can I ask what to expect at a job interview?

A reader writes:

I have a job interview next week and because I’m a new grad it’s one of many I’ve had this year. All interviewers have been wildly different in their approach, questions, and scope of inquiry. I interviewed at the public library and felt like I had undergone trivia hour: explain our mantra, explain our programs, what do you know about the person who the library is named after, etc. On the flip side, I have also had interviews where I was asked how I like to work and what my five year goals are.

Is it acceptable or professional to ask the interviewer if there is anything I can do to prepare or what I can expect at the interview?

If you really want to, when you’re scheduling the interview you can ask, “Is there anything I can prepare ahead of time?” Most of the time, though, you won’t get a very helpful answer — you’re most likely to hear there’s nothing you need to prepare in advance or something vague like “we’ll be going over your background and the skills needed for the role,” which doesn’t tell you anything you wouldn’t have already assumed.

Similarly, in most cases there’s no point in asking what to expect at the interview because, again, you’re unlikely to hear anything particularly helpful. You also risk looking inexperienced or in need of extra hand-holding. Most people are likely to respond with some version of “we’ll be going over your background and the skills needed for the role.”

In some cases you might get a few additional details, like the number of people you’ll be meeting with or that they’ll have you do a skills test or written exercise while you’re there.

But you’re very unlikely to hear specifics on what types of questions you should prepare for, like  “we’re going to quiz you on what you know about our organization” or “we’ll be asking about your favorite classes and your long-term goals.” In part that’s because interviewers don’t want to give away their questions ahead of time — although when they do, they generally do that without prompting. Also, the person scheduling your interview is often someone different than the person conducting the interview, and may have little insight into what you’ll be asked. Plus, employers generally want a reasonably level playing field — so if they’re not telling the other candidates what to prep for, they don’t want to give just one person that advantage.

What you’ve been encountering is just the reality that there are a lot of different interview styles out there, and you’ve got to be prepared for them all. (Although at least part of that library trivia hour sounds over the top.)

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. Catsaber*

    Re: the trivia hour, I think most employers who have a public website will expect you to glance over it and be generally familiar with the company and its work – they certainly don’t want to hire someone who has no clue what company they’ve applied to – but I think asking you to explain the mantra/programs/founder/etc is a little much. Unless I’m mistaken about what is expected when interviewing at a library.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I think it’s a bit much, but well within the range of interviewer quirks–the one thing that is really big to Margot at Amalgamated Teapots that doesn’t matter to most other interviewers. Like interviewers who want you to explain why manhole covers are round.

      In the library case, it could be a shorthand that evolved after she found that people who had versed themselves in the library’s programs and history before the interview turned out to be good hires. Or that she is very into the lore of the founder and has decided to make that a hiring criteria, because she can.

      1. Jerk Store*

        I was thinking for the library one that the interviewer might want to know if the candidate has any background knowledge of patron FAQs.

      2. Working Mom Having It All*

        I’m also wondering if this particular library has a specific focus or mission that is different from just any regular branch library, and they find it an easy weed-out to ask about that in the interview. Especially because “library” isn’t all that specific in terms of what the day to day is. There are neighborhood libraries where you’re a glorified babysitter/community outreach coordinator. There are research libraries with a very narrow focus and specific mission within that area. Even the name could be a factor in that. If you’re interviewing at the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem and don’t know who Countee Cullen was, you’re going to have a bad time.

        1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

          I was thinking of Carnegie libraries, of which there are several. Or other kinds of memorial libraries where the person is famous in their niche and instrumental in establishing the institution. I think it would be too much to expect a detailed biography but an awareness that the person was known for philanthropy or what have you would be reasonable.

            1. EinJungerLudendorff*

              Going by purely the name: At least an interesting interview conversation or a very swift pivot to a different subject.

        1. Grace*

          The answer I’ve heard – they aren’t, most manholes are square (made of two triangles for stability). When a manhole is round, it’s because it’s covering a round hole.

          1. ScarletNumber*

            > When a manhole is round, it’s because it’s covering a round hole.

            LOL well, yes, that would make sense.

            I’m guessing you are talking about the covers.

    2. Elitist Semicolon*

      I disagree that asking about programs is an overreach – it’s a legit way of finding out not only whether the interviewee has taken the time to learn about the organization they’re applying to, but also the extent to which they are able/willing to engage in and support those programs. Going to an interview implies some inherent acceptance/recognition of what a job might involve and is an expression of interest in doing those things, so an interviewee who can say, “I see that you run extensive programming for children but only monthly events for adults” is recognizing that they will be expected to interact with children regularly and indicating that they can be okay with that. “What do you know about our programming?” is sort of a blended shorthand for “why this job in particular?” and “are you cool with what we do here?” Asking about the founder/namesake of the library might stray into Final Jeopardy!, but making sure the applicant knows what they applied for isn’t unreasonable.

      1. Spartan*

        Having worked in the library world (not a Librarian) myself and my wife is a Librarian. I can agree that knowledge of the types and frequency of programming can be good to know going into an interview. However, if the questions stray into being able to list programs or times or having memorized a schedule that gets to be a bit much. I may know you offer monthly programs on x, y and z but not that once a year you also do a,b and c because its the wrong time of year for that to be published.

        I have met librarians who expect you to know every detail and those who just want to know that you spent some time getting familiar with the library before the interview. The latter group tends to find better candidates then the former. The former often end up with candidates from the area who already knew the library or knew someone on staff who gives them the secret code. That can be good but also leads to potentially fewer new ideas making it into the org.

        1. schnauzerfan*

          As I librarian, I can tell you what I’m looking for when I play trivial pursuits with job applicants. I want someone with the courage to say “Gee, I don’t know, but I could probably find out.” Then my followup question will be “so how would you go about finding the answer?” The last person we want to hire is the one who’ll make up an answer that “sounds good.” The best library candidates are the ones who can answer, hmm, I think I saw something about that on your website, read about that in yesterdays paper, saw it on the news. Give me a couple minutes to run it down for you. 2nd are the ones who know the answer, the ones who confidently give me the wrong answer, then argue about it? Dead last.

          1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

            Ohhhhhh, a sneaky way to figure out what their research skills are. Interesting variation on the “tell me about a time when …”

            1. pleaset*

              Why be tricky? If this is an important task – and in many library jobs it is – there’s no need to hide it.

