How To Ace The Interview

11/30/2016 02:48 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

Here’s a scenario I see all too often when interviewing young aspiring consultants:

A candidate spends hours researching in preparation for the interview, gaining more and more confidence each day as the interview approaches. However, on the morning of the interview they wake up and realize that for all the information they have, they don’t have the slightest clue about how to actually perform in the interview.

Preparation is critical, don’t get me wrong, but performing in an interview is a different ballgame. In your preparation, you have infinite time to dive into potential lines of inquiry. In an interview, you have just seconds to take in new information, decide what’s important, and then construct coherent answers to make your case as a strong candidate.

Performing well in an interview takes a different process than preparing for one. To address this, I’ve written this guide to acing your interview. It covers everything you need to do on the day of your interview to get the job.

For a broader, longer resource, check out my Complete Guide To Getting The Job. It includes the information below, but also gets into the research phase, the follow-up, and a whole lot more.

Let's start with the morning of your interview.

3 Critical Pre-Interview Strategies

Your interview starts the second you wake up on the day of your interview. Showing up at the right time, with the right mindset and materials is key to success.

1. Be At Least 15 Minutes Early

Being there on time is essentially being late, and being there early is on time. Arrive at least 15 minutes early. Budget for traffic, a metro that is running late, scarce parking, or a labyrinth masquerading as a college career center or corporate office.

By being early, you mitigate a lot of unnecessary stress. By alleviating yourself of this superficial layer of distraction, you allow yourself the time and leisure to enter your high performance “zone.”

2. Be A Sponge For Nonverbal Information

As you walk into the interview, it is important to be alert and aware of your surroundings. Take them in and analyze them. You can get a lot done by filling in data points that might potentially help you.

If there is a receptionist, an assistant, or anyone else, attempt to connect with them. When you are ushered into the interview room, if it is the personal office of the manager, take account of the decor. Is he a family man, with pictures of his children? Does she have sports memorabilia of a team that she loves? Are there awards or degrees adorning their walls?

Utilize this exercise to piece together subconscious clues about this person that can aid you in the interview.

3. Bring Physical Copies Of Your Resume

Bring a letter-sized portfolio and writing pad, with a several copies of your resume in it. Yes, they already have your resume, but that does not matter. You bring it.

You should not assume that your interviewer is intimately aware of your resume, or has even read it. Picture a bell curve and understand that far right, most desirable section, say the top 5%, are the ones who do everything right. You can join them in the coveted top 5%, by doing the little things—like bringing a physical, paper version of your resume.

Perhaps your interviewer spontaneously pulls in a colleague to interview you—pull out a second resume for that colleague to use. Maybe your original interviewer has an emergency and can’t show up and another person is called in last minute to interview you. He doesn’t know anything about you and doesn’t have access to your application. Pull out the resume.

How To Communicate During The Interview

When the conversation starts, there are some things that are important to understand. Everyone knows the obvious ones, like “Don’t use unprofessional language.” Curse words or overly hyperbolic phrasing do not bode well in a corporate environment.

But there are several other keys to success, which I’ve listed below:

1. Use Silence To Control The Conversation

You will be asked a lot of questions, and many people feel pressure to jump right into answering them. They believe, falsely, that hesitation shows weakness. I think the opposite.

There is no urgency to answer immediately. Think of Don Corleone from “The Godfather.” Corleone was the lead character, not because he had the most lines, but rather because of his impact, and he had very few lines. His status was inversely proportional to the number of words he spoke.

Why? Because all else being equal, fewer words with the same content equate to more gravitas.

This tactic also buys you time if you are having difficulty answering a question. Instead of launching into a blubbering, half-baked analysis, use silence to convey that you are thinking in a relaxed and confident way. These pauses provide you a moment to review your thoughts, synthesize your answer, and communicate it confidently.

This is especially important when there are multiple people interviewing you at once, which happens in a panel interview. Jumping back and forth from one interviewer to another may create a perception that you are unable to concentrate, that you are a superficial thinker, or you are insecure in your own abilities.

