Four Tips for Doing Your Homework Before the Interview

You have a first or second-round interview for a job that seems out of reach – what do you do? Take the time to do some homework to alleviate some of the stress answering questions that feel tough or unanswerable.

Recently, one of my friends told me about an interview he had scored that was for a dream job he really wanted. I took the opportunity to speak with him about preparing for the interview and help him put his past experiences into perspective to answer the questions we figured would come up. I should know – almost all of my interviews for jobs I landed were for jobs that were just ahead of my confidence in my skills. But I had a few tips that helped me land each one. I want to share some of the tips I gave him that I believe will work for most others.

Preparation is Your Best Way to Ease Interview Jitters

Maya Angelou once said, “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” Interviews for jobs we are suited for seem like a piece of cake. But interviews for jobs just out of our comfort zone can fill us with unease and doubt. I really do believe we can prepare for the tough questions we believe will come up, have prepared responses that we can recall in realtime, and still remain authentic to our skills. Below are four tips I recommended to my friend and I know will work for you.

Prepare for the questions you believe will be a challenge to answer.

Sometimes we find ourselves feeling unprepared for the tough questions, since we may not have had all the required skills listed on our resumes – but you can look for skills that are adjacent to what you’re missing. If you’re interviewing for a position that requires supervision and you haven’t had the opportunity to supervise a staff member in your most recent position, look through your resume for any similar experiences to supervision.

For instance, you could speak to how you had to manage an executive board for a graduate or undergraduate student organization or worked with a group of volunteers for a conference planning team and what you learned from the experience. Be thoughtful about not stretching the truth, but use all the experiences you referenced on your resume when you need to.

Sometimes we’re asked questions that might bring up some level of trauma, like being furloughed or fired from a past position or leaving a job because of an awful professional experience with an old boss or co-workers. You could preempt the question by bringing it up first, and how you’re looking for a better fit in culture. Or you can answer the question, but keep your answer promptly and concisely. Avoid placing blame, either on yourself or your former employer – but connect with how the current company may be a better fit for you to grow and expand your skills to meet their goals.

Think about your strengths and areas of improvement strategically.

It can cause a great deal of anxiety to focus on areas of improvement, but it may be easier to think about a situation where you had to learn how to tackle an issue or develop a new skill due to receiving feedback. Avoid trite answers like “I like things to be perfect” for a weakness – who doesn’t want things to be perfect? Instead, think about a time when being perfect kept you from making an important decision or meeting a deadline, and how you learned how to better prioritize or ask for help with creating priorities.

Have more than one example for standard questions you think will come up.

It can be helpful to write down your past experiences and think about what you learned from these times – did you learn about collaboration? Holding people accountable? A skill like budgeting? Often during an interview we struggle to come up with examples off the top of our head, especially if we have worked at multiple locations or departments. Taking the time to chart your experiences may help you recall multiple examples from the handful of experiences you want to reference.

Use a negative experience when necessary to get the point across.

Not all previous work experiences have left us with the ‘warm fuzzies’ or a feeling that we would miss the environment. The fit could have been wrong, we could have had a poor supervisor, or co-workers that didn’t make us feel part of the team. Maybe the job was necessary for skills but you’re hoping the next one is better – and you’re asked why you left your previous position, or what would your co-workers say about you if asked. Before the interview, think of the positive spin you would put on the experiences, like what you learned you need from co-workers to feel a part of the team, or what you’ve learned about developing skills or receiving feedback that are necessary for you now that you’ve experienced differently.

Change the Script in Your Head

Much of the anxiety I have felt, and have been told by others, is feeling unprepared for the interview, especially when the position feels out of reach or doesn’t reflect the skills we have. We often need to change the scripts we have in our head and instead focus on what we can demonstrate and refer to that is similar or adjacent to what we want to show.

One way to overcome this is to break-down your resume – identify the parts of your resume that correspond with the job description of the position you are trying to secure. This should help understand how and why you’re advancing in the search both during screening calls or in-person interviews.

Taking the time to do your homework before the interview should help alleviate some of the stress we naturally feel about finding a job. But our confidence in our skills and how they can benefit the organization is part of what we are also trying to sell. Put time into building this confidence and you’ll begin to share these skills more naturally.


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