, I promise! I try to relate it back to an event that happened to make it personal. I don’t sound generic and rehersed but rather I sound prepared and it really helps with the nerves if you get a few of the easy questions out of the way and you come across as concise and at ease.

          • Anonymous :

            I like to read sample interview questions too because in all the interviews I’ve ever been on, they always ask questions that start with “tell about a time you……”. To me, it would be a whole lot less stressful to try to remember a few good stories ahead of time.

  8. Know which version of your resume you sent and have copies with you. If available, have a copy of the job description with you. Know WHY you applied for this particular job.

  9. Chicago K :

    Question along these lines –

    How should one handle the answer of, “why are you leaving your current position?” I have heard the lines of “job expansion” “no longer a good fit” and the likes, but if you are applying for a more senior level/better compensated job doing basically what you do today, how do you phrase that?

    • For a more senior level job, I think it’s fine to say that you are looking to advance in your career, and that you want the increased responsibility and experience.

      You might have to be more creative if it’s just a pay raise. I actually wouldn’t mind saying that I’m looking for a more advantageous compensation package; at least they know I am honest and that they shouldn’t lowball me. Is there a reason the pay is better? Maybe it’s a bigger company with more prestige, or more responsibility, or maybe they are in a better financial position than the lower-paying company. Those are all things you could point out.

      • Chicago K :

        No reason the pay would be better other than applying for more senior level titles.

        You know how it is in the corporate world, you work somewhere for say 10 years, and get promoted maybe 3 or 4 times, yet if you apply externally to a different company your 10 years of experience puts you in a much more senior position than what you were able to formally have via promotions – even if the job duties/responsibilites are the same.

      • It’s never just about a pay raise. Compensation (in all its various forms) is not a prime factor in job satisfaction, it’s only when the other elements are not met that compensation becomes more important. So, if you’re not paid enough for what you do, your reason for leaving has very little to do with money.

    • surrounded by lawyers :

      I’d frame it in terms of wanting/being ready for more responsibility, greater challenges, more contact with or exposure to X. Wanting to be more senior and get a better salary are universal, and they already know why you would want those things. But if you can get specific about what your last position didn’t quite allow you to do (without being negative, of course), and how it has prepared you, you will make it look like the natural next step to be moving “up.” Good luck!

    • anon - chi :

      Just make sure that your answer doesn’t sound like you are bashing your former employer (even if you actually would like nothing better). You never know when the person interviewing you has a connection to your previous employer. Even if there is no connection, bashing your last boss/employer makes it easy for the interviewer to see you as negative or a problem employee, even if it’s untrue.

  10. My dad gave me this advice, and it really works. After you get finished asking your (well-informed and previously researched) questions about the company and what your role would be, ask the interviewer if they enjoy working at the company. This question does a few things: it catches people off guard, because it’s not a typical job-seeker question. It gives the interviewer a chance to talk about themselves, and people do love to talk about themselves – especially at the end of an interview where they’ve mostly been talking about you. And, their reaction gives great insight into what kind of place the company is to work. I have had interviewers go on at length about why the company is a great place to work. I have also had people hesitate a long time before answering, or just say “sure” and then not give any examples as to why that’s the case. And once I even had someone tell me “no, I don’t, and this is why.” That one question can tell me more about the place I am interviewing than anything else.

    The other question I ask, which is extremely informative in ways interviewers often don’t suspect, is “how did this position become available?” (A good companion question to this is asking how long the previous person was in the position before vacating it.)
    I once asked that and had the interviewer (the executive director of the organization) go into a tirade about how lazy and worthless the previous employee was and how they finally decided to “part ways” and despite all the concessions they had made for this woman, she still filed a claim with the labor board against the organization. I did a little investigation and found out that the previous person in the position had gotten diagnosed with cancer, and when she tried to take short-term disability for her treatment, the ED refused to let her take it and fired her. That wasn’t any place I wanted to work. I declined a second interview.

