Ace the Interview

Home / Interview prep / Ace the Interview

Your career move comes closer at the moment you land an interview. Interviews come in a few formats:

  • Phone screening
  • Phone interview
  • Online / remote interview
  • On site interview

As with most things in life, preparation is key!

If you do not have a good perspective on the company, the job, your personal career and what you can contribute to this position, the interviewer will figure this out in no time and you will be back to square one.

It all starts with you though. You need to have a very clear idea on what your job and career aspirations are. You need to make sure that you have thought this career move through. Just getting a job may pay the bills but will turn into a daily disaster if the job is not suitable for you.

They say job hunting is like dating but I would disagree, you are not going to share your most intimate moments with the job or the company and you are probably not signing up there “till death do ye part” right?Woman gesturing thumbs up in front of corporate personnel office

It is a vetting process from both sides though and the best way to get through it is to first find out everything about yourself and next find out everything you can about the company and the position you are applying for. Knowing yourself with all your strengths and weaknesses and reflecting on your education, skills, knowledge and experience, is of the utmost importance. The better you are prepared and are comfortable with who you are and what you can contribute, how easier the job interview will go.

In order to prepare yourself for interview you will need to develop a few pieces of information:

  • Elevator speech
  • Educational summary
  • Career summary
  • Ambition summary
  • Strengths and Weaknesses chart
  • Extra curricular snippets
  • Nightmare Questions

We’ll go over these items one by one. Consider these written statements as your toolbox to move through your career.  Once you have these pieces of information together and you can discuss them at any time and you have also done your homework on the company that will interview you, you can relax and face any interviewer. Not being prepared is the most common mistake for people in interview situations.

Note that we are not focusing on how you dress, talk, walk, look, smell and present yourself (yet), it is important but your personal interview toolbox is certainly more important for your success. A well trained and experienced interviewer will look right through the new suit, dress shoes, nice perfume, firm handshake and over abundant eyecontact to spot someone who does not really understand what they want in/from life or this particular position.

Elevator Speech

An Elevator Speech is a statement that is concise, complete and short enough that you could make it during the short ride up in an elevator with someone who may be able to help you with your career move. Although usually constructed to promote products or services, I guess we need to treat your career move as a service that we want to provide to companies with you as the prime product involved.

You use the Elevator Speech in a variety of situations. At a networking event, during a job fair, at your neighbor’s birthday party, during the shuttle bus ride at the airport, etc. The opportunities are endless.

In the short statement of about 30 seconds to a minute or two, you need to tell your target who you are, what you are doing now and what you want to do next and all of that in such a way that your target will get interested to hear more or at least is impressed enough to retain the headline and remember you when it is relevant.Elevator Buttons

Don’t try to use a mission statement type phrase because your target will get confused or annoyed as it won’t sound genuine. You need to sound polite but like an everyday conversation.

It is important to highlight how you can help others, not how others can help you. Your target may not be motivated to listen to your plea for a job but will get interested in offering a position if it is clear who you are and what you can do for them.

The best Elevator Speeches tell a little story about you and continues to what your next move is going to be. You should include something about what you do and who you are and what you can do or what you want to do next and how it may be of interest for your target.

As an example, suppose that you are a systems engineer and are looking to find a better job at a larger company with more upward potential. You could say something like this:

Hi I am [insert name] I’m a [insert job title or function] educated at [insert university and/or school]. Over the past [insert experience years] I have worked on [insert major work contributions] and I’m experienced in [insert particular field of strength]. At this moment I’m looking to join [insert target organization type] to [insert career objective or next move / disguised as benefit for your target]. Would you have any recommendations for me?

So it would sound like: “Hi I’m Joe Careera, I’m a systems engineer from Cornell electrical and software engineering. Over the past 3 years I have worked on analyzing and testing software crucial for the aeronautical industry and I’m experienced in developing and implementing customer specs for our software. At this moment I’m looking to join a larger organization to be able to apply my skills, knowledge and experience to their full extend. Would you have any recommendations for me?”

Think about the various components of the statement and start drafting your version. The format is not cast in concrete and you can certainly make changes but the important thing is to be concise, do not drag it on for too long and communicate your essentials in a very short timeframe.

