5 Tips to Acing An Interview

By Kate Luther on 5 March 2010 (Updated 16 June 2011) 26 comments
Photo: bcnewell

Before I embarked on my new life as a freelancer, I had both feet firmly planted in the Corporate World.

With my DayPlanner in one hand and my resume in the other, I had big visions of the corner office, the corporate expense account, and business cards with some impressive executive title. Needless to say, I have had more than my share of interviews. And although the whole process can get a little nerve-wracking at times, I did learn some useful tips along the way.

1. Be Unique

This is by far, the biggest tip I can give anyone who's looking for a job and I'll tell you why it works: Everyone looks the same on paper. Anyone reviewing your resume has also reviewed hundreds of other resumes, both in relation to the job you're applying for as well as any other positions they might have open. As a result, they've seen the words "Objective" and "Work Experience" more times than they can count and honestly, it all becomes a haze after a while.

So here's what you do — you stand out. You don't look like everyone else. Maybe you accomplish this with a not-so-standard kind of paper or something equally as subtle. As for me? I went all out. I created a website with a fun "10 Reasons You Should Hire Me" quiz and turned my resume into a full-color tri-fold brochure.

Yes, there were times when someone else was just clearly more qualified than I was for the job but I'll tell you this — I ALWAYS got a call-back for that coveted interview and even in the instances where I didn't get the job, I almost always got offered a different position in the company. Why? Because they liked me too much to just let me go somewhere else.

2. Learn the Art of Resume B.S.

There is truly an art to writing a resume, and if you're not sure of where the line between fact and fiction lies, here it is: While you should never blatantly lie on your resume, it is acceptable and even expected to make your previous positions sound absolutely amazing.

It doesn't matter how menial, how common or entry-level that position might have been — you were an expert at it and turned it into an important component of the company.

I once reviewed a resume for a girl who had a position that sounded something like this:

"...responsible for managing all corporate duplication equipment and overseeing document distribution for Fortune 500 firm..."

Her job? She was a copy clerk. And I knew that when I read her resume. But she obviously took her job very seriously and anyone who can make something that impressive out of a copy clerk position was worth another look. Incidentally, I hired her.

3. Never Say Can't

Along the same lines as Rule #2, while you don't want to commit yourself to skills you truly don't have, there are ways to diffuse a lack of knowledge in a particular area.

Instead of saying "I don't know how to do that" or "I don't have that skill" say something like "I haven't used that particular software/system but I have used X, Y, and Z so I'm sure I'll have no problem." The point is to replace "can't" with something more positive such as "I can learn it," "I can do it," "I can figure it out."

4. Look 'Em In The Eye

During one of my stints in Corporate America, our CEO ordered every employee to attend an on-site course on Business Communication. Most of the seminar revolved around identifying personality types and learning to match your conversation to the other person's natural type. It was interesting, but what really stood out for me was the coach's tip to always look people in the eye. It conveys the trustworthiness and confidence that prospective employers look for.

This is actually harder than it sounds, especially when you're nervously trying to close a big deal or in this case, make it through an interview. So here's the tip I learned, one that has served me well: If looking them in the eye makes you uncomfortable, look at the bridge of their nose instead. They can't tell the difference and you'll come across as being direct, honest and confident.

And while you're staring at the bridge of their nose, lean in (conveys interest in the conversation) and be animated. Smile, show concentration, even surprise if they tell a story that calls for it. The goal here is to turn your interview into an enjoyable, invigorating "meeting."

5. Use a Strength as Your Weakness

It's not unusual for your interview to include some probing questions, such as "What is your biggest strength?" and the more dreaded "What is your biggest weakness?"

Most people have an easy time talking about their strengths but what on Earth should you say about your weakness? The answer? Pick a strength and talk about its downside.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

For example, if one of your strengths is that you take pride in your work, then you could say perfectionism is your weakness. Likewise with being detail oriented — perfectionism is a perfect weakness to compliment that strength. Then you go on to say how you're able to "manage it" really well and have actually been able to turn it into a bit of a strength by using that higher standard of yours to produce stellar work.

