Written By: Dan Clay, Gartner Account Executive
One of the things I’ve come to realize from conversations with friends, family members and acquaintances is that very few people know how they should prepare for a job interview.
Interviewing presents a natural challenge because it’s a skill that most people only use once every few years or so when they look for a new job. By then, they’ve long forgotten how they prepared for their last interview, so they have to start the learning process from square one and spend hours getting themselves back up to speed.
The fact that there are countless articles written on the subject makes it that much more difficult and time-consuming to cut through the fluff and get to the important stuff. You could — and many do — spend hours researching every last tip and technique to make sure you don’t leave out any details.
There’s just one problem: thinking that you have to remember every little detail puts tremendous stress on your mindset, which lowers your overall confidence — and confidence is absolutely essential to acing an interview.
Once you have the framework down, you can adequately prepare for a job interview in less than an hour in a way that will fuel your confidence and wow the people on the other side of the table.
Here are the four key areas to focus on when preparing for a job interview:
- Information about the company
When you sit down to prepare for an interview, a good way to start is by brushing up on information about the company, industry, competition, financials and recent headlines.
First, it makes you comfortable with having a broader conversation about the space the company is in and how they bring in revenue, so if your interviewer asks you a question about their business model (which they probably will), you’ll be prepared to answer it.
Secondly, it helps you formulate intelligent questions to ask your interviewer when the time comes. This helps make the interview more of a two-way conversation rather than an interrogation.
Third, it shows your interviewer that you’ve done your homework and sets you apart from the scores of other people who haven’t.
Here’s an example of what the conversation might look like with someone who came adequately prepared with knowledge about the company versus someone who didn’t:
Interviewer: “So, do you have any questions for me?”
Sally Slacker: “Um … where are your other offices located?”
This is a poor question (although not the worst question you could ask) because it not only shows that she didn’t do the minimal preparation that would have surfaced this information, but it’s largely irrelevant to the overall success of the company.
Interviewer: “So, do you have any questions for me?”
Prepared Penny: “I took a look at your recent quarterly financial report and noticed that your costs have been increasing relative to revenues for the last year. Is this a concern for the company, and if so, what’s your strategy to reverse the trend of declining profitability?”
This is the type of question that will cause your interviewer’s jaw to hit the floor. Demonstrating this level of knowledge about the company and its current state is so uncommon that the interviewer will probably have to take a second to collect his thoughts before giving his response.
Bonus points for you if you throw in specific numbers to underscore your point (e.g., “$330MM revenues on $189MM costs in the last quarter”). Showing that you understand the company and its issues is so powerful because it puts you in the shoes of an employee and gets you talking with your interviewer from the same perspective.
It completely changes the game — you’re no longer someone from the outside hoping to get a glimpse of the inner workings; you’re someone who already understands how things work and are interested in how you’re going to help them succeed. The mindset shift you’ll feel when you get to this point is palpable. You’ll both be more relaxed and talking on the same level.
So how do you go about gathering this information? Here are a few go-to sources I always check when preparing for an interview:
If you’re interviewing at a publicly traded company, there’s gold to be found in the financial reports that they’re required to release by law. The most useful are the 10-K annual reports, which list things like key differentiators, risk factors, competition, market size, financial performance, future outlook and more. I like to jot down high-level figures like annual revenue, market cap, when the company was founded, how many employees it has and other key stats they may have listed. If you’ve never looked at one of these reports before, it can seem a bit daunting, but don’t be intimidated — for the most part they’re written in plain English at an eighth-grade reading level.
Visit their company page for high-level info and to see what they’ve been posting about. At the bare minimum, companies will push their press releases through this channel, so you can use it to bring yourself up to speed on timely information. You don’t have to spend a lot of time here — a quick scan of the last few posts will be enough to get current.
If you’re applying for a job at a startup, these two sites will provide a massive trove of information that you’d otherwise have to piece together through Google searches. You’ll find everything from dates and amounts of their different funding rounds to recent headlines, key employees, sources of venture funding, other job openings and more.
