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How to Succeed at Every Interview

by Jamie Jackson about a year ago in interview
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Interview tips from both sides of the corporate table

How to Succeed at Every Interview
Photo by Carlos Gil on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered why you keep screwing up interviews when you are clearly qualified for the job?

Have you ever found yourself lost for words in an interview that should have been a cakewalk?

Are you in a never-ending battle between being good at what you do but not being able to demonstrate it when it matters most?

Well, then this article is for you.

Who the hell is this jerk and why should I listen to him?

Good question. I’m the guy who’s worked in corporate roles for 20 years, the first 10 of those in HR and recruitment.

I’m the guy who has never failed a first interview, who has never failed a phone interview, who has sat in enough interviews in his time on both sides of the table to know what’s what.

I’m also the guy who never wanted a corporate job but found it was quite easy to get one, so stayed where he was.

Ok, that last bit isn’t your concern, it’s mine, but in terms of interview advice, I’ve got your back.

Before we begin, I want to be honest. I’ve had my failures. I’ve got to the final stage of several interviews, more times than I’d like to admit, before getting rejected. I’ve had difficulty closing job offers, sometimes after two or three rounds. Once, four rounds. Twice I’ve been introduced to my new team only to not get the role.

It became a bit of a pattern with me, and I can attribute that to not really wanting to be a corporate stooge. People can tell if you’re authentic.

But that doesn’t mean the following advice isn’t going to help you.

I can get you through that first stage interview like a dream. Most people think this is the hardest stage, so I’m here to help.

I’ll going to lay out a simple formula I have used for over a dozen interviews, each one I’ve breezed through.

It’s nothing magic, it’s not a hack or a cheat, it’s just advice that works, mostly in the form of some template questions.

So let’s take a look at the magic.

The Interview Basics

I’m briefly going to touch on the basics of interview etiquette, which are an absolute given if you expect to land a job. Everyone should know these off the bat, but if not, here’s a refresher. Make sure you do the following:

  • Turn up early (not on time)
  • Wear a suit (or appropriate attire if you are female)
  • Look washed, clean, wide awake, and don’t smell (e.g. tobacco)
  • Talk clearly and concisely
  • Make eye contact
  • Say hello and shake hands with everyone in the room (post-covid!)

I once interviewed for a software house that told me not to wear a suit as they were “casual”. I chose to wear a suit but not a tie. That’s as casual as you should ever go. Yes, I got to the third round. The suit didn’t put them off.

Remember, no-one will feel disrespected about you dressing up for the occasion, they will, however, feel disrespected if you have clearly dressed down.

The Template Questions

There are 3 template / formula questions that will get you through any first stage interview. I’ve listed them out below.

When I was 24, a colleague in HR told me “passing interviews is easy.” I was amazed, were they? I thought of them as terrifying verbal exams, not a breeze.

She explained the same few questions got asked over and over, you just needed to have a prepared answer for each of them, and you’re on solid ground.

We went through the questions, and off the back of what she told me, and adding to them using my own experience with interviews, I built a template that has served me to this day.

It isn’t a cheat sheet, but that’s what it feels like because it’s always got me through.

These are the template questions below — have an answer for each of these and you’ll have most bases covered.

1. How you dealt with a difficult situation (influencing)

This question will be asked in several different guises but it will be about illustrating how you:

  • Interact with others
  • Influence and apply knowledge
  • Problem solve

I would always have two scenarios to cite when this question was asked. I found more than two meant I was attempting to remember too much when I went into the interview.

A real example:

When rolling out a new HR system in a university, one department wholesale rejected using it. I was part of the implementation team who had to address these issues using change management, communication plans and sponsor engagement.

I use this example because it is an extreme case of resistance within an organisation and even though I was only part of the team dealing with it, I can easily claim the credit.

Remember, you just need to show that you have encountered problems at work and understand they are solvable.

2. A time you’ve worked under pressure (prioritising)

This is illustrating you can stick it out when the going gets tough. They want to know you can prioritise a high workload and stay the course. This question will always get asked one way or another.

A real example:

I worked for a private bank where we decommissioned 3 systems and replaced them with 2 new systems, all within the space of a year. There was only 2 of us as that’s all the funding allowed.