              1. EinJungerLudendorff*

                I feel the same way, especially since my response would be different than if I got that question during a normal workday.
                If I get those questions during an interview, I assume the interviewer wants to test my knowledge. Giving complete or even completely accurate information is less important then demonstrating my knowledge and skills in that scenario. While usually it would be the opposite.

                1. ChimericalOne*

                  Yeah, it wouldn’t even occur to me to say “I can find out” if an interviewer asked me a question about their org that I didn’t know the answer to. Most interviewers I’ve encountered, the conversation would go like:
                  THEM: What do you know about X?
                  ME: I’m aware of your Y and Z programs, but I actually don’t know all that much about your X program, besides that it’s a very new initiative.
                  THEM: Ah, let me tell you all about it!

                  It would never occur to me to say, “Wait, I don’t know this, but I’ll look it up” when I’m face to face with someone who can tell me exactly what they think it’s important to know. Of course I CAN find out — and would look it up in a business context in a heartbeat if necessary — but is that my default in an interview? No.

          2. SusanIvanova*

            That also works on tech interviews: “I don’t know, but I know what search terms will find the best answer.”

          3. WellRed*

            So do they stop in the middle of the interview to google it on their smart phone (providing they have one)?

            1. schnauzerfan*

              Don’t laugh, but we do ask them about cell phones. “When you get a new phone or other techie gadget, how do you go about learning how to use it.?” (It was a better question several years back when lots of people were a little more intimidated by technology.) But we still have people telling us how much they hate that “high tech” stuff… Well, that’s kind of the kiss of death if you want to work for us. We introduce several new patron interfaces every semester and have students coming in needing assistance with a variety of phones, tablets, laptops and so on. I’d love it if someone pulled out their phone and got onto the website to get the right answer.

              1. pleaset*

                “I’d love it if someone pulled out their phone and got onto the website to get the right answer.”

                As someone who doesn’t own a smartphone but is quite technologically proficient – including designing interfaces and hiring designers who do that etc. – this would worry me. I don’t use a smart phone by choice, but can, and assume you’d recognize that.

              2. Pommette!*

                That makes a lot of sense. Not everyone treats tech like a puzzle that can be solved, or a technique that can be learned.

                I’ve had to train myself (hard) not to say “I hate that tech stuff” in interviews. Because I do! I’m not tech savy, at all. But that has forced me to learn how to deal with new and bewildering tech glitches, and how to figure my way into around new interfaces and systems.

          4. ScarletNumber*

            So the candidate who knows the answer ranks below someone who doesn’t but can tell a good story?

            This is why people hate hiring.

            1. EinJungerLudendorff*

              I think schnauzer means that they value the skill to find information more than simply remembering, since you can’t possibly know everything.

              But I definitely think they should have other (guaranteed) ways of testing that skill, if they don’t have them already.

      2. Samwise*

        Yep, if a candidate is asking questions that are easily answered with a cursory look at our website, I’m thinking “you haven’t done your homework.” Whereas if a candidate is asking questions, or answering questions, that show they’ve thought about what we (say we) do, I’m thinking, “Ooo, you’ve done your homework!”

        Look through the website before an interview and have some intelligent questions to ask based on what you find.

      3. Working Mom Having It All*

        Also… the namesake of the library might be a decent clue as to where their focus lies, or even what kind of community they serve. My guess is that they’re not asking about some rando as a gotcha, but that a good candidate will be familiar with that person and how they may tie in with this library and its users.

    3. Joa*

      As a person who interviews people for jobs in public libraries, I do want to see that a person has a reasonable understanding of what it means to work in a public library, and they care about the service that is being provide. It is very different from what many think and I want to screen out people who want the job because they think they are going to get to sit around and calmly read books in a quiet, peaceful environment. In reality, it is the opposite of that, and hires that are book-oriented and not people-oriented are rarely successful.

      I could imagine this person having that in mind, and going about it in an extremely clumsy way. I’ve never known of a library to take the trivia approach to interviewing, nor is it recommended in any professional media I’ve ever encountered.

      1. Librarianne*

        Yes, this. The number of people I’ve met who assume I read novels all day, or that they’d get to do so, is truly mind-boggling. A loud, busy library is a sign of success!

      1. League.*

        Yeah, what does this mean in this context? I’ve worked in five public libraries and two academic ones, and none has had a “mantra.”

    4. Librarianne*

      I have worked in many libraries, both public and academic, and never had to explain the library’s “mantra.” If the building is named after a person, I’d be a little surprised if an interviewee didn’t have at least a vague idea of who that person was.

      Asking about programs, especially major outreach efforts, etc., is definitely expected in a library interview. The main branch of the public library in my town does a lot of outreach with the (large and growing) homeless population, for example, and people who aren’t comfortable working with homeless folks would not be a good fit for that library. Most of that information is right on the library’s website and should be considered basic background research when preparing for an interview.

      1. pleaset*

        ” If the building is named after a person, I’d be a little surprised if an interviewee didn’t have at least a vague idea of who that person was.”

        “Stephen Schwarzmann – isn’t he one of those finance guys who think they know everything and are looting our country?”

    5. MissDisplaced*

      I can see that with a lot of nonprofits, but not as much with a library. Unless it was some type of unique or special library?

      1. Youth Services Librarian*

        I got yelled at by some people about a year after I started my job b/c I didn’t know anything about the person the children’s area was named after. I don’t know why they cared – they were from out of town and didn’t have kids. We’re a public/community library, not an historical society. *shrug*

    6. corporate librarian in Canada*

      I am a librarian and here are my first few questions for interviews:
      So how did you prepare for this interview?
      (hopefully one of the answers is that they looked at the web site, if they don’t mention it, I ask)
      Tell me a little about what you found.

      I am always amazed, but by now should not be, how many have not looked. Those that do often looked at some other division oftgen in another country. (I am a corporate librarian)

      If you want to be the person people go to for answers, you need to have some, you need to know where you are interviewing, what the company makes, etc. Not in depth, but at least superficially.

      n.b. I can tell when you are trying to make it up on the spot.

  2. glitter writer*

    If you’re applying for writing or editing jobs it’s worth double-checking. I was once surprised to find that my expected in-person time for an interview was three hours, with an on-site writing test included. (In my experience prior to that interview, all of my writing tests had been emailed, timed remote, or second-interview affairs.)

