two people sitting at a desk

Interviewing can be one of the most anxiety-producing parts of the job search. The feeling of needing to “perform” at the pace of conversation can intimidate applicants making it difficult to represent themselves accurately. The good news is there is much you can do to come to interviews feeling informed, prepared and practiced. This can help alleviate nerves and allow you to do what you are really meant to be doing at an interview: conversing about the opportunity to analyze the fit on both sides – you for the position and the opportunity for you.

3 questions employers attempt to answer when hiring

At core, employers of any kind are looking to answer three core questions through the various steps of the hiring process.

  • Can you do the job? Do you have the necessary skills and experience? This is typically answered through your written documents, screening interviews and, where appropriate, technical interviews. Employers will ask for details about past experience that would have prepared you for this type of work. They are assessing how much exposure to this work you have had and if you can anticipate some of the needs, issues, roadblocks and solutions needed to get the job done.
  • Will you do the job? This question is about your drive, work ethic and passion for the field as well as the company. An employer is trying to understand your level of engagement with the role and the likelihood that you will be committed to their company for a period of time that will make their investment in you a worthwhile one. This question can begin to be addressed in your cover letter with the effort you take to research their company and communicate what you are drawn to about them as an organization.
  • Do we want to work with you? Beyond initial screening interviews and technical components, this is what your interviews are mostly about. By the time you are invited for an in-person interview, the applicants have been narrowed to a handful of seemingly very qualified candidates. At this point, they will be digging into the nuances of your interest in the work and your experience. However, the bulk of information to be gathered is about how well you fit with the team. Will you offer a skill or perspective that is missing on their team in a style that is complimentary to their culture? Is your potential supervisor confident that you will deliver quality work and, ultimately, make their work life easier by being an amiable and competent staff member? Most employers agree that the company or function-specific skills can be trained. The core issues that end up using a manager’s valuable time are interpersonal problems related to emotional intelligence and soft skills. For instance, are you able to discern when you can work autonomously and when it would be best to check in about details of an assignment? Can you communicate respectfully and effectively with coworkers and customers? Are you able to take responsibility for your work, manage your time, represent the company well and resolve conflict without much oversight? These types of qualities are what teams are weighing as you navigate the final stages of interviewing.

Interviewing: What is it really?

Although it can feel as though you are running a gauntlet of evaluation throughout the job search process, interviews are not only a chance for the company to get a broader picture of who you are but also for you to vet the opportunity more fully. Interviews are a time when you can decide if the role is one where you would feel confident in your ability to perform successfully, if the company offers the elements you are looking for in a workplace and if you would be using preferred skills in the role.

Interviews are also your opportunity to show employers more about you. Beyond your initial application, you can explain more fully how your background maps into your role. This is also the time for you to demonstrate your willingness to engage with the team as a potential colleague by asking questions about others’ roles and their experience at the company. Additionally, your ability to communicate effectively can be displayed as you answer questions clearly and succinctly, read non-verbal cues from your interviewers (recognize when you’re rambling or may have gotten off topic) and ask insightful questions that show you have researched where possible and have thoroughly considered the role. The combination of how you present yourself and your ideas paired with your genuine engagement of the team will give both you and your potential employer crucial information about how the job fits with what you need and can provide.

Company research

Understanding as much as you can about a company, the position and those who are interviewing you not only helps prepare you to be more thoughtful in your answers but also demonstrates a solid work ethic and interest in the role. General information about the company or interviewers can be found by looking on the company’s website or LinkedIn. Internal initiatives, current priorities and nuanced details about company culture are things easier to gauge when talking to someone in an informational interview. Reach out to a current acquaintance working at the company or find an alum from CU Boulder or your undergraduate alma mater using the Forever Buffs Network or LinkedIn’s alumni search tool.

