Most of us who have been in the working world for any number of years have had job interviews. And most of us have had interviews that went really well and those that bombed for varying reasons. But, for the most part, we do our best to be well prepared, to make a good impression. Especially if we are desperate for a job at the moment. Here are some hacks and tips that may help you give a better interview and make it through the rounds to the offer.

The Phone Interview

Not every company holds phone interviews, but it’s the first step for many interested in a candidate. Here are a few tips to get you through it:

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You need to find out first if you are talking with an actual decision-maker or an HR consulting firm that is conducting the initial phone screenings. It is okay to ask with whom you will be speaking with and what his/her position is. Why? Because you need to be prepared for the very different type of phone interview depending on who is on the other end of that line. If an HR consulting firm is conducting the screening, there will be set list of questions without a lot of room for “chit chat.” You will have to be formal, matter-of-fact and answer each question very directly and succinctly. If, on the other hand, you are speaking with an actual HR person from the company itself, the interview may be a lot less stiff. Take your cues from the person on the other end of the line as to how formal or informal you will be.

Hopefully, the phone interview has been scheduled in advance so that you are expecting it. Either get to a totally quiet place or inform everyone else in the household to “cool it.” If there is music, conversation, or TV in the background, you appear very unprofessional. One HR manager told a story of a phone interview that was going quite well until the interviewee’s mother was heard in the background screaming that she was not going to put up with his smoking pot in the house anymore.

The Face-to-Face

There are some pretty important tasks before you step into that interview room:

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Research the company. Yes, you probably did this before you tweaked your cover letter and resume, but dig a bit deeper now. Really scrutinize the organization’s website, read every page, and make yourself a bit of an “outside expert.” Why? You just never know when some little piece of information you picked up can be used in the course of that interview. Interviewers are human after all, and they can be impressed. Look for any press on the company. Maybe they have landed a big contract; maybe they have acquired another company. You need to know these things going in and sound like you have had enough interest to keep current.

Prepare your answers to the questions you know you are going to get. Here they are:

Tell me a little about yourself. Prepare a brief (30 seconds to one minute) encapsulation about your professional background. Do NOT speak about your family, kids, etc.

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Why are you interested in this position and/or this organization? Have an answer prepared that speaks to what you can bring to the company, not what you expect to get from this new position. The worst thing you can say is, “I see this as the next level of my professional career development.” Bad move. Better statement: “I read that you recently acquired XYZ Company, and I am really excited to bring my expertise to this merger. I have had experience with two acquisitions in the past at….” Now you have established your value to them, not theirs to you.

Why did you leave your last position? Or why do you want to leave your current position? Be honest but not to a fault. You don’t want to trash anyone; this will be a warning to your interviewer about what you might be like. If you were fired, say so, and provide an explanation that neither faults you or the company. “We had some very different views on key strategic goals, and it was best that I leave.”

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What are your strengths? Enumerate them honestly without being a braggart. If you achieved some big results, talk about them. Don’t say things like, “team player,” or “strong work ethic.” These are meaningless. Give details and examples.

What are your weaknesses? Think in terms of challenges, not weaknesses. What challenges have you faced in the past and what did you do to overcome them? You have identified weaknesses but have also shown that you take steps to remedy them.

Make a list of questions you are going to ask. By having some already prepared, when you are asked for questions, you are not hemming around trying to think of some. Here are a couple you might consider:

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  • What are the challenges for the organization over the next five years?
  • Can you tell me about the history of this position?
  • How would you describe the organizational culture?
  • How is performance evaluated?

Some Practical Tips

You already know the basics: arrive early, be nice to everyone, including the security guard and the receptionist; use the bathroom, and so on. Here are a few extra tips:

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Find a way to calm yourself before you go in. Taking deep breaths and counting them sometimes helps; recall in your mind a really funny incident in your past that makes you smile every time you think about it. This can quickly change your mood from anxiety and dread to pleasant and more outgoing.

Use a firm handshake and eye contact. But be careful here. If you lock eyes with your interviewer and never let go, it’s a bit creepy. Find the good middle ground. When you are asked a question and you need to pause a minute to gather your thoughts, that is a time when you can briefly look away.

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Be honest above all else. Of course you don’t tell them that you were arrested for pot in college, but speak honestly of challenges in your career, as well as the successes. Don’t talk about your personal life.

Ask your questions with confidence.

Lean forward when the interviewer is talking. It shows you are really focusing on what s/he is saying, and nod your head to indicate agreement or understanding.

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Before you leave, ask about the next steps in the process.

Send a thank-you email within 24 hours, and don’t beg for the position, no matter how desperate you are.

Some Psychological Considerations

Yes, there is a body of psychological research on interviewing. Here is what that research says:

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  • Warm up your hands after you get to the interview site. Go into the bathroom and either put your hands under hot water or a blow dryer. Dry warm hands give a psychological impression of confidence, while clammy and cold ones connote weakness.
  • Mirror the interviewer’s physical movements, with variations of course. If the interviewer rubs his nose, you rub the side of your cheek with the opposite hand. If the interviewer crosses his/her legs, you can do the same but the opposite way. Psychologically, it connotes that you are “on the same page.”
  • Take your time before answering questions, even if you don’t have to. A brief pause tells the interviewer you are a thoughtful person who thinks before you act. It is also a connotation of confidence, despite what others may say.
  • Body Language. You’ve heard this before, but the research bears it out. If you lean in a bit when you are making a point, and use moderate hand gestures, you are seen as more genuine and honest.
  • Bond with the Interviewer. Find something — anything — that will make you more memorable. If you spy a painting by a local artist on the wall, and you have one too, mention it. The best of all worlds? It comes out that you both play golf or are fans of the same team, or you grew up in the same neighborhood; it will help the interviewer remember you positively.
  • Visualize your ideal interview days before the actual one. See yourself in an office answering questions easily and successfully. See yourself as confident and smiling. Run this scenario through your head many times before the interview. Run it again while you are waiting to be called in. This will affect your mood during the real thing.
  • Dress Professionally. You have been told to dress professionally but what does that look like in this organization? Get on the website and look for pictures of employees at work. If you can’t find that, go sit in the parking lot at quitting time and see what employees wear. Dress one step above. So, if people are wearing dress pants and polos, put on a sport coat, not a suit. Or, if you are female, put on an unstructured jacket with dress pants.
  • Don’t talk too much. Stop chattering away and let the interviewer speak first. S/he needs to feel in charge here, so let it be. Letting the other person speak first establishes trust.

Your Takeaway

So many things to remember! Yes, that’s right. While you prepare for the big interview, you can certainly take from this those things that are important to you. But the most important impression you want to leave? That you are sincere, genuine and honest; that you have things to offer this organization; and that you are eager to perform well.