Some companies will have fewer sources of available information than others, particularly privately held companies and startups. For these, a good old-fashioned Google search can help you stitch together the key facts you’ll need to build your understanding. Here are a few Google searches you can use to quickly gather that information, using Uber as an example:
“Uber financial performance”
“Uber company info”
“Uber funding rounds”
“Dara Khosrowshahi interview” (Dara Khosrowshahi is the CEO of Uber as of January 2018, and watching recent interviews with the CEO can be an informational goldmine)
Glassdoor is a fantastic resource for getting the inside scoop on what current and former employees have to say about working for their companies. You can get a good sense of the pros and cons of working for a place by scanning the reviews section and looking for common threads.
For example, if multiple people say that the company does a poor job of developing their employees for advancement, you may want to ask a question about that in the interview. It’s okay to reference Glassdoor, too — it just shows that you’ve done your homework and are keeping your best interests in mind.
Take the negative reviews with a grain of salt, though. Employees who are disenfranchised or not performing well are generally more likely to want to air out their dirty laundry on Glassdoor than those who are satisfied and performing well.
Pro tip: Filter by the job title of the role you’re applying for and sort by date to surface the most recent reviews. You can easily spend over an hour reading every review if the company is large enough, so filter and sort to narrow the results to the reviews most relevant to you.
Once you’ve done it a few times, the process of gathering company information should only take 15 to 20 minutes. You should aim to build just enough knowledge to give you a firm grasp of the company’s fundamentals and ask intelligent questions of the interviewer. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole when there’s a lot of information available about a company, so make sure you don’t fall into the trap of diminishing returns. Remembering a few insightful facts about a company and being able to speak to them confidently is far better than having dozens of random facts in your head that you’re unsure about.
- Information about your interviewers
After you’ve established a baseline level of knowledge about the company, it’s time to do a little research on who you’ll be talking to. This is the easiest part of the interview preparation process. All you have to do is visit the LinkedIn profile page for each person you’ll be interviewing with and jot down some key highlights. It’s helpful to know the following:
- Time in current role
- Career progression with current company
- Other companies they’ve worked for
- Where they went to school
- Places they’ve lived
- Common connections or interests
Finding common ground with mutual connections — schools, companies or common cities you’ve lived in — can help you break the ice and establish positive rapport right off the bat. If you don’t have shared experience at the same company, maybe you’ve worked at a competitor of a company the interviewer used to work for (“You worked at Chevron? I used to work at Shell! How’d you like the oil business?”). It’s extremely rare to come across a person you can’t bridge some kind of connection with; you just have to look in the right places.
Knowing how long they’ve been in their current role, how they’ve progressed in the company and where they worked prior to their current company will help you pose insightful questions from a career development perspective and show genuine interest in hearing about their experiences.
People love to talk about themselves, and giving them a chance to do so while listening intently to what they have to say will make them feel warm and fuzzy inside. You want this because when they go back to the interview committee and discuss the 10 other candidates they talked to with their resumes stacked on the table, they’re going to remember their strong positive emotions and their strong negative ones. If you’re responsible for the strong negative ones, you’re already screwed, but being in the middle of the pack doesn’t put you that much further ahead.
Show you’ve done your homework, convey genuine interest in learning about their career path, and you’ll be well on your way to rising to the top.
Let’s look at an example of a bad career question and a good career question:
Sally Slacker: “So, what do you like about working here?”
On the surface, not a bad question. The problem is everybody else is asking the same thing. You want to differentiate yourself, and you do that by demonstrating that you’ve done your homework and truly appreciate the information you receive.
Prepared Penny: “I noticed that before you joined XYZ company, you held an account executive role. Now you’re an account manager. Why did you decide to make this transition, and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?”
This is a great question because it clearly shows that you’ve done your due diligence and it helps you gain valuable information about what you can potentially expect in the role you’re interviewing for. Ideally, you’ll tailor these questions to fit your personal situation, so if you’re currently an account executive interviewing for an account manager role, this question would be particularly relevant.
