Congratulations! Your prospective employer wants to interview you. This is a noteworthy accomplishment. It means that your application stood out from the sea of competitors and was compelling enough to move you to the next phase of the hiring process. So, what now?
Preparing for the interview is essential. It demonstrates to the hiring team that you are taking this opportunity seriously (though remember that it is not a life or death situation), that you really want the position, and that you are likely to be successful in performing the job. Of the nearly 1,000 interviews that I have been involved with, my colleagues and I have always given preference to candidates who demonstrate that they have done their “homework.” On the flip side, we have also been let down by top-notch candidates who did not. Being prepared always pays off because it makes a positive impression on the interviewer(s). Even if you are not hired, showing that you were prepared usually ensures that you will be considered for other jobs or opportunities for which you did not apply. I have seen this happen frequently and I am always thrilled when it does.
While there are a number of interview preparation methods, I recommend focusing on what; how; and you.
- WHAT: Think through standard interview questions and responses in advance so that you know what you want to highlight. Your answers should speak to the job description, as well as the organization’s programs, people, and mission. Be specific, cite examples, have ideas, and bring questions.
In my career, I have learned to make a point of checking in with myself –reflecting on why I want to join a team and identifying areas where I could add unique value. If you do nothing else, prepare a three to four minute pitch in response to this standard interview question: “Why this position, why this company, why you?” Practice your pitch on friends or family members. This simple, useful exercise always pays off; both in terms of your ability to articulate a succinct answer as well as for the self-discovery that evolves from the reflection process.
Hiring managers also evaluate candidates based on the questions that they ask. This includes questions that were prepared in advance as well as ones that were formulated during the course of the interview. It is often the quality of the candidate’s questions that stand out most and set a candidate apart. Think about two to three things that you genuinely hope to learn. Demonstrate that you can draw connections between themes that arise during the interview and remember to modify your questions based on the flow and content of the conversation. Take a few notes to help with this as that is also looked on favorably by interviewers.
- HOW: An interview is an opportunity to convey what does not show up in a written application. It showcases your personality and is about who you are: professional, enthusiastic, committed, confident yet humble, etc. This is where your “soft” people skills and communication style can shine. I recommend erring on the side of formality while still speaking in your natural voice. Try not to come across as too rehearsed even though you have rehearsed. Be present, and ensure that you are ready to actively listen in order to thoughtfully respond. Above all, relax. This will foster a more authentic, enjoyable and deeper exchange for both you and the hiring team. Although an interview is a formal setting, it should also be an exciting and engaging experience.
- YOU: In your preparation, do not overlook the small things that will enable you to be your most successful self. I may be stating the obvious, but this is truly essential. A good night’s sleep (counting ceiling tiles may help?), professional clothing (the key to this is also comfort), and an interview toolkit. You should bring a notepad, extra copies of your application materials, a copy of the job description (which you can review while waiting), a pen, breath mints (leave the gum at home), tissues, water, a granola bar, and the point person’s phone number in case something comes up. If you have taken the time to ensure your personal comfort needs are met, you are less likely to be thrown off balance by anything unexpected. This will not only help you sparkle, but you will enjoy the interaction far more.
After the interview? Exhale, send a thank you note, and take a pause to celebrate yourself. Then, check out PCDN’s Career Series for more specific tips.
Cheryl Saferstein is a recruiter at the U.S. Institute of Peace and serves on the career advisory board at PCDN. At USIP Cheryl coordinates full life-cycle recruitment with hiring managers (for DC and overseas positions); administers USIP’s research assistant and research visa programs; and provides broad HR operations support. Cheryl previously served on USIP’s Executive Office and Outreach teams, where she managed events, arranged programming for student groups, and supported USIP’s 2013 strategic planning process. Cheryl holds a Bachelors of Arts in International Relations from American University (AU) and is certified as a “Teacher of English as a Foreign (Second) Language.”