How to Interview
Throughout my career, including my most recent role as VP Global Talent Acquisition at Amazon, I have interviewed literally thousands of entry level and experienced professionals. I have interviewed some truly outstanding candidates. Candidates who were well prepared for the interview questions. Candidates who knew how to prepare for job interviews and used that interview preparation to stand out from the crowd. Candidates who had clearly read either my interview tips or those of other authors and knew how to formulate a fully behavioral interview answer. They got job offers. Others did not.
This guide will share with you what you need to know about interviewing successfully. How to start an interview. How to truly impress the interviewer with your interview answers. And some of the key interview tips and tricks that will make you a standout candidate.
Step 1: Interview Preparation and Practice
The most important aspect of interviewing is properly preparing before the interview. What you say and do in the interview is almost wholly predicated on how well you prepared in advance for the job interview. You need to do two things before you interview: 1) know yourself; and 2) know the employer. In knowing yourself, it is more than simply re-reading your resume and being able to recite back key sections. You need to be able to take your success stories and translate each of them into different interview answers. Each of these interview answers should be a fully formed behavioral example, showing the situation or task, the action you took and the results you achieved. Then you need to know how each of your key examples ties into the most common interview questions for the interview itself.
Start by reviewing our list of 100 Common Interview Questions (and Answers) and prepare to answer each one of these questions in advance. As you read through the list of questions, think about the potential examples from your background you might use to answer these questions. Whether a question is behavioral (i.e. "Give me an example of…") or not (i.e. "Tell me about yourself…"), you should be answering behaviorally ("An example of my competency in this area would be…"). As you prepare, you need to do more than simply think about the answers. You need to practice them.
You should go through at least one structured mock interview before you go into an actual employer interview. This mock interview is best completed with a career professional such as at your college career center, but this step can also be completed with a friend or family member asking you the questions from the above list in random order. The key is to have a camera recording video of you placed over a shoulder of the interviewer. It doesn't have to be a professional camera; even your mobile phone will suffice. However, it should be directly focused on you from the perspective of the interviewer. Your feedback after the mock interview will be twofold: 1) from the interviewer; and 2) from the video. Often the video is the most instructive, since you get a firsthand (and sometimes painful) view of how you would appear in the interview itself. You will likely be surprised viewing the results of your first mock interview. "Is that really how I looked?" Yes, it is. To improve further, do a second or even a third mock interview. Practice makes perfect, or at least in preparing for your job interview, your best.
However, it's not enough to simply prepare generically to interview. You have to prepare specifically to interview with each employer. You need to know that employer, what they do for a living, their products and/or services, their work culture and how they present themselves to the outside world. Start with reviewing the employer website, yet go beyond to read reviews from an external perspective by both Google searching as well as looking at employer review sites such as Glassdoor. Then put all the employer information into a personal perspective of how it applies to you individually and to the job for which you are applying. By preparing and practicing in advance, you will be fully prepped to make the most of the interview itself. You are now ready to move on to the next step, the actual interview.
Step 2: Make the First Minutes Count
The first few minutes of the interview will set the tone for the rest of the interview. It's important to know how to start an interview. I have known many interviewers throughout my career who claimed they were able to make a hire/no hire decision within the first five minutes of the interview. While that should not be the case for well-trained competency-based behavioral interviewers, the reality is that most interviewers have not received formal training on how to interview. And those who have received training often are not the ones who make the final hiring decision. So it is vitally important that you start your interview in a positive way.
You should plan to arrive to your interview location 15 minutes early. If you arrive more than 15 minutes early, take time outside the interview location to do some final review prep. Perhaps a coffee shop, although don't drink any coffee—you don't need the caffeine jolt nor the resulting bathroom break. Review your resume one last time (have at least one paper copy per interview with you) along with any employer information. When you arrive at the interview site, if you still have extra time, you can go to the bathroom to freshen up, then check in about 5-10 minutes before the scheduled interview time. When it is time to begin the interview, you may either be greeted directly by the interviewer, or taken to the interviewer by an assistant.
