Thoroughly preparing for an interview makes a huge difference in how well you do. (And it can also make you a lot less nervous.)
Fortunately, while much of the hiring process can feel mysterious or like reading tea leaves, there’s a formula for preparing well for an interview:
1. Get to know the employer.
You’d be surprised by how many candidates walk into an interview knowing little to nothing about the employer they’re considering working for. And it shows.
It only takes 15-20 minutes to learn enough about the employer to be able to speak more intelligently about them than much of your competition. The simplest way is to use the employer’s own Web site. At a minimum, read the “about us” section. You want to get really familiar with what this company is all about–and, crucially, how they see themselves.
Then, poke around the rest of the site. Read enough to get a good feel for more than just the basics–read about their clients, their work, and their general approach. Ideally, you won’t leave their Web site until you can answer these questions: What does this organization do? What are they all about? What makes them different from their competition?
2. Learn the job description like it was your own.
I’m amazed by how often I ask candidates to tell me what they know about the job so far and hear answers that are significantly off-base. If a job description is posted online, make sure you use it.
The best way to use the job description to prepare is to go through it line by line. Think about how your experience and skills fit with each line. Write this down for each one, making sure to include examples from your past as supporting evidence that you’d excel at this job.
And don’t be alarmed if you’re not a perfect fit; people get hired all the time without being a line-for-line match. The point here is just to get yourself thinking about how you are a match, so those thoughts are easily retrievable and can be turned into answers in your interview.
Now, picture yourself doing the job. What are the likely challenges? What ideas would you bring to the table? If you think through these questions now, you can weave those thoughts into the conversation at the interview.
3. Practice, and then practice some more.
Write down at least 10 interview questions that you’re likely to be asked and write out your answers to them. At a minimum, cover these basics: Why are you thinking about leaving your current job? What interests you about this opening? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What experience do you have doing ___? (Fill in each of the major responsibilities of the job.)
Now, make yourself practice your answers out loud. Practice saying them out loud over and over and over, until your answers fly off your tongue automatically.
And if there’s a question that you’re especially nervous about, don’t just hope it won’t come up. Decide exactly how you’re going to answer it and practice that answer, saying it out loud over and over and over.
Also, don’t forget to think about how you’ll answer questions about salary expectations.
The more you practice, the better you’ll get and the more comfortable you’ll feel.
4. Come up with questions of your own.
Come up with several questions of your own, because at the end of the interview you’ll be asked what questions you have. Good questions at this stage are clarifying questions about the role itself and open-ended questions about the office culture. You’ll also want to ask about their next steps and their timeline for getting back to you.
If you follow these steps, you’ll notice a significant improvement in how well you perform in job interviews.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.