Between the 20 or so of us, The Muse team has probably been on several hundred interviews in our day.
(We know. We cringe thinking about it, too.)
In other words, we’ve been through all of those OMG-what-should-I-wear panic attacks and bathroom-mirror rehearsals of the perfect answer to “What’s your biggest weakness?” that you’re probably dealing with as you prepare for your big day.
But all those pantsuits and practiced answers weren’t for naught. In the interest of sharing our hard-won job search expertise, we’ve put together a list of the biggest questions we had going into interviews—and answers that will help you go into yours totally prepared.
Consider it everything you ever wanted to know about interviewing—answered.
Before the Interview
1. What Should I Wear?
Traditional interview wisdom will tell you a dark suit, a pressed button-down, and perfectly shined pumps or shoes. But truthfully, it all depends on the gig you’re applying for. This getup works great in a traditional environment, like a bank or law firm, but at a more creative business or a startup, you’ll be way overdressed—and a polished business casual look might be much better. Check out our guides for guys and gals to learn more.
2. What Should I Ask the Interviewer Beforehand?
Knowing all the small details can make a big difference in your confidence on interview day, so it’s totally OK to ask a few clarifying questions. Make sure you’re clear on who you’ll be meeting with (especially if there are multiple people), if there are any special directions or parking details, how long the meeting will last, and if there’s anything you should prepare. See our guide for more details.
3. What Should I Bring?
Three copies of your resume, a few of your best work samples if you have them, a notepad and pen, and, well, the basics you’d bring going anywhere (cash, your silenced phone, breath mints). All held in a classy padfolio or bag!
4. What Should I Prepare?
For most interviews, you’ll want to think through the most common interview questions hiring managers ask. (And yes, we have ideas for all of them.) While you don’t have to have scripted answers to them (in fact, please don’t), thinking through common questions and how your experiences can help answer them will help you feel a lot more comfortable on the day of.
5. How Much Research About the Company Should I Do?
In short, as much as possible. You should be up to speed on what the company does, your interviewers’ backgrounds, and any current events or press. You should also try to get insight into the culture and interview process using Glassdoor or, yes, informational interviews. You want to work here, right? That said, remember, you’re going to an interview, not trivia night. While it might be key to know a company is rapidly expanding in Asia, you don’t need to memorize how many offices it has in each country. Read up on the company, but don’t stay up all night stressing over the details.
6. What Time Should I Get There?
Early! We like the better-safe-than-sorry approach here and suggest planning to get to the office with about 30 minutes of leeway—you never know what traffic or subway gods could be working against you. Disclaimer: If you do arrive early, don’t tell the receptionist you’re here just yet—sit in the lobby or Starbucks and gather your thoughts until about five minutes prior to your meeting time. No one appreciates a too-early bird.
7. What Do I Do if I Know I’m Going to Be Late?
Um, that’s why we said to get there early. But in reality, life happens, and being late (for a really good reason) generally isn’t a deal-breaker. If you’re in your car, use your hands-free to calmly call and ask the receptionist if he or she has suggestions for an alternate route. It’s a way to hint that you may be unavoidably late without calling and complaining about traffic. Serious subway delays? Get off at the next stop and hoof it or catch a cab. And if you still arrive late? Apologize sincerely—once—and put your game face back on. Don’t keep bringing it up.
8. What Should I Do if I’m Sick? Can I Cancel?
The best way to handle this situation is to avoid it. Feel like you’re getting sick on Wednesday? Don’t chance your Friday interview—call and ask to push it to the following Monday. If you wake up the day of and feel a little scratchy? Ask yourself what you would do if you had a major presentation: Would you be able to load up on DayQuil, push yourself, do a good job, then go home and get into bed; or do you know you’d be foggy and coughy? If you won’t be able to make a good impression, call as early as possible. Try to schedule an alternative time while you’re on the phone, and make sure it’s more than a day away so you won’t have to call if off again.
During the Interview
9. Should I Reach for a Handshake or Wait for the Interviewer?
Go ahead and reach on out—it shows you’re friendly and assertive. And follow pro Olivia Fox Cabane’s tips to make sure you’re shaking the right way.