Pause, contemplate one question at a time, organize your thoughts, then proceed. Do not try to answer multiple questions at once.  Sort them out, even write them down if needed, so you can address each question or sub-question concisely and with insight.

2. Maintain The Right Tone

In regards to the tone of your discussion, it is important to walk that fine line between being firm and overly aggressive. Don't try to take over, jump in, or interrupt.

Notice how your professional interviewer converses; they do not wait for a millisecond of silence to interrupt your response, nor do they sit passively waiting for your command because they lack confidence themselves.

Here are two tips that make keeping the right tone easier. First, use the Socratic method. Finish your answers with a question: “Does that answer your question fully, or is there an area you’d like me to elaborate on?”

The other tip is to practice being concise. The fewer words you use, the more authoritative and confident you will seem—and you'll have less opportunity to say something stupid.  Keep in mind your goal, which is to get the next interview or possibly the job right now.

3. Open By Connecting With Your Interviewer

In the interview’s first couple of minutes, it is important to connect. Since hopefully you did preparatory research on the company and the interviewer, ask them about themselves.

Don’t think that they don’t care or that it won’t mean anything to him. We are all human beings, and we want to connect personally! If you’ve done the research, be proud; make sure to show the interviewer that you have done your homework.

You can do this naturally. For example, something like “Interestingly, I see revenues have been increasing, but the market size is actually shrinking. What’s your secret?” Revealing an insight early in the conversation sets a great first impression. Here are some suggestions:

  • “When I was researching your company, I noticed that….”  (give some facts)
  • “It’s interesting because…” (contrast it against something else that’s related)
  • “Which got me thinking about X” (showing ability to connect thoughts and ideas)

This is a three-step system. First, collect facts. Second, apply them to other facts. Lastly, make a connection and articulate an insight.

4. Make Your Answers Visual

It is important to make the discussion transcend the two-dimensional. Try to find ways to engage your interviewer visually.

If your interviewer asks you how it was to work on a specific technical project, do not simply answer, “it was hard because…” Go further. If there is a whiteboard in the room, go to the whiteboard and say, “You know, there were three parts of the project and each had their unique challenges and successes…” Write them out in a graph, or a mind-map.

Congratulations, you just converted a potentially generic, boring-sounding project summary into a multi-sensory, stimulating conversation.

Of course, there isn’t always a whiteboard available. But there is always a small, portable whiteboard at hand—a blank piece of paper. Pull a piece of paper out and use it to sketch your thoughts. Even if you are not doing a case interview, the fact that you’re pulling a piece of paper out drawing something shows creative communication skills.

5. Keep Your Eye On The Clock

You should always be wary of how much time you have in the interview, so that you can make sure to communicate all you points. This is essential because the interviewer may not manage their time wisely. Sometimes an interviewer will go off on a tangent based on a resume item, and that can eat into your limited time.

I recommend having five points that illustrate your experiences and strengths in your back pocket. These five points can be anything. For instance, if you led a team, or had a specific applicable experience, then weave that story into the conversation naturally.

One technique that works well is to bring up a crucial point by saying “that reminds me of the time when…” Don’t wait until asked about these specific points, actively work to bring them up. These are your trump cards and you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t play them.

Even if you are just entering the workforce, or have only been in it for a couple of years, I believe you have experiences you can use to communicate successes equivalent to people who have been in the workforce for five or more years.

How you organize these experiences and communicate them will make the difference.

6. Showcase Your Value Without Bragging

This brings us to the topic of self-praise, or bragging. We must again walk a fine line—this time, between respectful self-confidence and over the top hyperbole.

One way to convey this is by using examples. Rather than say, "I'm wonderful because I lead five projects already. Look at how great I am," say "on the last five projects that I led, I encountered…" You just established all kinds of credibility without bragging about yourself.

The key is to highlight yourself and your accomplishments in context. If you want the interviewer to know that you have had experience in skill X, say something like "The last time I saw skill X…” or if you want to talk specific numbers about the people you manage say, "of the 15 people I managed, the one that stood out for me the most was John Smith."