You are always welcome to email me your Elevator Speeches and I’ll admire it or will give you some feedback to make it more powerful.

Educational Summary

The Educational Summary may be a lot easier than the Elevator Speech. Basically it is a fast and furious review and listing of your academic background. It can include your schools, universities, courses, assignments and even some experiences during your work. The point of it is that you want your target to understand in a very short time what you are able to accomplish and what level of education you have.

Try to weave in some things that are of special interest for your target. So if you are a lawyer, trying to get into a real estate business, you would say things like, “Did [insert spectacular name] law and specialized on real estate through course work with [insert other well known educational institute] which gave me a great background to do [insert career accomplishment].

You get the picture. It is not just a list of your classes but a groomed overview that highlights the pieces of your education most likely to impress your targets.

Both the Educational Summary and the Elevator Speech need to be rehearsed so much to the extend that they sound real natural when you use them. Get your significant other or your friends ready to tell you how it sounds, or don’t hesitate to contact me and try it out on me.

Career Summary

Like with the Educational Summary, the Career Summary should address the parts of your career that will help your target picture you in a role in their company. If you have any gaps in your career, now is the time to think about how to talk about that. There are lots of reasons why people have genuine gaps in their employment and employers are fine with it, provided they can get confirmation that you’ll be able to fit back in and pick up the pace again and that the absence of work did not have to do with any problems while at work.

So ensure you steer clear of any career disasters and talk freely about;

  • Staying home to raise a family
  • Unexpected bankruptcy of your previous employer that left you a while searching
  • Taking time off to take care of some family business
  • Volunteer things you did while not in a company
  • Educational initiatives, writing or consulting you did while not being employed
  • Entrepreneur initiatives

Please avoid “sabbatical” unless you are a college professor and have written a book on some deep topic during this time.

The Career Summary should be something you are proud of and should sound like something you are proud of! Do not utter it in an apologetic tone of voice but practice in front of the mirror to ensure you can present it with the flair, dignity and confidence it deserves and will instill that same confidence in your target.

It is great if you can create a little story walking through your career and explaining how you have grown to bigger and better things through the various employments and assignments you have dealt with. Be sure to highlight any major promotions and great career accomplishments. Your target probably likes some data, like statistics or numbers so they can remember those and use them as an anchor for their picture of your employment with them. Write down the stories about the assignment you had or the event that took place, what your role in it was and how it all ended.

Don’t feel obliged to cover each and every job you ever had, certainly if you are more advanced in your career. It is not the intention of the Career Summary to be complete, detailed and not even chronological. It serves to highlight how you have had experiences throughout your career that ready you for the career move you intend to make at this moment.

While making the Career Summary you should prepare yourself for questions about your greatest career success, your worst move ever and how you recovered from it, the time you had your biggest learning and the things you would do different now, if you could turn the clock back. We will discuss these things later to prepare for the interview but this is a good time to think about them. 

Another piece of information is the story line of why you made your career moves. Be it up or down or side ways, potential employers want to know why you made the move and so you need to have your statements prepared. Moving for career progress, better learning opportunity, larger company, more interesting industry or technology and even moving for family circumstances is all great. Mind boggling was the answer of one candidate on my question why he had quit the job, his response was: “because I moved to a different city” ?! No further explanation, I’m still curious.

Ambition Summary

Take a moment and think through your career until now, then think about your next career move, and then think about eventually where you would like to end up. What is it that you want to be doing by the time you get ready for retirement. Why waste your time on this now and what does that have to do with anything at this moment you may ask. Well if you don’t know where you want to be going, it will be difficult to be passionate about what direction and what path to take.

Like the Goal Clarity you need in your work to ensure you know what to do and why, likewise you need to have clarity about your ambitions in your career. 

Don’t just make something up, think long and hard about what this piece of work will say. If you are young in your career, it is perfectly fine to not have the ultimate career ambition clear. At least you should have a clear reason of why you want to make the career move you intend to make. To round out your experience, to take your career in a different direction to try something out, etc. 

