How to Ace an Interview

An interview can be a nerve-wracking experience. In this video, Linda Spencer, associate director the Office of Career Services and coordinator of career advising, provides sound tips for excelling at your next interview.

Landing an interview for a job or internship is an exciting moment—but one often immediately followed by dread. No matter your age or experience, meeting with a potential new employer can be stressful. 

First, take a deep breath and remind yourself that simply securing an interview means you’ve met the basic qualifications. Next, put in some work to ensure that you make the best impression possible. 

Linda Spencer, associate director of career advising and programming at Harvard Extension School, is no stranger to the interview process. In this post, she gives her expert advice on how to ace an interview—from preparation to follow-up. 

Do Your Research

Ahead of an interview, research three key areas: 

  • Yourself
  • The position
  • The company

Researching yourself means reviewing the characteristics and qualifications that make you a good fit. Identify your strengths and devise a story with a beginning, middle, and end that demonstrates those skills. 

Next, do your homework on the position for which you’re applying. To get more information than what’s in the job posting, search on LinkedIn to find people with similar roles. You can also search sites like Indeed or Glassdoor for job descriptions that may be more comprehensive.

Finally, research the company as much as possible. Go into the interview confident that you’ve read all the pertinent details on the website, and then some. Search the company’s name in Google news and see what the public, as well as current and former employees, have to say. 

These steps aren’t just great prep for your interview. They’re a way to ensure you actually want the job. 

“I think it’s a great way for the applicant to get psyched—you should want to know this information!” says Spencer. 

Prepare Your Stories

A good personal story is powerful. It gives the listener a better understanding of who you are, what motivates you, and how you act in certain situations. That’s why interviewers will often ask you a question that begins, “Tell me about a time when …” 

“Most interviews will have a behavioral component, because the idea is that past behavior is an indicator of future performance,” says Spencer. 

Stories let you demonstrate your creativity, interpersonal skills, and prowess under pressure. It’s about finding the right story to tell, then practicing how you tell it. 

Spencer says that when choosing your stories, go back to the agenda of the organization and find a narrative that aligns with what they’re trying to accomplish. Choose a story from your past that’s relevant and relatable. 

If your work history is short, it’s OK to use an anecdote from school or your personal life. Just don’t reach too far back 

“It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. They want to get to know you better, so using something outside a work situation could potentially be advantageous.”

Practice Your Responses

It’s not enough to memorize your talking points. You should be able to tell your stories fluently and discuss your qualifications with ease. As they say, practice makes perfect. 

“Lock yourself in a room with a mirror,” says Spencer. “You’re not an actor. You don’t want a script to memorize. But when you practice out loud, you create a memory that gets ignited when a question is asked.” 

You can also practice with a friend, or record and listen to yourself. Additionally, there are tools and apps to help you prepare. 

Spencer often recommends students use the resources available to them as admitted degree students. One example is Interview Stream, which simulates an interview and lets people self-review responses. 

“You should feel tired after an interview, but it’s a good tired, You hopefully know that you gave it 110 percent.”

Make a Good First Impression

First impressions are made within seconds of meeting someone. Don’t miss your opportunity to get off on the right foot—and not just with your interviewer. 

“The gatekeepers, like receptionists or assistants—sometimes people ignore these individuals, and that’s a huge mistake,” says Spencer. 

Treat every person with respect and kindness. Without exception. 

When you meet the person who will be conducting the interview, be sure to smile and make eye contact. Let him or her initiate a handshake. Spencer says a good handshake is palm-to-palm, firm, and two to three pumps. 

Keep in mind that the interviewer may be more nervous than you. In this case, you may want to break the ice with some safe conversation. Ask them how their day is going, chat about the weather, or comment on something in their office that gives clues about them—maybe a photo of a dog or a degree on the wall. 

Finally, be aware that your first impression includes sights and smells. Avoid garish colors and strong fragrances, because you don’t know what they might trigger. 

Be Prepared for Different Types of Interviews

You can’t assume your interview will be face-to-face—or even that it will just involve a few other people. It’s important to be prepared for different interview formats, according to Spencer. 

Phone Screens 

The term “phone screen” may actually be a misnomer, as Spencer recommends treating it as a first interview. No matter who’s on the other line of that initial conversation, they’re making the decision of whether you move forward or not. 

When you have a phone interview, be sure to have your answers prepared. Also, think about your surroundings and hold the call in a quiet, private area. (And yes, people can tell if you’re in a moving car or a cafe.)

Video Interviews 

Again, prepare for a video interview as if it were an in-person meeting. Make sure your video camera is functioning properly and that your conferencing tech is updated. Take a look around the room and make sure everything within view of your camera is neat and tidy. 

Avoid dressing only from the waist up, reminds Spencer. You never know if you’ll need to get up, and you don’t want to reveal that you’re business on top, and party on the bottom. 

In-Person Interviews

An in-person interview can be with one person, multiple stakeholders, or a small pool of fellow applicants. Hopefully, you’ll know ahead of time, but be prepared for any scenario. 

When interviewing with multiple people, try to give each equal eye contact and treat them the same. If you’re in a group interview with other candidates, treat them like you would a colleague. 

Social Interviews

This type of interview can include dinner, drinks, or even an event. When food is involved, be mindful of what you’re ordering, avoiding messy (think spaghetti or soup) or expensive menu items. 

Be wary of ordering alcoholic drinks. Never do it unless your hosts are, and even then, keep it to a one-drink maximum (or less, depending on your tolerance). It can be easy to get overly familiar with people in a social setting. Stay in a professional mindset, and remember why you’re there. 

In whatever scenario you find yourself, just remain calm, collected, and professional. Most importantly, never forget your own mission statement and the accomplishments that earned you that interview.

More on Career development

Linda Spencer offers helpful tips and resources to help you write your résumé and cover letter.

Tips for Before and After an interview

The things you do just before and after your interview can be integral. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

Before Your Interview: 

  • Decide what you’re going to wear. Try it on to make sure it fits and is clean. Try to dress a little nicer than you expect your interviewer to be dressed, but keep your audience in mind. For instance, at Google and tech startups, a suit won’t be appropriate. 
  • Know where you’re going. Do a dry run, if possible. The day of the interview, give yourself plenty of travel time. Don’t check in too early—no more than 10 to 15 minutes. Showing up too early can be a sign of anxiety. 

After Your Interview: 

  • Give a closing statement. Use those last moments as an opportunity to restate your interest in the position. 
  • Ask about next steps. If no one else mentions it, ask about their timeline and whether they’re interviewing other candidates. 
  • Send a thank-you note. A concise email thanking them for their time just might tilt the scale in your favor. In certain industries, even a hand-written note can be a nice touch.

Harvard Extension School offers admitted degree students many resources and services to support their career growth. To get started on your journey, get in touch to discuss your goals and options for continuing your education. 

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