If you manage to get through the application process and reach the interview table, it can be tempting to rest on your laurels. The company invited you to interview. That must mean the hiring manager likes you, right?
Yes, but you’re not in the clear just yet. The last thing you want to do is fail the interview because you failed to prepare.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jennifer Blanck, a Toastmasters International member and career coach, about common interview obstacles and how to overcome them. What follows is a transcript of our email conversation, mildly edited for style and clarity.
Recruiter.com: Every position to which a candidate applies is likely being pursued by many other qualified candidates as well. Assuming an applicant reaches the interview process, what can they do to stand apart from their talented competitors?
Jennifer Blanck: The ability to stand apart from other candidates during the interview process starts long before the interview begins. It starts with research. Candidates should scour online and print resources, digging deep and reading news releases, product information, and corporate reports. Another way to obtain information is through networking. By talking with people at the organization or in the field, candidates can gain insights that only insiders have.
As part of interview preparation, savvy applicants will review the job description and all the information they’ve gathered. They will reflect on how they can add value to the organization. Then, they will practice answering interview questions to ensure they can articulate that value during the interview. Practice can be done alone in front of a mirror or with another person, whether a friend or career advisor. Videotaping and evaluating oneself can be extremely helpful, too.
Preparation also includes knowing who the interviewers are and what kind of interview it will be. Candidates should ask if they’re not given this information. Then, they should research the people ahead of time to know who they’ll be meeting and possibly find commonalities that can be discussed during the interview
Research and reflection also help with preparing questions. Candidates who ask real and insightful questions that demonstrate their knowledge of the job and organization and their understanding of what it takes to get the job done will stand out.
RC: What are some of the most common mistakes interviewees make?
JB: Not preparing enough — meaning not conducting enough research, not practicing enough, or both. A quick online search will provide lists of typical interview questions for which the candidate should prepare. Also, the job description will offer clues as to the topics that will be discussed during the interview.
Another mistake is not approaching the interview as a two-way street. The interview isn’t just about an employer evaluating applicants. It’s also a chance for candidates to learn about and evaluate the job, organization, work environment, people, supervisor, and more. The more candidates approach interviews as mutual assessment opportunities, the better chance they have of finding the best job for themselves.
Finally, it is a mistake not to ask real questions. Too often, candidates either don’t ask questions or ask questions only because they’re told they’re supposed to ask questions. Asking meaningful questions will show a candidate is serious about the opportunity, and it will help obtain information the candidate can use to evaluate whether the position is the right fit.
RC: Some interviewers like to hit interview subjects with some real curve balls. What should a candidate do if surprised by an unusual or unexpected question?
JB: If asked an unusual or surprising question, candidates should remain calm. Too often, people want to fill the silence, so they’ll just start talking right away. That’s not usually the best approach, as people may start responding in one way only to change direction mid-answer. If candidates are uncomfortable with silence, they can repeat the question aloud slowly to buy some additional time and contemplate an answer.
Toastmasters members know it’s best to take a moment and process the question. This allows for a candidate to craft a well-organized answer. For interviews specifically, using the STAR (situation, task, action, result) or CCAR (context, challenge, action, result) formula to respond can help provide an organized structure to fall back on if candidates are caught off guard by a question.
The fact is, the more a candidate is prepared, the easier it will be to handle unexpected questions. Sometimes, however, the question is just way out there, intentionally. If it’s possible to do in the moment, candidates should consider why the interviewer has asked the question. By understanding the reasoning, the candidate gains a better chance of providing a strong answer.
Regardless of how they respond, it is important that candidates don’t dwell on surprising questions and allow them to derail the interview. Candidates should answer to the best of their ability and then move on to the next question.
RC: What about post-interview? Is there anything an applicant should do once the interview is done to set themselves apart?
JB: Candidates should always send a personalized thank-you note after every interview. Thank you letters express appreciation for the interview, but also do much more. They are opportunities to resell skills, mention something the candidate forgot to say during the interview, clarify information, highlight something particularly meaningful that the interviewer said, and convey interest in the position.