It is all a matter of being prepared to answer questions and ensure that your target knows you have thought about all these things and are serious about your career. With the above documents we cover your Past, Present and Future, we cover your education, knowledge, skills and experience and we capture your passion and ambition. What more can an employer ask?

Strengths and Weaknesses Chart

The question about what your strengths and weaknesses are is not always meant to inform the interviewer about these competencies.  More often the question is asked to see if the candidate is at easy with who they are, know themselves and have a plan in place to work around any weaknesses and build on their strong points.

If you are a huge procrastinator, list it and let’s talk about how to present it. This chart is between you and me. We won’t show this to future employers, rather you use this, as part of your toolbox to thing through the more difficult parts of your competencies.

We want to use strengths and weaknesses that are relevant to the job. If you want to be an accountant and you admit that holding a key in a song tune is a major issue for you, your target will be very confused. So the first order of business is to find out what strengths and weaknesses people in your line of work have. Check the job description or go online and browser some of the job descriptions that other companies have posted. Most likely there will be extensive lists of requirements from which you can learn what strengths and weaknesses your target will most likely focus on. If you feel that you have mainly weaknesses for the career move you are preparing, maybe you should reconsider the move. Now is a good time to think about the direction of your career.

But when your strengths and weaknesses are a mixed bag like with most of us, you need to ensure you can talk easily about them and create the confidence that you know how to build on your strengths, you know what your weaknesses are and you know how to deal with them.

Extra curricular snippets

We all have are passions in our leisure time. However in a career move situation, you need to think about exactly what you want to share. Some interviewers have some conceptions about extra curricular activities that, right or wrong, may become an issue for you. Some people don’t appreciate it when you are the greatest score holder in World of Warcraft, some may think twice about you doing only individual sports and no team activity, some may have opinions about why you like a particular sport as NASCAR racing.

So it is good to be prepared and have little stories to tell when asked about the leisure activities. Something that starts with I like to [insert activity] because [insert meaningful and career enhancing reason for activity]. As example: “I like to run marathons {ai awkward individual sport!!!} because it keeps my body healthy, I can plan it when I have time and it never interferes with sudden work assignments and it allows me to take all the time to think through issues we face at work or at home.” See you tell them what you do and you give them the reasons why, so you avoid the interviewers building their own stories around it.

Nightmare Questions

Well, unless you were going to interview with Google back in the days they asked the weirdest questions (which they stopped as it did not produce any better results than a structured interview), you can prepare yourself for the questions the interviewer will most likely ask. Ready with your toolbox prepared and rehearsed, you should not have any problem answering questions. Still there are some that, as we mentioned in the Career Summary part, you need to think through carefully.

Questions like “Can you tell me about your best result during your last employment?”. The interviewer is not just curious about what that great success was but also how you approach the question. Do you take a business result as your greatest result or a personal improvement, or a situation where you had to stand alone against a crowd of nay sayers? Is it a company result, a department result or a personal result. Will you credit a team effort and your role in it or just boast about your heroic deed, or highlight the process that took place. 

Another all time favorite is asking about a conflict situation and how you dealt with it. Again the interviewer won’t just be interested in the actual conflict and please spare them the “he said she said” part of it, but the interviewer is more likely interested to see how you approach conflict, if you recognize what kind of conflict it is, if you accept that conflict is part of regular work life and have found ways to deal with it in a constructive manner.

Then you may also get a barrage of hypothetical situation questions. Try to get to the point quickly, the interviewer knows it is a hypothetical question so they don’t necessarily care about the right or wrong answer, but they will care about how you approach the situation. So if the hypothetical question centers around conflict, leadership or tight deadlines quickly move on from talking a bit about the presented situation to the more general approach you have towards conflict, leadership and time management.

Think about the upcoming potential interview and write down the questions you really don’t like to get.

For the aficionados, here a range of sources with advice on a whole host of questions and how to answer them.


The list can go on for a while but Yahoo and Google will do a better job than I in finding these links.

You will have seen the questions that scare you most or that make you think too long for comfort, so let’s list those on the chart with nightmare questions and face them now. If you get stuck, let us know.

