How to Prepare for a Job Interview

A few minutes of preparation beforehand could make the difference in your next job interview.
A few minutes of preparation beforehand could make the difference in your next job interview.
Kim Carson/Getty Images

We all have our interview horror stories: the twenty-something human resources rep who kept calling you by the wrong name and texted her friends mid-interview; the panel of aggressive senior managers who made you feel like you were on trial for crimes against employment; and, of course, the time you forgot to wear pants. No, wait -- that was an actual nightmare.

The good news is that with some solid preparation, you can ace your next job interview, no matter what your interviewer throws at you. The goal of a job interview is to present your best possible self to the employer. Even better, you want to show how that best self is an excellent match for the open position at the company.

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The worst thing you can do when preparing for a job interview is to take a casual attitude and just "wing it" [source: Robert Half International]. Even if you were voted "Miss Personality" in high school, you won't land a job by charm alone. In this tight job market, employers are very much in the driver's seat. They're looking for qualified applicants who show a serious commitment to their work. This commitment starts during the interview phase.

Employers seek out candidates who know the industry inside and out and understand the specific mission of the company [source: Fisher]. They want someone who's eager to learn, open to new challenges and knows that flip-flops don't go with a suit. All it takes is 10 minutes for an employer to decide if you possess these qualities or not. Come prepared and you'll leave with an offer.

The secret to job interview success starts long before that first handshake. First, you need to do some serious studying. Keep reading for tips on pre-interview research.

How to Research a Company

Remember, the goal of a job interview is to prove that you're the right person for this particular job. The best way you can prepare for the interview is to know everything there possibly is to know about the company in general, the specific job -- even your interviewer.

Your research starts with the job listing itself. Read it over several times, highlighting the key responsibilities of the position and the type of work experience required. Remember, there's a good chance that you'll be interviewed by the very person who wrote the job listing. In that way, the listing is like a sneak peek inside the interviewer's head. Look over the responsibilities and requirements that you've highlighted and begin to think about how you can match your skills and experience to each entry on the list.

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Now it's time to get a bigger picture about the company itself. Start with the official company Web site, beginning with the "About Us" section, and learn more about the company's overall mission and vision. Then, it's time to brush up on current events. What are the biggest new product launches, acquisitions or projects? A great place to find this information is by browsing press releases from the past few months. These can either be found in the "About Us" section or special sections called "Press Room" or "Media."

More and more companies have official blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and Twitter feeds [source: White]. Gobble up all of this information. Look for stories or ideas that really grab your interest. Take notes and write down some follow-up questions that could spark a conversation with the interviewer. Think of questions that show both your knowledge of the industry and excitement about contributing to the company's growth.

Lastly, use your personal connections to get an insider's view of the company [source: Adams]. If you have a LinkedIn account, search your network to see if it includes any employees of the company. Reach out to them and notify them that you have an upcoming interview. They might be able to tell you something about the position or the interviewer that could help you be even better prepared for success.

Now that you've done your research, it's time to develop a self-marketing plan. What kinds of questions should you expect to be asked, and how will you give the best possible answer? Learn more on the next page.

Job Interview Preparation Tips

Your demeanor before the interview could make the difference between an offer and continued unemployment.
Your demeanor before the interview could make the difference between an offer and continued unemployment.
Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images

Your main responsibility at a job interview is to answer questions. Luckily, there are several common questions that you can expect to hear at most interviews. Practice answering these questions in a way that portrays you in the best possible light. You shouldn't lie, of course, but focus on the information that makes you look talented, confident and prepared for the job. Even if you're not looking for a job in marketing, this is the time to sell yourself [source: Hering].

Start with the most open-ended question of all: "Tell me about yourself." Remember that this is a job interview, not a date, so the focus should be on your relevant work history and experience, not your likes and dislikes. If you're short on experience, talk about your education, specifically courses and projects you feel have best prepared you for the job. Finish with a short blurb about your personal life --"I have two kids, a dog and a goldfish, and enjoy gardening" -- without getting too personal. Enlist a friend as a mock interviewer, and practice packaging your life story into a concise and compelling narrative [source: Fisher].

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Practice answering some other common questions that can trip up a less-prepared interviewee. "Why did you leave your last job?" is a tricky one. Whatever you do, don't badmouth your last employer [source: Fisher]. It makes you look petty and vindictive. Even if you left your old job on bad terms, figure out a way to paint it in the best light. Talk about how you felt limited in the position and were eager to find a job where you could tap your full potential. Then segue into why you think your skills and aspirations are such a great match for the open position.

Because of the sagging job market, many applicants walk into interviews after months of unemployment. Be ready for the question: "What have you been doing since your last job ended?" Highlight volunteer work, personal projects like blogs, and anything that shows initiative and a spirit of entrepreneurship [source: Madden]. The take home message should be: Even though you weren't getting paid, you put your skills and creativity to work.