If you are not sure what topics might be the most helpful to study before an interview, consider some options below:

  • How the company identifies in their market: Do they fill a particular niche or deliver unique services or products? Check the company website and marketing materials.
  • Any recent news they have made and why: Try a Google search and set up alerts for companies you are interested in.
  • Their biggest current initiatives/projects/products: Schedule an informational interview or check recent news stories.
  • Specific demographics they target as customers: Read the company website. 
  • Company culture and values: Visit the company website and check out their social media channels. 
  • Major sources of funding or business: Use library company research databases like IBIS World or Mergent Online.
  • Roughly what size they are and where they have locations: Use IBIS World or Mergent Online or company website.
  • Who their key players are: So you recognize names and know what sorts of backgrounds they bring. Review the company website or schedule informational interviews.

This is not research for you to recite in the interview to show you prepared. It is for your own background information, to inform your understanding of the company – which will help you have a more intelligent conversation with your interviewers because you will better understand their context. It is the type of research you would do if you were an independent consultant about to meet with a prospective new client so that you were not starting from scratch in your conversation.

Understand the role

Of primary importance to your interview is a deep familiarity with the role. Save the job posting to your computer as you tailor your resume and cover letter. This will allow you to refer back to it even after the job closes as the company finalizes their pool. Often, the posting will be pulled offline and you will not be able to find it when you are contacted for an interview. If possible, use LinkedIn to find people on the same team and see how they describe their work. Check out the company website for more information about the department or team. If you know someone at the company, see if you can “pick their brain” about what the role does from a colleague’s perspective. The goal with any research on the job or company is to come to the interview as prepared as possible with educated ideas about how you would approach the role and what is appealing about it.

Practice interviewing

Answering questions in an interview format is different than any other type of communication to which you may be accustomed. The primary way to feel prepared and calm at an interview is to verbally practice giving examples of your previous work, descriptions of your work style and answers to general questions that are expected in some form during interviews. Talking through your answers aloud will help you evaluate where you need to clarify your thoughts or tighten your timing.

Behavioral interviews

Behavioral interviewing is a technique used by most hiring professionals. The questions address more interpersonal topics and are designed to encourage using specific examples as you describe your work style and communication skills. Interviewers tend to remember and believe answers that use prior experience to demonstrate your approach to various situations. Follow the STARR formula to prepare great behavioral examples.

Situation: Set the stage for the story. Where and with whom did this experience take place?

Task: What task needed to get done or problem needed to be solved?

Action: What was your part in finding the solution or completing the job? Make sure to focus on what you personally contributed. After all, you are the one being interviewed and whose work is being evaluated.

Result: Make sure to choose scenarios where there was a clear success or contribution and make sure to mention it.

Relate back to position: You do not need to choose examples only from work directly related to the role. Just make sure the last thing you address in your answer is how this experience demonstrates your approach to your work in this new role.

Although you will rarely have advanced knowledge of questions to be asked in a given interview, collecting and practicing five or six examples of successful experiences will prepare you to give the rich, memorable information your interviewer needs. Choosing a specific example focused on the following areas will help build a library of complete stories applicable to a variety of questions:

  • A time you worked successfully on a team
  • A time you failed and what you learned from it
  • An example of your approach to leadership/management
  • A time you had to address conflict with a team member or boss
  • A time you successfully collaborated cross-functionally
  • An example of an accomplishment that makes you proud

General questions

What if they ask you for your salary requirements in an early interview?

It is true: Interviewers may choose to ask you about salary earlier in the hiring process. Although not a topic you should bring up, it is their right to understand if they will be able to offer you what you need. The key is to go into the interview with a general understanding of salary for these types of roles.

Payscale.com offers compensation research tools and personalized pay reports to help you get oriented to what you can expect. Glassdoor.com may even have salary figures specific to the role and company.

Additionally, if you are interviewing with a government or public institution, the job should have a pay grade listed and salary ranges for each grade can be found online.

Regardless of the role for which you are interviewing, there are some topics you need to be prepared to address. After you have constructed a first draft of your answer, think about it from the interviewer’s perspective.

  • Does the answer help you answer one of your three core questions:
    • Can they do the job?
    • Will they do the job?
    • Do we want to work with them?
  • Does the answer raise any flags about their fit for the role or team?
  • Does the answer focus on what the applicant gets from the position or what the employer will get? Hint: focus on what you, as the applicant, can contribute and what engages you with the work.