When you are introduced to anyone, stand up, make eye contact, listen closely to the name, then be prepared to shake hands if a hand is extended. "Pleased to meet you, I'm _____." Use your first and last name if the person greeting you uses that format or first only if they introduce themself that way. When shaking hands, extend your hand to firmly place the soft part of the right hand that joins the thumb and pointer with the same part of the hand of the person with whom you are shaking hands. Then adjust the firmness of your handshake grip to match that of the other person. If they give you a firm handshake, return a firm handshake. If they give a light handshake, return a light handshake.
If you are moving to an interview room, the interviewer might ask non-interview icebreaker questions such as the weather, did you have difficulty finding the location, even commentary on the local or college sports teams. Reply briefly and with a smile. This is when you have the opportunity to make that positive first impression, even though the questions are not yet in interview mode. Once seated, the interviewer will begin a series of interview questions, sometimes with a broad initial question such as "Tell me about yourself." The first question is your opportunity to lay the groundwork for who you are and why you are the best candidate for the job. It also gives the interviewer the opportunity to initially assess who you are as a person apart from the content of your answers. So your non-verbals such as eye contact and facial expressions (see more below) will carry extra weight in this early interview phase. Once you are through the start of the job interview, the interviewer will begin to ask you a series of assessment questions.
Step 3: How to Be a STAR in Your Interview
When I headed up hiring at Amazon, I trained our interviewers to be S-T-A-R interviewers. How? By using competency-based questions using behavioral questioning techniques. I trained the interviewers to seek full S-T-A-R answers. What is a S-T-A-R answer? It is when the candidate gives a Situation or Task (S or T), the Action (A) they took, and the Results (R) achieved. And now I am training you to do the same, but from the other side of the desk. You can be a STAR by giving a full S-T-A-R answer, whether you are asked a behavioral question or not.
A behavioral question typically starts with "Give me an example of…" or some variation. This behavioral question becomes a competency-based question when the example requested is tied to one of the competencies required for the role. Yet whether the interviewer has been trained or not, you can still answer each question behaviorally and you can select examples which highlight your specific competencies. So prepare in advance with the examples and compelling stories that will lead the interviewer down the path to understanding better who you are and what you are capable of delivering. Always focus on what you have delivered or produced. The end results. That is how you can sell the interviewer on you as the best candidate.
Interviewing successfully is story telling. It is recounting compelling stories about yourself and your experiences. Think about the specific situation or task (the background or setup to your story), the action(s) you took (the steps you took in delivering) and the results you achieved (the impact of your actions). Think in terms of deliverables. Hiring managers hire based on results. The more you can show delivered results, the more likely the interviewer will be to recommend you for hire.
Step 4: Match Your Interviewer
Interviewer matching is a simple technique whereby you simply match or reflect your interviewer's cadence, posture and style. Not in a mocking or mimicking way, but by taking yourself to that end of your personality spectrum to meet the interviewer at or near their level. The level of speed, their level of intensity and their level of enthusiasm (or lack thereof). Be like the interviewer. Why? Because we tend to naturally like people who are like us. And interviewers like people who are like them or at least to whom they can personally relate. If you come across as being too far afield from the interviewer, you are less likely to get a hire recommendation. This doesn't mean to fake it or be someone you are not. It does mean to do the interviewer the courtesy of meeting him/her at his/her level. Doing so will greatly increase your interview score.
Step 5: Mastering Your Interview Non-verbals
While we typically think of interviewing being all about the speaking and the words being used, there is an important aspect to interviewing that is often ignored: non-verbal communication. Specifically, your body language and facial expressions through the interview, both when speaking and not speaking. If you have done a Zoom meeting, you are likely tuned in to how you look in the background while others are speaking as well as when you are speaking. While a Zoom call or other video conference may provide you with a partial view of your nonverbal cues (and the nonverbals of others), you need to take three steps to projecting positive nonverbals in the interview: 1) know appropriate nonverbals in advance; 2) practice them; and 3) self-correct within the interview itself.