My choice typically revolved around my pet peeve — that's not my job. This always made the interviewer smile (because it was their pet peeve too) and ask, "well, how is that a weakness?"

I responded by telling them how it was my instinct to "go the extra mile" and help someone with whatever it was when I knew it was something I could do. It just made more sense to me than to pass the buck to someone else. Of course (and here's the weakness part), in the Corporate World, there are departments and divisions so you have to be careful that you don't step on someone else's toes or disrupt the normal accepted process for getting that certain something done.

And viola! I've just given them a weakness — something I strive to work on — that basically says I'm a "team player" and do "whatever it takes" to get the job done.

The bottom line is that you want to be the person they don't soon forget. The person who stands out — the one who they can see themselves working with on a daily basis. To do that, you have to be more than just another resume...

As in love, you don't want to be the one they can live with...you want to be the one they can't live without.

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Guest's picture
jp

I've been hiring employees for 5 years. When I see resume-speak I instantly am put off by it. I think recommendation 2 is bad advice. Be direct and and honest. As an employer I appreciate that

Kate Luther's picture

Oh, I totally agree that you need to be honest and I think I said that a couple of times in the post. But having also spent several years hiring others, I know that I looked for someone who was enthusiastic about what they did and this was often conveyed through their resume.

Definitely stay honest, but I think a little bit of resume-speak is called for. After all, its your first impression - you want to do everything you can to stand out and shine.

Thanks for reading! :)

Kate

Guest's picture
Guest

The last 4 jobs that I landed were from the first telephone interview. Of the 4 jobs before that, 3 of them I went to on the first face to face and was offered the job on the SPOT.

The reason for my success? I have asked myself this many times.

There is one word: Enthusiasm.

Not only does a person have to know their stuff very well, but be enthusiastic and get the enthusiasm across on the telephone and face to face.

I find that employers like enthusiasm and great communication skills very well in many fields of employment.

Kate Luther's picture

I agree - you gotta' be excited about being there or they'll find someone else who is... good advice :)

Guest's picture
Kevin

Agreed # 2 is horrible advice. Applicant, now more than ever, are stretching the truth and its a turn off. The ability to articulate real achievements within your job ( here it the situation, this is what i did and these are the results) will go a lot further than exaggerating. What the author encourages in point # 2 can be viewed as deception and when that happens your interview is over.

Stick with tasks and achievements combined with your passion for your job and you'll do much better.

Julie Rains's picture

Depending on the person and the situation -- and how he (or she) views the job, #2 can be perfect. Deception isn't good but taking pride in your work and seeing how your day-to-day, mundane tasks benefit the organization are truly what separates the so-so employee from the outstanding one. It reminds me of the parable of the men who are laying brick upon brick and asked what they are doing: one says he is laying brick, another is making a wall, and the third is building a cathedral: which one would you hire? 

Guest's picture
GuestEileen

Well said!

Guest's picture

I'd like to add this tip: Take Props! I aced the interview for my last job because I took a folder with sample work, letters of recommendation, copies of client surveys that mentioned me by name, past performance reviews that I rocked, as well as the standard copy of resume and cover letter and reference info.

The guy interviewing me was blown away. I also had my business card with my personal brand statement on the back. He LOVED that. We talked about my life philosophy, etc. and he quickly figured out that I was the one for the job.

Guest's picture
Resume Reviewer

Having sifted through resumes and interviewed candidates for multiple positions I think point #5 is the worst. About 70% of people tell me their greatest weakness is "being a perfectionist". It sounds like a pre-scripted answer that job seekers have been advised to use for over a decade. If you use this in an interview it shows that you don't care about the question enough to come up with your own response or even think about what's being asked.