Using projects or job losses as an example of being able to succeed despite outside restrictions is always a relatable tale and a corporate reality.

Remember to also include:

  • How you got round these restrictions
  • How you communicated the restriction issue up the chain

This is the “so what?” factor. They’re not looking for a story, but how a situation reflected well for you. You are selling yourself and what you did.

If you don’t address the “so what” question, you’ll just look like an incompetent bystander.

3. A time you have used your initiative (resourcefulness)

Even if you’re applying for a junior admin role, your interviewers will want to know that you don’t need hand-holding. They will ask you a question or two about using your common sense, and how you dealt with a situation under your own steam.

This is why it’s good to remember 2 scenarios for every question, because it might come up again in the same interview, in the form of a different question.

A real example:

The pay review in the private bank was distributed on dozens of Excel spreadsheets, meaning it was messy and unsecured. I made the decision to put it on SharePoint as one sheet, and access was then regulated by passwords.

This is the kind of solution we all implement at school, college, or at work without much deliberation. Use these types of examples, as they will want to see you can add value and be resourceful with the tools at your disposal.

Other Questions You Will Get Asked

The template questions above will hold you in good stead for the vast majority of your interview, but of course, you will be asked some standard questions about your situation. Be prepared to have answers. These questions include:

Why are you leaving your current job? Don’t say anything negative about your previous job, but instead talk about new opportunities.

What do you do in your current job? Say what you do but put emphasis on your responsibility and autonomy.

What are your weaknesses? Do not say “perfectionism”. A good way I’ve found to navigate this question is to say I hold onto work and projects without proper handovers or close-offs, therefore my workload gradually grows, to my detriment. This makes me sound hard-working but also highlights a forgivable flaw.

What if you get asked a question you don’t have an answer to?

This happened to me within the last year. There is a very good way to deal with such a situation. I was in a project management interview and they asked me how I dealt with risk. The real answer was “I don’t really” as it was something lacking in all projects in my company at the time.

Instead of answering, turn the question around, saying: “We’ve always struggled with managing risk because no one can come up with an effective solution. What do you do?”

The answer they gave me was “not much”. So they too felt that pain point too. Instead of looking ignorant, I appeared both honest and eager for knowledge and a solution. It’s a win-win answer. Oh, and I passed the interview.

Questions You Should Ask

This is a true story: My friend went to an interview and had no questions prepared. When they asked “Do you want to ask us anything?” all he could think of was “Can I have a job?”

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t pass the interview.

Therefore, it is wise to have one or two questions in your back pocket. Ask questions such as:

  • How do you see the business growing in the next five years?
  • What do you think are the best things about working here?
  • Do you see the role changing in the future?

Do not (on a first interview at least) ask:

  • What’s the salary you’re offering?
  • How much annual leave do I get?
  • So what does the company do?
  • Can I have a job?

Final Interview Tips

Do your research. I know it’s boring to read corporate history on the internet, but it’s essential you understand how the business you’re applying to operates. They’ll expect you to have done the basic research; the size of the company; its age; how it makes money; what countries it is located in, and so forth.

If your prospective employer has a set of values, or a mission statement, make sure you memorise it. I have been asked what a company’s values are more than once in an interview setting. It also doesn’t hurt to use these values in some of your answers if you can!

My final piece of advice, something that has helped me greatly with interviews, is rehearsing my answers beforehand. Out loud. I did this once and the difference it made to my performance was staggering. My thoughts had already been organised into usable sentences in my head, and I came across as slick and prepared. And yes, I got the job.

Summary

All this begins to look daunting written out as one long article, but to summarise, it’s very simple. It goes like this:

  1. The Basics: Be presentable and arrive early
  2. Template answers: Have 2 answers for each template question:

a) How you dealt with a difficult situation

b) A time you’ve worked under pressure

c) A time you have used your initiative

3. Other answers: Be able to explain why you’re looking for work

4. Your questions: Know the company you’re applying to and have questions you can ask about them

Treat the interview as a conversation between adults. You’re assessing them as much as they’re assessing you. If you can’t answer something, ask how they do it themselves, and be open about your requests for knowledge. It’s not about conning someone into giving you a role, it’s about turning up as the best version of yourself.

Good luck and don’t panic. You’ve got this.

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About the author

Jamie Jackson

Between two skies and towards the night.

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