Interview Cheat Sheet: 25 Tips to Nail Your Next Interview
The wait is over. After updating your resume to perfection and applying for numerous jobs, you finally received a job interview invitation. This is typically the first sign that an employer is interested in you. While you should feel good about being noticed, it’s just the beginning. You’ll need to demonstrate throughout the entire interview process that no one is better suited for the job than you. Of course, that’s easier said than done. We could all use some interview tips.
Millions of workers go out on job interviews every year. Glassdoor finds that the average corporate job opening attracts 250 resumes. Of those candidates, only four to six will be called for a job interview, and only one will be offered the job. In other words, when you receive a job interview, chances are you’ve not only beat out 98% of the other applicants, but you still have to beat out the top remaining applicants to actually get the job.
Everything counts when your communicating with a potential employer — from the time you initially schedule the job interview to how you follow up afterwards. You can’t take anything for granted. Let’s take a look at the 25 best interview tips to nail your meeting and land a prized job offer.
1. Avoid the worst times for a job interview
Our list of best job interview tips begins with scheduling the interview itself. Certain days of the week and times of day are not the best when it comes to meeting with a hiring manager. If you meet during a bad time, it could cost you the job. The Cheat Sheet spoke with a few career experts to get their advice on the times to avoid.
If you want the hiring manager’s full attention, you’ll want to steer clear of Mondays and Fridays. David Bakke, personal finance correspondent for Money Crashers, said most office dwellers have lost their focus by the time these days roll around. “The worst days of the week for interviews are Mondays and Fridays. People may still be tired on Mondays and may not have the right focus later on in the week,” Bakke said. He also suggests avoiding an early morning interview if possible. You or the interviewer may not be fully awake and focused yet.
Likewise, energy levels typically decline as the day goes on. You should also avoid job interviews at the end of the day so you don’t get an interviewer who is tired and possibly cranky after a long day of putting out fires, interviewing other candidates, and maybe even dealing with personal issues. “The absolute worst interview time is the very end of the day when everyone is ready to head home,” says Meghann Isgan, human resources consultant for Sunglass Warehouse.
Next: What should you wear?
2. What should you wear to a job interview?
Your ability to dress the part can determine your fate. You’ve heard plenty of tips explaining why you should dress professionally for job interviews, but don’t overlook your color choices either. There are certain colors that can give you an edge as well as colors that could get you shown the door.
For the most part, you’ll want to keep it simple. Gray, blue, and black are three safe colors for job interviews. Research finds that gray is often associated with someone who is analytical and logical, while blue is associated with being a team player, as long as it’s not extreme like neon blue or powder blue. Most hiring managers agree that navy is the way to go when it comes to blue. Black is a timeless choice that often represents leadership. And, don’t forget to pick your clothes out the day before the interview. That’s one less distraction to worry about on the interview day.
Should you avoid certain colors? Yes. While color choices can vary among different types of jobs, you’re probably best off avoiding a heavy dose of red or orange. Both colors can be a hit or miss among interviewers. Twenty-five percent of employers say orange is associated with someone who is unprofessional. Brown is another color you should generally avoid as it is too safe and comes off as boring.
Next: This is what job interviewers hate the most.
3. Know what job interviewers hate the most
If there’s one thing that will ruin a job interview it’s appearing to be a nervous wreck. A recent study published in the Journal of Business Psychology all but confirms the fact that interviewers are turned off by anxious and nervous candidates. It creates an awkward situation for everyone in the room. The good news: The interviewer probably can’t tell how nervous you really are unless you make it obvious. The interviewer can’t see your heart pounding harder or how fast your mind is racing.
“The aim of this study was to investigate (a) the behavioral cues that are displayed by, and trait judgments formed about, anxious interviewees, and (b) why anxious interviewees receive lower interview performance ratings,” the study says. “Overall, the results indicated that interviewees should focus less on their nervous tics and more on the broader impressions that they convey. Our findings indicate that anxious interviewees may want to focus on how assertive and interpersonally warm they appear to interviewers.”
