Whether you’re reading this during lockdown when I’m currently writing this post or long after it, I want to share with you my top tips on how to ace a job interview. After all, the right and wrongs of what to do in a job interview exist at all times, whether we’re in a global pandemic or not. In fact, given the employment sector as a whole has felt a little shaky in recent times, it couldn’t be more important to bag that job that you do go for.
As I’m going to cover in this post, what you do before you get in that room matters just as much as what you do once you’re in there. There’s no such thing as a stopwatch that can pause time if you realise that you are unprepared. Instead, you have one shot to make the right impression on the hiring manager. Even at the best of times, you have a lot of competition. Are you ready to stand out from the crowd and bag that job? If so, here’s everything you need to know on how to ace a job interview.
When you get the interview: Study like it’s a PhD baby
You have passed the obligatory 30 minute HR screener. You have proved that you are not a muppet and a viable candidate. Congratulations! The work doesn’t stop there though. I’m afraid it’s only just begun.
There are four key areas you have to focus on, which are as follows:
1. Know the company, the product and the role inside out. It's not enough to know it, you have to show it.
There's a ton of information available. Go download the annual company report. Read it inside out, do a competitive review, learn the numbers. If it's a start-up, deep dive into the investor profiling and funding rounds. Start with Crunchbase and become your own Dick Tracy from there. Make notes, plan questions. Interviewers want to know what you did to prepare for this interview. Saying ‘I looked at your website’ is lazy, I am still staggered by the number of candidates who 'fail' on this question.
You need to show the physicality of your excellent preparation and knowledge. PRINT IT ALL OUT. Write questions on Post It notes all over your prints. Show them who’s getting a forensic going over. You will use the information you have learnt. If you worry about the cost of the cartridges, get a cartridge-free printer like the Epson EcoTank. If you worry about the environmental impact, print in the draft, black and white, double-sided. Recycle the paper once you're finished. So long as you do it.
2. Practice makes perfect
Running through your job interview beforehand is one of the best tips I can give you. No, you’re not always going to know what questions they will ask you but that’s not the point. What is the point, is to know why you’re the best person for the job and be able to verbalise this out loud.
Not doing so is like sitting an exam at school without having been to any lessons all year. It just won’t unlock your potential. These days, there’s so much content out there to help you perfect your interview technique. LinkedIn (premium) has a course. I used to watch Suzy Welch's career videos on CNBC for key tips too.
3. Learn and become a storyteller
Employers are looking at you to fill a role that is going to contribute to their organisation. Why are you a better person than the other 10+ candidates they might interview? Now is your time to shine by becoming a great storyteller.
Another tip is to watch entrepreneurs talk about their business, especially if the job you are going for is in a similar industry. Even if it’s not, the same key principles remain. You need to be able to communicate to the employer what you can offer their company and ultimately how you will be a great ROI.
4. Be ready to show your competencies
Illustrate as many use cases from your career so far as you can and make them available on-demand, from memory. Think through what might be most relevant to that role. The key to talking through these is the STAR method.
You will get interrogated on your competencies, so learn the applied technique of 'STAR'.
- Situation - What situation were you faced with?
- Task - What tasks were you involved in that situation?
- Action - What actions did you take?
- Results - What were the results of those actions?
I recommend you write all your use cases down, one case per page. Print your outputs and make a folder. You now have a reference library to pull on. Don't 'wing it'.
Why all the writing and printing? Written work has a better cognitive recall. You'll need great recall in an interview situation.
Say everything without uttering a word
We’ve all heard the statistics about “employers decide whether they are going to hire you within seven seconds of you walking into the room”. While no two companies or hiring managers are the same, what does remain consistent is that how you present yourself can have just as much of an impression, if not more so than what you say. That’s why it’s key to master your body language and exude confidence and professionalism. Your goal here is to underpin your credibility and authenticity.
The first rule is to make eye contact, 67% of hiring managers cite lack of eye contact as the biggest mistake a candidate can make. If you are presenting to multiple people then make eye contact with all of them. Know who the key stakeholders are and focus on them. Spend more of your energy connecting with the decision makers. Likewise, do not fold your arms, as this suggests you are closed and defensive. Sit attentively, arms on a table or a lap and lean in on interesting discussions, but don't lean back and relax too much as you'll come across as disengaged or flippant. Having physical items such as handwritten notepad, all your research, a pen etc all serve as professional props that you can credibly play with if appropriate.