Guest's picture
Mr Pragmatic

Okay from your ID Resume Reviewer you just review and look out for mistakes, rather than counsel like Kate is doing here. In your opinion, how would you answer that question? Tell the interviewer that you are sometimes forgetful, or that you sometimes struggle with depression or probably inferiority complex? the very opposite of the kind of person the employer is looking for? Common! Lets be realistic here. Everyone has a dark side which is best kept to himself or herself alone, as long as these weaknesses can be managed without affecting productivity. If you have to tell someone about it, it should be a therapist not a potential employer!

Marla Walters's picture

Great post, Kate! 

I work in H.R. and would like to add this suggestion.  After your interview, promptly send the interviewer a handwritten thank-you note.  Thank them for the interview opportunity, their time, and reiterate your interest in the position.  It is a very nice personal touch that we like to see.

Guest's picture
CJ

Enthusiasm is a must. I'll gladly take a little less ability for a little more enthusiasm.

Number 1 is tricky. When we hire, the office admin opens the mail and then immediately photocopies everything and saves the originals in the main files. I never feel that lovely paper or see those eye-catching colors. There are exceptions of course for positions like graphic artists but it's better to focus on the words themselves.

I also think you're misusing the term "BS," which always has a bad connotation. If the person is spinning or embellishing, they move down in the ranking. You should be able to discuss everything on your resume. If I catch even one half-truth, that's it.

Much better (and memorable) is to tell me HOW you did your job. Your copy clerk's quote is still honest even if she messed up every order and was fired for gross incompetence. A bullet point like "Duplicated and distributed an average of 125 reports and memos per week with 92% accuracy rate." tells me you did well and you are results oriented. That REALLY stands out to me. This means you have to regularly update your resume while you have a job and can access your performance reviews. Simply put, a person who had the job before you or after you shouldn't be able to write that same point.

I find the "strong weakness" bit a real turn-off. "I just work too hard!" just comes off as disingenuous. Even a person who is 99% perfect has a weakness. Just be prepared for the question and don't BS. Tell me what it is, what you are doing to improve and how that's working out.

Oh, and If you are a recent grad and I ask your GPA, your response better have a number. If you start with "Well, I was involved in a lot of activities..." it tells me you think it's too low. So tell me and we'll move on. Otherwise you waste time you could be using to tell me positive things to (at best) neutralize a negative.

Simply put, a person who is polite, brief, and answers the question I ask them (not the talking point they want to make) will get my attention.

And Marla's right: a note is great because most of your competition didn't write one.

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm in HR and have noticed that a lot of interviewees say 'we', 'us' or 'the team' when talking about examples of what they've done. You may have been in a successful team but the interviewer wants to know what YOU personally did to achieve the outcome.

If the interview is competence based, thoroughly research the competencies and the format the company wants them to be answered in. This goes for application forms too. It still amazes me that applicants completely ignore the competencies asked for and instead just list their education and work history.

If the competence they ask for is "Communicates effectively" or "Ability to solve problems" don't just say "I communicate well with colleagues and customers" or "I use my initiative to effectively solve problems", tell them HOW you have done it. Think of a few examples (they may ask for different examples from those used on the application form). Even if you are in a low level job where you do not have the power to make decisions, talk about how you took positive steps to understand changes or shared new information with others in your team and made an effort to find extra information for customers. Also include any challenges you faced, how you overcame them and the outcome achieved.

Also go prepared with key information you want the interviewer to know. It may be that the questions asked of you don't cover all the information about you. Take a cue card or sticky note with you with a list of main achievements or qualities you think are important so that when they ask if you have any questions or if there's anything else you want to know, you are prepared.

You could even go as far as preparing a shortened resume to hand to the interviewer to remind them of who you are and what you have achieved. Some HR departments who just do the sift and decide who goes for an interview do not pass on the resumes/application forms to the interviewer so they will not know anything about you.