Be ready to discuss

  • What attracts you to the role and company
  • Why you think you would be successful in the role
  • What strengths or experience you possess that would help you do the job well
  • Where you might need additional orientation or information to perform well in the role
  • How you would approach the role in the initial stages

Additional sample questions are included at the end of this page. 

Your questions for them

The questions you ask in an interview can tell an employer just as much about your readiness for a job as your answers. By seriously thinking through elements of the role that will be crucial to your success and engagement you demonstrate your ability to effectively “project manage” your role. Ask questions that clarify essential components of the role.

  • With whom will you be collaborating most directly?
  • How does your role connect with the larger work being done at the company?
  • What kinds of deliverables are expected during the first six months and how is success measured?
  • Is this a role someone has vacated (and therefore has a history of successes, failures, expectations and/or politics) or is it a new role developed to fill a need or created due to expansion?

Ask questions that will help you understand the role, expectations and resources more fully. Initial interviews are not the place to ask salary or benefit-related questions. Such issues should be addressed after an initial offer has been made. You will want to wait to discuss those elements until they have decided you are the candidate they want. Once you are the candidate of choice, there is more willingness on the part of the company to negotiate.

Additionally, discussing those details too soon in the interviewing process can be seen as presumptuous or uncouth.

Show the interviewers that you are interested in jumping in, getting up to speed and making a positive impact in the role as soon as possible.

The interview format can bring with it special considerations. Below are tips for making the best impression in each method of interviewing.

Phone

Phone interviews have both bonuses and drawbacks. A bonus is you can have as many notes and aids in front of you as you need. Make sure to have a copy of the job ad as well as your application materials and a notepad of quick references for related questions. It can be difficult to gauge the engagement of your interviewer(s) without the capability of reading nonverbal messages. So make sure to check in verbally to see that you have answered a question to their satisfaction. It can also be harder to show enthusiasm without the use of facial expressions, so stand while you talk. This changes the quality of your voice to be stronger and more energized. Talk on a landline and in a quiet, non-echoing room if at all possible to avoid connection problems and background noise.

Video

Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts are the most common formats for video interviews. Be sure to dress professionally. Test video lighting and sound quality ahead of time. Pay particular attention to what is behind you in the frame. It should either be blank or very clean and well organized, even staged.

This author will never forget the interview she conducted with a cat jumping on a cluttered bookcase hastily covered with a towel. Unfortunately, that is the only detail she remembers from that conversation.

Recorded

HireVue is a typical tool for this type of interview. Questions are posed in written format, a moment (usually 60 seconds) is given to prepare an answer and then the applicant has one chance to record their answer. The recorded answers are then forwarded to a hiring manager or committee and, possibly, reviewed by AI technology. Be sure and jot quick notes to remember points you want to make and try not to fill all allotted time with your answer. Do not ramble – be concise and direct and pause briefly to gather thoughts and continue if you stumble. There is no chance to re-record. Whatever you do, do not yell profanity and stop the recording. This type of interview is not the most comfortable, but your candidacy will only advance if you choose to embrace the process.

Although often seen as peripheral to your interview process, how you handle the logistics and etiquette-related elements of interviewing speaks to your professionalism as much as your actual interview and will be noted. 

Timing

Make sure to map travel time, add a buffer for bad traffic or late buses and allow time to find parking and locate the office. Check in with reception – or be online, ready to connect via video conferencing – 10 to 15 minutes prior to your interview. On-time is late in an interview scenario, but being too early might put undue pressure on your interviewers to rush what they are doing to get to you. So give yourself plenty of time for unforeseen delays but begin your interaction with the office in that 10- to 15-minute window.

Manners

Everyone you encounter – from reception to janitorial staff to strangers in the lobby, parking lot or in traffic – can potentially be offering impressions of you. From the moment you step out your door, be your most congenial, cooperative self. Acknowledge each person you encounter and show your appreciation for any help you get. Avoid any comment on interviews or companies via social media.