Oh, and just a word about your answer to ‘would you like a coffee or tea?’ Your answer is ‘no thank you’. Because think about what would happen if you spill your coffee all over the table or worse, yourself? If you must have liquid, then only have a very small amount of water. I take a small bottle of water with me so that I can have a drink but close the lid again afterwards.
Virtual job interviews: How to
Before Covid-19, the trend for online interviews was already clear with a 49% increase in interviews being online since 2011 and 6 in 10 HR managers actively using video*. And it's not hard to see why. 74% of recruiters say video interviews make their jobs easier; 88% of recruiters say online interviews save them money; 90% of recruiters say video interviewing reduce their time spent to fill positions.**
If your job interview is within a few days or weeks of me posting this, it will be a virtual one due to being in lockdown, but given the HR trend in using video, mastering your body language over video will be an ongoing skill you are going to need.
Remember, online is just like offline so all the same rules apply. Though, the added challenge here is to avoid the video call errors that so many people do. Here's my checklist for you to review before you get on that video interview.
If you are on a laptop, raise the laptop so the camera is at eye level. I've used a stack of books, shoe boxes or a big box of cereal in the past to do this! If you don't have your camera at eye level, you will either be looking down on your audience or they will be looking up your nose! Did you trim lately?
You need to sound clear, you need to hear well too. Use a headset or professional unified communications speaker like the Jabra 510 (it's what I use). Again, I’ve used a cereal box before to raise the microphone so that my audio was not only clear but the sound of the room was minimised.
Again, all the same rules apply. Be in smart interview-ready attire. Now is not the time to be casual although I did once get offered a job wearing a shirt, tie and blazer...they just could not see the Hawaiian shorts and sandals below!
Do not do a video interview whilst holding a phone. I’ve seen people do a video interview from their car whilst driving and other compromising (and dangerous!) positions. Let this not be you!
There is a training course on LinkedIn (premium) all about video meetings. Take it. Practice makes perfect.
Top Tip: Practice your call beforehand with a friend to check they can hear you, that the angle is good, there’s plenty of natural light and that your backdrop is appropriate.
Negotiate your salary
Have the money talk first. Don't dance around this topic. If they don't mention it, you should because you could be wholly disappointed after putting a ton of work in. I once went through a three-month process, got offered the job and found that the offer was not acceptable. We all had to walk away. But what are you worth you might ask? Convention states "whatever anyone is willing to pay" but for the most part, this is not true when it comes to hiring.
If you want to know that a job pays before you have the 'talk' you are unlikely to be able to access the tools that HR have. But you do have tools at your disposal. The two easiest are Glassdoor (free) and LinkedIn (premium). These will give you a sign on the pay scale for a particular role at a specific company. If you want to go market-wide, then sites such as payscale.com can give you a decent idea of where you stand. It's free with registration.
When the question comes, "what is your pay expectation for this role?" Do not answer with a number, you will get judged and accounted for it. I've seen a colleague get paid 35% less than their peers. They did not know their true value in the market and they gave HR a number in the interview. That's what they got offered, that's what they accepted, and it will take five years of pay reviews for them to get parity. I usually give my last two salaries as an example and state a wide range without committing myself. I then push it back to the recruiter. Sometimes the conversation ends, sometimes not but there's always clarity around the expectations. I have found that HR people accept this. Do not sell yourself short. Know your market value.
If there’s one thing I can’t say enough about job interviews, it’s that you have to prepare, and no, just visiting their company website isn’t enough. You have to know the company inside out so that not only can you provide the right answers but so you can be sure you’re the right fit for the company too.
Ultimately, they are looking for the person that will enrich the business. If you don’t know why that’s you and you can’t communicate this in your interview, expect to be overlooked in favour of someone who can. Most of all, a job interview is like anything in life, in that the more you put in the more you will get out.
I hope my above experience and guidance will help you secure your next role.