One strategy to make sure you keep it together in a job interview, mentioned by the researchers in the study, is to focus on being assertive and “interpersonally warm.” You should speak calmly, clearly, and concisely, but also do so in a warm, friendly, and approachable way. It’s likely how you speak to your mom when trying to explain the black magic that works her iPhone — you approach the conversation with tenderness, while driving home some important points so that they’re not easily forgotten.
4. Recognize the most important part of a job interview
Here’s a great job interview tip: Don’t ignore small talk. The small talk before the job interview starts is one of the most important parts of the interview. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that this chit chat helps set the tone for the overall interview. In other words, this is yet more evidence that first impressions matter a great deal, especially when you’re looking for a job.
Keep in mind that the chit chat before the interview officially starts should be relatively simple. You don’t need to wow them during this phase. You just need to not blow your chances from starting things awkwardly. You can mention the weather, or talk about how the local sports team is doing. As always, steer clear of politics and religion unless it directly relates to the job.
5. Find your personal brand
Brands can be powerful assets, and they’re not just for Fortune 500 companies. You can stand out in a job interview by advertising your own personal brand. This means building a positive narrative about yourself and using it throughout the interview. Like every popular song or TV show, a hook will help your audience remember you when it comes time to hand out a job offer.
Your own hook or personal brand needs to be genuine. Simply take stock of your strengths and experiences by listing them or reviewing your resume. Do you have any work experience that is incredibly unique? How about any skill-sets that you know not many other applicants probably have? Those both can be starting places, and by building off of them, you can weave your own narrative. Use that same narrative in the job interview but expand on the details and examples, and keep it interesting.
The key is to find a way, by using your own creativity and experience, to electrify your job search. After all, your job search is essentially a marketing campaign to sell yourself to a hiring manager. By being “that guy” in a stack of resumes, you can put yourself miles ahead of the competition, all by simply re-framing or refocusing attention onto certain aspects of your background or personality that you choose. Instead of merely being swept along with the tide in an interview situation, you can wrestle some control, and keep prospective employers focused on what you want.
6. Prepare for tough job interview questions
Our best interview tip is to prepare. As the saying goes, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” You need to prepare for every aspect of the job interview, especially for the tough questions the interviewer is likely to ask you.
One of the toughest job interview questions to answer is the dreaded, “Tell me about yourself.” Even if this isn’t a direct question, the purpose of an interview is to tell an employer about yourself and see if the two of you are a good fit for each other. Your answer should explain why you are the most qualified candidate. Remember to take a close look at the job description so you can make sure you’re clearly demonstrating how your skills align with what the employer seeks. Your goal is to prove that you’re a solution to the company’s problem.
Another job interview question to prepare for is, “Why should we hire you?” Once again, this may not be a direct question, but a similar theme will be present throughout the interview. Answering this question will require a delicate balance. Your goal is to communicate confidence without sounding conceited. You also don’t want to appear to be begging for the job. Nobody is drawn to a needy, desperate person. In order to stand out from the other qualified candidates, use this opportunity to market your personal brand.
7. Ask your own job interview questions
Ask questions, you must. While a job interview may seem like a corporate firing squad loaded with question after question, it’s also a chance for you to fireback with questions of your own. Not in a hostile way, but in a way to help show the interviewer you are truly interested in the job. Asking your own questions also helps you determine if you want to work at the company if they offer you the job.
You probably won’t have to guess when is the right time to ask your questions. Most interviewers will offer you a chance toward the end to ask any questions. Consider asking 3-5 of the following questions:
- “What are your expectations for this role during the first 30 days, 60 days, and a year?”
- “How do you measure success for this role?”
- “What are the most important qualities for this role?”
- “What is a typical day like?”
- “What do you enjoy the most about working here?”
- “Could you tell me more about the team I would be working with?”
