the most important things to know before your job interview

One of the strongest differentials between job candidates who do well in job interviews and job candidates who don’t is whether and how they prepare ahead of time. Preparation is crucial to coming across well; if you simply wing it, you risk coming across poorly and losing the job.

When you’re preparing, these are the six most important things to make sure you know.

1. What is the job all about? It might sound obvious, but plenty of people interview for jobs without really understanding what they’d be doing all day. If you walk into an interview not fully clear on the details of the job you’re applying for, you risk looking as if you don’t take your career or the interviewer’s time seriously.

2. What will it take to do it well? If you don’t understand what it will take to excel at the job, you won’t be able to show your interviewer why you’re a strong candidate. That means you need to prepare by thinking deeply ahead of time about what skills, talents, and traits will make the difference between doing an okay job in the position and doing a great job there. One good exercise is to imagine that you’re a coworker of the person in the position that you’re applying for. What would you expect from them if they excelled at the work? Another exercise: If you were hiring for this position, what would you look for in candidates? What sorts of things would concern you?

3. Why do you think you’ll do the job well? This is different from the last question; it’s about why you will be good at the job. What’s in your experience or skill set that will equip you to tackle the job? What can you point to in your past that shows a track record of doing well at similar work? It’s key to be thinking about this question, because it will be the #1 thing on your interviewer’s mind.

4. What will the challenges be? Every job has its challenges, and showing your interviewer that you’re aware of and prepared for them will make you a stronger candidate. When you imagine being in the role, what do you imagine to be the most difficult or frustrating parts? How will you approach those or manage around them?

5. What is the company all about? How do they see themselves? While companies might all look relatively similar from the outside, internally they usually have a very clear self-image. For instance, they might see themselves as cutting-edge, conservative, zany, or warm and informal. Understanding how they see themselves will allow you to show how you’d fit in to their culture and their place in the market.

6. What are you most worried you’ll be asked? Nearly everyone has something they’re hoping their job interviewer won’t bring up. For some people, it’s why they left a previous job or if they’ve ever been fired. For others, any discussion of salary terrifies them. Figure out what you’re most dreading, and practice your answer to it over and over. If you avoid it in the hopes it won’t come up, you risk winging it if it does – and doing that on a sensitive topic is likely to produce an answer you’re not happy with.

I originally published this column at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    What about “Who you will be interviewing with”? I do my best to get names and titles in advance, and find out what I can about each one (via LinkedIn, my network, etc.).

    Not as important as the ones mentioned, but still good to know.

  2. ChristineH*

    #1 – Is this just a matter of understanding the type of job in general? In other words, would I just need to understand what the typical functions of a Chocolate Teapot Maker in a mid-sized company are? Not all job ads are clear on what a job entails because they’re either filled with too much lingo or don’t have a lot of details.

    1. Suzanne*

      I was wondering the same thing, ChristineH. Some job listings are detailed to the point of ridiculous, while others list a sentence or two. The last interview I had was for what was termed a data entry position, but when I interviewed, I kept being told more and more things the job involved and then was repeatedly asked if I thought I could manage a fast paced job like this.
      So, you try to be prepared, but….

    2. Blinx*

      And still they manage to surprise you. I thought I was a shoo-in recently at one interview. I could check off all the qualifications for experience and what software programs I was skilled in. And then they started asking about X experience which needed Y software skills, mentioned NOwhere in the ad. I wanted to tell them, well if you wanted to hire Z, why didn’t you say so in the ad? They were probably inundated with unqualified applicants like me! (ok, rant over)

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s about really reading what they’ve written and understanding it as thoroughly as a reasonable person could. If the ad is too vague for that, of course there’s no way to really get a grasp on the job (although that of course raises questions about whether it’s a job you should be applying for, so hopefully you still have a basic understanding of what you might be getting yourself into). I write what I think most people would agree are clear and detailed job postings, and I still talk to candidates who didn’t process key details from the ad. That’s what I’m getting at with this one.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        You could ask them in the phone screen, if they do one. I really hate when they don’t list that I would have to do accounting, because I can’t, so if they call and I get a chance, I ask.

    4. HL*

      Make a point of asking if a copy of the complete or “formal” job description is available. This (together with other considerations) helps to determine “fit”, and also helps with the specific, and measurable goals by which your performance in the position will be measured once you’re in the role.

      I agree: If “abc” or “xyz” weighs heavy in hiring criteria, it should be included in the original job posting.

  3. Victoria*

    OT but I wish that I could share your USN articles on LinkedIn. When I first go to the articles, there’s a “Share on LinkedIn” link on the left, but then it poofs into the black swirling vortex of nothingness and all I can do is tweet, like, or G+1.

  4. Mike*

    One thing that I think helped me during my interview was having a strong sense of who I was, what I’m capable of, and what I want to do. This enabled me to answer the questions I never expected in an honest and real manner.

    1. sophylou*

      +1. Add to that a good sense of what you’ve accomplished and what those accomplishments say about you.

  5. Learned my lesson*

    I had an interview a few months ago for an internal position. The first interview was great because the current manager (who was splitting up her team and looking for a new manager for the people who weren’t going to be on her new team) and I talked about the responsibilities and how things could be accomplished. It was a great conversation. But when it came to the second interview, which included her boss (who is my boss’ boss), I was way too cavalier about it, and I didn’t do as well as I could have if I had prepared for it. The job was a stretch for me, and I may not have gotten an offer anyway, but it was embarrassing to fumble on some of the questions I was asked (and could have anticipated and prepared for). And especially since it was a stretch, I should have rehearsed answers to questions about why I would be a good choice for the job even though I don’t have experience with XYZ. I won’t do that again. Now that I have AAM’s guide for preparing for interviews, I will follow the steps there. And if I don’t have time do adequately prepare, I won’t apply and then wing it.

    1. Learned my lesson*

      I meant to say that part of the reason I was so cavalier about the interview is that I’m currently happily employed and don’t NEED to change jobs. But it was really embarrassing to be so unprepared. I feel like I now need to work twice as hard to prove that I deserve the good reputation I have for my work because I know my manager recommended me highly to her boss, and he was probably thinking, “really? this is the person who’s so great at ABC?”

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