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The Winning Difference: Pre-Interview Preparation for Your Job Interview

By Susan P. Joyce

How to Smartly Accept Emailed Interview InvitationsDo NOT assume that the job interview is simply a formality before you receive the job offer.

Instead, think of a job interview as an "audition."

This is your opportunity to impress the employer with your work ethic and skills.

Your network and/or your resume got you this interview. Now you can close the deal, and move closer to a job offer.

Being prepared for the job interview demonstrates to the employer that you are genuinely interested in the job. And, that preparation is often viewed by the employer as an example of the quality of your work.

Many recruiters have shared with me how that one thing - being obviously well-prepared can make or break a job seeker's chances at landing a new job.

Don't forget that interviews are also your opportunity to collect information and intelligence about whether or not you want to work for this employer. Your preparation will help you understand the questions to ask THEM to clarify any concerns you may have about them.

Know Your Answers to the Usual Interview Questions

Prepare your smart answers to interview Questions. Practice with a friend or your mirror.

In this guide, we cover the questions you will be asked like, "Tell me about yourself" and "What's your greatest weakness?" Knowing and practicing your answers is very important for your success. For more advice, read recruiter Jeff Lipschultz' article Smart Answers to Interview Questions.

But wait! There's more you can do to be well prepared, and it will help you succeed at that interview...


10 Types of Critical Pre-Interview Preparation

Prepare by knowing as much as you can about the job, the organization, the competition, the location, and the industry. Prepare for the interview by researching the organization and, if possible and without "stalking" them, researching the people, too.

The Internet provides a wealth of information for job seekers. These are 10 (or more) places where you can start your research. If you have time, keep looking. The more you know, the better off you will be. Not only will you be in knock-their-socks-off mode for the interview, your research could help you determine that the employer might not be a good place for you to work.

Throughout this preparation process, keep notes on questions that are raised. At the end of your research, you should have a good idea of what to say when they ask, "Do you have any questions for us?"

1. Very carefully analyze the job description.

It is too easy to skip this step and an often deadly mistake if you do.

Ask them for a copy of the job description, if you don't already have it. Then read it word-by-word. Pay careful attention to:

  • How they describe themselves - if they describe themselves.
  • The "requirements" of the job - experience, skills, education needed to do the job.
  • The "duties" of the job - what the person doing the job will be responsible for.
  • Any "nice-to-have" needs that aren't specified as required for this job, but are skills or knowledge that will gain you bonus points.

Build Your Interview Checklist: Make a list of how you meet their requirements, have proven ability to accomplish the duties, and are an "ideal" candidate for this job.

Don't assume that the job requirements and duties are necessarily in order of importance -- they should be, but are not always in the order that the interviewer would prefer. So, focus on your strengths.

2. Prepare examples of your accomplishments.

Saying you are very skilled at something is not as effective as sharing an accomplishment that proves your skill level. An excellent way to share your accomplishment is by describing situations where you successfully used that skill. Think of this as "success story telling."

Think of the times when you have successfully navigated through a difficult or challenging situation. If possible, focus on work-related situations or, at least, when you have achieved something related to what is required for this job. For example, when you:

  • Solved a problem, major or minor.
  • Created a new process.
  • Lead a team (as the team leader or not).
  • Managed a situation (as the manager or not).
  • Did something else innovative or original.

Preferably, these accomplishments helped your employer increase profitability, reduce expenses, improved customer or employee satisfaction, or provided some other major benefit to your employer at the time. Then, build a STAR description of each situation:

S -- the Situation -- the circumstances and context.
T -- the Task -- the problem or the objective you were trying to achieve.
A -- the Action -- what you did to accomplish the Task successfully.
R -- the Result
-- the successful resolution of the situation.

For examples of STAR stories, read Be a STAR in Your Next Job Interview. The good news is that once you have prepared your STARs, you can use them to answer many different questions for other employers, too.

3. Examine the organization's website.

This is "the party line" about the organization -- what they tell the world, and potential customers/clients, about themselves. Study the home page, but don't stop there. Read the "About Us" and "Contact Us" sections. Then, look around at the other pages.

  • Know the industry or purpose of the organization. Be sure that is what you expect and want to be involved in.
  • Become familiar with the products or services. Know the brand names, if any, or at least the purpose or function.
  • Check for press releases or the latest news about the organization.
  • Look for names of the senior officers or founders and other highly visible employees. Are any of them familiar to you or, perhaps, known to you?
  • Where are they located?
  • Do they have their jobs posted?