- “Where do you see the company in five years?”
- “What’s the biggest challenge the company faces?”
- “What are the qualities of the most successful leaders in this company?”
- “Do you have any hesitations about me being successful in this role?”
- “What is the next step in the hiring process?”
8. Be careful which interview questions you ask
Being invited to ask the interviewer questions doesn’t mean you get to ask anything. If you want to stay in the running, you need to avoid certain questions. Let’s take a look at three questions you should not ask in a job interview.
“How did I do?”
Interviewing is like dating. You need to have confidence in yourself – not too much or too little. You shouldn’t ask your date if they’re having a good time, and you shouldn’t ask the interviewer how you did at the end of the interview. It kills the mood and might cause the interviewer to think you’ve been putting on a show.
Solution: If you feel the need to inquire about how you did in the interview, use one of our safe questions, “Do you have any hesitations about me being successful in this role?” If they say no, you probably did fine and can move on with ending the interview. If they said yes, they will explain and allow you to defend your abilities and end the interview on a strong note.
9. Be careful about which interview questions you ask (continued)
“What is the salary?”
The adage “whoever brings up money first loses” applies to a job interview. Receiving a pay raise is one of the most exciting parts of a new job. Research shows changing jobs is a great way to land a big salary increase. For example, staying employed at the same company for over two years on average could earn you less over your lifetime by about 50% or more, according to Forbes. Average raises for current employees are typically in the 3% neighborhood, but obtaining a new job often leads to a raise between 10% to 20%. However, that doesn’t mean you should bring up dollar figures first during the interview.
Solution: When it comes to salary and job benefits, let your potential employer discuss the matters first. You should be ready for negotiation by doing your research on industry salaries, reviewing your qualities that make you a strong case for your desired salary, and discussing salary ranges when your potential employer insists on dollar figures. Remember to aim reasonably high, and never underestimate your worth. The first offer an employer makes is usually not the best number they can do. Even if you can’t negotiate a higher salary, you may be able to increase your job benefits.
10. Be careful about which interview questions you ask (continued)
Anything in the job description
Job postings and descriptions cost time and money. A hiring company at least expects you to read them well enough that you know the basics. If you ask the interviewer something that is already covered in the job description posted, you could be seen as someone who doesn’t care enough about the job to read the details.
Solution: Read the job description. Part of preparing for a job interview involves reading the job description and researching the company so you are an informed job applicant. Knowing more about the role and the company will also help you ask more insightful questions, and prove to the interviewer that you’re the right person for the job.
11. Avoid certain body language
Even talented candidates can torpedo their chances if they make certain body language mistakes during an interview, according to a recent survey of more than 2,500 hiring managers by CareerBuilder. Controlling your body language is difficult in a job interview because it’s already a high-stress situation, plus you have at least one pair of eyes focused on you, if not two or three. Nonetheless, if you want to make a great first impression, you’ll need to avoid the biggest body language mistakes. Let’s take a look at the four biggest you need to control in the interview.
Having bad posture
Slumping in your seat doesn’t convey confidence. Thirty percent of HR experts say it makes candidates look less than polished in an interview. (If you have a tendency to slouch, try these exercises to improve your posture.)
Sitting up straight and squaring your shoulders not only makes you look confident, but it also shows you respect your interviewer and the situation you’re in, according to body language expert Joe Navarro. “No matter what branch of the military you observe, one thing stands out: their shoulders say look at me, I am a leader; follow me. This is part of establishing hierarchy, but it is also how we demonstrate respect,” he wrote in an article for Psychology Today.
Playing with something on the table
You can look but not touch. Thirty-three percent of hiring managers cite fiddling with pens or shuffling papers as a major example of poor body language in an interview. Clicking a pen or similar gestures can be interpreted as a sign of anxiety, according to professional coach Marc Chernoff.
“It can also be interpreted as a lack of preparedness,” Chernoff explains in a blog post. “It’s always best to keep your hands comfortably at rest when you’re in the presence of others.”