Once you’ve written down basic information about each person you’ll be interviewing with, formulate one question for each that you can ask at the appropriate time in the interview. Make it something you’re really interested in learning about and listen intently when they speak. You can get a strong vibe about a place just by reading their body language and the subtext behind their answers, so you want to be giving them your full attention.
Depending on the number of people you’re interviewing with, gathering profile information and formulating your questions could take anywhere from five to 15 minutes. If they don’t have a LinkedIn profile, do a Google search and see if you can find a Twitter account or something with a bio tied to it.
Don’t sweat it if you can’t find anything, though — your company research will be enough to show them that you’ve done your homework. You should still formulate a question for them, but without specific information about their career path, you’ll have to keep it more general.
I’m a big fan of the following questions because they can apply to anyone regardless of their role, and they go deep enough to potentially surface valuable insights:
- Which traits do the most successful people in this role exhibit that those who aren’t as successful do not?
- If you could change one thing about your current role, what would it be?
- What’s keeping you at XYZ company?
- If you only had three words to describe the company culture, what would they be?
- Why do you feel that your role as a [whatever their current role is] at XYZ company is the best place to be right now for your career aspirations?
These questions are highly impactful because they not only give you greater insights into how the role and company align with your interests; they can also provide a sense for any skeletons hidden in the closet so you don’t find yourself in a job where you’re dealing with a nightmare manager, unfair sales process, toxic culture or whatever else might make you want to steer clear of the opportunity.
Remember, you’re interviewing them just as much as they’re interviewing you, and the last thing either side wants is for you to be unhappy or ineffective in the role.
- Behavioral questions
Now that you’re prepared with company information and some basic background about your interviewers, it’s time to tackle the part that everyone hates: behavioral and situational interview questions.
Most people find preparing for these challenging because there are an infinite number of possible questions the interviewer could ask you. If you do a Google search for “behavioral interview questions,” you’ll be confronted with millions upon millions of search results. How can you possibly prepare yourself for that?
First, take a deep breath and relax. It’s much easier than you’d think, and doesn’t involve a single example from the countless websites out there on the topic. The key to preparing for behavioral interview questions is to reverse-engineer them from the job description of the role you’re applying for. This dramatically reduces the number of possible questions and allows you to prepare a handful of stories from your experience that are highly relevant to the traits they’re looking for in the role they’re trying to fill.
Let’s look at an example of a specific responsibility from a job description pulled from Glassdoor for a Performance Marketing Manager:
Analyze and synthesize performance data, and recommend appropriate actions based on findings.
This is one of the things you’d be responsible for in the role, so it makes sense that they’d ask you a question to determine your level of comfort and expertise in that area, right? So you might reformulate the responsibility into a behavioral question this way:
Tell me about a time when you used data to derive insights into a specific problem to determine a course of action.
Now you’re telling a story from your experience that lines up exactly with what they’re looking for. By going through each of the job description requirements one by one and reframing them into questions, you can prepare your responses and draw from them at the appropriate times during the interview.
Most jobs have no more than six or seven core result areas you’d be expected to deliver upon, so it’s typically not worth preparing any more than six or seven relevant stories to match them. The more you have to remember, the less likely you’ll be able to clearly and confidently articulate these stories in the interview. Like most things, quality over quantity is the name of the game.
Once you have your stories picked out, you’ll need to formulate your answers. Luckily, there’s an easy framework you’ll use for every single behavioral question they might throw your way, including ones you may not have prepared for. Make sure this is cemented in your memory — heck, write it on the inside of your wrist to remember it if you have to, because it’s the key to delivering your answers in a concise, logical manner without unnecessary rambling.
Ready? Here it is:
A – Action: What steps did you take to address the problem or challenge? Bonus points if it’s a particularly creative or innovative approach.
R – Result: What results did you produce or deliver (good or bad)? What lessons did you learn? What wisdom did you accumulate from the experience?