    1. Washed Out Data Analyst*

      Yeah – I do recommend asking for a schedule and general time-frame. For me, this is a big deal. How long an interview takes makes the difference between a doctor’s appt and a full on sick day.

      1. Devil Fish*

        Is there a generally accepted and most professional way to ask how long to expect an interview to take? And is this something interviewers are generally prepared to be asked? I’ve gotten a lot of side-eye for asking “How much time should I set aside in my schedule for the interview?” so I think I’m doing something wrong here.

        I’d still rather ask than not because I’ve been surprised a few times by initial interviews that should have been like half an hour max and then they ended up just going on for like 3 hours because the interviewer liked me and was awful at interviewing (wtf retail), or by places that had strangely long interview processes and no one bothered to tell me it would multiple interviews over the full day (again: wtf). Seems kind of rude to me?

        1. Washed Out Data Analyst*

          I don’t see why it would be rude. In my industry, it’s actually the norm for the recruiter to provide a schedule on their own accord in the e-mail confirmation. Usually, the confirmation reads something like this: “This to confirm your interview for Thursday, July 10th at 1PM. Your schedule is as follows:

          1:oo: Director Alpha Beta and Asst. Director April May
          1:30: Writing Assessment
          2:00: Case Study

          If they don’t provide you with something like this, there is nothing wrong with asking how long the interview will take or who you will be speaking with. If a recruiter responded badly to doing so, I would take it as a red flag.

      2. Fortitude Jones*

        Agreed. I had a three hour interview earlier this year (that went over a half hour) that I was not prepared for – I thought it would be a panel interview, but it was individual one hour interviews with the key decision makers. I should have asked for clarification during the initial HR phone screen (though the HR rep was useless, so she probably would have given me the wrong information anyway).

    2. Filosofickle*

      I was also once surprised by a 3-hour interview and since then have made a point of asking how long to expect.

      I was expecting a short, simple meeting. I had sent in a blind “Hi I just got out of grad school and we know someone in common will you please talk to me” letter and got a meeting based on that. They, however, had actual job openings and were in full interview mode. The HR person didn’t tell the interviewers (or me) this. They set me up in the board room for 3 1-hour interviews with each of the partners.

      It started at 11a, so I figured I’d get lunch after. Ha! 11-2, no breaks, no one even offered me water or bathroom. (At some point I asked.) Man I was loopy by the end.

    3. Willis*

      Yeah, if someone asked me what to expect in an interview, that’s the type of info I’d anticipate they’re looking for (length, number of people, will it include a skills test, etc.). I don’t think it would cross my mind that they’re asking what type of questions we’d discuss. That said, I’d usually let someone know those general logistics without them having to ask.

    4. Quoth the Raven*

      Translator here, and I agree it’s worth double-checking.

      I’ve had on-site translation tests sprung on me during the first interview, too (in my experience they’re almost always emailed). One of them was actually part of a business partnership agreement — which is far from my area of expertise and the kind of texts I avoid working on unless there is literally no option. I would have loved to know to expect that.

    5. BeeJiddy*

      Oooh, this happened to me recently too. To be fair, it was the fault of the external recruiter and not the company, but it still felt really disrespectful of my time. It was a one hour interview, one-hour skills test and then shadowing for an hour, whereas I had been lead to believe it was just the interview. Add to that the excruciatingly long drive home as a 3-hour interview had put me square in the middle of rush hour traffic. Had to bail on my afternoon lectures. After all of that, I was automatically removed from consideration because my availability didn’t line up with what the company needed which came to light at the very end of the process. I had been very upfront about my availability with the recruiter from the absolute beginning but she hadn’t passed that on to the company. Sigh.

  3. Lisa B*

    I had a candidate show up at my office a week prior to the interview to ask me what types of questions I used in the interview, so they had time to prepare.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      What did you do though?? Did you give them the questions? That’s not the right thing to do, please OP don’t do this!

      This person seems to have taken the Gumption Pill that morning.

      1. Lisa B*

        It was quite a baffling situation, which we chalked up to inexperience. We explained that this was a Not Done Thing at odds with the expectations of the role, and cancelled their interview.

        1. Frank Doyle*

          You chalked up to inexperience, but then cancelled the interview? That seems harsh, unless it was a senior position.

          1. Owl*

            Plenty of new grads know not to do that. It’s fine to want to choose among those ones. If you’re already questioning someone’s judgement an interview is a waste of both of your time.

          2. Lisa B*

            Fair point, but yes, it was a senior position. This person’s experience would have been juuuust meeting the qualifications but we were willing to make it a stretch based on the skills they had. When this happened it showed that the candidate wasn’t as versed in business/office norms as we would need, and would need more hands-on time than we give at a senior level.

          3. Allypopx*

            I know I’m a curmudgeon but I think part of life experience is dealing with the consequences of your actions, even if they come from a place of ignorance. At least they got an explanation as to why, which they can move forward armed with. It’s perfectly fine to take this as a flag they would be a difficult employee or one in need of a lot of coaching and decide not to take that on.

  4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    The best way to prepare for an interview is just to get as much information about the company that’s available. So scroll through their website and get an idea of their history and in the case of the library, I’d look into what they do for community outreach programs as well. That way you can at least have some background on where you’re at and what they are doing, even if it seems pretty obvious “You’re a library…so books and other reference materials, right?” That’s something everyone is going to know, you’re going to give yourself a leg up by having a better grasp at their history and what they’re doing within the community they’re serving.

    You will never know what is going to be asked at an interview, so it’s all about just having a little bit of knowledge to draw on so you don’t struggle completely.

    I have never not hired someone because they didn’t research us first but the people who did, they really stuck out as the people we’d want the most. [Spoiler, lots of people don’t research the company, so you really can do a huge service to yourself by making sure you do that.]

    1. Kiwiii*

      I usually try and do a bit of research beforehand, and I’ve found the thing that works is if I can find out a few specific things/categories to pull from. 1) What’s something they’re actively working on/will be launching in the next year or so (so I can relate it to something I’ve done, express enthusiasm for it, or ask how my role will engage with it), 2) something they’ve done in the last year or so or something highly publicized (so i can express what the company has been doing or what it’s known for and ask any follow up questions about that), and 3) what the company values either through the work it does, or if it has a mission or slogan or something (so that I can express enthusiasm about it, ask what it looks like in practice, or tell them about how it aligns with my own values).

