Dear Sam: Could you provide some general guidance on how to prepare for an interview? I have not interviewed in more than 20 years, so I feel lost and unprepared for what to expect. — Edward

Dear Edward: Absolutely! I hear that comment weekly from clients who have also not needed to conduct a job search in quite some time but now find themselves in uncharted territory. Many candidates invest time revamping their resume, not to mention hundreds of dollars on that perfect interviewing ensemble, but neglect to invest time preparing for the interview. Let’s review some of the basics…

Research your prospective employer – before the interview, take some time to review the company’s website, read the “about us” page, and, if available, press releases, financial statements, and strategic plans. If the company does not have a website, try searching for company references online to see if you can glean any additional details about the organization. Don’t forget to check LinkedIn and read profiles for current and past employees, as that can provide insight into how long employees stay at the company, not to mention if there appear to be a lot of recent transitions. Once armed with this information, begin to review your background and how specific skills, experiences, and achievements would translate well based on your prospective employer’s current situation.

Prepare for the tough-to-answer questions – are there specific questions you have had difficulty answering in the past? If so, script strong responses and practice answering those questions before the interview. A couple of questions candidates often express are most difficult for them include “Tell me about yourself” and “Tell me about a weakness.”

Remember, when a prospective employer asks you to tell them about yourself, they are not asking for you to tell them you are married, have two children, a dog, and like skiing! They are asking, “What in your background positions you to excel in this role.” If you developed a qualifications summary for your resume, you have taken great strides in answering this question succinctly.

Review your background and identify your core value messages to prepare for this question. These messages should include the skill you offer and the benefit of that skill to the prospective employer. Think about where you have gone above and beyond, addressed a challenge and driven strong results, or your specific strengths have added value to your employer. Remember, you don’t just want to tell an employer what you can do, you want to show them what you can do by presenting value-based messages including a combination of your actions/skills and the results/benefit of each. Let’s look at some examples:

Don’t say, “I have great organization skills.”
Do say, “I have repeatedly increased department productivity by streamlining processes, reducing redundancies, and improving workflows.”

Don’t say, “I manage people well.”
Do say, “I have a proven record building, training, and motivating top-performing teams that have surpassed aggressive performance goals.”

By presenting the result or benefit of your action or skill, you provide the hiring manager with crucial insight into how your skills and experiences can transfer into their organization, leaving a stronger impression of you as a candidate.

Most candidates also struggle when asked to identify one of their weaknesses; after all, aren’t we trying to appear as perfect with no apparent weaknesses? The point of this question is to see if you can identify an area in yourself that requires improvement and to learn if you have taken steps to overcome this weakness (some hiring managers want to see if you are as in tune with your shortcomings as you are with your strengths). So, the answer doesn’t have to present a glaring weakness and reason not to hire you but should provide insight into your ability to initiate corrective actions or continued professional development. Let’s look at an example:

“I realized I needed extra help organizing and planning my schedule, so I purchased a detailed planner and have started setting a few minutes aside each day to review my schedule, priorities, and deadlines. Doing so has allowed me to maintain a clear view of what I have scheduled and has helped me optimize my time.”

You can also choose to highlight areas of weakness that have little to no impact on the position you are applying for. Let’s say you were an accountant, a weakness in the area of public speaking may not pose any threat to diminishing the strength of your candidacy. For example:

“I’ve always been a little nervous speaking in front of large groups of people, but I recently joined Toastmasters, as although I have not needed to deliver presentations in past positions, I believe I could learn more about selecting and delivering messages to secure support and promote a cohesive environment.”

Regardless of how you answer, be sure to prove how you are taking steps to overcome the weakness, so it doesn’t threaten securing the job.

Be ready for different interview formats – when scheduling your interview, asking about your interview format will help you prepare. Interviews come in many shapes and sizes, including one-on-one, group, panel, and technical. While you won’t be able to anticipate every question, knowing whether you will face a group of six on a panel versus an informal interview with the hiring manager can help you prepare mentally to handle the situation.

Interviewing can be a stressful experience, but being prepared, practicing, and knowing how your strengths and experiences relate to your prospective employer’s needs, can reduce anxiety and improve the success of your search.