How To End The Interview

Ending the interview can be a tricky proposition. This is your last chance to make an impression—either good or bad. It is also the time to close the sale, to end on a strong, positive note.

There are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Make Sure Your Qualities Are Clear

At this point in the interview, you’ve come to a stopping point. It is important to do a quick assessment of whether you have successfully communicated each your major points.

If not, do not panic. There is a way to still come out on top. Simply say, “There is something else that I wanted to make sure that we talked about. I wanted you to be aware of it because I’m proud of it.”

If you’re a JD, reiterate it. If you have a special certification or award, bring it up.  If you had a unique experience, share it.  If you have already discussed it, bring it up again for emphasis. Humans need to hear information multiple times before an impression is deeply ingrained—think about it as informal self-advertising, to reinforce the most important points you want to make.

2. Close With A Question

After you have said all that you wanted to say, close with a question.  Examples include “Is there anything else that you didn’t ask that you would like to?”, “How did I do?” , and “Is there anything I could have done better?” This causes them to stop and think—and remember you.

Sometimes this will allow your interviewer to drop their guard and ask something more revealing like “Is it okay if you travel a lot? This job might entail a lot of travel.” Or some aspect of their evaluation, that they really like you—or if not so much.

Also, this provides an opportunity for your interviewer to think outside the box. Maybe you have impressed your interviewer so much that he has also begun to consider you for not only the role you are interviewing for, but also another even more lucrative role that might be open.

And if you are not the strongest fit for the current role, it provides an opportunity for the interviewer to picture you in another role, and to connect you with the relevant hiring manager.

3. Speed Up The Communication Timeline

Most interviews end with the interviewer saying something along the lines of “We’ll have someone get back to you.” That works well for the average candidate, but you don’t want to be an average candidate.  

Create a mild sense of urgency. You can mention that you are interviewing at other companies and those interview processes are reaching a mature point. Become a partner with the interviewer, helping them find a way to hire you on a timetable that is mutually beneficial.

Say, “I have a few other opportunities that are getting fairly serious, and it would be good if we can stay in close contact so that we can make the most of this opportunity.” It reminds the interviewer that this is an opportunity for both parties, and levels the playing field a bit by establishing risk of loss for them, increasing the likelihood they will move quickly with their most attractive offer.  

Even if a bit of a stretch, this response is

specific enough to reinforce your credentials and yet general enough that it provides flexibility even if you are not quite at the offer stage with other companies.

Ask for their business card. If someone gives you their business card, they are giving you implicit permission to contact them directly. This will be handy for the follow up thank you note.

4. Don’t Be Coy—Ask For The Job

Most importantly, before you leave, ask for the sale. It is amazing to me the number of people who do not do that. Look the interviewer in the eye and say, “I’m excited about this opportunity. I want to work here. I would love this position.”

Be authentic. If you want to be more aggressive, say something like, “Is there anything else that you need to know before you can hire me?” If the interviewer says no, you’re nearly there.  

Realistically, few interviewers can commit on the spot, due to interviewer feedback sharing, a final partner approval, and even an HR background check.  However, a question like this will often elicit an honest (and unintended) response, a quick look into what they really think of you.  

At minimum, it will demonstrate self-confidence and leadership skills on your part—which is not a bad way to end an interview.

5. Finish Early And Let Them Reflect

Get up, thank them for their time, and leave.

Ideally, you have managed the time so that you can end a few minutes early. Give the interviewer a few minutes of their day back. This allows the interviewer time to write up their evaluation on you, and they will appreciate being able to complete the evaluation on the spot and not have more work to do that evening or on the weekend.

You are fresh in their minds right after the interview, and you want everything good they remember about you to find its way onto their evaluation sheet. If you are one candidate of up to eight consecutive interviews that day, this is crucial because they need to remember you—not the candidates right before and after you.

Do not underestimate this point. This may just provide the edge that gets you to the next interview, or possibly even the offer itself.

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