10. Where Should I Sit?
As etiquette expert Nancy R. Mitchell explains, “after you shake hands with all of your interviewers, stand behind a chair until you are invited to sit down, or politely ask where the interviewer would like you to sit. When you take your seat at an interview table, do not place personal items on the table—no cell phones, Blackberrys, handbags, briefcases… All of these things should be placed under your chair or on a chair beside you.”
11. How Should I Sit to Show I’m Professional—Yet Interesting?
Ah, the power of body language. Sit up straight, which is professional, but lean forward a little bit, which shows you’re engaged in the conversation. Plant your feet on the floor or cross your legs, and, as Mitchell offers, “don’t sit with both hands in your lap beneath the table—you will look like a nervous child. Rest an arm on the arm of your chair or on the table.”
12. Should I Take a Glass of Water or Cup of Coffee if Offered?
Absolutely—even if you’re not thirsty. This little prop can help buy you time to formulate an answer to a difficult question or just give you a moment to center yourself.
13. If I’m at a Meal, What Should I Order?
The best thing you can do is take the lead from your interviewers. Casually ask if they’ve been to the restaurant before and what they think are good options—hopefully their recommendations will give you a sense of an appropriate price range. If not, try to have your interviewer order first and choose something at that price point (or less). Also, be sure to pick an option that will be easy to eat while you’re talking. (Hint: Forkfuls of Caesar salad are easier to maneuver than that massive sandwich.) And put down the drink menu—even if your interviewer imbibes, you should stay on your best behavior.
14. How Much Time Should I Be Talking Versus Listening?
It’s a delicate balance. Ideally, this should be a conversation, where you get to tell the interviewer all about you and hear from him or her all about the position. It should be natural and comfortable. If you know you tend to ramble, try answering each question with only one thought or idea at a time—then stop. On the other hand, if you know you tend to be quiet, practice with a friend expanding upon each question you’re asked with a little extra info about yourself or questions about the company.
15. How Professional Versus Friendly Should I Be?
A healthy blend of both. Of course you want to show that you’re a serious professional, but no one wants to hire a stiff! In other words, it’s OK to smile, laugh, and act like you’re enjoying the conversation. Do, though, take a cue from your interviewers—if they’re stone-faced interrogators, keep it professional; if they’re all laughing and joking, inject a bit more fun into your answers. In fact, research shows that in many cases, being friendly and likeable can help you out in an interview.
16. How Should I Talk About the Job I’m Leaving?
This is a toughie, but “Why are you leaving?” is a question you can be sure you’ll be asked. Definitely keep things positive—you have nothing to gain by being negative about your past employers. Instead, frame things in a way that shows that you’re eager to take on new opportunities and that the role you’re interviewing for is a better fit for you than your current or last position. For example, “I’d really love to be part of product development from beginning to end, and I know I’d have that opportunity here.”
17. Do I Have to Tell an Employer I Was Fired?
Not unless you’re asked directly, in which case you should definitely tell the truth. But you don’t have to share all the gory details—something simple, like, “Unfortunately, I was let go,” is going to get you much farther. Share how you’ve grown and how you approach your job and life now as a result—and then get back to the business of showcasing your strengths as a candidate for that position.
18. What Should I Do if I Get a Question That Stumps Me?
Before the interview, come up with a go-to phrase to stall, which gives you extra time to gather your thoughts. Two strategies that work well are repeating the question thoughtfully before answering or saying (slowly), “Now, that is a great question. I think I would have to say…” Still stumped? Ask for what you need
—whether that’s a pen and paper, a glass of water, or a quick minute to think.
19. What Do I Do if I Get a Question That’s Illegal?
Depends on the question. As a general matter, you don’t have to answer it, but you also don’t have to make the interviewer feel awkward (often, illegal questions like, “Do you have a family?” are unintentional gaffes). The best approach is to determine why the interviewer is asking the question and whether she has a legitimate concern she’s trying to address. Then, tailor your answer to speak to that concern, gracefully avoid the illegal part of the question, and turn the conversation back to your job-related strengths. To learn more, see recruiter Angela Smith’s smart answers for few of the most common illegal questions.
20. Should I Bring Up My Family, Kids, Hobbies, or Personal Life?
Again, that depends. The type of company you’re applying to, the rapport you have with the interviewer, and the general flow of conversation will all dictate whether or not mentioning your family is appropriate. Our parenting columnist Rikki Rogers recently weighed in on the pros and cons of doing so.