      Pulling it apart step by step like this gives me things to focus on in the research process with an end goal, so I don’t try and learn everything from the CEO’s interests to their budget for the last year, even if the topics don’t end up being 100% applicable to all interviews.

      1. 1&2*

        I would advise being careful with items 1 & 2. I’ve done that before in an interview (company had been recently published in Industry Magazine) and the interviewer said “I can’t speak to the Teapot Painting coverage because I didn’t work on that.” I didn’t get the job and they were not impressed that I “researched” them.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          You’ll always get a few snotty salty people over the years, responding and being cold about someone bringing up their coverage is not normal! You probably don’t want to work somewhere that treats people poorly because they googled somewhere before just showing up for an interview.

          1. 1&2*

            The job was also an entry level one so I figured they would appreciate a candidate taking an interest in their work. *shrug*

            FWIW, the article didn’t mention who at the company specifically worked on the project. She could’ve easily said “Yes, we are very proud of being showcased in Industry Magazine. Jane actually spearheaded that project so she would have more information about it” but she didn’t. Oh well.

            1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              Yeah the normal thing to do is say “Oh yeah that wasn’t our department but it was a great project done over in the Tea Pot Painting department.”

              Sometimes when it’s entry level you can be seen as “too eager” if you are advanced like that though. So I wonder if that was what she was flinching at verbally but still, meh live and learn but don’t let that kind of stuff scare you away from researching and let it know that you looked a place up!

        2. Kiwiii*

          Yeah, 1 and 2 have worked best when I have been able to find something that I know the team/bureau/branch I’m interviewing for was involved in rather than the company as a whole.

    2. OrigCassandra*

      Librarian and educator of librarians (etc.) here: if you come in with “books and other reference materials,” in larger public and nearly all academic libraries, you are quite likely to cause pained smiles and internal eyerolls.

      That’s the stereotype. The stereotype is rarely the whole of reality in twenty-nineteen.

      If you want to rock an interview at a library, look through its website for ebooks and databases, homework help and storytime, makerspaces and media labs, technology training, gadget checkout (for many values of “gadget” including seed libraries, tool libraries, and ed-tech), Internet access modalities (do they circ mobile hotspots?), local history, services to seniors, or anything else that makes the specific library in question stand out.

      The OP’s experience feels very weird to me, and I would yellow-flag that library as an employer. That’s not a library that is doing its hiring well, in my opinion.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        This is literally why I’d never even dream of trying to work for a library. I adore the library system and am glad to be back in “civilization” where I have plenty of access to them. But yeah, lots of us just don’t get how much work is involved and all the resources involved within the system!

        I always felt like you need to specifically be educated in libraries to be a good candidate to work for one. I’ve heard a lot of “oh I love libraries, I wanna be a librarian and live in the stacks!” whimsical stuff tossed around by friends and colleagues over the years and I shiver a bit at how they view such an intricate system I know you have going on over there.

      2. Thankful for AAM*

        Well said, OrigCassandra!
        For a library job, I’d be looking at programming and connecting what they offer (and dont offer) to your skill set. Its a way to say I love what you do amd here is evidence that I can do it and add to it.

        Also, being interested in and able to navigate our website is a way to show me you have the basic skills for the job.

    3. Blue*

      Yes, I feel the same way. If a candidate isn’t familiar with all the programs our organization runs, that’s totally fine, but showing they’ve done a bit of background research generally gets them bonus points.

    4. LunaLena*

      I think it’s also worth it to not just go through a company’s website and get an idea of what they’re about, but to also try to think of ways your skills and experience would plug into the role they’re hiring for. For example, I was told I’d be working with a large variety of clients, so I said that not only did I work directly with a huge range of clients at Previous Job, prior to Current Career I had worked in customer service for X years and was accustomed to listening to and accommodating a wide range of client concerns.

  5. Queen of Cats*

    At least in my field (tech) bigger companies often have interview prep materials available if you ask, or at least can recommend books or websites. Recruiting don’t offer this info up for whatever reason. I’ve found “Do you have any tips for me?” or “What can you tell me about the format of the interviews?” to be okay questions for a new grad to ask.
    And when I coach candidates (another service we offer that most folks don’t know about) part of the coaching is getting them familiar with the format.

    But even at a large company with multiple layers of bureaucracy trying to standardize the candidate experience, we just can’t tell you what will actually happen beyond generalities. Some interviewers will penalize even new grads for not having previous experience in our niche role. Others will penalize folks significantly for not knowing about our particular branch of the company. We try to correct them when we know about it but we can’t catch every case. A friend interviewed at my company and I personally knew all but one of the interviewers. And I knew they were good interviewers. And he still had a crappy experiences that was inconsistent with the expectations I set up because of a miscommunication and a scheduling mistake. Interviewers are people and people are random at the best of times.

    1. Queen of Cats*

      I forgot to add that a Google search for Company Name + Interview Questions or Interview will often give you enough to help you know what you are walking into. It works less well now that people put most of their content on FB or Twitter instead of blogs but it is still worth the quick search.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I definitely would not ask “do you have any tips for me?” unless you’re talking to an outside recruiter. If you’re talking to someone within the company, in most fields that will come across oddly.

      1. techRando*

        Yeah, I think this is very specific to software engineering interviews, but if my team was hiring a junior engineer and a candidate asked me if I had any tips, I wouldn’t at all be off-put by that. It’s well understood that there’s an element of studying specifically for algorithm questions that you get in interviews and don’t generally face in day-to-day work.

        That said, my only tip would be to stay relaxed and just come up with any solution for a technical question, even a brute-force one, and then try to improve that solution if you have time. I’d then assure them that we didn’t just want to hire whoever just memorized all of the common interview questions, but someone who could understand a problem and think about it carefully. We have had to pass on candidates who gave perfect correct answers to those (common) questions because they couldn’t answer any questions about their solution or modify the solution for a slight change in the problem.

    3. another scientist*

      For my last interview, I asked who will be present for the interview. They then sent a list of the hiring committee members to all candidates.

