How to own a job interview

Job interviews are always experiences of joy and frustration. Joy if you feel like you met like-minded people you would like to work with. Frustration if you ended up in an interrogation about your skills as if this is the only thing that matters.

Many employers still haven’t understood that job interviews are a two-way assessment: It’s equally important that the candidate learns more about the workplace, as the employer learns more about the candidate. A job interview was successful if both parties have a feeling what it would be like to work with each other, no matter what the outcome is (continue or discontinue).

Prepare for multi-tasking

Experiencing that this is an ideal scenario rather than a real one, I realised that I have to actively drive the interview in the direction I want it to go. This needs preparation though, because answering questions, showing the best side of yourself plus guiding to the points you want to talk about is a lot to do simultaneously.

While reflecting on my job interviews in the last years, I wrote down what I want to do differently in my next ones. Having conducted interviews on both candidate and employer side, my principles and actions can be applied to both. However, most points were derived from interviews I had as a candidate, so they are written from the candidate’s perspective.

1. Balance out past and future

Problem

In most of my job interviews, we talked 70% of the time about my past experience and 30% about the company, role and next steps. This seems like a waste of time to me. First, there are better ways to assess a candidate’s experience and technical skills than an interview, e.g. CV and portfolio reviews, homework exercises or onsite trials.

Second, the candidate has most likely done his research about the company before applying or as preparation for the job interview. So going through general information like the company’s foundation date, products and markets is just scratching the surface one can see online anyways.

Instead, interviews should really be about everything between the lines while focussing on a potentially joint future rather than a separate past:

  • What is important to you?
  • What are your goals and aspirations?
  • What does success mean to you?

Solution

Spend a good amount of time talking about how you see yourself in the role rather than only talking about previous experience. Your former experience might give a good impression of who you are, but not who you want to become.

2. Show your real self

Problem

No matter how much experience I gained over the years, I keep finding myself saying things I only say to please the interviewer. I guess this is just how my and many other people’s brains are trained. Already in school we learn that people who say what’s expected reach better grades than those who take a stand.

Similarly, knowing your audiences’s expectations can go a long way in job interviews. However, emphasising with the other person’s needs and job doesn’t mean you should let go of your principles.

Don’t present a fake version of yourself. Not only will you suffer from imposter syndrome when you get the job, you might also end up in the wrong company or team because they saw a fit based on what you said.

Solution

Know your principles and weigh them up with what you learn during the interview. If your principles are compromised too much, it might not be the right workplace (candidate) for you.

3. Dig deep into culture

Problem:

The company’s culture gives you a lot of insight what it would be like to work there, and this is the main thing you want to find out, right? It’s about how the company defines itself, its values and the principles everyone lives by. You got a cultural fit if your eyes start glowing while the interviewer walks you through those points.

Sadly most companies don’t talk about culture in job interviews, but present official data you can find online, like foundation date, number of employees, locations, products etc. They might have some values written on their website, but this tells you little about how they are applied in daily business.

Solution:

Since it’s likely that the interviewer will not cover cultural topics, you should address them yourself by asking good questions, e.g.:

  • How would you describe the culture here?
  • What type of people tend to really thrive here, and what type don’t do as well?
  • What do you like about working here?

Source: The Cut

4. Don’t wait for the questions part

Problem

There were so many interviews where we talked 50 minutes about my previous experience and then finally, after time was almost over, I got the obligatory question: “Do you have questions?”

Waiting with your questions until the end of the interview doesn’t only make it hard to cover them all, but it also breaks the whole conversation into unrelated pieces, making it harder for both parties to draw connections and build empathy. Plus, you might run into this typical one-way question-answer marathon, where you will never get the chance to present you in the way you envision it.

Solution

Have your questions prepared and tie them into the conversation at the right moment (e.g. if you’re already talking about a related topic). If you’re concerned that you come across impolite, ask at the beginning of the interview if it’s ok to ask questions. Who can say no to this one?

5. Prioritise your questions

Problem

As a candidate, I always come prepared with a list of questions. However, I often find myself either not having enough time to ask all of them (see above), or wasting time with random questions due to bad prioritisation.

While I usually sort questions by topic (e.g. company, team, product, salary/conditions, next steps), in most cases half of my questions got already answered during the conversation. So when I get asked if I have more questions, I usually skim down the list and pick the first one that is left unanswered. This question often has little importance (since it didn’t get answered yet) and just happened to be the first unanswered question on the list.

Another trap I fell into in the past is asking questions that make me appear interested rather than questions I am interested in. Don’t forget, it’s about finding out if you want to work with the company, not making you attractive to the employer at all cost.

Solution

After you have written down all the questions you’re interested in, pick 3-5 questions you really care about. Write them at the top of your list so that you can easily access them when there is time for questions.

Improve as you go

These are just 5 lessons among many others I already learned and applied successfully (like shifting the nature of job interviews from application to conversation). For sure, the list will grow over time as I will continue to learn from future job interviews.

Every job interview, even the very bad ones, provides a chance to train core skills for any kind of human interaction: empathy and communication.