Interviewing: The Secrets of Success

There I was sitting across the little table facing a 10 year old boy who was nervously struggling to answer a simple question – “why do you want to work here?”  I was an interviewer for the 5th grade Junior Achievement BizTown, a full-day business simulation where the kids take on jobs in a make-believe town to learn about careers.  Interviewing this young man brought to mind the many mock interviews I’ve done with Darden alumni.  Everyone dreads the mock interview, yet invariably alumni who mock get vital feedback and tips to help them land their next job.

Preparation and practice are the real secrets to interview success, but how do you accomplish this effectively? Our ACS website has a detailed interview section which addresses issues such as interview formats, timelines, and the people involved.  The heart of interview preparations should involve preparing your answers.  It’s best to tackle this by dividing your efforts into three distinct components of the interview – background, qualifications and research – each requiring its own unique planning.

Most interviewers start by asking some kind of introductory question about your background.  The typical prompt is “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume,” which is ultimately your chance to tell your story.  Your answer should not be a literal point by point walk-through of your resume, as the interviewer can see this for herself.  Rather, the best answer is a well-crafted one, spanning about two to three minutes, highlighting your key accomplishments while addressing how well-suited you are for the job opening.

A good introduction technique is to write a script of your talking points.  The idea is not to memorize the script, but rather it is to think carefully about which moments to highlight, to polish the transitions, and to ensure that you cover some of the ‘why’s’, e.g. why you chose certain roles or jobs and why are you seeking this position.  Practice telling your story out loud in front of a mirror to watch your delivery, and time it to ensure it is the right length.  Scripting and practicing will help you construct a powerful introduction that will start the interview strong.

The second step of interview preparation gets you ready for the myriad of questions that may be asked of you that will judge your skills and qualifications for the job.  These questions typically start with “tell me about a time when…” or “give me an example of…” and may also include hypothetical situations like “what would you change about…”  Rather than trying to guess what the specific questions may be, your time is better spent using the STAR (Situation-Task-Action-Result) method to develop background stories.   To utilize the STAR method: (1) create a list of skills and traits necessary to land the job (ideally gleaned from the job description); (2) map each skill back to the evidence found in your background that supports how you can succeed in the position.  The best answers give a very brief synopsis of the situation/task and focus more on the action, your role in that situation, and the result or outcome: what you delivered or accomplished.  If the question involves a ‘negative’, like “tell me about a project that failed,” you’ll still follow this format, focusing on the result of what you learned and how you plan to react differently in the future.  Be sure to think about how to bring each answer back to the interviewer’s specific needs and job opening.

The notable and dreaded question “what are your salary requirements?” requires a different approach.  This often comes early in screening and can throw you off.  Most people don’t want to reveal their current salary for fear of losing later negotiating power.  Dealing with this question is actually easier than it might seem.  First, use online services such as Glassdoor.com to research a variety of salary data around similar roles and job titles in the geographic location in which you are interviewing.   Prepare a short statement such as “my research reveals that this kind of role commands a range of about $125-$150 thousand in your market which is on target with my current level of compensation, so I’m sure we can agree on compensation if the match is right.”  See our Compensation page for more resources and talking points.

The third aspect of preparations is focused on your ability to ask the right questions at the right time.  Being asked “what questions do you have for me?” is your chance to show that you’ve researched the role, company, and industry and understand their business challenges.  Don’t waste the interviewer’s time by asking questions that you could easily research yourself.  Do ask questions that are suited to the role of the interviewer.  If it’s HR conducting the screening interview, ask “what is your process and timeline for hiring?”  If it’s a senior executive, ask a macro question about the firm’s strategy.  See our Questions to Ask page for more examples.

This kind of detailed preparation, along with some deliberate practice will give you the confidence to face most any conversation.  Contact us to schedule a mock interview or other free career counseling services at Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services.

Marty Speight MBA ‘96, Associate Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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