    4. I Heart JavaScript*

      Totally agreed — software is one of those fields where technical interviews can hit such a wide range of topics that (almost) nobody expects you to be able to go in without prep. Most reasonable companies will give you a list of topics to be prepared on and some will go even further.

      I’ve never had an interview as a software engineer where asking what I should prepare comes across weirdly, but it totally would have in my previous career.

  6. Aquawoman*

    I wish people WOULD give out the questions in advance; I really don’t see the benefit of the surprise interview, but alas, it is not the way of things. I have recall issues that make it hard for me to answer the “tell me a time when…” questions unless I’m specifically prepared for THAT question.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think there should be a happy medium here. You can’t give out all the interview questions or you risk having a rehearsed response, which tells you nothing about their actual skillset if they’re a good actor.

      So I wouldn’t mind giving out a “Tell me some stories about a time when X and a time when Y happened.” But I’m not going to give them the full list that would just mean they could google the response to have a rehearsed answer even though they don’t really know how to do something.

      1. Elitist Semicolon*

        I’ve interviewed students who clearly googled “list of common interview questions,” wrote out answers, and memorized them. It comes across as canned and inflexible, especially if we ask them to elaborate on something that seems interesting or relevant and they can’t. At all.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Oh I’ve seen it too over the years. Not from students but from straight up seasoned adults who clearly have interviewed before but still clearly struggle with them. It pains my heart and I am usually internally cringing for them.

          We ask them to elaborate as well and you can see the wheels in their head turning and grinding.

          My favorite ones are the vague answers they’ve come up with. I had one dude only respond in various vague answers and then lose his mind when I sent him a rejection letter. He had tons to say at that point. Yikes.

        2. mark132*

          I won’t memorize the answers, but I do practice questions like that with me wife before an interview.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Practicing is good because it shakes out the jitters of having a conversation with someone. So I don’t want anyone to think that practicing is a bad choice with this conversation. It’s the robotic answers that are memorized that are going to do damage but getting your rhythm down is a good thing and getting into the “zone” for interview like questions.

    2. IL JimP*

      something I tell people to prepare for those behavioral questions is to look at the job description duties and see if you have an example that would cover them. It’s not a perfect system but it will at least let you be prepared with some examples rather than none

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Yeah, I expect any experienced software dev should be able to talk about memorable coding-related events: worst bug, coolest feature, thing that looked easy but was hard, or the reverse. I wouldn’t ask someone a very specific one, and if I got that and didn’t have that exact situation, I’d spin it into the closest related one. Good interviewers want to hear you talk about your skills so they can evaluate them; if they get too fixed on one exact situation they’re bad interviewers and a red flag.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      For me, it’s not so much the surprise aspect or that the questions are a big secret, but I hire for positions where thinking on your feet (and quickly) is important, so I think that someone who’d not be prepared for an interview without having the questions in advance would likely struggle in the position.

      I also don’t ask trick questions in my interviews, though, and the job descriptions go into enough detail that it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with a experiential answers based on the description. (I’m also not a fan of tell-me-what-kind-of-tree-you’d-be questions or stupid things that tell me nothing relevant about a candidate.)

    4. Pommette!*

      Or at least a sense of what kind of interview to expect, so that we can guess at and prepare for likely questions.

      My best interview experience was with an organization that sent all interviewees an identical generic package: a map of the meeting site, a list of the panelists and their role in the organization, and a description of what the interview would consist of, and a copy of the job description. That gave you enough to prepare with (and made it much easier to anticipate the questions), and helped narrow the gap between applicants with contacts in the organization and outsiders.

  7. Nobody Here by That Name*

    Glassdoor has a section for people to put down what interviews at companies were like. Possibly more helpful at bigger companies than for a local library, but even so it’s a resource to try.

  8. Summertime*

    I would definitely ask about the format of the interview. Would it be a group interview or a series of individual interviews? Who would be present in the interview? Would you be sitting a test or participating in a case study-type exercise?

    I had my first panel interview a year ago, and I read a lot about how to answer questions in a group setting. It took a lot of stress off of my shoulders to already know that I should be making the most eye contact with the person asking the question but should make an effort to look at each person in the room when I answer a questions. There are a lot of things you don’t realize are challenges until you encounter them. And sometimes, the interpersonal challenges are harder than answering the questions!

    Good luck, OP!

    1. Kiwiii*

      Asking for the format is really common. In my last job as an admin, I would always have that information prepared, but about a third of the candidates asked me about it before I got there.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yes, I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to ask about the format of an interview! How you’d prepare for a panel versus individuals (and if you’re meeting with only higher-ups or also a peer) is helpful.

      Our HR proactively provides this information, which I really like.

  9. Modernhypatia*

    Library interviews can be really weird, especially for positions that aren’t hired often, or in modestly sized libraries (lots of opinions, not necessarily anyone with regular hiring experience, or at least hiring anything beyond page positions.)

    Generally, being solidly familiar with the public info about the library is always a good idea. If you don’t remember a detail, being able to say “Oh, I don’t remember the year, but I thought the profile of the founder on your website was very well done, I thought it put the history of the library in context” can often be as good. (It demonstrates a) you looked at the site and b) you’d know where to go find the info if a patron had that question.)

    It’s also often about knowing how much info is useful (key librarian skill!) Knowing what programs the library offers is pretty key if the job you’re interviewing for is going to be helping with them. You don’t need to know every program in detail, but be able to talk about two, maybe three things the library is highlighting and focusing on, like you might do if you were asked by someone who just moved to that area what the library offers. Read the long-term plan document if there’s one available. Get a sense of how the library fits into the community. Usually having 2-3 key details is plenty.

    I have had some luck in the past with “Can you tell me a little bit about how you structure the interview – libraries do all sorts of different things!” if I wanted a bit more information. It won’t get you what questions they’ll ask, but it may get you a “We’ll give you a tour of the building, then you’ll be sitting down with four people from the library staff to talk about your experience and the position.” Sometimes they’ll tell you who those people are (or at least their positions) which can help you prepare better.

  10. Hmm*

    I did ask last time I interviewed, they just ignored my question. (the question wasn’t the only thing in my email, we were discussing date and time of the interview).
    I don’t think it’s unprofessional to ask, but most likely you won’t get a helpful answer.