12. Avoid certain body language (continued)
Nobody likes a grump. Even if you don’t like your smile or think it looks too fake, you should still flash at least a few smiles throughout the job interview. The CareerBuilder survey finds that 39% respondents say not cracking a smile was one of the biggest mistakes a job seeker could make.
Not only does smiling make you seem warm and friendly, but it might even calm your interview jitters. A study by researchers at the University of Cardiff found that people who’d received Botox treatments and were thus unable to frown reported being happier and less anxious than those who could still look down in the mouth.
Not making eye contact
The eyes are the windows to a new job. Sixty-seven percent of HR managers say failing to make eye contact with an interviewer is the biggest body language mistake. While you don’t want to get into a creepy staring contest with your interviewer, looking at them while listening and speaking shows you’re engaged in the conversation. If you have trouble looking straight at their eyes, look between their eyes. The interviewer won’t be able to tell and you’ll appear to be looking right at them.
“If you have a habit of looking away while listening, it shows a lack of interest and a short attention span,” career adviser Jeffrey Ory told the Chicago Tribune.
13. Don’t arrive too early
Since we all know that arriving late to an interview is a terrible way to make a first impression without even being in the room, you might be compelled to show up extremely early. However, there is such a thing as arriving too early for a job interview. Ideally, you shouldn’t arrive more than 10-15 minutes for an interview. If you arrive earlier, you risk looking too overeager, and you may inconvenience the staff, which doesn’t bode well for your impression either.
Even if you reach your destination extra early, that doesn’t mean you have to actually check in extra early. You could stay in your car and use the extra time to collect your thoughts, go over your personal brand, and practice answering interview questions. Or, you could use the extra time to use the restroom. Go check in about 10-15 minutes before your interview appointment.
14. Don’t badmouth a previous boss
If there’s ever a time to take the high road, this is it. If the interviewer asks you about why you left your previous job, resist the urge to badmouth a previous boss or co-worker. Though it might be the real reason why you left and completely understandable from your viewpoint, odds are it will make you look catty and difficult to get along with. In general, negative comments of any kind do not go over well in job interviews.
Instead of focusing on the negative, talk about how you’re looking for new opportunities to grow, take on new challenges, or better use your skills, or how your current employer’s strategic direction is no longer a fit for your career goals. You can then explain why the hiring company is a better fit and how you see yourself succeeding for the benefit of the company.
15. Know when to lie
Yes, you read that correctly. You typically shouldn’t lie on your resume or in a job interview, but telling the complete truth isn’t always appropriate. After all, white lies exist for a reason. They can help us move past awkward situations without causing any real harm to anybody else.
To be clear, we’re not suggesting you lie to a potential employer so you get a job offer. Lies about your qualifications can have serious repercussions when the truth eventually comes out. Instead, we’re talking about how to handle interview questions in order to keep the interview on point, or to redirect the conversation to highlight your best qualities. Let’s take a look at three things you should lie about in a job interview.
Your greatest weakness
This is one of the most dreaded questions in a job interview. It’s also one of the most common questions, so you’ll need to be ready for it. When an interviewer asks for your greatest weakness, you don’t need to actually tell them about your greatest weakness. The interviewer is looking for your ability to analyze yourself and see how you address shortcomings.
Answer the question by naming a real, minor weakness you have — one that won’t affect your ability to perform the job. Then immediately follow it up with how you are successfully addressing the weakness or eliminating it. Whatever you do, don’t try to avoid the question by saying you don’t have any weaknesses, and don’t provide a cheesy answer that won’t be taken seriously, like “working too much.”
16. Know when to lie (continued)
Where you see yourself in five years?
Job hopping is more common these days because it’s one of the best ways to receive a big raise in a sea of stagnated wages. A hiring company doesn’t want to take the time and money on training a new employee that is likely to leave within a year or two. This question is aimed at finding out your career goals and if you enjoy the line of work, which may indicate a long-lasting and successful career at the company.
