As someone who writes about work and interviewing, I hear regularly from people who say the quality of their job interviews — and their success rate — soared after they changed the way they were preparing for them. In fact, I’m convinced that the best thing you can do ahead of a job interview is to prepare for it about twice as much as you think you might need to.
Here’s your ultimate guide on how to prepare for an interview — so that you’ll walk in confident and be able to give thoughtful, compelling answers to your interviewer’s questions.
1. Before your interview, spend some real time on the employer’s website.
Read about them, their clients, and their products or services. Your goal here isn’t just to learn about what they do but, crucially, to learn about how they see themselves. In reality, there might not be a ton on their website that distinguishes their work from other employers in their field. But you’ll probably get a sense of what they hope makes them different from their competition (whether or not it really does).
That’s useful to know, because if that understanding is reflected in your conversation in the interview, you’ll come across as if you “get” them — and that’s appealing to an interviewer. Plus, the more you understand about the context they work in, the better you’ll be able to tailor your answers in a way that will be relevant to them.
2. Dig into the job description.
Spend some time going through the job posting line by line and thinking about how your experience and skills equip you to excel at the job. In particular, for each responsibility or qualification listed, try to come up with concrete examples from your past that you can point to as supporting evidence that you’d be great at the job — such as times that you faced similar challenges and how you tackled them, and particular successes you’ve had that you can tie back to what it will take to succeed in this role. Try to come up with at least four or five concrete examples or stories from your past work that you can use to paint a picture of how you operate, what you’ve achieved, and why you’re great at what you do.
3. Write down the questions you’re likely to be asked, and practice saying your answers out loud.
It’s a decent bet that you’ll be asked questions like: 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 with major responsibilities of the job)? You can find other common job interview questions here, along with suggestions for how to answer them.
Once you have your list of the questions you think you’re likely to be asked, figure out how you’ll answer each of them. And I don’t mean just get a vague idea or some bullet points you want to hit. I mean come up with your complete answer to each and practice saying those answers out loud. You might feel ridiculous doing that, but there’s something about this process that lodges those answers in your brain in a way that will make them much more easily retrievable when you’re sitting in the interview. Doing this kind of reflection and practice ahead of time should make a significant difference in how polished and confident you appear when you’re talking to your interviewer — as well as to the substance of your answers, because you won’t be coming up with language and framing on the fly.
4. Figure out what you’re most nervous about being asked.
Sometimes when people dread having a particular topic arise in an interview (for example, a past firing or even what salary they’re seeking), they don’t prepare a polished answer and instead just hope it won’t come up.
That, of course, leaves them floundering for a strong answer if the subject does come up — and makes it more likely that the conversation won’t go well. Instead, assume that whatever you’re dreading will indeed be asked, and create a plan for how you’ll handle it. Then practice your answer out loud over and over again, word for word, until you’re comfortable with it. (And in case you’re dreading talking about a past firing or other reasons for leaving a previous job, here’s some advice on how to do it.)
5. Come up with questions of your own to ask.
Toward the end of the interview, your interviewer will probably ask what questions you have for her. Contrary to popular belief, you should not see this time primarily as an additional opportunity to impress your interviewer.
While it’s smart to think about how your questions might reflect on you, this is your time to get the information you need to figure out if this is a job you want and would be good at. So think about what you really want to know when you imagine going to work at this job every day for the next several years.
Examples of questions you might ask: What are the biggest challenges the person in this position will face? Can you describe a typical day or week in the position? What would a successful first year in the position look like? How will the success of the person in this position be measured? (I have more suggested questions here.)
It’s okay to write your questions down and take them with you. It’s very normal for job candidates to pull out a sheet of paper with the questions they want to remember to ask, so don’t worry about memorizing them.
6. Get yourself into the right state of mind.
If you get nervous before interviews, it can help to remember that the employer almost certainly thinks you’re qualified, or at least that you’re very likely to be qualified! They wouldn’t be interviewing you if they hadn’t already determined that you’re at least plausible for the job.
It can also help to remember that no one gives a perfect interview. The other candidates interviewing for the job aren’t giving flawless interviews, and you don’t need to strive for that either. Your goal is just to give a good interview that shows why you’d excel at the job and what you’d be like to work with day to day.
It can even help to approach the interview as if you were a consultant. If you were a consultant meeting with a prospective client, you’d explain your expertise, learn about the work that needs to be done, and talk about how you’d tackle it — and you’d be talking as a potential business partner, not as a nervous job candidate waiting for the interviewer to pass judgment on you. The more you can think of an interview like that — as a collaborative business meeting where you and your interviewer are both trying to figure out if it makes sense to work together — the better your interview will probably go (and the less nervous you’ll probably feel).
And if you really get nervous in interviews, try pretending that you already know you’re not going to get the job (because it’s already been promised to the boss’s nephew or whatever other story you dream up). Sometimes lowering the stakes can lower your nerves and help you give a better interview.
Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.