    And that leads me to my last piece of interviewing advice – which I was not given, I had to figure this out for myself. Even in a crap economy, even if you really need the job, use the interview to figure out what kind of place you’re in and whether or not you really want to work there. They are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them. Read between the lines of what people say. Keep your eyes and ears open. I have ended up in a couple of interviews (including the one above) where within 10 minutes it was obvious the organization was seriously dysfunctional and I should run, not walk, away. You can usually get a general “vibe” from a company as soon as you walk in the door – pay attention to your gut instinct. If you walk into a place and people seem tired, defeated, afraid, or nervous, that’s not a good sign. Lots of whispered conversations or averted glances are something to look for. If the office is dirty, disorganized or in bad repair, pay attention to that. If people have takeout boxes piled three deep on their desks and there’s a general undercurrent of panic, it’s a good time to ask if there’s a big project or deadline people are working on (and if there’s not, or your interviewer looks surprised at the question, that means it’s probably like that all the time). If your interviewer seems harried, annoyed, disinterested or ill-prepared, that’s worth noting. If they refuse to show you around in a late-stage interview, discourage you from greeting or talking to other employees, or otherwise act like they don’t want you talking to people, it probably does mean something. Don’t be so desperate to get a job that you take the wrong thing. Even in a bad economy, you still have desirable skills and assets you bring to the table. The employer should still be displaying their “game face” to potential employees. If they don’t, I can say from experience, watch out.

    • I inadvertently found myself asking the “do you like your job” question in several interviews with people who had pictures of themselves with kids, family, doing sports, etc. If you are interviewing with someone who has lots of pictures of themselves doing things other than working, point it out and ask some questions about how they make time for the extracurriculars and how supportive the company is of their life away from work. You might learn a lot about the corporate culture as well as endearing yourself to the interviewer.

      • LegallyBlonde :

        I asked an associate I was interviewing with if he enjoyed working at X firm. He looked straight at me and said “No, I’m actually interviewing other places myself. But, hey, if you like working 14 hour days and don’t need a lot of social interaction, you may love it here!”. I never did figure out why the firm let someone so unhappy interview potential recruits. I declined their later job offer.

        • My experience was similar. I had interviewed with the company president (this was a pretty small organization) and she said “as part of the interview process, we want you to talk to our other direct0r-level employees so you can ask them about what it’s really like to work here!” I got a weird vibe from the first guy, but he didn’t say anything I could put my finger on as problematic. The second person I spoke with was the one who said she didn’t enjoy working at the company and explained that while she was nominally “in charge” of a division, there were two older vice-presidents who railroaded everyone and took over the younger directors’ projects at every opportunity. She said that if I had been in a previous position where I had responsibility and autonomy, working there would be torturous as I would have no real authority to make decisions. I took what she said with a grain of salt – until I met the two older vice-presidents. Then I could see the younger director had not exaggerated or obfuscated in any way. They asked me absolutely no questions about myself but went on for almost half an hour about how incompetent the younger employees were and how they had to do everything themselves. I eventually politely excused myself, went home, and emailed the president declining further interviews. Later I found out they had eliminated both the younger director’s position, and the one I had interviewed for, within 6 months of when I had interviewed. What a mess that would have been.

        • anon - chi :

          Ha. I’ve found this to be pretty common. Either the firm doesn’t know or the associate’s unhappiness doesn’t stand out. When I was a 2L, I interviewed with an associate at biglaw Chicago firm who had just pulled an all-nighter. When I asked how common that was, she said that it was the third time in as many months. Uh, no thank you.

        • I interviewed with a judge, and when I asked the judge’s clerks whether they liked the job, both of them looked at the floor and said, “We—–lllll…..” and then didn’t answer the question. I turned the job down, despite my career center’s dire predictions that this would destroy my career, and worked for a judge I loved.

        • I never did figure out why the firm let someone so unhappy interview potential recruits.

          I once had a really bizarre interview with a federal agency where the interviewer all but said “Political appointees here will force you to do terrible, unethical things and betray all your principles. Run.” It was disturbing.

    • Wow! Amy, that is really good advice.

    • Anon lawyer :

      In a similar vein, I always ask interviewers to tell me why they came to the company, and then why they’ve stayed. I’ve always gotten interesting responses that give me some insight into the corporate culture.

    • This is the single most important thing you must do while interviewing: figure out if YOU want to work there.

      For several years, I was an on-campus recruiter for an big engineering firm. This was in the go-go ’80s when many of these young men and women were getting multiple interviews and often multiple offers. When I was asked for interviewing advice, I told them to note the salary and benefits. Note whether you had heard of the company and admired the product. But place much more importance on how you felt when you walked through the office/lab/factory and talked to the employees. Did people seem excited? Did they describe their jobs as fun and interesting? Were they eager to show you their project? Could you picture yourself eating lunch with them? 40-80 hours per week is a long time to spend somewhere.

      New hires right out of school have been focused on grades and test scores for so long, that they tend to “do the numbers.” Fortune 500 company offering $1,000 more per year MUST be better, right? Just like an A is better than a B? Yeah, but which class did you love? Which professor made you laugh and think? Which problem set kept you up all night and you hardly even noticed the time flying by?