The Interview

So now that we have our toolbox complete, we are ready for the interview. As we noticed above, they come in a few forms. Most companies will do a phone screening as a first step. This could be done by either a consultant, recruiter or administrative assistant. Do not expect to immediately get the hiring manager on the line for the phone screening in larger companies.

The goal of the screening is to eliminate candidates who do not have the requirements set for the position. The questions may be straight forward about your diplomas, right to work, other status questions and availability. Maybe a check of your previous employments and questions of why you moved from the one company or position to the next. As we have prepared that in your toolbox, you should be well armed to get through the screening. Sometimes though, the phone interview (or a second phone interview) gets more intense and extensive. You need to prepare for that too.

Be prepared for the various forms of interviews. Most common are:

The unstructured interview (the hiring manager has a chat with you in a free floating conversation, where they try to get an idea about your skills, background and cultural fit, they may throw in some questions about hypothetical situations and how you would handle those)

The structured interview (an interview with a fixed format asking all candidates the same questions in the same sequence about their competencies, thus enabling easier comparisons)

Behavioral interview (the recruiter or hiring manager asks about decisions and actions from your past to get a picture of what you would be likely to do in the future. The assumption here is that your past behavior is more likely to predict your performance than your answer to the hypothetical situations)

In my experience the phone interview may very well be structured, the online interview unstructured and once you get to the site, they may sit down for an in-depth behavioral interview, but all organizations are different so be prepared and don’t get surprised.

The Phone Screening or -Interview

As with our whole process the point is to be prepared. If you have responded to an opening a phone-call could come at any time. Make sure you are ready for it mentally. Also do not be shy to tell the recruiter when it is not a good time to talk and suggest a better time when you are in a quiet environment with a good phone connection (try to avoid a cell phone) and your resources at hand. You should be well organized and keep a good record of the applications you have done so that you won’t be caught talking about a different position while on the phone with the recruiter and also ensure you have the same resume in front of you as the recruiter. You should have your toolbox documents ready and available and be able to talk about the points you prepared. Certainly the stories prepared in the career summary may come up. You will need to select or tweak the stories to the companies you are talking to. It serves no purpose to talk about a project that won’t ring a bell with the recruiter. Also you can try to work in something about the company that would be great. Something like : “We had to work at [insert assignment] which was important for the company because [insert specific importance of event] probably comparable to [insert reference to something you have learned about your target company] in your company. My role was to [insert your role] and by [insert skills, experience and knowledge you applied] we were able to [insert great success of the assignment].

You will need a few of these stories, again preparation is key!

young businesswoman

Make sure you do your homework. If you haven’t done it yet, go over all the information you can get about the company. Ensure you have a job description of the position you are interviewing for and read it fully and carefully multiple times so that you understand exactly what they are asking you to do and what their expectations are about job knowledge and other competencies. Visit their website, find out who their competition is and compare and contrast them. Get into the company specific lingo that may be captured on their website or in their annual report. On the investors part of the website you may find links to their official reports to the SEC if they are large companies with stock at the stock exchange. The reports 10Q and 10K provide lots of information and are freely available, if not from their website certainly from Government website. Make sure you remember the name of the Big Boss who runs the company and be aware of the company structure, as the company maybe owned by yet another company. If you know who you will be talking to, look at their profile on LinkedIn so you know a bit about their background. You don’t have to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Instagram but a quick glance at LinkedIn may just get you enough information to be prepared.

Let the recruiter talk, do not interrupt them but take advantage of every word you hear to understand what the question is and what your answer should be. 

Popular questions that will usually come up are;

  • Why do you want this position (check the Elevator Speech)
  • What makes you the right candidate for this position (the other part of the Elevator Speech)
  • How does your overall career planning look like and where does this position fit in (your ambition summary)

Speak clear, maybe a bit slower than your usual phone call with your family or friends, do not be too long-winded but get to the point and make it in a concise manner. Your elevator speech should help you to quickly summarize why you are the candidate they should hire. As your interviewer lacks all visual clues, make sure you are clear about everything, a nod with your head won’t obviously be visible and you need to convey all your emotions and intentions with words.