  11. T. Boone Pickens*

    In my role as a 3rd party recruiter I have zero issue with a candidate asking me what to expect at the job interview as my goal is to put the candidate in the best possible position to succeed in the interview. I’ll usually go over the mundane details (where to park, checking in, panel interview or several 1:1s) interview attire tips, and do some interview role play with the candidate. I almost always have a good idea of what types of questions are going to be asked so I can give candidates the heads up on what to prepare for whether they are ‘tell me about a time when’ questions or if they’ll get asked ridiculous ‘You’re stuck on a desert island what 3 items do you bring’ questions. Note, I’ll never give the exact questions as that is counter-intuitive and doesn’t do anybody any good.

  12. Holly*

    Unfortunately my answer is… no. The best prep would actually to be things that help you think on your feet or remain composed during odd situations. I thought I had my prep down for on campus interviews during law school (where firms come to interview students for summer associate positions). And yet, my first interview of the morning was not quite an interview but rather a monologue from the firm partner-interviewer about how he didn’t like the elected official I interned with at all followed up by asking me my political opinion of such official. That was the full interview.

    I’m not saying anything about the above situation typical, but my point is rather interviews can be bizarre and it’s better to prepare by a) knowing your skills and resume (have something to say about each line), b) knowing how to be your “professional self” and upbeat/friendly even when something strange or awkward occurs, c) practice thinking on your feet with a friend or advisor, and d) *pay attention* to strange things like the library trivia since interviews are a two way street.

  13. But There is a Me in Team*

    In my branch of criminal justice it’s OK to ask who you’ll be interviewing with, as an oral board/panel type interview is very common. I got in the habit years ago of leaving a notebook in the car and the second I’m out of sight, writing down every question that I can remember. This was super helpful, as questions trend and go out of style. About 15 years ago, I got asked at every single interview: “What have you done to prepare for this interview?” Nobody has asked me that in the last 5 years. Good luck OP! I’m so glad you found AAM early in your career. The site has helped me a TON, esp. with interviewing and cover letters.
    PS- When I used to interview, I confused “being professional” with rigid/wooden. Let some of your personality shine through, and if you’re thrown by a style or question, showing some grace under pressure is sometimes as import as how you answer.

  14. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

    I remember, after being told that I would be meeting with a few of the senior people, I said, “Can you tell me how long I can expect to be there?” That seemed to be an okay, and not completely unexpected, question.

  15. NPLDirector*

    I feel the need to defend public libraries and our hiring practices because the interview you had sounds terrible. They are not all like that! I hire between 5-10 people in a year and have never used that kind of format, although we do ask what applicants know about our programs and what kinds of customers they would expect to serve at a public library. It would be fine in my library to ask what to expect in an interview and we would cheerfully answer.

  16. Leela*

    Also, please don’t ask who you’ll be meeting with if the recruiter/admin didn’t tell you! It’s not really going to help you with anything and we likely left it off for a reason, common ones being that those people could easily change last minute, the interviewers really, REALLY don’t want people trying to add them on LinkedIn to get an edge or guessing and suddenly e-mailing them (which happens a lot), and they don’t want to have an in-interview conversation with someone who googled them and is now bringing extremely shallow knowledge of something the interviewer has done and is trying to make a conversation out of it to seem interested in the company/role/field, they’ll see right through it!

    1. PersephoneUnderground*

      I don’t know- you need to know who to ask for at the desk or you look really ill-prepared. Just don’t do any of the other stuff listed that’s actually annoying.

      1. Leela*

        Who to ask for at the desk is different, but people trying to get the insider scoop on the people they’ll be meeting with is different. The people whose teams I recruited for, across several companies, all asked me not to divulge that information beforehand for the reasons listed above. Other companies might feel differently though, especially for something like nonprofit I’d think, but I mainly recruited tech

    2. BRR*

      I disagree with this. It’s really common to know who you’re interviewing with so you can prepare. And if a candidate does add them on LinkedIn or tires to guess the email, let the candidate reveal that information because maybe that is a clue the interviewers should know about the candidate.

      1. Leela*

        What preparation are you doing differently when you know the people who are going to be interviewing you? The reason I suggested not to is because of what I outlined above – people will point out an article they came across in a frantic google session before their interview, but it really didn’t help them stand out, it didn’t make them more memorable (at least not in a good way) and it gave them no edge, it was more just a painful detraction for the interviewer who wanted to get back to the interview proper

    3. Leela*

      Again though, to both of the above, that’s *if* the recruiter/admin didn’t tell you, plenty of places are fine with this! But if they left it off it’s likely not an oversight and is intentional

      1. Frank Doyle*

        Eh, I don’t think it’s possible to know how “likely” it is to be an oversight or intentional. I don’t think it hurts to ask — I rather think the advice should be “don’t add them on LinkedIn before you’ve even met, don’t email them directly, don’t try too hard to relate to them if it’s not coming naturally, etc.” Because there are plenty of reasons why knowing your interviewers’ identities could be valuable — maybe you went to the same school, or maybe you previously worked at the same employer, or maybe they worked somewhere a colleague/friend of yours worked, or maybe they recently wrote an article about a niche interest you legitimately have an interest in. I think the thing to avoid is how you use the information, not the request for the information itself.

        1. Leela*

          What I’m saying above is all of these things you list under reasons the identities could be valuable, are things that the interviewers told me directly were not valuable and bothered them and to please not include their names so they could avoid those exact things. Going to the same school, previously working at the same employer (which would be on the resume if relevant), working somewhere a colleage/friend worked, or wrote an article about a niche interest, are all things that the hiring managers I worked with specifically did *not* want to have people bring up in interviews because at best it was irrelevant to the hiring decision and at worst wasted their time as they had to divert from actually assessing the fit to having shallow conversations that didn’t tip the scales one way or the other. Interviewing can be very expensive for a company and they really don’t like to spend more time on it than they have to, and they really don’t like people trying to game the system by busting out “oh I saw your article on X website!” to which the interviewer would always go “…..k?” and try to steer the conversation back toward the work and work history.

          I fully think that different companies would feel differently about this and some people might be fine with, and even want, the interviewee to do this kind of prep, my point is that there are companies who actively don’t want you to because at best they consider it a waste of their time and at worst makes the interviewee look like they’re trying to find some secret foothold to give them an edge that’s not related to whether they can actually do the work any better, and if interviewer names were not passed along to you, there could be a reason for it.

