The internets abound with advice about how to successfully negotiate job interviews. Everything from how to dress to what kind of body language to exhibit have been discussed. What has received less attention, however, is how to successfully answer questions in a job interview.
This may be because job interview questions are considered “domain-specific knowledge,” or in other words: there’s no way to guide people on how to answer a job interview question, because like a standardized test, you either know the answer or you don’t. If you’re interviewing for a job in engineering, you’d better know your engineering stuff or you won’t get the job. Plain and simple.
In my experience as a researcher, college educator, and consultant for several years now, however, knowledge work is very rarely “plain and simple,” and that’s exactly what you have to do to be a good job candidate: make new knowledge. Employers want to see that you can think on your feet and help them solve problems, not just regurgitate information that you memorized from a laundry list of textbooks in school.
So, in the interests of helping students (like the one I have a phone call with tomorrow as I write this) and whoever else might be interested: below the “Read More” line is my take on preparing yourself to wow prospective employers with your unexpectedly brilliant answers to their questions, no matter what domain of knowledge you’re coming from.
The first thing I encourage job seekers who have landed an interview to do is to thoroughly research their prospective employer. Not only is this a good idea because you want to go into a job with your eyes open, but it is also an essential step in learning all you can about what kind of performance they’re looking for in that interview. It goes without saying that you should take note of anything that stands out to you, but I also recommend typing up a kind of cheat sheet that you can take with you into the interview in a padfolio or dossier. Note: do NOT look at this sheet during the interview, but sitting outside waiting for an interview is a perfect opportunity to study it, and a padfolio or dossier is almost always an acceptable prop to have with you, even if you don’t make use of it during the interview.
The minimum I would do, when considering a new organization, is:
I have used this phrase when helping prepare job seekers for interviews, because it describes a tendency I see amongst a lot of first-time job seekers, and even some veterans. Many job seekers seem to think that the way to land that follow-up interview or job offer is to try to figure out exactly what prospective employers want to hear and then to respond to questions accordingly. Though it may be true that some employers are indeed looking for sycophants who will simply tow the company line, the question then becomes: is this how you want to live out your first (or next) professional experience? As someone you’re not?
When I was in graduate school, one of my mentors put it to me this way: say out of one hundred jobs you apply to there is only one that is your perfect job. If you are trying to land the other ninety-nine jobs by being someone you’re not, you will miss out on your perfect job and end up somewhere you’ll probably be miserable. A more pragmatic way of putting this, however, is that short of being a key operative in the intelligence community or a sociopath: it’s very tough to read people to the degree that you tell them exactly what they want to hear. The only real path is to answer interview questions honestly.
And by this I mean: you should tell employers what you actually think about the topic they’re asking you about. This is another key point a lot of first-time job seekers get hung up on. “Well, what if I believe something that is unpopular in my field,” one such job seeker once asked me. “Do you want to spend the next several months or years hiding that belief from your employers if you land the job?” was my response.
Good employers–meaning smart individuals who want to hire innovative professionals who will help them do amazing things–want innovation. They want to know that you can potentially lead them in a new direction. This is surely the only way to signal in an initial interview that you are management material, for instance. More importantly, though: thinking through your responses carefully and articulating what you actually think about a given question is the best way to impress potential colleagues and supervisors. You want to demonstrate what kind of thinker you are, in other words, as much as you want to demonstrate that you are qualified for the job.
All the above being said, I’ve also seen job seekers in mock interviews answer very simple questions in an overly long-winded and pedantic manner. This is a sure way to seem like you’re grandstanding or trying to take an easy question and turn it into an opportunity to lay out your manifesto. As much as I’m saying “be yourself” and “answer questions honestly,” then: you also need to be cognizant of the human beings in front of you and what they are asking you for.
Here are some key things to consider when that live question comes your way:
You might rightfully complain at this point that I’m complicating a situation that most advice-givers seek to simplify. I can’t help it, though: I believe job interviews are one of the most complex and high-pressure activities professionals have to endure. There are many wrong steps to take, a zillion things to consider, and few hard-and-fast rules that will inevitably lead to success. That’s why, like with all complicated activities: you want to practice being interviewed, early and often.
