Interviews are a bit like exams: you prepare extensively beforehand, but you’re never sure exactly what’ll be asked. And it often happens that a question pops up you haven’t prepared for.
Interview success depends on having a strategy that allows you to answer any question with honesty, poise, and professionalism. (Sorry, there’s no strategy for exams, except study absolutely everything, get some sleep, and good luck!)
Read more: How to Preparing for an In-Person Interview
Do your pre-interview research
Before your first interview, especially if you don’t have extensive experience or are applying for entry- to mid-level positions, prepare by reading up on the company. Don’t rely just on the organization’s website and social media; search for news about the company and look for interviews given by its founder or CEO. Use LinkedIn for background on the hiring manager and other employees at the company.
This multifaceted approach gives you insights into the firm, its corporate culture, and community perception, which is information you can draw on to round out your answers. That kind of wide-ranging knowledge will also impress the hiring manager: It not only proves your work ethic and attention to detail, but speaks to how much you want the job.
Read more: How to Answer: What Makes You Unique?
Put yourself in the hiring manager’s seat
Career consultant Cassandra Thompson says there’s one thing hiring managers look for above skills, qualifications, and great interview answers: They want to know if you care about the job, if you really want to work there. They want to know if you’re interested.
That’s because the whole process, from recruitment through interview to hiring, onboarding, and training, is time-consuming and expensive. It’s really important for HR to get this right, otherwise they’ll have to repeat nearly every step. It costs time (on average, 42 days to fill a position) and money (more than $4,000 per hire in 2016, according to one survey).
That means the person hiring you will absolutely pass on your perfect qualifications in favor of the applicant who is slightly less experienced but has proven that getting the job really matters to them, even if they were nervous during the interview.
In fact, nerves are expected and okay in interviews, says Thompson. To further express your interest in the job, use non-verbal cues during the conversation: Smile, make eye contact, and lean forward when you’re talking.
In his video, career coach Don Georgevich looks at the top 30 interview questions, and tells you what an employer is looking for in your answer. For the question, why are you applying for this position?, for example, the wrong answer is that you’re there for the money. You need to know the company’s core values and mission and then talk about how your skills and goals align with what they’re doing. If you’re applying to a company in the recycling business, let them know that you have a deep passion for the environment and for a beautiful, healthy planet. (That is, if it’s true.)
If you can frame your answers in terms of what a hiring manager is likely trying to ascertain, you’ll be in a good position to respond appropriately to any question.
Emma Brudner, director of people operations at travel software company Lola, gives another example of this technique, saying interviewers will ask seemingly unrelated questions to assess candidates for soft skills. So if you get a question like, think of someone you didn't jive with at work. How do you think that person would describe you?, know that it can serve as a test for self-awareness, honesty, and empathy.
The best type of answer here is one that’s “forthcoming and honest,” says Brudner. “If the candidate doesn't have any trouble thinking how they might come across to someone else—or better yet, if they actually asked the person in question for feedback and can provide real adjectives—this is a positive signal about their ability to empathize.”
Confidence is an attractive trait employers look for. A confident person makes a strong first impression, appearing credible and able to function well under pressure. Executive coach Cristina Flores gives this advice to shaky job seekers: “If your confidence has been shot from the interview process, repeat after me:‘I am made for this job. My whole life has led up to this moment. I am a storyteller and you will know my skills.’” (This doesn’t, of course, mean that if you flunk the interview or don’t get the job that you’re a failure. Simply consider it a moment to learn from.)
That storytelling can be the basis of nearly every answer. For instance, if asked how you would improve (or have previously improved) a product, the team at Ivy Exec suggests this format: I really like‘X’ about the product. One thing that I think could make it even better is Y. At my previous company, I introduced Z to our product, and it increased sales by $$$. You’re using non-critical language and also demonstrating confidence by incorporating past success in your answer.
Remember the STAR method of storytelling (situation, task, action, result), and you’ll be able to give any situational or behavioral question a meaningful response.
Expert advice in a nutshell
When we asked executive coach Terina Allen for her advice, she said she “recommends that job applicants focus their attention on providing quality answers that get to the heart of what a hiring manager would truly care about.”
In other words, you should “spend energy showing hiring managers how you think as opposed to trying to tell them what you know.” To do that, you’ll need to demonstrate the following:
That you understand the organization
That you would fit in and positively contribute to the team
That you appreciate the organization’s pain points and are ready to help alleviate its challenges
“When you prepare to show how you think about these issues—as opposed to what you know—you can demonstrate higher levels of confidence in the job interview. Structure your answers within this framework regardless of which questions you get asked during the interview. Doing so will help you achieve more success than you will by trying to memorize answers to questions that may never come,” Allen says.