      • “Yeah, but which class did you love? Which professor made you laugh and think? Which problem set kept you up all night and you hardly even noticed the time flying by?”

        THANK YOU! That is exactly the advice I needed right now!

    • Along these lines–in addition to how long the previous employee was in the position, it’s worth asking about the tenure of others working around you. If most have been there less than two years (w/out any sort of reasonable explanation), I’d run. Bad leadership tends to create constant churn.

    • I like to ask “what is your favorite and least favorite thing” about working here. It can be revelatory, it gets the other person talking about the office and it is another ‘unusual” question they have to think about. I also like to ask “where do you see your company in 5 years” it’s a nice reverse of the question you receive as the interviewee. Finally, I ask “if I walked out into the halls and talked to your secretary / legal assistant/ receptionist about working here, what would she say”? Those people often know a lot about the firm, and have a lot of power. If they are treated well, and the interviewer can articulate why they’d want to be here, it’s a good sign.

    • delurking :

      This is amazing. Thank you

  11. When I was doing on-campus-interviews in law school, I thought I was really clever by asking a ton of questions and just letting the interviewers talk the whole time. During the (several) years since then, I have done numerous interviews as the interviewer, and have realized that it’s more effective to create a balance of you talking and the interviewer talking. If you just keep asking questions and let them talk, they won’t remember you later because you didn’t say anything. (This is obviously more true if there are lots of people interviewing for the same job)

    Make sure you have a couple of memorable things to discuss; how your time studying or working in X foreign country taught you some skill or gave you perspective about the American market, or how your time doing some quirky job led you into the profession you’re in now, or how you worked with some well-known figure and have a funny story about the experience. If you create a positive and interesting persona for yourself in the interview, your flaws won’t stand out as much and your interviewers will be more likely to remember you in a good light when decision time comes.

  12. I like candidates who show me they have done homework on the organization.
    When I am the candidate I like to ask the interviewer questions about themselves (why did you work here? how have you liked it?) because I suspect that people will like me more if they get to talk about themselves. I also show my enthusiasm for the position.

    • @Lobbyist, I am a lawyer currently looking at other career options and unfortunately your profession is still a bit of a mystery to me. If you don’t mind sharing, what exactly does a lobbyist do? How does one get to work for a lobby firm? Are there any particular qualifications you look for? D

    • I’ve never really understood what kind of questions reveal that you’ve done your research. Would you mind posting some examples?

      • I work for a government agency that operates airports, bridges, tunnels, bus terminals, port facilities and a railroad. Only one of these facilities bears the agency’s name. Knowing that we have so many ‘pies’ is a great start.

  13. Directly address whatever you think might be holding them back from hiring you. In one interview, I knew I was less technically skilled than some of the other applicants, but I knew I could write. So I just told the interviewer that it would be easier for them to teach me the tech stuff than to teach the tech people how to write. Must’ve worked, since I got the job, and I learned the tech stuff like I said I would.

    • “…it would be easier for them to teach me the tech stuff than to teach the tech people how to write.”

      Truer words were never spoken :-)

    • Good for you! I agree with both the statement and the interview technique. While I might not always be that direct, depending on the type of job and what experience I lacked, I think addressing any perceived weakness and turning that into a positive is way better than letting them wonder and be unsure about you.

  14. This is a gamble but at the conclusion, consider asking the interviewer if they have any doubts about you working for their organization. It can show the interviewer that you are direct and unafraid of what you might here. Plus if they have a misperception of you, it can be addressed before you leave the interview.

  15. Would you recomend taking notes during the interview (or having a pad and pen ready) or not….

    • Chicago K :

      I do this personally. I think it shows you are interested and engaged, not to mention it gives you something to do with your hands. I would take excessive notes, but having your portfolio open and jotting a thing down here and there is fine.

    • I also have a pad and paper, and never use it. I’m starting to think it’s just a waste of brainpower to juggle the pad, paper, coffee/water/soda that is always handed to me, and my purse.

    • Right out of college, I interviewed for a position and started to take notes like I was going to be tested on it! I got scolded (and offered the position) and since haven’t used the notepad much for interviews.

    • I would never take notes during an interview because it interrupts the “conversation.” (I see interviews as a conversation, not Q&A. It’s awkward to juggle handshakes, remember the names, wrestle your notepad out, find your pen, and you can’t keep eye contact when you are looking down at your notebook. I think it is much more important to be in the moment of the interview and engaged with the interviewer. If the person says something truly interesting, you’ll remember it. I take copious notes after an interview, though, writing down what I talked about with each person (helpful for thank yous) and even what they looked like (so I will recognize them if I am back for a second interview).

