Job interviews are like a more awkward, less immediately gratifying, form of speed dating. You don’t get a nice dinner out of the deal, but the tension is the same: each person is evaluating the other to see if they match. Add to that intoxicating cocktail of discomfort the fact that, in a job interview, one person has almost all the power. So, you know, really fun!
Having done more job interviews (both as an applicant and a hiring manager) than I can count, I’ve noticed a few key factors that separate the best candidates from the mediocre ones. Obviously, none of these are fail-safe methods to landing your dream job. But they will help you put your best self forward — and, hopefully, make those speed-dating scenarios a little less awkward.
1. You’re applying for this particular job, not a foot in the door.
Say this: “Here are the three main reasons I’m interested in this position.”
Not this: “I’ve heard that Company A is a great place to work!”
Saying a company is a great place to work is unlikely to win over a hiring manager; in fact, it may do the opposite. Why? First, you’re applying for this particular job, not just any job at the company. At best, saying the company is a great place to work is a little lazy (so you Googled us? great); at worst, it can make it sound like you’ll be looking for other internal opportunities as soon as you take the job.
Similarly, don’t try to pitch yourself for a different position than the one you’ve actually applied for. If the job you’re applying for isn’t a management position, and you really want to be a manager, it’s fine to discuss this openly with the hiring manager. But be realistic about the timeline for promotion, and don’t try to sell the hiring manager on changing the position to fit your goals. They’re hiring for what they need, not what you want.
2. Don’t just be a “good fit” — add something more.
Say this: “I’m excited to be part of the team that does A and B, and I think my experience in X, Y, and Z will help us achieve even greater results.”
Not this: “I have a lot of experience in X, Y, and Z, and I think I would be a great fit for this position.”
I start every interview with the same prompt: “Tell me why you’re interested in this position.” Often, candidates rattle off what’s on their résumé — a checklist of job titles and skills. This doesn’t answer the question of why you’re applying. It’s good to highlight your skills, of course, but keep in mind that if you’ve been called in for an interview, odds are someone has already given your résumé a second look.
So add what’s not on the résumé: How are your skills applicable to this particular position? What skills are you currently developing, but want to further hone? How will you (not just your skills and experience, but also your personality and approach to work) take our team to the next level?
In the end, after all, whether you’re “a good fit” is up to the hiring manager, not you, to decide.
3. Do your homework — on the company, the position, and the hiring manager.
Say this: “I noticed you have a background in X. How does that inform your goals for the team?”
Not this: “What’s it like to work at Company Z?”
As mentioned in #1, Googling the company and knowing that it’s a great place to work doesn’t equal doing your homework. Find out as much as you can not only about the company, but also about the position you’re applying for, the team you’ll be part of, and the hiring manager herself. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming (block out around 4 hours), and don’t feel like you need to know everything — that’s what the question portion of the interview is for. But the more you know about the role, the better equipped you’ll be to say why you’re the right hire.
Corollary: Get the hiring manager’s name right! That means spelling it right in the cover letter, and saying it right (and remembering it) during the interview.
4. Come with a list of smart, specific questions.
Say this: “In six months, what would success look like for this position?”
Not this: “What are you looking for in a candidate?”
In every interview, I switch roles and ask the applicant what questions he or she has for me. This is always revealing: it shows how much thought and effort you’ve put into applying for the position, and subtle differences in how you ask the question can have a big impact.
Take the example above: the first option indicates that you’re thinking about the position in a long-term way, and that you’re success-oriented. The answer is not something you could have gleaned from online research or from the job description. The second option, however, should be very clear from the job description that initially prompted you to apply. Barring unusual circumstances, this is something you should already know before you apply; making the hiring manager repeat the job description is not a good use of his or her time.
5. Bring ideas.
Say this: “I think there’s a big opportunity to freshen up your marketing with a summer Instagram campaign.”
Not this: “Your corporate blog feels a little stale.”
Think of yourself as a mini focus group for the hiring manager. You bring a fresh perspective and can give meaningful feedback. Doing so accomplishes two key things for you: First, it shows that you’re a critical thinker who’s always coming up with ways to keep improving. Second, it allows you to position yourself as the problem-solver — the person who will come in and finally help the hiring manager fix what she likely already knows is a weak point. This, obviously, makes you an even more attractive candidate.
Beware of one pitfall: if you offer a hiring manager constructive criticism, be prepared to also suggest a solution. Critiquing work product without offering any ideas for improvement won’t do you any favors.
6. Get a sense of the vision.
Say this: “What are your top 3 goals for the team this year, and how will you measure success?”
Not this: “What’s your vision?”
Remember: interviews are a two-way street. Yes, you’re being evaluated. But you’re also evaluating the hiring manager, team, and company to determine whether you’d be happy and fulfilled in this job.
One of the key questions to ask your hiring manager is about his or her vision for the team and for the company as a whole. Does the team have energy? Does it have clear goals and direction? Is it growing? How does the team’s role and vision fit in with larger, company-wide operations and goals? When it comes to leadership, is the hiring manager more vision- or execution-oriented?
These kinds of questions will give you a good sense of the type of leader you’ll be working for, and they’ll also show the hiring manager that you’re considering the role in a broad, thoughtful way.
7. Be polite, don’t lie, and other obvious things.
Here’s a simple self-evaluation: If every aspect of your job search process were visible to your mother, would she be proud? If not, rethink the way you’re approaching it. Don’t pad your résumé. Don’t interrupt the hiring manager when he’s speaking. Be on time. Say thank you.