21. Can I Take Notes?
Sure! While you shouldn’t be voraciously scribbling in your notebook at the expense of normal conversation, jotting down some things you want to ask about or remember later can show that you’re thoughtful and excited about the role.
22. How Do I Know if Things Are Going Well or Not?
If you’re crushing your interview (in the best sense of the word), you’ll often see some reassuring non-verbal cues—the interviewer might smile as you diplomatically answer a trick question or nod when you talk about your management style. But if your interview is crushing you? You’ll probably pick up a general sense of disinterest: An interviewer who’s tapping her foot, staring at the clock, or failing to ask follow-up questions isn’t exactly a good sign.
23. OK—What Do I Do if Things Aren’t Going Well?
Try to do a quick assessment of what might be turning the interviewer off: Did you simply flub one answer, or are you doing something more, like rambling, looking at the floor, or only speaking to one interviewer? Take just a moment to collect yourself, then focus on all of the interview training you have—sit up straight, make good eye contact, and speak clearly, confidently, and concisely. If you get a sense that you’re doing everything right but that you just aren’t the right fit, keep on going to the best of your ability. You might be overthinking it—and no matter what, this interview is great practice for the future.
24. How Many Questions Should I Ask?
Totally depends on who you’re meeting with and the length of the interview, but remember again that the interview should be a back-and-forth conversation that feels natural. You should prepare a list of questions that you want answered ahead of time, but don’t save them all for the end—weave your questions in naturally, as the topics come up. (Think: “I’ve supervised up to five people at a time. How many direct reports does this position have?”) Then, fill the time that’s set aside for your questions at the end for any pressing inquiries you still have—plus a few that show off your skills, like these.
25. Can I Ask About Next Steps?
Absolutely—just wait until the end of the interview. Asking, “What are the next steps in the hiring process?” or “What is your timeline for hiring for this position?” show that you’re really interested, without making you look presumptuous.
26. Should I Ask About Salary?
Not yet. “Company benefits [and salary negotiations] don’t come into play until an offer has been extended,” says recruiter Abby Kohut of AbsolutelyAbby.com. The same principle applies to sick time and vacation days. It’s best to avoid any question that sounds like you assume you already have the position—unless, of course, your interviewer brings it up first.
After the Interview
27. Do I Have to Send a Thank-You Note?
Yes. End of story.
28. Should it Be Emailed or Handwritten?
Everyone has a different opinion on this, but here’s ours: Email’s the safer bet—it’ll get your note in the hiring manager’s hands quickly (assuming you send it within 24 hours). But if your interviewer is more traditional or you have a feeling he or she is the type who’d appreciate a handwritten note, feel free to send one as well.
29. Should I Offer References or Send Any Follow-Up Materials?
Don’t offer references until you’re asked (the hiring manager will ask for them, and offering them before that seems like you’re putting the cart before the horse). But follow-up materials can be a great idea. In your thank-you note, offer a few ideas you had for the position on your way home, a work sample that relates to something you discussed, or anything else you think might help your chances of landing the job. (Alexandra Franzen has some great tips on this.) It just might be what seals the deal.
30. If I Don’t Hear Back, When Can I Follow Up?
If you don’t hear back by the time the interviewer said he or she would contact you, it’s definitely OK to reach out with a brief email asking about the status of your candidacy. If you’re not sure what the timing is, a week after you’ve sent the thank-you note is a good rule of thumb.
31. Is a Follow-Up Phone Call OK, or Just Email?
Skip the phone and send an email. It leaves a paper trail, it allows the recruiter time to properly look up your status information, and it eliminates those annoying games of phone tag. Plus, recruiters hate phone calls.
32. What Should I Do if I Don’t Get the Job?
Send the hiring manager a nice note thanking him or her for the opportunity and asking the company to keep your resume on file for any open positions in the future. Even if this job didn’t work out, there might be a perfect one for you six months from now—in which case, putting your best foot forward even in the face of bad news will only serve you.
TopicsInterviews , Interviewing for a Job , Job Search , First Interview , Interview Basics , Best of Interview Basics
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