How to Prepare for Interviews

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

  • Benjamin Franklin

I believe in serious interview preparation. I think it has made the difference for me many times. I have also been on the other side of the table and seen how a careless lack of research can cost people. In this post I will discuss how I prepare. On the face of it, these steps are aimed at preparing for traditional job interviews, but a mildly modified approach would work for university interviews, visa interviews etc.

There are five main areas into which I divide my preparation, here they are with a rough estimate what percentage of preparation time I give to each:

  1. You (35%)
  2. The Role (20%)
  3. The Company (30%)
  4. The Interviewer (5%)
  5. The Market (10%)

Before I go into the details of these different areas, I want to clarify what I mean when I say “prepare an answer”. I don’t mean have an idea about what you should say or write down some bullet points. I mean actually rehearse delivering the answer seriously and repeatedly. I like to record my own voice to check my intonation. At the very least, you should be practicing in the front of a mirror. You will not perform as well as you could do if the first time you say the words out loud is in the interview. There is a balance to strike, if you practice too much then you will sound like a robot. But nine times out of ten people under-rehearse rather than over-rehearse. The reason for this is that actually forcing yourself to say the answer brings you undeniably face-to-face with your own level of (in)competence. Recognize that telling yourself that you’ll “wing it” or that you’re better if you don’t “over-prepare” is a load of horseshit.

One more bit of preamble: I won’t spend much time on the basics but here they are quickly: Make sure you research the interview location so you’re on time, practice eye-contact (especially if you’re shy), practice a firm handshake (I still refer to someone I met years ago as “floppy handshake Mark”), check you have calm but not casual posture, be well-groomed, appropriately dressed, don’t talk too fast, generally avoid humor, always introduce yourself to everyone in the room*, *and if the interviewer wants to talk, let them (and make sure you listen).

1. You

You need to figure out what you are good at. Think hard. Be creative. What do you bring to the table? Now take that list of strengths and apply it to the company and role – where would your strengths be useful? Think short and long term.

As part of this process you should prepare answers for typical “about you” questions like:

  • Talk me through your CV
  • What are your strengths/weaknesses?
  • **What are you proud of?
  • **Why should we hire you instead of Joe Bloggs?

You also need to have prepared answers to typical questions about your motivation:

  • What motivates you?
  • What demotivates you?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years time

Perhaps the most common motivational question is: “Why do you want to work here?” Make sure you’ve given this some deep thought, not just to get the job, but also because this is something you should really understand yourself.

The above questions are the freebies. When interviewers throw out these questions you should smash them, and enjoy getting a break.

Part of the “You” area of preparation includes so-called “competency-based questions” which usually take the form: “Describe a time when you did XYZ” or “Describe a time when you had to deal with XYZ”. These are basically about your experience. Common topics include leadership, challenges, technical skills, and customer/client management – here’s a link to some examples. You should prepare a bank of personal examples, basically tailored stories, which demonstrate these qualities. I’d recommend you prepare at least eight examples, structuring them as follows:

  • What the situation was
  • What your role was
  • What the challenge was
  • How you dealt with the challenge/your contribution
  • What the result was (specifically what did you do to engineer the result)
  • What you would do to improve next time

If you have very little work experience, then use hobbies, educational courses and/or situations from your personal life. Describing how you helped nurse your sick grandmother or led your university sports team to victory might actually be more powerful than talking about some paper-pushing bullshit you did. I’m quite fond of describing the time I hitch-hiked across Tajikistan. If you’ve never done anything of note then just make up some voluntary work you did somewhere that’s hard to check. I would stress, however, that being in such a situation is indicative of a severe lack of character, and you should seek to extricate yourself from this position through action rather than lies.

2. The Role

You need to really understand what the company wants you to do. Talk to people who do similar jobs, research those types of jobs on the internet – what does a typical day look like? Will you be able to cope? Do you know what this role looks like at other companies – are there any notable differences?

Understand that even the most banal jobs in the corporate world now come with fancy sounding titles (“Executive Consultant Manager Lead Change Affairs Assistant” etc.). In order to further the illusion that everyone is valuable. Don’t be fooled.

Pay attention to the benefits on offer – sometimes these can be extremely valuable. Be ready for them to initiate pay/benefit negotiations in the interview, and know where your desired/minimum salary/benefit levels are. Be ready for the question: “where else have you applied?” The answer to this question should be congruent – if you’ve stated that healthcare is your passion, and then say you’ve applied to work in a bank, you’ll come across as extremely fake.