Does the information on the website raise any questions or concerns for you? Do you see any opportunities?

[Related: Exploring the Employer's Website.]


4. Put Google, Bing, and YouTube to work gathering important information about the organization.

This is where you see how well "the party line" on the website relates to what the rest of the world thinks. Reality about an employer could be quite different than what the website tells you, depending on the quality of the website and/or the quality of the organization.

If you have product or service names, use a search engine (or two) to see what is being written, said, and videoed about the products or services. Dig in past the first couple of pages of results.

Look for product or service reviews.

Look for happy and unhappy customers and the reasons for both. Look for the names of competing organizations and competing products or services. Be very careful in your sharing of what you have found. The smartest thing may be to use the information as a basis for asking questions (without reference to your research) and observing what is happening when you are there. Also, use these reviews to direct further research.

To find those reviews, do a search on "[company name] review" and "[product or service name] review" -- for your search, keep the quotation marks but replace what is in the brackets with the term specified.

Collect information about the organization and their competitors:

(The competitors may also be good places for you to work.)

  • Have they made videos about how to use their products or services available? Check them out to see what you learn about them. Do you see where you can make a contribution?
  • Have some of the executives been taped giving talks at conferences? Watch a video or two, and know the conference dates and names. Again, does this research raise any questions or show you any opportunities? What are their reputations? Experience and education?

These searches will enable you to find out what the rest of the world says about them and how well they do what they do. As usual with online reviews, understand that angry people write reviews more often than happy ones, so you will most likely be seeing the most negative opinions, not usually a balanced (or, sometimes, even truthful) representation of how well they operate.

However, these searches will enable you to potentially see where they need help that you may be the perfect person to provide. Or, they may help you avoid a bad situation.

Read their annual reports, if available.

If the employer is a company which sells stock on the stock market in the USA, look for the latest financial report on Companies with "publicly traded" stock must publish independently-audited financial reports every year. Quarterly reports are also required, but are not necessarily independently audited.

In annual reports, you will find details on sales, profits, key executives, locations, and much more for this company. Also, search through to find the latest reports from this employer's competitors. They are gold mines of information, if they are available.

[Related: Interview Preparation with Smart Google Research and Learning from Industry Observers.]

5. Check the LinkedIn and Facebook Company Profiles.

Hopefully, you already found links to these profiles with the Google search (step 3, above). Click on the links to see what additional information you can find.

LinkedIn Company search On LinkedIn, the term "company" extends to school districts, nonprofits, government agencies, and other non-corporate entities. To find an employer, type the company name in the search bar, and on the results page select "Companies" from the drop-down menu you find when you click on "More."

For many organizations from Fortune 500 to local small nonprofits, LinkedIn will often have information about the people who work there (and how you are "connected" to them inside LinkedIn) as well as the organization itself plus job openings.

"Follow" the company to see updates and news they post, bearing in mind that companies usually pay attention to who is following them which can be a great way to start a relationship.

On Facebook, most company pages are limited to businesses with few other entities included, except school districts and other educational institutions like colleges and universities. If there is a company page, you will typically find the latest news as well as events, videos, and even job postings. For more ideas, read 7 Ways to Research a Potential Employer with Facebook.

6. Use Google/Bing/YouTube to research any names you have (e.g., senior executives and the people who will be interviewing you), and check their LinkedIn Profiles.

You may find that you have something in common with someone interviewing you. Perhaps you attended the same college or share a former employer. Check them out, too, on search engines and LinkedIn.

Hopefully, you know the names of the people who will be interviewing you. If they aren't offered when the interview is scheduled, ask for them. You want both their names and their job titles. Then, head for LinkedIn to see what you can discover about each -- how long they've been with the employer, where they've worked in the past, where they went to school.

If they have written and posted articles on LinkedIn or other websites, read some of those articles. Look for a theme (e.g. social media marketing is great or international sales are the future of the company) and anything you might have in common with them.

Try to get a sense of the kind of people who work there. Are they all holders of advanced Ivy League degrees, several veterans of the USMC, mostly twenty-somethings, a mixture of ages and races, or anything else that catches your eye.

[For more tips on using Google for research, read 50 Google Searches to Avoid Layoffs and Bad Employers.]


7. Check out what and show about the employer. and collect and make reviews of different employers available. may also have collections of job interview questions that specific employers seem to use.

In both cases, the information is provided by people who visit the website and who may, or may not, be providing good information, current, reliable, and/or well-articulated. So, use the information with that in mind.