Dressing

There are three main things to consider when choosing how to dress and groom for an interview:

  1. Communicate an understanding of the field you hope to enter. Dress in a way that reflects the culture of the company, industry or institution. If more casual, you can dress casually; if formal, more formally. Your appearance should allow your interviewers to picture you in their context.
  2. Show respect for the opportunity to interview by dressing more formally than you would for a normal day on the job. Consider what you would wear on an average day at work and choose an outfit a step or two above that to show you are being thoughtful and are appreciative of the opportunity to interview.
  3. Your clothing and grooming should not distract from what you are saying. After all, your knowledge, capability and enthusiasm should be what is remembered afterward. Personal hygiene is imperative so weird smells, stray hairs and other bodily issues are not the focus of attention. Regarding clothing and accessory choices: Create a clean, cohesive impression that communicates forethought, like wearing items that fit well, are clean and wrinkle free. Accessories should be fitting for your context and not distracting.

What to bring

Although interviewers will most likely have a copy of your application documents, you may want to bring one or two extras in case you need to refer to it or someone does not have a copy. Make sure you have a notebook or pad and a pen or two to take notes, record questions that occur to you in the midst of conversation or even to jot down names of people you meet. A water bottle can also come in handy, although they will probably offer you something to drink there. Never bring anyone with you, even if they just plan to sit in the lobby. Any buddies, partners, pets or family should be settled comfortably elsewhere while you interview.

Nonverbal communication

Smiles, eye contact (without intense staring) and handshakes should abound in any interview and should be offered to all present, regardless of position. You can show engagement by sitting upright and bending slightly forward in your chair while in conversation with others. Face them directly, keep an open posture (avoid crossing your arms) and nod when appropriate to communicate understanding. Take note of any nervous gestures or habits when practicing your answers and try to still those. To communicate confidence, take up space in your chair instead of shrinking by crossing limbs and slouching. Smile and laugh readily. Show your sense of humor and ability to connect with others through small talk or by “geeking out” about ideas.

The handshake situation

If it is not culturally appropriate for you to shake hands with a person of another gender, you can let the interviewer know that. One way to do that is by placing your hand on your heart and saying, “I’m sorry, but my religion doesn’t allow me to shake your hand.”

Find additional ideas 

Wrapping things up

Always end your interview with handshakes and thanks. Also, do not neglect to communicate your continued interest in the position. You have just spent a significant amount of time discussing the position and meeting potential coworkers. For all they know, you may have learned something that makes you lose interest in the role. If you are still interested and excited about the opportunity, make sure to tell them that. Collect business cards if possible so you’ll have correct spelling of names and accurate email addresses for quick thank you notes, which should be sent within 24 hours of the interview.

Much research has been done on ways to foster confidence and feelings of peace and wellness in the face of daunting circumstances. The hours before an interview are an ideal time to focus on positive, uplifting, confidence-building activities and people.

  • If being around others helps to alleviate anxiety, make sure you choose to spend time with people who can encourage you and remind you of your strength and capability. Now is not the time for people who offer “doses of reality,” play devil’s advocate or tend to nit-pick.
  • If quiet and solitude help to center you, put aside your notes and preparation materials. Spend some time praying, meditating, exercising or laughing.
  • Whenever possible, have more than one application out when you go for an interview. It takes an amazing amount of pressure off your interview if you know this is not “your only hope.” Have multiple applications out in various stages to feel a sense of opportunity and control over your job search, not waiting for each process to complete before applying elsewhere. Never hang all your career hopes on one opportunity.
  • Recognize that most people feel a bit of imposter syndrome going into interviews and almost no one is a perfect fit for a position. The most you can do is prepare well and present yourself authentically and positively. The rest is out of your control – timing, needs of team, experience and bias of interviewers, funding shifts, competitiveness of other applicants, specific priorities of the company, etc. – so stop worrying about it.
  • Remember that an interview is a chance for you to vet an opportunity and company as much as it is an evaluation of you. Meet your interviewers with openness, curiosity and enthusiasm for exploring a potential fit.