3. The Company

If the company is listed, then you’re in luck because there will be a tonne of information about them online – publicly listed companies are legally obliged to do things like publish their audited accounts. This means you should go into the interview knowing:

  • What the company does, and how it makes money from what it does.
  • The company purpose/values (this is a frequent interview question)
  • Who their customers/clients are
  • The stock price and recent financial performance
  • The company structure (especially how the role you are applying for fits in)
  • Recent activities/ventures the company has been involved in (especially M&A activity)

Even if the company is private, most companies have a lot of information on their corporate web pages – pay close attention to branding and marketing. How the company presents itself reveals how they want to be perceived, which is useful. You should know the name of the CEO, and maybe something about his vision. You should know which countries the company operates in, which parts of its business are bigger/more profitable.

This kind of analysis can be fun – just imagine you are running the company. Where does it suck? What could you do to fix it? As you go through the whole preparation process you should be constantly formulating questions – because no decent interviewer is ever going tonotask: “do you have any questions?”. At this point, you do not want to ask some inane crap, or something which you could have just found out with a tiny bit of research. If you’re stuck (which you shouldn’t be), then I like to ask: “what do you find to be the mostand least rewarding things in your job?”.

4. The Interviewer

Find out the name of your interviewer. Don’t be afraid to phone up some secretaries – they’ll probably be able to tell you. Once you have their name, do some Googling and above all, check them out on LinkedIn (if it’s a university/academic interview, check out their publications). Looking at someone’s education and career history is enormously revealing. That said, do not assume too much. Do not crowbar the fact that you’ve “done your homework” into the interview (after all, this is not that impressive – it’s actually more of a given), and *definitely *don’t be over-familiar (“omg we went to the same uni – fist bump?”). But if the opportunity presents itself, then you can acknowledge that “I know you have worked in XYZ industry in the past, so I’m sure you appreciate that these challenges are particularly strong in XYZ location”. And don’t be intimidated by anyone: If they were really that smart, they wouldn’t have to work (especially not for someone else).

5. The Market

This is the “macro” side of things. Take any given industry, and you could spend a lifetime studying its trends, movers and shapers and global variations. So it’s important to exert discipline in your research and stay focussed. The types of things you want to know about are:

  • Economic outlook for the sector
  • Key political decisions which impact the sector
  • Which markets/population segments are key – how will things like infrastructure changes, currency variations, competitor actions and consumer trends impact the company?
  • “Basics”, for example, if you’re applying for a job in China, do you know who the president is? Do you know how difficult the language is? What are the government’s main priorities at the moment?
  • Recent events which might be relevant – make sure you are reading the financial press at least a week before the interview.

If you find yourself completely bored by this type of research, then I would question whether you applying for a job you will be able to enjoy even a little.

Your mindset

First of all, maintain perspective. Understand that the worst case scenario is that you don’t get the job and they think you’re an idiot. If this happens then what you have experienced is practice for the next interview. Interviews are big learning experiences, and that is something to be valued. Immediately after you have an interview, write down what they asked and where you struggled. Trust me, this helps. Learn what you can and then *move on. Be stoic and only worry about things that are within your power to change.

On that note, remain calm. Be prepared for anything, and don’t reveal weakness. Maybe they want to do the interview while you go for a walk. Remain calm. Maybe they’ve only got 5 minutes, remain calm and speed up. Maybe they ask you something you have literally no idea about – this is actually something you can easily practice. Give a friend a list of 5 test interview questions, and get them to throw in something they know you don’t know about. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions (this can also be a good stalling tactic). For certain types of jobs (typically in strategy roles) they may ask you very difficult and abstract questions (like “how would you get all the cars out of Paris?”), understand that the purpose of these types of questions is to observe your thinking process, so practice delivering a “stream-of-consciousness” answer to these types of questions. You are a rock against which the question waves of the interview will exhaust themselves.

A final note on your mindset, and this is applicable to many different types of stressful situations in life, from dates, to sports to interviews: Feel those butterflies in your stomach, feel that anxiety chewing at your chest…and recognize that these experiences create contrast. Contrast from the routine, where the same feelings of anxiety are rarely found. These feelings tell you that what you are doing is, in someway, pushing your experience of the world around you. Recognize that an existence without these feelings would be a very dull one indeed, and adjust your thinking so that you can bask in the emotion.