Glassdoor also has salary information available, reported by employees, to be used cautiously, as described below.

8. Prepare for the salary expectation question and negotiation.

This discussion will happen so the best defense is a good offense. If the job is one of the few with a posted salary range, don't set your heart on the top of that range unless you are very experienced in the job.

Three important negotiation strategies:

  • Know your target salary.
    Base that number on your research into this job and this employer, not on your salary history. Your current or past salary is what a different employer paid you to do a different job according to their requirements and processes -- even if the job title is the same with both employers.
  • Prepare options to increase your income or offset some expenses..
    Your salary is only one part of "total compensation" which usually includes vacation, sick days, personal days, and health insurance. Bonuses and commissions are also often part of the compensation for sales type jobs. Other "fringe benefits" can include tuition reimbursement, commuter benefits, and other expense coverage. Think of the other forms of compensation which would be acceptable to you in place of a higher salary. "Signing bonuses" are becoming more popular, but they do only raise your salary for the first year. Perhaps tuition reimbursement would be a big help for you (or your children), or something else would be acceptable.
  • Know your "walk-away number."
    That number is your minimum acceptable salary, and the point where you turn down their offer or end the negotiation. This is a very powerful negotiating position, but one you must be prepared to fulfill -- bluffing about walking away isn't a good idea because they may let you walk.

Sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn offer salary information for different job titles and employers. This is useful data, but remember:

  • The data reported by individuals is not verified by the employers.
  • The individuals may be reporting their "gross salary" (pay before taxes and other deductions are removed) or their "net salary" (the gross salary less taxes and other deductions).
  • Other compensation (vacation, insurance, bonuses, etc.) may or may not be included.
  • Jobs with the same job titles are not necessarily the same when they are for different employers or even for different divisions of the same employer.

Because you may be asked in the interview about your salary expectations, have your answer ready. Determine your salary expectations for the job, based on your years of experience, your match with the job's requirements, plus your relevant education, licenses, certifications, and other technical qualifications.

Check out the strategy and the sample answers in How to Answer the Salary Expectation Question.

NOTE: Your salary history is NOT relevant and is also not legal to ask in some locations.

Asking you for your current or recent salary is against the law in several parts of the USA: Albany County (in New York state), California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York City, Oregon, and Puerto Rico. Hopefully, other states will follow.

If an employer asks what your current salary is, decline to answer the question. Even if the job titles are the same, the jobs are different and employers should be focused on paying all employees appropriately, not based on what a former employer paid. Read How to Answer the Current Salary Question for answers you can use to brush off this question if asked.

9. If possible, visit the employer's location before the interview.

If you visit the employer's site before the interview, you will gain quite a bit of extremely useful information. This information will help you arrive on time, dressed appropriately.

A pre-interview visit ("reconnaissance" in military terms) will help you:

  • Get an idea about the commute time, best method, parking (if necessary), and expense involved in getting to and from work.
  • Have an opportunity to observe the location. Does it look and feel safe?
  • Check out the employees (and, possibly, the customers). Are they in formal business dress, business casual, or very casual?
  • Decide if the employees (and customers) look comfortable or unhappy/stressed?

The bottom line is that you want to get a sense of whether or not this employer looks like a place where you would be happy working and commuting.

10. JUST BEFORE YOU LEAVE FOR THE INTERVIEW: Check the latest news stories on Google News.

Do this last bit of research just before you head out the door or on your smart phone (or tablet) in the waiting room or as you travel to the interview (assuming you are NOT driving!).

Check Google News for the latest news from - and about - the organization. You don't want to be surprised, or look clueless, if they have very recent BIG news - like a new product or service recently launched, a new plant opened (or an old one closed), a new CEO/COO/CFO hired, etc. It would also be good to know if the stock price just took a big jump (or drop), and, perhaps, why that big change may have happened.

Bottom Line

Be sure to arrive ten or fifteen minutes ahead of time (NEVER LATE!), dressed appropriately, with pen and paper for taking notes, your list of questions for them, your cell phone turned off, and copies of your resume available to hand to the interviewers. Then, leverage your research and preparation to dazzle them in the interview and get a great job offer!

The Boy Scouts are right - be prepared to be successful in your job interviews.

About the author...

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn.

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Guide to Successful Interviews

Essential Job Interviewing Requirements:

Navigating the Interview Process:

Succeeding at Different Kinds of Interviews:

Steps to Prepare for Your Interview:

More Information About Successful Interviews:

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