The interviewer doesn’t expect you to have a perfect crystal ball. You don’t really have to divulge where you think you’ll be in five years if you think it will cost you the job. Stay positive and keep your answer fairly general if you don’t expect the position to be long-term. You can add specifics by focusing on the overlapping job responsibilities for this position and your ideal position. Don’t blow your chances at the position by openly telling the interviewer this job has no place in your long-term career path. It’s good to have options.
17. Know when to lie (continued)
How are you doing?
It’s a simple question and probably the easiest one you’ll be asked in the interview, so let’s not screw it up by mentioning how you got lost on the way to the interview because your GPS failed you yet again. When asked, “How are you doing?” you should recognize that it’s more of a greeting than a real question. You should smile, make eye contact, and simply reply, “I’m doing well. How are you?”
Remember, you’re probably doing better than you realize. You’re alive and the company liked your resume enough to bring you in for a job interview.
18. The best interview tip I’ve ever heard
The best interview tip I’ve ever heard is also one of the most effective ways to dazzle the interviewer and stand out from the competition. It comes from best-selling author Ramit Sethi and is called the Briefcase Technique.
After doing your due diligence on researching a potential employer, you should come away with a few things you think they should be doing better. To illustrate this point to an interviewer, create a proposal document to show how well you understand the company and what steps you would take to improve their business. Every company faces issues, and every problem has a solution. The people who get hired are the ones the company believes will help them solve their problems.
When the topic of company challenges comes up, or toward the end of the interview, you simply take your proposal out of your briefcase and hand it to the interviewer while explaining the steps you would take to improve things. Having a document in hand gives the interviewer something tangible to remember you by and will set you apart from virtually everyone else. It also proves you did your homework.
19. Never say these things before you’re hired
Having confidence in a job interview is key, but it shouldn’t encourage you to say too much. Let’s take a look at three things you should never say before you’re hired.
“I need to take some time off”
You haven’t gotten the job yet, so control yourself. Mentioning time off before an offer has been made gives the impression you’re either arrogant or very eager. Neither impression will make a hiring manager comfortable extending a job offer. Wait until after you know your employment status with the company before discussing any time off.
Career coach John Lees says you can talk about the specifics of any planned time off once you get notice verbally. “A good rule of thumb is to wait until the organization has decided you’re number one. Save any concerns or questions about vacation or flexible working until after you have been made a verbal offer — that’s part of your due diligence process between offer and acceptance. You can always talk about how you’re excited to start once the details can be worked out,” said Lees in his Harvard Business Review column.
“I plan to start a family soon”
Never talk family planning at work. And don’t start asking details about maternity benefits when you’re still a candidate. Discussing your plans to start or expand your family could leave you vulnerable to discrimination. Some managers are still hesitant to hire employees who are thinking about starting a family or who have young children simply because of the issue surrounding time off. Only share this information after you get the job and only when it’s necessary for your employer to know.
“I plan to attend graduate school full-time”
Pursuing an advanced degree shows you’re serious about your career as well as improving yourself. However, there is a time and place to mention your education plans — especially when they don’t include your employer. If your future plans don’t include sticking with the company for a reasonable period of time, keep quiet. Why let a potential employer know you’re just trying to pay bills until your real plans come through? The employer may even help pay for your graduate school if you go part-time and don’t leave the company, so keep an open mind.
20. Stay calm
How do you avoid being a nervous Nelly? Preparation goes a long way, but there are physical tricks too. It’s important to slow down and take deep breaths. Before you enter the interview room, try inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four, all through the nose. You may even use six or eight counts if you require a more advanced breathing technique to calm down. Check out more breathing techniques at Greatist.