If it's a big organisation you're applying to, don't bother with a thank you note. The recruitment department will not pass it on to the manager who is recruiting and interviewing (ie. the decision maker) and it will just end up being deleted and shredded. The relevant person will never see it and it just creates extra admin work for the recruiting department.

Guest's picture
Guest

I agree with the previous comments about saying your biggest weakness is working too hard. These are weasel words and the interviewer will see right through them. Instead focus on weaknesses that you overcame. If you lacked knowledge in a previous role, tell them how you researched it and learned more or went on a course.

If your problem is dealing with challenging customers, tell them how you calm them down and address their issue.

It shows you don't give up easily and are adaptable.

Personally, my greatest weakness is chocolate.

Guest's picture
Robert in SF

I think the application of #5 depends on the position for which you are interviewing and the person who is asking the question.

As the larger businesses have multiple persons interviewing the applicant, since there are many stakeholders who will interact with the position once it's filled, then the experience of the interviewer varies from veteran to novice.

A novice might very well be swayed by the "strength as a weakness" but I feel the veteran will see the answer as too pat, too practiced and really without thought or substance in relation to the fit between the applicant and the position.

Once you have decided to show your enthusiasm for obtaining the position, as Guest commented in response #2, then take a look at the position and your own qualifications and see where you might need some help in fitting in at the company. Before you answer the weakness question, be sure to understand which specific skills or experience will be essiential, especially from the interviewer's perspective, and compare/contrast those to your own skill set and experience.

Then take a second to think about which areas of your resume or qualifications *not* on the resume that will need some buffering while you transition in the position.

It's OK to take a few seconds to be thoughtful. Of course, don't spend more than about 10 seconds or so, and be sure to "think out loud" to help fill the silence (such as, "Well let me see.....in this position... from what I have learned in my research about the company/position/industry....and of course from what we have discussed so far....", and then respond, "I think I will need to work on....~example of this/that/the other that specifically speaks to an area that the job description or interviewer has mentioned that you really will need to work on~".

The hiring manager will appreciate the thought process, the application of your analysis to the position, and your honesty.

When you mention the weakness, consider asking about the strength the manager has in that area or the resources at the company for helping you...immediately get them thinking, even if only in the back of their head, about solutions or mitigation of your weakness. That will help assuage any fears they might have about your weakness, if you can start addressing it even before you have started. You demonstrate your eagerness to learn and "fix" yourself.

Also consider looking at past evaluations, and depending on how applicable the review was to the position and company's needs, mention instead how you were improving such-and-such from your last review and how much progress you have made or steps you have taken.

Guest's picture

I am in management at my company. One of the things we look for is if the person has done research about our company. Since this is the internet age, it is an easy thing to do.

It is important that they understand the company and its business for which they might be working. If they do not take the time to do this, to me it shows lack of interest in some area.

Guest's picture
Rachel Crockett

I've had four job offers in the past six months (with countless on-site interviews.) Every time I received a job offer it was within the day and before I was back from traveling home.

For all other jobs where I didn't hear a peep that day I sent out hand written thank you cards to every individual I spoke with during the interview. I was lucky to hear back in three to four weeks that they choose another candidate.

Save your wrist in the Science Field, they either want you or not. A Thank You card will not sway them.

However, it is important to note in the science field, you can't know everything there is to know about that field (even if you think the company wants that.) This is were managing human relationships become important. For instance I was recently hired for a position requiring 6-7 years of experience. I have only one year of professional experience in the particular field but much more in a less technical field. When they pointed out my grossly under-qualified background I calmly reminded them that the technical aspect can be taught and it's the ability to work with others and tap into those resources that can't be taught. I had a job offer within the day.

Guest's picture
Beth

I think #2 is a good idea and a bad idea. It's important to show that you can use the appropriate buzzwords and lingo for your position and field, but I agree that dressing up the language too much is off-putting. "BS" should never even enter your mind.

Sometimes it's obvious that people are trying to sound much more important than they really are. I've thrown out a few resumes (and had a few good laughs) because of it.