This is commonly referred to as the “STAR” framework, and it’s referenced often for two reasons: a) because it works and b) it’s how interviewers expect you to frame your answers.
There’s nothing worse than rambling on and on without any direction or impactful endpoint to your story. By taking a second to think through your response using the STAR framework before you deliver your answer, you ensure a smooth flow that gets to the point. When you’re done providing your answer, take a pause and let the interviewer acknowledge the response and ask any follow-up questions.
You may think that answering every single behavioral question this way would get repetitive or redundant, but it doesn’t — this framework is simply the most effective way to communicate your key points in a way that allows the interviewer to most accurately assess your suitability for the role.
Another benefit of using the STAR framework is that once you have your core set of stories to draw from, you can use them for any other interviews you might be going through. If you’re interviewing for different roles, however, it’s a good idea to reformulate your behavioral questions according to the requirements of that specific role.
- Questions for the interviewers
At certain points in the interview process, there will invariably come a time when the interviewer asks if you have any questions for him. Most people are so relieved to be done with the often difficult and uncomfortable behavioral questions that they take their foot off the gas and feel they have a license to breeze through what they consider to be the “easy part” of the interview.
Don’t make this mistake!
Asking good questions can give you critical insights into the role and company to which you’re applying, as well as demonstrate your interest in the role and knowledge of the company and industry. This is where you apply your research on the company and interviewer from the first two sections to fill gaps in your understanding of the role. You should have questions prepared in three key areas:
Personal questions help establish rapport with the interviewer and make them comfortable telling you things they may not have otherwise. An example of a good personal question would be “What are some professional goals you’ve laid out for yourself?” This puts you both at the same level and subtly implies that you’re both looking to achieve as much as you can in your careers. Asking questions like this also establishes a conversational cadence and removes some of the formality from the interview process.
Asking questions about the role will help you build an understanding of what you can expect should you land it. The interview process is just as much about you assessing whether or not the role is a fit as it is about the company assessing whether or not you’re a fit for the role.
Questions such as “What are some aspects other members of the team find challenging about this role?” help you piece together where you may run into roadblocks. It also demonstrates to the interviewer that you’re serious about your due diligence and care about your long-term success. It’s not going to do either side any good if you go down in flames after only a few months on the job.
Finally, asking company or industry-related questions shows you have a genuine interest in and understanding of the space. This is where you get to utilize the prior research you’ve done on the company and pose intelligent, curious questions. If you’re interviewing for Uber, for example, you might ask the following:
“The winners of the future of transportation are still very much uncertain. With partnerships like those between Lyft and GM, Uber and Toyota, rumors of Apple building their own car and Tesla gaining a serious foothold in the market, where does Uber see itself fitting into the picture of what the future looks like? How do you distinguish between who may be a partner vs. a competitor in a way that ensures the company’s continued growth and success?”
Questions like this have a wide range of possible answers and are so thought-provoking and open-ended that you’re likely to get a really good handle on how the company is envisioning success. Plus, you get a glimpse into the interviewer’s thought process and how confident they are in the company and its future.
It’s important to ask questions that you don’t know the answers to; otherwise you’ll be less inclined to pay attention and it will seem like you’re leading the responses. It’s a good idea to prepare at least one separate question for each person you’ll be interviewing with that covers different aspects of the company and industry. That way, you’ll have more pieces to fit into the overall puzzle of whether or not the company is a good fit for you.
Preparing in these key areas will build your confidence going into the interview and ensure you’ll make a good impression. Your conversations with the interviewers will flow more smoothly, you’ll be more relaxed and you’ll ultimately increase the chances of getting an offer.
Don’t fret if you don’t get an offer, however — there are a million potential reasons for this that have nothing to do with your skills or competence. I’ve been rejected for roles that I thought were a sure thing, and it doesn’t feel good. Everything happens for a reason, though, and as that door closed a few more opened, and I ended up landing the best job I’ve ever had.
One thing’s for sure: being well prepared for an interview certainly can’t hurt your chances of getting the job you want.
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