Another method involves purposely tensing your muscles then relaxing them. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competing were less likely to choke under pressure than right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball in their right hand. The theory is that this move shifts brain activity away from the side that controls conscious movement. Clenching your left hand engages the right brain hemisphere, which is key to automated behavior. Instead of using a ball, you can use your fist. Depending on your interview setup, you may be able to clench and release your fist throughout the interview without the interviewer noticing it.
21. Practice practice practice
Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it can certainly help you get better. If you’re like most people, you don’t routinely go on job interviews. That means when you have to, you’re out of shape. Practice your job interview skills with anyone who will sit down with you: family, friends, your dog, etc. By practicing your talking points and answering possible job interview questions, you’ll gain better focus for the real thing. You should even practice in front of a mirror so you are aware of any possible body language mistakes.
Hiring managers claim to know who really isn’t serious about an interview, but applying for jobs and going on interviews when you don’t really have to is also a good way to practice your interview skills once in awhile. Just make sure you don’t burn any bridges, and don’t let your current boss know. You don’t want your boss thinking you’re about to leave. If interviewing is still a problem for you, consider hiring a career coach to help you figure out your issues.
22. Take a personal day
If you’re interviewing for a new job while you still have a job, it can be tricky to leave work for an interview. After all, they say looking for a job is a full-time job. You may be tempted to interview on your lunch break, but that can leave you pressed for time and cause you to lose focus on the interview. You may think taking a sick day is the easy solution, but if the interviewer asks you how you were available for the interview, you’ll either have to lie to the interviewer or admit you lied to your current boss. Instead, take a personal or vacation day. That will look better than saying you took a sick day.
23. Be human
If you’re not careful, hours of practicing interview answers and researching the company can lead to robotic side effects. If the interviewer feels like you’re just providing canned answer after canned answer with little emotion throughout the meeting, you’re going to come off as cold. Make sure you bring positive energy to the job interview. People are naturally drawn to others with positive energy. A warm smile and a little sense of humor at appropriate times go a long way.
Smiling does a body good. Research finds that smiling can improve your mood, boost your immune system, relieve stress, and is a universal sign of happiness. Smiling is contagious, and having your interviewer smiling is certainly better than frowning.
24. Follow up
Your work isn’t done when you leave the interview room. Your next step will be to follow up with your interviewer, and the way you do it can further separate you from the competition.
Depending on the employer’s timeline, which you have a general idea about since you asked what the next steps are from our interview tip No. 7, you should probably mail a handwritten thank-you note the same day as the interview. Keep it brief and professional. Thank them for their time, remind them of a strength you have that will help the company, and close with how you look forward to hearing from them. If it sounds like the employer will make a decision within a day or two, a thank-you email sent a couple hours after the interview is acceptable. Whatever you do, don’t be pushy.
25. Don’t ignore the small things
Stress takes a toll on the body and mind. Write down all the small things you need to do to prepare for a job interview. Keep it handy and check off items as you go. You don’t want a small detail ruining your interview day. Here’s a quick list of some small interview tips you shouldn’t overlook.
Eat a good breakfast: Interviewing is hard enough without a hungry stomach. Eat a healthy meal after a good night’s sleep, and make sure to avoid any food stains on your clothes, food stuck in teeth, or coffee breath.
Be nice to everyone: Yes, even the parking attendant and secretary. You never know who the boss relies on for intel. How you handle yourself when you think the boss isn’t looking reveals more about your character than a face-to-face interview with Mr. Big.
Bring extra resume copies: You’re already bringing a suitcase with a plan to improve the company (interview tip No. 18); you might as well bring extra resumes. You never know who will ask for them.
Boost your mood: In addition to smiling, there are power stances that can boost your mood too. If styling your hair makes you feel better about yourself, do it, as long as it’s in a professional way. You want to feel your best.
Contact information: It’s hard to write a thank-you note without proper contact information. If you don’t already have the contact information of your interviewers, ask for business cards at the end of the interview. If you forget, contact the secretary.
Follow Eric on Twitter @Mr_Eric_WSCS