How to Prepare for a Job Interview (Really Well)

By Ellevest Team

Let’s just say it: You can’t land a new job without a good interview. The interview is when you and your potential employer get to know one another, when you show them your very best professional self, and when you can make the case for why, exactly, they should hire you.

An image of a woman typing at her computer with a coffee cup and a snack nearby.

Job interviews can be intimidating, but they are much less scary when you’re well prepared. Preparation = confidence (or, at least, more of it than you’d have otherwise).

So how do you do that? Good question. The more time between now and interview day, the more prep you’ll have time for. But even if you only have a few days, see how much of this framework you can get through — it can help you organize your thoughts and walk into that room (or log in to that Zoom) feeling prepared.

Develop your narrative

One of the most common mistakes job candidates make in interviews is to passively allow the interviewer to guide the conversation, trusting that the questions they ask are the only ones they need answered.

Instead, it’s on you to make sure that the narrative you want to get across — the case for why you’re the best candidate for this particular job — makes its way to light. And in order to do that, you have to have a strong grasp of what the company is looking for and how your skills and experiences apply.

Research the company and the job

This is step one — take notes as you go. Here are some places you might start.

  • Look at the company website. Are their values listed anywhere? How did the company get started? Who are their leaders?

  • Search for recent news. Did they recently launch a product? Get some big media coverage? (Flip side: Is there a scandal? Good to know.)

  • Familiarize yourself with their competitors. What are their advantages and disadvantages compared to the competition?

  • Learn about the people interviewing you, if you know their names. LinkedIn is a great starting place.

  • Look closely at the things that fall under your area of expertise. For example, if you’re applying for a social media position, familiarize yourself with their social feeds. What are they doing well? How might you help them improve?

  • Know the job description inside and out. It’s the foundational source of what the hiring manager is looking for.

  • Research challenges specific to the role. What do people with that job title often struggle with? Maybe you have skills that can specifically address those challenges. Google might be able to help, depending on the job title. If the title’s too generic, try zooming out to the job function and industry (for example, “challenges for marketers in financial services”). If you have time, it could be really helpful to reach out to someone with that role to see if they’d be willing to give you some insights.

Connect the role to your unique magic

Once you feel like you have a good handle on the company and the role, you can start to connect the dots between that and all the things you bring to the table. Start by listing out all your past roles and experiences. For each one, write down all the projects you worked on, responsibilities you held, and skills you developed — as many you can think of. No responsibility is too small for this initial list.

Next, compare your notes about the job with the notes about your work experience. Where is the strongest overlap? What is it about you that makes you a great fit? What do you want people to remember most about you? How do your values and passions come into play? What is your unique magic? Focus on three (or so) big takeaways you want the hiring manager to get out of your conversation.

And finally, craft each of those takeaways into its own narrative. People connect with stories better than data alone — so take all those great things you’ve done and learned, and organize them into a beginning, middle, and end. Write them out, literally — either on physical paper or in a blank doc. Revise them until they sparkle with energy. Get feedback from someone you trust. And then practice telling those stories.

Plan for interview questions

Once you have a strong sense of the points you want to convey, you can start forming answers to common interview questions. Those questions may get asked, or they may not. Either way, there are some stories that you want to make sure you tell, even if they aren’t asked about directly — things like a time when you worked well with a team, or overcame an unexpected challenge. Interviewers will be listening for you to touch on those kinds of stories. By planning “answers” ahead of time, it will help you remember to bring them up if they don’t get asked. (Bonus: If you’re interviewing remotely, you might even prepare some notes that you can keep handy for reference.)

Below are a few questions you might prepare for. The best way to answer them is going to depend on you — specifically, the narratives you just crafted. Bring in your own passions, core values, and key strengths, too. Then you can use these questions as tools to help direct the conversation in a way that gets all your points across.

  • Tell me about yourself. (You practically know this will be the very first question — which means you can really practice your answer.)

  • Why do you want this job / to work at this company? (Focus on something you want to learn, or maybe you really love their mission.)

  • Why is there a gap of time in your resume? (Be honest, but positive.)

  • Tell me about a time when you overcame a challenge. (Pick something with a happy ending that relates to the role you’re up for.)

  • Tell me about a time when a project you were working on didn’t go as planned. What would you have done differently? (The second part of this question is the important part — how did you learn?)

  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with a team.

  • How do you handle time management / stress?

  • Why are you leaving your job? (Whatever you do here, don’t speak poorly of your previous employer. A good answer might be that it wasn’t the right fit for you anymore, or that you wanted to grow more or differently than the role allowed for.)

  • Tell me about a project that you’re proud of. (Focus not just on the process, but the tangible results, too. What did it do to push the company forward?)

  • What’s something you’re working on improving about yourself? (Again, be positive, focus on steps you can take to learn, and tie it directly back to the role.)

  • What do you expect out of a supervisor? A direct report?

  • Where do you see yourself in five years?

  • What do you do for fun / in your spare time?

Brainstorm which questions you might ask

Almost every interviewer out there is going to leave some time at the end for you to ask your own questions. And you should ask your own questions: It shows you’re interested (in them and in the role and company) and that you’re thinking carefully about whether the role is right for you. Plus, people love to talk about themselves — this might actually be the most comfortable part of the process for your interviewer.

And anyway, a job interview is just as much an opportunity for you to get to know them as it is for them to get to know you. Think carefully about the things you truly do want to know, and plan some questions that will help you get the answers.

  • Questions about the interviewer’s job or background: What do you like about working here? What has your trajectory looked like at this company? What’s an exciting project you’re working on right now?

  • Questions about the role and responsibilities: What sorts of challenges will face the person who takes this job? Where are there opportunities to learn? What does success in this role look like?

  • Questions about the team you’ll be on: What’s the team dynamic like? Do you think people are friends as well as coworkers?

  • Questions about the company culture: How does the company create an inclusive environment? What are your core values? Are there any employee resource groups? How do you build a sense of community? (This one is especially big if the company’s working remotely right now.)

A few things to avoid: First, don’t ask them how much the position pays. This is a conversation better suited for the person from their HR department who serves as your point of contact, or the external recruiter who introduced you to the role. (If the company is small and your contact and the hiring manager are the same person, this interview is still probably not the right time — unless they bring it up first.) And avoid asking them anything inherently negative about their role or the company, like their least favorite thing about working there — it feels icky, kind of like gossip, and it puts them in an uncomfortable position.

Practice, practice, practice

Everyone — no matter how good you might be at talking about themselves off the cuff or with very little preparation — should practice their answers before an interview. Yes, out loud. In the mirror, with a friend, or even with a career coach like me.

Because here’s the thing: When you’ve practiced, when you know your narrative inside and out, you’ll be more relaxed. You’ll spend more time actually listening to the person interviewing you talk and less time planning what you want to say next. Trust me — people can tell whether you are truly engaged in a conversation. Having the mental capacity to be fully present can make a huge difference in the impression you create.

This level of preparation for a job interview takes time and effort — but it’s totally worth it. When you’ve done the research, planned, and practiced, you’ll be able to spend time the day before your interview on staying centered and getting all those last little pieces in order. And you can wake up on the day of with the knowledge that you’re ready to give it your all.


© 2020 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Information was obtained from third-party sources, which we believe to be reliable but not guaranteed for accuracy or completeness.

All opinions and views expressed by Ellevest are current as of the date of this writing, for informational purposes only, and do not constitute or imply an endorsement of any third party’s products or services.

The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person.

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