7 Interview lessons
Job interviews are a unique experience. It’s not often in life that you are encouraged to talk about yourself—to tell everyone just how great you are.
Precisely because it’s not something you do very regularly, it’s easy to feel underprepared and anxious. Especially if your dream job is on the line. This week I got the chance to sit in the interviewer’s seat and see the tables turned.
This got me thinking about the interview lessons I’ve learned for the future…
My own interview experience
Rewind to the start of summer after my final university exams. Graduation was only a few months away and I had next to no work experience.
In a last ditch attempt to rectify this situation, I sat in a coffee shop, with a similarly positioned friend, applying for summer roles through our university careers service. I sent off half a dozen applications that afternoon.
The first interview I was invited for was a position that involved creating a new website for a community centre. It was based in an isolated town, with limited public transport links. I didn’t drive so would have great difficulty getting there. To make matters worse, I had no web development experience. I couldn’t code.
It would have been easy to use these obstacles as excuses not to apply in the first place. Or the fact that my student housing contract was expiring and I’d have nowhere to live. I could have moved back home, given myself the summer off, and postponed confronting my impending unemployment.
Rather uncharacteristically, I didn’t take the easy way out. I pulled an application together and proceeded to drag myself to the interview.
Interview lesson #1: You won’t get anywhere if you don’t apply.
I say “drag”—there was definitely running involved as I ended up almost being late, following a battle with my tie and an accompanying YouTube tutorial.
I arrived, probably out of breath, with a copy of my CV in a ridiculous little folder to come across as prepared. By the time I got up to shake his hand, I knew it had gone well, as we had overrun by quite some time.
The following week, I found out just how well.
Having been transparent about my lack of both accommodation and a driving license up-front, I was offered the position in a revised arrangement—I could work remotely.
Here I was, with no web development experience, being paid over £1,000 to create my first website, from the comfort of my home.
How on earth did this work out so well?
Apparently it had been between myself and another candidate. The deciding factor was that I came “armed with a number of questions and ideas”.
In hindsight, I think I only had so many questions because I didn’t entirely know what I was doing. But the questions showed I was engaged and curious. They also kept him talking too (people like talking), which minimised the pressure I felt under.
Interview lesson #2: Don’t just give good answers—ask good questions.
In-between that interview and finding out, I sat an interview for another internship. Of all the applications I submitted in the summer, this next one had piqued my interest the most. It was a marketing role for a technology start-up.
If I was under-qualified for the former, on paper, this position was an even longer shot. The advert described “SEO” as a key requirement, and before doing some research, I had no idea what it even stood for.
Whereas public transport was in my favour this time, the universe was not.
Sadly, I received news of my grandfather’s passing and inevitably the interview and funeral fell on the same day. By the time I found out, I had been offered the web development role anyway, the dates of which coincided with this position.
I emailed to thank them for the invitation and explained that I a) could no longer make the interview and b) was no longer available for the proposed dates.
I didn’t think anything more of it—until I received a kind condolence message back with a proposed new interview date. This was an early sign that the company would be a good place to work.
Now a few things have stayed with me about this interview…
The first was that, on arrival, I went around shaking the hands of everyone in the whole office. Only later did I find out that it was a shared office space, and that none of the people actually worked for the company I was there to see.
Perhaps the most memorable was being told that none of the other applicants had been very good… Now I can’t say this usually happens at interviews but it did do a great deal for my confidence.
Interview lesson #3: Sometimes simply showing up is enough.
It was also important that I found common-ground with the interviewer.
They talked about Gary Vaynerchuk, who, by pure coincidence, I had started following on Facebook earlier that month. When I sent a follow-up email afterwards (which I would highly recommend doing), I dropped his name in again to reinforce this connection. This was calculated. I wanted to be Gary Vee guy.
Anything you can do to relate to the interviewer gives you an advantage.
Interview lesson #4: Give them something to remember you by—and milk this for all it’s worth.
Once again I got extremely lucky.
I was offered that second internship and allowed to move the dates. I lined up both roles back to back and it couldn’t have worked out better…
The experience I gained on the marketing placement helped me no end in building the website. I even ended up doing “SEO” for the community centre as a thrown-in extra. Best of all? I got offered a full-time position by the start-up.
18 months on, I’m still there, managing their marketing. In fact, this week, we hired for our second round of interns since my own. This was a completely different experience that offered further interview lessons…
Observations from the other side of the table
Interview lesson #5: Never wear a hat to an interview.
I wouldn’t have felt obliged to include this one had it not happened on two separate occasions. Unless you are interviewing for a headwear modelling role, please leave the beanie or snapback at home. Always leave the snapback at home…
Interview lesson #6: Avoid listing every module you ever took at uni and definitely all of your GCSE grades.
The one-page vs two-page CV is a heated debate.
At the age of 22, my personal opinion is I can’t justify any more than one side when professionals with 40 years of experience can manage the same.
But I think most of us would agree that 3 pages plus is overkill. Especially for an internship. Ditch the bullet-points about your modules, GCSEs and all the skills you claim to possess. Give the headlines and make them relevant.
Interview lesson #7: People hire people.
This is perhaps the most important lesson of all.
On both occasions now that I have interviewed alongside him, my boss has joked that we are looking for someone we could go to the pub with. While not explicit hiring criteria (you can tell we don’t have a HR department), I get his point.
We spend more time with our colleagues than we do our friends and family. You have to click and be able to see your interviewees working as part of your team.
To achieve this, you need to bring your personality and not a polished script. A sense of humour in such a formal setting can go a long way.
BONUS: The ultimate interview question
To round up this post about interview lessons, I thought I would share a top tip I recently came across in a YouTube video.
One of the most important parts of any interview is that final hurdle:
“Do you have any questions for us?”
This part was the most interesting differentiator when I was the interviewer.
We had some great questions like:
- “What’s the greatest challenge you face as a business?”
- “What’s the biggest success you have achieved to date?”
- “What do you like about working here?”
I’d be happy to steal any of these in the future, but psychology would suggest that one of the best questions you can ask a prospective employer in an interview is:
“What does your ideal candidate look like?”
Why is this such a great question? Because it makes them stop and think, before describing the qualities of their ideal candidate—all while sat looking at you.
Studies have shown that the brain actually makes an association between what interviewers are describing, and who they are seeing in front of them at the time.
This means that when they come to compare applicants and think about their ideal candidate later, they have already formed an association about you.
A powerful variation would be:
“What does your ideal candidate look like in 5 years’ time?”
This scenario prompts a thought experiment where they imagine you as an employee in the future. They imagine you as part of their team, which fits in with my boss wanting to hire someone he could go to the pub with.
If you can get them to do this, then you have a foot in the door. They will have considered you in a way that they probably haven’t other candidates.
I’m not promising that these interview questions will get you hired.
But at the very least, if you ask your interviewer who their ideal candidate would be, and they describe your polar opposite, it will save you getting your hopes up.
Stuck in a dead end job? Change your life over lunch.