Secret Strategies of Interviewing: Build Your Personal Strategy

bob-cohenLearn the secrets of interviewing in this 3 part series that takes you from setting your interview goals to closing the deal. An in depth strategy for anyone who is about to begin interviewing for a job or internship.

You as the “Seller”
Just as sales professionals use different ways of selling, everyone has their own “take” on interviewing. Countless books and articles offer suggestions on how to act, what to say, what body language works best. It can get very confusing or, at worst, cause you to sound like some pre-programmed robot. Whatever you do, don’t just read a list of potential interview questions and try to memorize your answers! The bottom line is to find a style that works best for you based on who you are, not what you think you should be. Most importantly, reflect your personality and remember to smile.

The following are some guidelines that can help you stand out from other candidates:

  • Make a favorable impression on everyone you meet. You’d be amazed how much influence administrative staff can have on the interview process.
  • Try to maintain good eye contact with the interviewer, but do not get into a staring contest. It’s okay to look away when collecting your thoughts before answering a question.
  • Play detective. Get a feel for the interviewer by looking around the office. Is it neat or messy? Are there pictures on the walls and what do they suggest about the person?
  • Present yourself in an honest and straightforward manner. If you don’t know an answer to a question, admit it; don’t try to fake it.
  • Come prepared with selling “stories.” Once you’ve decided what skills you want to discuss that best match the job, have at least 2 or 3 good examples in mind to exemplify how you demonstrated that skill. These are often referred to as B(ackground)A(ctivity)R(esult) or S(ituation)T(ask)A(ction)R(esult) stories. Basically, these are brief descriptions of the situation you were in or the task you were assigned, what you did to deal with it, and what was the outcome. The YSN Premium Report can help you write some examples.
  • Keep your answers succinct and to the point. Provide just the highlights and let the interviewer probe for more details. For example, suppose you describe how you planned a research study. The interviewer follows up by asking about what data collection methods were used. That should be a red flag indicating “knowledge of research methodology” is an important qualification for the job and a quality you may want to reinforce later in the interview.
  • Get the best read you can on the person interviewing you. Good bosses do not hire someone who doesn’t want to know as much about them and the job as they do about the candidate. In a way, it’s kind of like dating.
  • If you’re unclear about something, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification.
  • Find out about other people in the organization; especially those with whom you’d be working. Ask to meet some of these people. Do they enjoy working there? What do they think the problems/opportunities are?
  • Be honest. It doesn’t do you or the employer any good if you say what you think the interviewer wants to hear. If it isn’t a good fit for them, it certainly isn’t the right opportunity for you.

You as the “Buyer”
Once the employer finishes with his/her part of the interview process, you’ll most likely be asked whether you have any questions. Just as you prepared to answer questions, you need to be equally adept at asking them. After all, you’re trying to decide if this particular job and company are right for you. Bear in mind that the employer will expect you to do your homework beforehand. Avoid questions that could be answered by reading their literature or scanning the employer’s web site.
You are constantly being evaluated throughout the interview process and that includes the type and manner with which you ask questions of the interviewer. Remember to keep your energy and level of interest up!

Some of the general questions you may ask during an interview are:

  • In your opinion, what does it take to be successful in this job?
  • Where does this job fit into the organizational structure?
  • How and when will my work be evaluated?
  • What can you tell me about [the supervisor’s] [your] management style?
  • What can you tell me about the people in the department or others I may interact with?
  • What opportunities for advancement are there? Based on what?
  • What sort of orientation and training is provided to new employees?
  • What are the future plans for the department? Organization?
  • How will you know at the end of [the year] that you’ve made the right hiring decision?
  • How far are you in the hiring process and how soon can I expect to hear from you? If I don’t hear from you by [time frame specified by interviewer], may I contact you?
  • What other information can I provide to help in your decision making process?

The “Stumpers”
During the course of an interview, you may be asked difficult questions. Because there is no way of controlling the attitudes, behaviors or preferences of the interviewer, you need to be prepared to deal with these situations. Some of these include:

  • “Tell me about yourself…” – The easiest way to approach this question is to briefly detail what qualities or skills you possess which match the needs of the job or organization as well as how and where you’ve demonstrated them before.
  • Illegal questions – Employers may only ask “job-related” questions proven to be a requirement for the position. They cannot ask questions about race, religion, national origin, marital status, children, relatives, age, birthplace, prior criminal record, or labor union activities. You can either refuse to answer the question and point out that it is illegal, or you can respond and tactfully state that the information has no bearing on your ability or desire to do the job.
  • Issues such as low GPA, gaps in employment or periods of unemployment, or prior terminations – Everyone has weaknesses. The best thing to do is to be honest and present your case in as positive a manner as possible. Whatever you do, don’t make excuses and don’t blame others for your prior misfortunes.
  • Salary issues – There’s an old saying which says that “whoever mentions the number first loses.” In many cases, especially with larger organizations, the salary is already established and there is limited flexibility. If you have a legitimate salary concern, you may ask for the salary range for the position. You can also research the going “market rate” for the job at sites such as Generally speaking, try to avoid discussing salary at the first interview.

Bob Cohen is an assistant director at the career services office at Harvard University.