Ace the Interview with Good Preparation

One of my first mentors in the recruiting profession, Jerry Marstall, drummed into my head that if I did a good job in preparing my candidates for their interviews, I’d make more placements, all things being equal, than those recruiters who just winged it and let their candidates go to the interviews blindly. Jerry had even written a book about interview preparation, although I’m not sure he ever published it. 

Since those early days, I’ve tried my best to make sure my candidates understand the dynamics of the interviews I’ve arranged for them. This isn’t unique to me — any good recruiter should take the time to make sure a candidate understands the company, the position, and how to best mesh with that particular organization’s culture and hiring practices.

But as much as your recruiter coaches you, it’s of course still up to you. In this post, I’d like to offer an easy to remember, three-part structure for how to prepare yourself for an interview, to ensure you have the best shot at getting the job. I learned this years ago from Jerry, and, while I’ve adapted it somewhat over the years to suit my own personality, his ideas have continued to be the bones of how I prepare candidates to this day.

We’ve all heard the advice on how to make a successful speech: 1) Tell them what you’re going to tell them; 2) Tell them; 3) Tell them what you told them. A tweaking of this formula leads to a great mindset for preparation.

1. Understand the Position, What’s Important, and What’s Not
Whether you’re interviewing with one person only, or a sequence of interviewers, it’s smart to ask each person at the beginning of the session what their interpretation of the position is, and what attributes they feel are most important. If you’re not sure how to ask that, try something along these lines: “I think I understand what you’re looking for: a server-side Java Developer who’s built RESTful APIs, is that right? But before I go too deeply into my background, may I please ask you to talk a bit about the position, and what attributes you personally feel the successful hire is going to have?” By doing this, you’ll discover the parts of your experience that you should focus on for that particular interviewer. You may feel that a certain project you’ve done is the coolest thing ever, but if it’s not related to what the interviewer thinks is important, you may not want to spend the entire interview talking about it.

2. Understand Your Own Background, and Make the Connection to What’s Important
One type of negative post-interview feedback that I often get from managers is that the candidate wasn’t able to clearly and convincingly discuss their own previous projects and work. What a shame. Could be that candidate was a great fit for the job, but they just weren’t able to articulate why. Avoid this by reviewing your own resume before the interview. Yes, that’s right — read through your own resume, and take some time to recall each item that’s on the resume. What was this project like, and what were some of the design decisions and tradeoffs that had to be made? What was that one like, what mistakes were made, and what did you learn from it? Where specifically did you gain your Python experience that you list? Sometimes a friend, parent or significant other can be very helpful in this, especially if they’re not familiar with the intricacies of your work. If you can successfully explain what you do to someone who doesn’t really “get it”, then you should be fine in dealing with a knowledgeable interviewer.

As you’re explaining your background, make sure that you specifically make the connection between what you’re explaining, and what they said they were looking for (in Part 1). Don’t assume that they’ll figure it out. Help them see how your experience is the solution to their problem. If your experience is weak in a particular area, anticipate that you may have a problem, and be proactive. Show the interviewer that you understand the deficiency, and at the same time, give examples of how you could overcome it. Have you picked up a new language on the job, under pressure, in the past, and still met a deadline? Call attention to it.

3. Get Feedback, and Express Interest
As you get to the end of each particular interview session, ask the interviewer how they feel about the fit. Too many candidates don’t do this, and as a result, by the time the interview ends, the decision has already been made. You won’t always get a straight answer, but your odds go up dramatically if you try. If you feel it’s awkward to directly ask another human being what they think of your applicability and fit, just say it this way: “Chris, I appreciate the time you’ve spent with me. I’m definitely interested in this opportunity, and I’d like to ask you for your honest feedback. It’s OK if you don’t think I’m the right person for the job, but I’d appreciate your candid opinion as to whether you’ll be able to recommend me.” I think the important thing about this approach is to give the interviewer the opportunity to say no gracefully, if that’s what it’s going to be. Don’t corner them, but rather allow them an “out”, and you may find that you get more honest and useful feedback.

If you get their feedback, then you may have some additional work to do before you leave them. Sometimes, their objections are significant, and not able to be overcome. That’s the way it goes, and you’re not likely to get that job. However, maybe it’s just that they don’t know about a certain part of your background that you didn’t address, or maybe they misunderstood how you explained it. That’s your golden opportunity to address their concerns right there, face to face. If you’re ever going to change their mind, that is the time to do it. Not later on in a follow-up email, because by that time, their opinion is likely to have set up, like hard concrete, and won’t be changed.

There you have it. A three-part approach to maximizing your chances on your next interview. Try it the next time, and see if it doesn’t help!