The two most important nonverbals are eye contact and a subtle smile. Look at yourself in a mirror, then study how you would be perceived in interviews. Practice keeping eye contact with yourself and putting on a slightly upward smile. If your normal or default facial expression is a slightly downward frown, this may take some work and conscious effort to keep your facial expression in the slight smile mode. It is also important to maintain good posture and use only limited and positive gestures. Then practice these nonverbals in a mock interview. An interview tip is to use a Zoom virtual background if you are prone to over gesturing. If your hands or arms briefly disappear from view with the virtual background, it is typically due to over-gesturing. Then go into the interview with this practice to better control your use of nonverbals.
Step 6: Candidate Questions
At the end of the job interview, most (although not all) interviewers will ask you if you, as the candidate, have any questions. This is where your employer research will come further into play. While you have already tailored your answers to the potential employer needs, now is your opportunity to ask a pre-planned question of the interviewer. You can ask a question at the employer level, department level or job level.
An example of an employer level question would be: "How has the recent change in your corporate strategy affected your brand positioning in the marketplace?"
An example of taking an employer level view and drilling it down to a departmental level question would be: "Your CEO has stated that your company plans to be the world leader in ______ within five years. Can you tell me more about how that corporate strategy affects your department and its goals?"
An example of a job level question would be: "What are the measurable deliverables you would be looking for from the person in this role in the first 12 months?"
Most interviews are actually a series of multiple interviews throughout the day, so it's important for you to tailor your questions to your interviewer and not repeat any of your questions across multiple interviewers.
These candidate questions serve two purposes: 1) they provide the interviewer with a clear indication that you have done your homework on the employer; and 2) they provide you with an insider view and perspective to the success factors on the company. While it is an opportunity for you to gently probe, it is important that you do not attempt a deep dive on the answer beyond what the interviewer is willing to offer. Keep in mind that the interviewer may be limited in what can be disclosed due to confidentiality agreements, even if you have signed an interview NDA. And many interviewers leave very little time at the end of the interview for candidate questions. So be willing to take what is provided at face value and leave yourself enough time to ask your final closing question (next step).
Step 7: Closing the Interview
It is not a complete nor successful interview until you have progressed from the interview to the next step in the hiring process. After you have asked a well-chosen candidate question, your final statement/question should be: "I am very interested in the role. What is the next step in the hiring process?" This question can be asked literally as you are standing up at the conclusion of the interview. Keep in mind that the interviewer may or may not have control over the next steps of the interview process, so it is possible (and in some cases probable) that the interviewer may defer to someone else regarding next steps. Yet you should still ask this question (which can be repeated across multiple interviews), since it gives the interviewer a clear indicator of your level of interest. Make sure that you know the next steps and timing by the end of your series of interviews.
At Amazon, we would perform a structured interview debrief with all interviewers, usually within 24-48 hours of the final interview and sometimes even at the end of the same day. While you would not need every interviewer at Amazon to make a hire recommendation to get a job offer, you definitely needed to get the hire recommendation from two key people in the interview process: 1) the hiring manager; and 2) the Bar Raiser (the individual fully trained on Amazon interviewing and hiring practices to ensure that each hire would raise the overall level of talent within the department; this person was also the facilitator of the interview debrief). It was at that interview debrief meeting that the hire/no hire decision would be made. In certain circumstances at Amazon, we might defer the hiring decision to a different group or department where we saw a better potential fit.
So be patient for a reply and don't worry if you don't get an offer the day of the interview. The only time that may happen is when you have a lone decision maker who is ready and willing to make the offer on the spot, which is rare. In most cases, you should expect to wait up to two days for a response. If it takes longer than that, it may be due to either consideration of other candidates or internal company decisions regarding funding the role. Your job is to know the timing, then follow up with your primary contact until you know the outcome: hire or no hire. And to have enough other interviews taking place simultaneously so that you can generate multiple offers and have the ability to choose which offer is best for you.