InterviewStream: A tool that allows you to record yourself answering interview questions. Use the recordings to evaluate where you need to polish your answers, gather your thoughts quickly when you have little time to prepare and to check for any distracting non-verbals or rambling.

GoinGlobal: Are you interviewing in another country? Use GoinGlobal to discover country-specific guidance provided by in-country career professionals for applying and interviewing abroad. Sign in through Handshake initially to get full access.

Courtesy of our friends from the Graduate College at the University of Illinois, here are some sample questions to consider as you prepare.

Traditional questions

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Why did you choose your field of study?
  • Describe your most rewarding academic experience.
  • Why are you interested in this organization/position?
  • In what ways do you think you can contribute to our organization?
  • How do you evaluate success?
  • What things are most important to you in a job?
  • What role do you usually play in a team?
  • What previous work experience has been the most valuable to you and why?
  • What are your three biggest strengths? Your three biggest weaknesses?
  • What has been your biggest challenge?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • Describe your leadership style.
  • What skills do you think are most important for this position?
  • How has your educational and work experiences prepared you for this position?
  • How do you motivate people? What motivates you?
  • How do you deal with pressure?
  • How do you manage your time?
  • What characteristics are most important in a good manager?
  • What challenges are you looking for in a position?
  • Are you willing to travel or relocate as part of your career?
  • What can you contribute to this organization? Why are you the best candidate for this position?
  • What things frustrate you most? How do you deal with them?
  • What else should I know about you?
  • What are your short-term goals/long-term goals?
  • What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
  • How do you plan to achieve your career goals?
  • If you could do so, would you have changed anything about your academic experience?
  • In what kind of work environment are you more comfortable?
  • What have you learned from your mistakes?

Behavioral questions

  • Tell me about a time when you had to cope with strict deadlines or time demands.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had a particularly challenging situation with a peer/co-worker/customer. How were you able to handle the situation, even when you were angry and frustrated?
  • Describe a time when you were under pressure to make an immediate decision. Did you take action immediately, or were you more deliberate and slow?
  • Tell me about a situation when you had to stand up for a decision you made even though it was unpopular.
  • Tell me about a new idea, policy, or procedure that you implemented that was considerably different from an existing one. What approach did you take to gain buy-in from your peers? What was the end result?
  • Tell me about your experience in dealing with routine work. What kinds of problems did you have to overcome in order to concentrate on the details of the job?
  • Tell me about a time when you took the initiative to set goals and objectives even though you were not prompted or directed by others to do so.
  • Tell me about the most difficult or frustrating person with whom you have worked. How did you handle interactions with this person? What was the outcome?
  • Describe a time when you had to bend the rules in order to be successful or accomplish a goal.
  • Tell me about a time when your understanding of organizational climate or culture helped you to achieve your desired results.
  • Tell me about a time when you were proud of your ability to be objective even though you were emotional about a problem situation.
  • Describe a work situation where you set a positive example for others.

Questions you might ask

  • Describe a typical first year assignment.
  • What are the responsibilities of the position?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of the job?
  • What is the departmental structure? Where does this position fit in the organization?
  • Why do you enjoy working for your organization?
  • What initial training will I receive?
  • What opportunities for professional growth does the organization offer?
  • How is an employee evaluated and promoted?
  • What are the characteristics of a successful person at your company?
  • What are the organization’s plans for future growth?
  • What is a typical career path at your organization?
  • What are the biggest challenges facing the organization/department?
  • What is the management style of the organization? Of the department?
  • What are the goals of the department? Of the organization?
  • How would you describe the culture of your organization/department/college/campus?
  • How much travel is normally expected?
  • How many hours a week to employees usually work?
  • How frequently do you relocate your employees?
  • Does the organization promote from within or fill high-level position with outside hires?
  • What does the department or campus do to orient new faculty members?
  • Does the campus or department have formal faculty mentoring programs? Informal mentoring?
  • How much decision-making authority is given to new employees?
  • What are the biggest challenges facing the campus and/or department?
  • Are faculty evaluated annually? What is the evaluation process like here? How is promotion and tenure handled?