At the end of the interview you’ll get an opportunity to ask questions, make sure you have a few questions about the job. How did the vacancy occur (did they fire your predecessor or promote them?), how is the organizational line up (are you at the bottom of the chart of two steps from the CEO?), what are the immediate assignments or biggest challenges or said differently what is the specific expectation that this role need to contribute. Your response will be the part of the elevator speech that highlights why you can do this. Finally you want to ask them when you will most likely hear back and if it is ok for you to follow up when you haven’t heard by that time. This will ensure you can call them later and refer to your request to follow up: “Hi yes as we discussed during my interview, I’m following up to see how the process is going and if I need to provide any more information or can do anything else to help the process” or words like that.

Thank them for their time, don’t hang up without reiterating your interest in the position and your availability to start soon.


Online Interview

The advantage of the Online Interview is that you will have visual clues. The sad state of technology unfortunately is that not many people will enjoy a high definition connection and there may be considerable lag in the audio versus the video.

Where the phone interview is usually with just one person, the online interview could be with more people at the same time or in turn. The Online interview is where it gets more serious and more in-depth about your role, your experience and your solutions to the problems that your future employer has. That really is the key with the whole process, as long as you can convince them that you will be able to solve the problems they have, you will be the candidate of choice.

For a short period of time people were busy recording video resumes. Only if you want to date someone would I encourage you to record a video but for an interview, you need interaction. It is worse enough that you have to rely on a resume to get through to the decision makers, don’t let a video with no opportunity to respond the the specifics of the interviewer and the company get in the way.

There are lots of technologies available to do online interviews and sometimes you may have to go to an office somewhere close to log into a specific technological solution that your future employer has. This is great because now you don’t have to worry about the technology and the lighting and sound but it is bad because you are not on your home turf.

Most interviews get done through Skype or Google Hangout and it will probably depend on the recruiter what technology they prefer. Ensure you are ready for them when they dial in. You cannot afford this to be the first time you do this. You have to practice with some one before taking an online interview. You can set up an appointment with me and we’ll go through the mock online interview together and test your system, lighting, sound, background (neutral, no recognizable items), environment (get the dog out of the room) and process speed (no lag in the connection). You may be well served with restarting the computer an hour before the interview, switching off all other programs and silencing your phone.

Dress smart, not just the top part they can see, believe me you’ll feel better in a nice outfit than in your underwear with only a nice shirt on top. Get that haircut and clean those glasses. Look relax, be relaxed, we have our toolbox prepared, we have rehearsed this so there is no big unknowns. Here is some great advice from the good people at NTD

Make sure you have a drink nearby, your calendar, preferably not online so you don’t have to go to another program during the interview. Face the camera and not your screen, so you make eye contact in a natural way. Move the camera or your laptop up if necessary, and stay at a reasonable distance from the camera, not with your face filling the whole screen but you should look like a passport photo on screen.

Sit up, don’t adjust your hair or glasses every five minutes but ensure there is a relaxed picture on screen for the recruiter to look at.

Towards the end of the interview prepare to fire your questions, also be prepared to receive the answers. Your recruiter should see some reaction from you after the answer on the questions you have asked, it is not just a little list of questions you need to ask because that is what candidates do but you should genuinely be interested in the answers.

Finish up with a summary while thanking them and reiterate why you are the candidate they are looking for and ask for the next step in the process.

The Onsite Interview

You already have talked to the company during the phone interview and possibly have seen some people during the Online Interview but now you are there, at their place, without your trusty tool box documents around you but with just some printed  resumes and a lot of anxiety.

Before you get to the interview you need to arrange for travel. Usually companies will have a travel agent take care of the arrangements of trains, planes and taxis but be prepared to handle it yourself. If it takes you just a few hours by car go drive, if the drive would be over 4 or 5 hours expect to fly. They will be fine with you taking a taxi, don’t get a limo but they probably won’t expect you to get to the bus stop and wait for bus 29. Get receipts from all you spent and after the interview use their declaration form to issue an expense overview for reimbursement.