    4. TheAssistant*

      There’s a really, really wide line between “preparing for the interview” and “being creepy”. I think it is absolutely kosher to include in your prep for the position looking up your interviewer’s background, and even weaving it into the conversation as relevant.

      1. Leela*

        See above; this depends on the company but a lot of the interviewers I worked with would be more likely to roll their eyes at someone who tried to prep for an interview by digging into the backgrounds of the people they’d be interviewing with, and it would absolutely not have been an edge or open any avenues of conversation to an interviewee’s advantage to bring up that they saw something they wrote on LinkedIn, or they went to the same school, or know someone that the interviewer knows.

        This could definitely change from company to company! My main point is that if it wasn’t offered to you, HR probably just didn’t forget, and isn’t testing to see if you have enough moxie to ask for the names and do the work. There’s a good chance that interviewers are going “PLEASE do not hand out my name like that” and it’s irritating when candidates press for it thinking they’re going to get a leg up that they definitely won’t be getting.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think you can ask with whom you’ll be meeting generally – our HR would tell you that you’d be interviewing with the VP of Llama Grooming, one of the Head Groomers, and the Llama Service Department rep for the account to which you’d be assigned. Not necessarily names, but organizational positions.

      We also have to swap out interviewers sometimes, and if we say, “You’ll be interviewing with the Head Groomers for whom you’d be combing.”, then that give the candidate good information but also gives us flexibility to swap out Head Groomers if there is a shearing emergency.

      1. Leela*

        That’s exactly what we did, “you’ll be meeting with the manager of teapots, the director of teapots, and the VP of ceremonial tea dishes”, that worked out well for us!

    6. Anonnonaanon*

      This obviously varies by industry, but I work in higher ed and it’s extremely common to either be told up front who you will be speaking with (especially for an onsite interview, where you generally get a schedule for the full day with names, titles, department affiliations included) or for the candidate to ask and be told this information (for the first-round interview — knowing if it’s the full search committee, just the search chair, or someone from HR significantly affects how you prep for that interview).

      You learn a lot from getting that information: the makeup of the search committee is important, whether the person who would be your supervisor is on the search committee, and so on. Depending on what the position involves, it can also be really useful to get a sense of who has done what kind of publishing/service etc. because that gives you insight into the priorities of the department.

      Honestly, I think it’d be a red flag if I were offered an interview at any level and my contact person refused to tell me who I was speaking with.

  17. AnimatedChicken*

    Some employers will give you useful info. In my field, Tech, companies are expected to provide the candidate with information about the interview format and general topics ahead of time. Maybe it’s because it’s a more technical field and easier to outline specific skills tested (e.g., coding, problem solving, presentation skills, etc.). Of course, questions about past experience and general fit are always a given. I’ve also had no problem getting this info from internal recruiters and hiring managers.

  18. Mr M*

    I think the most infuriating interview I had was during a stretch of unemployment about 6 years ago. I had applied for a position that might be a stretch but was entirely within my skillset to perform. A few days after applying I got a voicemail from someone in the company, telling me I don’t have the qualifications for this position. Okay, fine. I didn’t call the guy back and went on job hunting. The next week I get a voicemail from the same guy at the same company tellng me I don’t have the qualifications for this position. Ummm…Okay. I didn’t call back and went on with my job search. The next week, the same guy at the same company leaves me a voicemail asking if I could come in for an interview. Like an idiot I called him back and set up an interview because I was still unemployed.

    Of course the ‘interview’ turned out to be him reading my resume back to me & explaining how I don’t meet the qualifications. There were no questions he asked me that I can remember. I realized pretty quickly that he must have wanted me to call him back, but since I didn’t, he decided to arrange an ‘interview’ to tell me to my face that I don’t qualify for the job I applied for. Like a dunce, I forgot to block his number & he left a voicemail the next day, telling me they had gone with a candidate with more experience…

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      I had something like this happen to me! I had experience as both a teapot painter and a llama trainer. I applied to be a llama trainer, and in the interview they said if I also wanted to pick up hours in the teapot department, I would need to submit a second application to the teapot director because it was a separate hire.

      I applied for the teapot position, and the teapot director forwarded it to the llama director, who called me back and scolded me for applying to the same job twice. “We already interviewed you so I don’t understand why you bothered resubmitting your application.”

      1. 1&2*

        “Per our interview, you mentioned that if I wanted to pick up hours in the teapot department, I would need to submit a second application to the teapot director because it was a separate hire. I was also interested in the role with the teapot director but I have since changed my mind. I would never want to work with any company that misleads candidates and wastes time and resources.”

      1. Mr M*

        I’m an electro-mechanic that does factory maintenance & the position I applied for was for a conveyer mechanic. While I had never been a conveyer mechanic before, I could certainly pick it up with a little OJT. I’m sure I’ve learned more difficult things…

    2. irene adler*

      I think I would have walked out of the interview.

      What purpose does doing this serve? What a jerk.

    3. smoke tree*

      That guy must have had a lot of time on his hands if he did this for every underqualified applicant.

    4. ScarletNumber*

      Maybe he had a crush on you.

      Anyway, I once applied for a job that was tangentially related to my experience and education, but was within my skillset. The interviewed kept expressing that I wasn’t qualified for the job. I finally had to remind him that he was the one who called me in for the interview, and if I was unqualified they could have just filed away my resume.

      He had no answer, but I think it was a case where they “had” to interview X number of people, but they only liked X – 1, so I was brought in so they could reach X.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I hate that sort of requirement. It is a waste of candidate’s time to interview for a position they have no chance of getting (and a waste of the interviewer’s). Our HR requires that we post the position for a pre-determined period of time and in diverse array of job sites, but I can hire the first person I interview, if they are an excellent fit for a position. I would feel awful bringing in someone who is actively job hunting for something we had no plans to hire them for.

  19. PersephoneUnderground*

    In tech you should very much ask this question, or more specifically ask if it’s a technical interview, because it makes a huge difference if it’s a technical/skills test/whiteboarding interview or not. They may also tell you whether you should bring a laptop for the exercises. Any field with multiple standard formats you should ask about the interview type.