Guest's picture
Guest

When I hear that ques. in an interview, it makes me think that I'm clearly dealing with someone who hasn't prepared for the interview. It's such a "lazy" question. Why don't you ask the person about the job and how they plan to perform it?

As soon as I hear the greatest strength/greatest weakness question,I want to scream, " My greatest weakness is tolerating idiots who ask inane questions like that and have power over my life and my greatest strength is not jumping across this table and tearing your head off."

Guest's picture
Q

I agree with Guest #17 - let's consider the point of the "greatest weakness" question:

Is it a sincere question? Would you expect an otherwise strong candidate to admit that she/he is habitually late because they party until 2am 5 nights a week? If they did, would you appreciate the honesty, or would you think "this person is NUTS! Why would they volunteer that?"

Or is it a question designed to make the candidate think of a "weakness" that they can then spin into a positive? As in, "In my early career, I had a tendency to be late as I worked in an office where punctuality was not critical and developed bad habits. Now I make it a point to get up 2 hours early and be the first one in the office." If so, that's the same as "admitting" to perfectionism, stopping the buck, etc. It's not really a confession.

Option 3 is that favored by Guest - it's a weak, poorly thought-out question that is often asked just because it's asked often. Don't be surprised when you get a well-rehearsed answer that gives you no satisfaction.

Guest's picture
The Rat

I like the art of resume B.S. and couldn't agree more; there are a lot of great ways to word sentences to make them sound more appealing and the candidate at hand more attractive for a position.

Guest's picture
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Kate Luther's picture

It's great getting to read so many different views on this topic. I do want to point out however, that I never said to lie or deceive on your resume, nor do I recommend doing it in your interview.

So, let me just clarify a little:

Resume "B.S." isn't lying or being deceitful. It's simply taking the skills, experience and talents you have and really highlighting them so your potential employer sees your brilliance. Imagine being asked to write your own bio because you've won an award... these introductions are designed to show why this person won the award in the first place... your resume should do basically the same thing... I think Julie's bricklaying example is perfect: men laying bricks are asked what they are doing... one says he is laying brick, another is making a wall, and the third is building a cathedral: which one would you hire?

Point #2 - I never said the "greatest weakness" question was a good one - simply that if you're asked it, you have to have an answer other than "i hate mornings", "I have ADD" or "I'm not organized". So, if the interviewer is going to ask me what my worst habit or flaw is, then I should be able to spin that a little so that it doesn't cost me the job.

And while we're on this subject, "spinning" doesn't mean lying either. Perfectionism is a weakness and if left unchecked can immoblilize you because the work is never good enough to say "done". Likewise, my example in this article - doing things outside my job description because I don't believe in "that's not my job" - has actually gotten me in trouble a few times early in my career. Apparently, when the company has an entire department to handle a specific task, they get kind of  cranky when someone else handles it without going through proper channels.

So, honestly, that is one of my weaknesses. I've just learned how to play it so that it doesn't cost me the position.

And lastly, I do agree that writing a thank you note is a great idea and should have been included on my list. I also agree with taking props to your interview - the more you have to show off your stuff, the more impressive you look.

And yes, if you can do some research and learn a little about the company you're meeting with, that's always a classy move too.

Guest's picture
Guest

As for a "weakness," how is "If my heart isn't in it, I won't give 100%"

Guest's picture
Guest

Very useful advise. I have an interview today- and I will be sure to use it. Thanks!

Guest's picture
Guest

I am preparing myself for an interview coming up soon, and I just want to mention that " Use a Strength as Your Weakness" strategy seems a bit cliche. I think HR people and hiring managers hear the same answer a thousand of times...so they may wonder, is this person authentic?. Again, the same answer from the previous one...if I want to be unique as you suggest, a real weakness with the steps taken to solving it may work out just fine.....unless the reason to ask this question is just to see if the potential candidate quotes a website verbatim