You’re in the middle of an interview, and things are moving along beautifully. Your prospective employer seems to like and trust you. You’ve both shared a few stories. And, bonus, you even made your interviewer laugh. All signs point to you getting a second interview.

And then, it happens. The hiring manager asks the one question you’ve been dreading. It’s such a simple question—just seven little words—yet it always feels like some kind of trap. So easy to say the wrong thing and come off sounding arrogant, insecure, unprepared, self-serving, or all of the above.

Why do you want to work here?

Throughout my career, I’ve been on both sides of the hiring table, and I’ve heard some pretty awful responses to that question. I’ve also heard several gems—responses so good, I not only wanted to hire the candidate, I felt like he or she needed a promotion on the spot.

If you’re struggling to come up with a strong reply to this common interview question, you can breathe easy. After years of observation, I’ve discovered a formula that’s (almost) guaranteed to win over the person asking.

The “A Mentor Once Told Me…” Formula

Here’s how it works.

Someone asks, “Why do you want to work here?”

You respond with this:

[My mentor once said to me] + [weave in one of the company’s core values] = [that's why I want to work here]

Here’s what it looks like in action:

A mentor of mine once said to me, “If you’re ever given the choice between a fancy, high paying job at a company run by people with questionable motives—or a less prestigious job at a company doing good work in the world—choose the second option. You’ll always regret it if you don’t. You’ll never regret it if you do. I want to work at a company that is committed to making the world a better place. That’s my number one criteria for accepting a position—that’s why I want to work here.

Why This Approach Works

By using this formula in this way, and specifically quoting a mentor, you’re squeezing a lot of information about yourself into one answer. Such as as the fact that:

  • You hold experienced and successful people in high esteem. You don’t just listen, but you also make the effort to learn from those around you.

  • You’ve thought deeply about why this job or company is an ideal fit for you. You’re clearly showing that you not only know and understand the company’s values, but that you prepared for this specific conversation.

  • You’re someone worth “mentoring.” Someone, somewhere along the way, took notice of you, saw potential, and took you under his or her wing. This translates into your interviewer thinking: “This person is obviously special. We need her.”

How to Make it Work for You

Obviously, you shouldn’t recite the formula verbatim. Substitute a wise statement from an actual mentor from your own life, and adjust the wording accordingly. Make it genuine for you.

Can’t think of any wise words from a past mentor? Never had a mentor? No problem. You can still use this formula. Just tweak the wording so that instead of referencing a “mentor,” you say…

  • A college professor once said to me…

  • Back in high school, my track coach always used to tell us…

  • Growing up, my mom repeatedly said to me…

  • My very first boss told me something that I’ll never forget…

  • Once, I had the privilege of meeting [notable public figure] and hearing her speak. On stage, she said something that still echoes in my mind to this day…

There you have it! It doesn’t matter who you’re quoting, the impact is the same. You’re piquing your interviewer’s curiosity by telling a story about a person who shaped your life. Plus, you’re weaving in the company’s values. That’s infinitely more interesting than saying, “I just really love, uh, this company’s mission, you know?”

Photo of speech bubble courtesy of Shutterstock.