Having been interviewed dozens of times at this point for a variety of jobs, answering questions is now second hat to me. I still get nervous, but not nearly as nervous as I once got. More importantly: I’ve learned to channel nervousness into seeming energetic, passionate, and knowledgeable. This is not something you can teach, however–believe me, I’ve tried. The only way to find this “zone” for interviews is to become an interview veteran.
Which is why I recommend mock interviews, particularly for first-time job seekers. You need to get a feel for what an interview feels like and for how you respond under pressure, and you need to build confidence that you can do this–you can be a good job candidate. Find people who are willing to put the screws to you, who have done interviews before, and who know enough about your field to ask you those off-the-wall questions you’re sure to get a few of.
I’ve seen respected business people and educators charged with mentoring dozens of students into a particular profession say to their mentees that it’s okay not to have an answer to a job interview question. Though I’m obviously not the kind of mentor who gives black-and-white responses, this is one that I feel very strongly is black-and-white: you need to answer every question. It’s better to stumble through an answer than to say “I don’t know.” I don’t know is the equivalent of saying to a prospective employer that when confronted with a problem you’ve never faced before, you will turn to them and say “I don’t know how to do this. Sorry.” I have literally seen interviews where I felt the candidate was doing exceptionally well until a difficult question came up, their training kicked in, and they said some version of those three words, and suddenly you could sense their chances at landing the job receding before them.
This is also a psychological trick, however, because I’ve seen lots of inexperienced job candidates, usually students in mock situations, second-guess themselves when I knew them well enough to know they knew the answer to a difficult question. If you go into an interview knowing that you must answer every question if you want the job, you will develop the kind of do-or-die mentality you need to score that second-stage interview or offer.
Finally, I’ve also seen debate about what to do at the end of an interview when many interviewers will turn the floor over to the candidate. One piece of prevailing wisdom is that you should use this opportunity to flatter your interviewers or even bully them into realizing you’re the one for the job, such as by asking them if there are any reasons they wouldn’t hire you. Again, my thoughts on this aspect of job interviews echo my general argument throughout this article: use this moment as an opportunity to show you’re an innovative thinker.
Another mentor in graduate school put it this way: use every opportunity to argue for why you’re the best person for the job, but do so cleverly. Rather than asking a prospective employer why they might not hire you, in other words, it’s better to ask them about a problem they might be facing and then make it clear you think you could solve it for them. This does run the risk of seeming a bit presumptuous, but not if you do it with humility.
Asking about approaches is a good way to initiate this kind of interaction at the end of the interview. You might ask interviewers what they think about a new approach to doing something in your field, for instance, or how they’ve dealt with a new trend that you know their organization is in the midst of responding to.
The key to ending the interview on a good note, however, is this: add an affirmative statement to whatever answer they give. Though in the midst of an article on being honest and being a leader, it would be obviously unethical of me to advocate lying at this point, this is one area where you need to be affirmative. Starting an argument right at the end of an interview should only be done if, for some insane reason, you have decided you don’t want this job and don’t want to be this kind of professional at all. In fact, disagreeing with your interviewers right at the end of an interview should only be done if you plan to drop off the grid entirely, move to a foreign country, change your name, and become some sort of cult member. You get the idea.
You want to leave the interview in better shape than you started. You want to leave your interviewers feeling positive about you, that you’d be a good addition to their team, that you already have some synergy. So: even if their answer to your question is so aversive to your ideas about the world that you really do start to question whether or not you want this job, save yourself the panic later and say something that chimes of agreement in response.
Don’t get me wrong: you are interviewing them, an oft-repeated, but oft-misunderstood phrase. I use questions at the end of interviews as a litmus test around an issue that’s important to me. In my teaching life, I do a lot of service-learning, for instance, and know that I would not be happy at a university where that was squelched. So my first go-to question at the end of an interview is if there is any history of service-learning in the department I’d be joining, or in the broader university community.
Even if no one has ever done service-learning in the history of the organization, however, I still respond by saying some version of “well it sounds like there are some opportunities for it, then.” Use that last comment as a means to obvious, but not sycophantic, self-promotion. End on a strong, comfortable note, and then start prepping for the next interview as soon as you walk out the door.