Another tip: Know what you're worth. If the interview goes really well, your interviewer might inquire about your salary range. Be ready to give a ballpark figure for your base salary, but be quick to add that it all depends on the rest of the compensation package: health coverage, bonuses and other benefits.

Lastly, remember that a job interview is a two-way street [source: Buhl]. Come prepared to ask some of the questions you developed during the research phase. Again, concentrate on questions that show a deep understanding of the industry and can spark an engaging conversation.

Even though there aren't any hard and fast rules for job interviews, the etiquette tips on the next page will help you make the best first impression.

Job Interview Etiquette

A successful job interview starts in your closet. Choose an outfit that is appropriate for the company culture where you're interviewing. Wear a suit and tie to a law office and office casual to a Web start-up. If you have no idea what to wear, call up the human resources department and ask. Even if the culture is ultra-casual, you must always look well-groomed and clean.

Be nice to all receptionists and assistants! You never know whose opinion counts the most with an employer [source: White]. If the interview goes well, but you were obnoxious in the waiting area, you blew it. Greet everyone with a friendly and pleasant attitude -- even if they don't do the same.

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Believe it or not, handshakes do matter. The key words are firm, friendly and fast. Avoid sweaty palms, hand-crushing grips and "dead fish" fingers. And don't forget to punctuate that handshake with a winning smile. With all of that concentrating on your handshake, don't forget to catch your interviewer's name. This could be awkward later.

Sit up straight and lean slightly forward. This makes you look ready and eager to get started. Be friendly and upbeat, but don't sit there with a smile glued on your face. It comes across as phony [source: Hershon]. Smile and nod when appropriate without turning into a human bobble head.

Don't be the first one to bring up the topic of salary or vacation or sick days or parking spaces [source: Potter]. If the interviewer feels like you're a good candidate, he or she will be the one to break the ice. If you mention any of those items first, it will make you look greedy and superficial.

There are conflicting opinions about when to ask a question in an interview. Some experts say to wait until the end, when the interviewer typically asks if you have any questions. Others say it's fine to break in with a question if it's on topic and the conversation is going well.

But there's one job interview etiquette tip that experts and hiring managers all agree upon: Follow up with a thank-you note. Yes, it seems a little cheesy, but a short, friendly thank-you note is a hallmark of good manners and will help keep you fresh in the employer's mind. You don't have to hand-write the note on fancy stationary. A simple e-mail will suffice. Without being too obvious, recap your best selling points and reiterate how excited you are about the prospect of working for the company [source: White].

For more job search tips and interviewing etiquette, follow the links to more HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Adams, Susan. Forbes.com. "Why Job-Seeking is Just like Dating" (Aug. 9, 2010.)http://hotjobs.yahoo.com/career-articles-why_job_seeking_is_just_like_dating-1156
  • Buhl, Larry. "Own the Interview: 10 Questions to Ask" Yahoo! Hotjobs. (Aug. 9, 2010.)http://hotjobs.yahoo.com/career-articles-own_the_interview_10_questions_to_ask-1123
  • Fisher, Anne. "Employer's wacky interview questions." Fortune. (Aug. 9, 2010.)http://money.cnn.com/2010/08/09/news/economy/wacky_interview_questions.fortune/index.htm
  • Hering, Beth Braccio. "Developing Your Selling Points" CareerBuilder.com. (Aug. 9, 2010.)http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-1574-Getting-Hired-Developing-Your-Selling-Points/
  • Hershon, Marc and Littman, Jonathon. "10 Ways to Be Liked in Your Job Interview." Yahoo! Hotjobs. (Aug. 9, 2010.)http://hotjobs.yahoo.com/career-articles-10_ways_to_be_liked_in_your_job_interview-947
  • Madden, Kaitlin. "How to Answer: What Have You Been Ding Since You Were Laid Off?" CareerBuilder.com. (Aug. 8, 2010.)http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-1706-Getting-Hired-How-to-Answer-What-Have-You-Been-Doing-Since-You-Were-Laid-Off/
  • Potter, Caroline M.L. "When to Raise the Salary Question" Yahoo! Hotjobs. (Aug. 9, 2010.)http://hotjobs.yahoo.com/career-articles-when_to_raise_the_salary_question-1072
  • Robert Half International. "7 Ways to Wreck Your Job Interview." CareerBuilder.com. (Aug. 8, 2010.)http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-1334-Getting-Hired-7-Ways-to-Wreck-Your-Job-Interview/?ArticleID=1334&cbRecursionCnt=1&cbsid=4d67f071e2d14f6eaa0a045d10141ed2-335632298-RB-4
  • White, Doug. "Mastering the Subtleties of a Job Interview" Yahoo! Hotjobs. (Aug. 9, 2010.)http://hotjobs.yahoo.com/career-articles-mastering_the_subtleties_of_a_job_interview-1108