  20. mark132*

    I think in a lot of cases, an interviewer doesn’t have a set list of questions. So they really couldn’t send you the “list” because there really isn’t a list, just set of topics. I would say the majority of my interviews fall into this category. To be honest I usually prefer this format.

    I don’t want to know the exact question personally, but whether the interview is going to have a “trivial pursuit” section where I hopefully know the answer to obscure questions on software languages, or general snd specific questions a skilled developer likely will know . If the former, I’ll spend a few hours reviewing trivia. Will the interview include a practical exercise, and if so will it require me to know obscure algorithms for clever coding solutions. Will you want to have me talk about prior projects and more importantly would you want to see code examples of stuff I’ve done (obviously not from my current/former employers). I personally consider it a red flag if a company I’m interviewing won’t provide this level of detail to me. Ideally it should be in the job posting itself.

  21. TheAssistant*

    I’ve tended to get guidance on what to expect from recruiters (either internal or external) who want to give me a heads-up about a particular interviewing quirk the next round of interviewer(s) has. For example, I was told during my last phone screen that the interviewer will really probe how much I knew about the company’s work – and he did.

    However, when I’m doing an interview with a hiring manager first, or an assistant schedules it for his or her boss, then I usually don’t receive an indication of interview content. During my new-grad job search, I was told I was coming in to chat with the same hiring manager. Instead I found myself in front of a panel of three people for over an hour, and then had a debrief with the hiring manager (which mostly consisted of talking about buying lamps). Another time, what I knew to be an in-person panel interview was misunderstood by the interviewer (who thought it was a phone call), which resulted in a delay in the interview and then over 90 minutes with the three interviewers, including a “talk to me about this data on the screen” spontaneous test. So in my experience, you really do need to be prepared for anything, and pleasantly surprised when the interview is banal.

  22. smoke tree*

    For a new grad, I suspect part of the differing styles may have to do with applying to jobs in multiple industries. A lot of industries have their own general interviewing styles, and when I was applying for internships, I noticed they varied quite a bit. I was fortunate to have a great career centre at my university, and they were able to give me some tips about what certain fields or certain organizations tended to look for, but I realize that not everyone has that. Fortunately, they’re probably likely to cut you more slack as a recent grad.

  23. Amethystmoon*

    There are a great many books and websites with sample job interview questions. A good way to prepare is have a trusted friend or family member pretend they are interviewing you, and you can answer the questions in the way you would in the interview. is another great way to prepare. You can see insiders’ opinions of the company, what the dress code is, and so forth. It’s generally a good idea to have an overview of the company and what it does, since you will most like get the “why do you want to work here?” question early on. Additionally, have 4 or 5 open-ended questions you can ask them at the end. Questions I like to ask are things like, “Can you tell me more about what this job looks like on a typical day?” or “What do you like the most about working here?” “What challenges did the previous employee in this position face?” “Where do you see this company going in 5 years?” etc.

  24. Science Lady*

    In my industry (and I think a lot of others), it is pretty common to interview with multiple people (e.g. the person who you would be directly reporting to, people who are within the group you would be joining, people from other groups that work closely with the group you would be joining, etc.). Often, you’ll get an itinerary that includes the names and titles of people who are interviewing you. It’s a good idea to look them up on LinkedIn, because it can give a general sense of the person’s professional role in the company and skills, which may help you better answer questions. For example, if I see a project manager I’m interviewing with has a background more in Teapot handle design and I am applying at a llama grooming company, I’m not going to talk so much about my llama grooming experience as my experience and roles in completing large projects. Whereas I will talk to the head llama groomer or a project manager who has been managing llama grooming projects for a long time about more of the technical details of llama grooming.

  25. MissDisplaced*

    I’ve asked some variations of this at times and surprisingly the people scheduling the interview were generally helpful and forthcoming if they knew. Not so much about exact questions, but things like panel interviews, tests, presentations and the like. A few did give some indication that they’d likely ask about my experience with, say a software, or managing people, or putting together a marketing campaign. Generally though, I’ve gotten this more on a second round or meeting with the hiring manager’s boss.

  26. Michael Valentine*

    At my company, our recruiter gives a general overview of what to expect, but very few specifics. I’m not sure it’s useful to our candidates.

    But, the best preparation I’ve ever witnessed was actually my husband’s. He went to Glassdoor to look up common interview questions at the company he was trying to join, and he also posted to a subreddit asking for tips. He walked out of the interview having had a great answer to every question because nothing took him by surprise. Got an offer in 24 hours.

  27. ScarletNumber*

    To defend public libraries, there are many more qualified candidates to work at them than there are jobs to accommodate them, so they have to winnow the field somehow.

    1. Allypopx*

      Yes! I am in an area with a lot of libraries but there are also a loooooot of library science majors looking for jobs. It’s tough!

  28. dennis*

    Of course for may briefings they give general information rather than specifics which would be better which is just useless.

  29. Kate*

    Late to this and haven’t read all the comments. I’ll just share what my approach typically is for a recent grad interview. In all interviews with experienced candidates, I want to get a feel for their personality. Do they have a sense of humor, can they chit chat politely (not awkwardly), can they present their “verbal resume” clearly and concisely. Then I want them to tell me about their actual experience. (those behavioral questions.) I want to hear about how they’ve solved complex problems, handled an upset customer, and so on.

    Specifically for a recent grade – I want to hear about your experiences. I want you to explain to me, how your experience running the college café helped you develop time management and customer service skills. I want to hear about a challenging group project you did for a class where everyone else phoned it in and you had to pull it all together (or everyone was all over the place and you took the lead to get everyone on the same page). I don’t expect a recent grad to come up with loads of “on the job” experience that is EXACTLY the same as what the job role requires. That’s completely unrealistic. I do want to hear about your summer jobs, school-related activities, even sports teams experience where you can take the skills you learned on those teams/groups, and transfer them to my company’s role.

    Hope that helps :) Good luck!!

      1. Kate*

        I should clarify – in the roles I’m hiring for – I need people who can communicate clearly over the phone, to clients. I hire for telecommuting, client-facing work. So in my role – you have to be able to confidently present ideas, project updates, etc over the phone. In other roles where this might not be a critical part of the role, it wouldn’t be as important. Good point though – I didn’t explain the type of roles I hire for, and above is how I approach hiring.

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