If you end up in a hotel for a night, remember that they may have good relations with the hotel staff and other company officials or candidates may be staying there too. So this is not the night to party and binge drink to get over your travel woes, you need to be on in “interview mode”. Don’t go for the lobster, stay away from the champagne (you are not James Bond) and don’t be tempted to use the in room pay movies. Check the arrangement for the next morning, go over your tool box documents one more time, re-read some of the things they may have sent you or your own information about the company. Some companies may arrange for a dinner the night before the interview. This is great to break the ice, but also puts you immediately in “interview mode”. although the dinner may be in a casual place and you may have an alcoholic drink or two, make sure you stay professional and stay on point. Don’t go telling stories about how bad your current employer is, potential employers don’t like that attitude. Also do not go anywhere near controversial topics but ask about the town, if you are not familiar with it or about the career path of your interview partner, how long they have been with the company etc.

Get enough sleep before you go for your interview as you will be sharper and more fun to talk to and can avoid a yawn hopefully. 

The first thing to remember is that everyone at the company will form an opinion about you and may be asked or volunteer to provide that opinion to the decision makers. You don’t want to be known by the guard as the candidate who ignored all speed controls and parking directions, you also don’t want to be known to the receptionist as the aloof candidate who didn’t even make eye contact. You need to be on your best from the moment you park, ride up the elevator, enter the lobby, go for lunch with them and until you are back in your car and on your way home. For a download from a page at mashable with some great horror stories click HERE

Make sure you arrive good on time, sort out the travel directions beforehand. Leave the phone in the car or switch it off (a vibrating pocket is cumbersome during an interview) but make sure you have your calendar with you so you can make appointments if necessary. Have something to write and a nice bag to take papers that they may provide you with. Be prepared not only to sit at a table and talk but also to participate in a lunch and don’t be the messy hamburger eater and don’t spoil pasta sauce on your shirt. Modesty is usually a good move and also you want to eat little enough so that you can talk over lunch with an empty mouth.

Remember now it is the whole you that is on display so mind your body language, walk straight, make the genuine eye contact, the firm handshake and “walk with purpose”. You may be their colleague shortly so give them the best impression you can make. It is not unusual to give a facility tour. Make sure you pay attention, try to come up with meaningful questions during the tour.

In addition to your tool box documents that you should be able to recite from memory now, I’m going to assume that you are well versed in your trade and have knowledge of your systems and processes so you can answer the detailed questions about your trade. 

Typically during an on site interview you will be meeting a variety of people. Unfortunately by lack of creativity or due to similar curiosity about the candidate, you may get the exact same question multiple times. Stay positive and upbeat, answer it the same or similar (don’t change the story half way!) but remember who your audience is and the CEO or the HR manager may need less detail than your direct supervisor. 

Start of a new team

The whole process, although it may not feel that way, is a two way street so make sure you ask questions about the position if it is not clear. Make sure you understand the immediate results they will be expecting and the current challenges for the company, department or position.

Towards the end of the interview, or parts of the interview if you speak with various people, check to see if you have given them the content of your Elevator Speech. You need to make sure they know what you have to offer and if they have not asked for one of your great assets, make sure you bring it up so they get the complete picture.

At the end of the day they may provide you with an overview of the benefits they will offer, give you a form for your expenses, ask about your availability to start and may ask you for what your salary expectations are. Please do your homework there too and mention a range that is realistic. If you have absolutely no clue, mention your current salary plus 15%-20%. This will make it worth the move to another company. If they offer less than a 15% improvement, ask yourself why you are making the move at all. There must be strong non financial reasons to move companies, with all inherent risk, if you move up only 5% or stay flat in salary. If the company has better growth options it may be worth it, if the company has a better future or technology or is in a better location, those are all reasons to move, but think about the question so you won’t be caught off guard. I have taken positions that paid less than the job I was leaving but it provided me with great upward potential that I would never have had in my old company. Negotiating about salary is not something that happens often during the on site visit. We will share some ideas on this in the pages on your package.

Make sure you have your questions for them ready to go and note the answers. Refer to our paragraph on this above under the phone interview section.

 After the Interview, follow up and thank you notes

Your job is not done when you are heading home after the interview. The next step is to make sure your interviewers get thank you cards or notes and you need to plan your follow up strategy.