  16. My advise is to know your resume. This means knowing, for every little minor thing (including that volunteer activity you listed under college), one or two stories you could tell. And be specific. Don’t just say, I loved that job because I learned about how to apply the law in the courtroom. Or, I loved living abroad because I got to understand another culture. That gives the interviewer nothing to follow up on to create a conversation. Instead, give a specific example with details after any general statements; for example, I always talked about how the country I lived in did not use credit cards or checks, so we received utilities by filling up pre-paid cards at banks. Or how, when our sink broke, we had to negotiate for a pipe at a huge market selling everything under the sun. That is more like a real conversation and allows the interviewer to engage.

    • Second this advice. When I got to the second round of interviews at my current position, I was literally questioned on every. single. bullet. on my resume. It was really an interesting experience – trying to talk about every single item on there without repeating what’s written down.

      • i put down “traveling (13 countries) in my resume, and i once had a bigfirm recruiter make me list all 13 countries i’d traveled to. i couldnt remember the last one and he looked at me like i was lying. took the number off after that.

  17. hmm, really interesting experiences and some great advice.
    However, @ Marcy, I do have to question the statement that if you got the interview, you have to just sell yourself. I have personally been through many interviews and have seen others go through many interviews where they were a good fit for the organization, got the interview but eventually did not get an offer.

    • This is especially the case with government interviews where the agency may have pre-selected a candidate but is still required to interview a few others. There are other occasions where you interview and the employer decides not to fill the position after all. In either case, there isn’t really anything you can do.

      • Chicago K :

        Same can be true in the corporate world. Often they have an internal person in mind but HR policy requires they interview X number of external people. I think I’ve been to a few of these type of interviews in the past, you can tell as the person doesn’t really ask you any detailed questions, keeps the interview short, etc.

        • quarter pole :

          Yes, this happened to me a few weeks ago. “The HM loves this guy but we have to interview four so go ahead and call these three people just to go through the motions.” I felt badly for those three people while I was talking to them.

    • It could be as simple as there were two great candidates, and for whatever intangible reason the organization picked Candidate A over Candidate B. When making a lateral move a few years back, I had a firm hiring person basically tell me “They really liked you and would have hired you if Candidate A hadn’t accepted.” Ummm … thanks …

  18. I never know how to answer the question, “Does your current firm know that you are interviewing/looking for another position?”….Any suggestions on how to handle that one?

    • anon - chi :

      Just answer honestly. It’s not weird to admit that your current job doesn’t know you’re looking for a new one, and it communicates to the interviewer that they should not call your current job for a reference. I don’t think you need to give any explanation, either – it is perfectly understandable that you aren’t advertising your departure while you are still interviewing for your next gig.

  19. Know your audience – and know them well! I have been through so many interviews where a law student basically said “I’m just looking for a job at any firm that will have me.” That may be true, but you will never get an offer that way. Look up every firm you interview with and come up with specific reasons why this is the firm where you want to begin/continue your career.

    And don’t ask questions you should know the answer to. I’ve had law students ask me “How many attorneys does your firm have?” “What other offices does your firm have?” “Does your firm practice X type of law?” All of these questions are about information that is EASILY available from our website. Questions like that don’t make me think you care about my firm, they make me think you are unprepared.

    I’ve only done the interviewing process with law firms, on both sides of the table, but I imagine these generalize to other industries as well.

    • I totally second this. Yes, it’s a down economy. I know many people will take ANY job but remember, the company you’re interviewing for wants you to want them specifically. If asked how you heard about the company or why you are interested in that particular company, be prepared to answer. And if you’re not asked, work in somehow why you like that particular company.

      Also, try to stay calm if asked off the wall questions. I was once interviewing summer associates with a name partner and he asked some poor kid what would make him ultimately happy in life. The kid didn’t bat an eye and gave a pretty decent answer and I gave him big points for that.

      I’ve also been known to ask people what they do in their free time. Please don’t tell me you don’t have any free time. I asked because I wanted to get to know a little bit more about you. Telling me you are busy doesn’t help me get to know you. If you list hobbies or interest on your resume, I will ask about them so be prepared to discuss. (I love when people list interests on their resumes but a friend in the same field hates it).

  20. My advice would be to bring your problem solving-skills to the interview. In other words, keep a thread running in the back of your mind where you are observing what they say and ask, keep up the probing questions, try to unearth issues they are having and characterize some patterns, in the interview. Essentially an on the spot demonstration of your analytical though processes and experience. Most of all people want to know if you can listen intelligently, and make the right initial stabs at problem solving, not just cough up pre-assembled info.

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