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Ace the Interview | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

You've already proven that you're a viable candidate; now it's time to prove that you're the best candidate.
H. Michael Burgett
Contributing Writer

Just like the first daffodil that blooms in Spring, signaling the end of a long winter and the promise of warmer days ahead, your job search efforts are finally bearing fruit. You’ve landed your first interview, and it’s a significant milestone worth celebrating.

Securing an interview is no small feat, especially in today’s competitive job market. As someone who has spent years as an Executive Coach and Job Search Counselor, I’ve seen the full spectrum of experiences. Some candidates wait up to six months to get that coveted interview invitation, while others find themselves in the interview chair just days after initiating their search.

So, before you start celebrating like the Atlanta Braves did in their triumphant 2021 season, remember that the journey is far from over. The interview is not the finish line; it’s more like a crucial checkpoint. Take a moment to high-five your family, go out for a special dinner, and raise a glass to your hard work.

But come tomorrow, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and prepare to ace that interview.

Regardless of how you got to this point, it’s crucial to pause and recalibrate your emotions, energy, and confidence. You’ve already proven that you’re a viable candidate; now it’s time to prove that you’re the best candidate. Your qualifications are set in stone at this point; you can’t go back and change your past experience or skills. What you can control is how you present those qualifications and align them with the needs and culture of the prospective employer.

Over the years, I’ve identified several guiding principles that can help candidates stand out in any job market, for any opportunity. Let’s delve into these maxims:

Be Confidently Humble

Generally, good people prefer to hire other good people. Maybe you’ve been through the wringer on your job search journey and it’s taken some time to secure this first interview. Or perhaps this is already your fifth “first interview” in a relatively short period.

Regardless, landing this interview should instill in you a sense of accomplishment and boost your confidence a notch or two.

It’s crucial to approach the interview process with both confidence and humility. I can assure you that over the years, I’ve seen overconfidence completely derail even the most qualified candidates. Conversely, I’ve seen a lack of confidence prematurely end the process for individuals whose experience was perfectly aligned with the role.

Ultimately, your goal is to present yourself as a confident, humble, engaged, and experienced problem-solver for the prospective organization. Be yourself, ask insightful questions, share compelling stories, and strive to make a personal connection with everyone involved in the interview process, from the office receptionist to the CEO.

Remember, everyone is watching, and the most significant assessment they’re making is how well you align with the team’s culture.

Dress For Success

We could definitely go off on a tangent on this axiom, but it is still important to dress like you already have the job. The concept of “dressing for success” was popularized by John T. Malloy’s 1975 book, which argued that wardrobe choices could significantly impact career success. While the book’s strict guidelines have evolved to fit today’s diverse workplace cultures, the core principle remains: your attire can influence how you’re perceived.

No, you do not need to wear your power suit to each and every interview, but you do want to present an image that aligns with the company you are targeting.

Perhaps the company culture leans professional or has a more relaxed, hipster vibe; Regardless it has been proven time and time again that there is a subconscious bias that can occur in that initial impression that you set when you walk into an interview.

One could choose to go against the grain and exude your individuality and that is perfectly ok. However, if this is the job that you want, then this is just one potential roadblock to consider taking off the table.

Tap Your Network

Before you step into the interview room, it’s wise to tap into your network for any insights or connections that could give you an edge. Maybe you have a friend who’s a former employee of the company, or perhaps someone in your circle has been a vendor or partner with the firm. These contacts can offer invaluable information about the company culture, the challenges it’s facing, or even the personalities of the people you’ll be meeting.

In some instances, your network might even include someone who can make a warm introduction for you. A personal recommendation can go a long way in establishing your credibility and getting your foot in the door.

However, a word of caution is in order. If you’re considering reaching out to current employees of the company, tread carefully. In smaller organizations or in cases where the job search is confidential, your well-intentioned networking could backfire. I’ve seen situations where candidates were removed from consideration because they were a bit too proactive in reaching out within the company, irking HR professionals or hiring managers who felt it was an intrusion into their process.

So, while it’s great to be proactive, it’s also crucial to be respectful of the company’s hiring procedures. Your network is a powerful tool, but like any tool, it must be used wisely. Your aim is to gather information and make connections that will help you in the interview, not to create complications that could jeopardize your chances.

By leveraging your network thoughtfully, you can walk into the interview better prepared and more confident, without stepping on any toes.

Research the Company, Industry, and Competition

It’s a common misconception among job candidates that the interview is solely an opportunity for them to evaluate the company. While it’s true that you’re also assessing your fit within the organization, don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on this aspect. To truly stand out, you need to come prepared with a deep understanding of the company, its industry, and even its competitors.

Whether you’re applying for an entry-level position or aiming to lead a department, you should equip yourself with as much information as possible about how the company operates, generates revenue, and serves its customer base. This goes beyond just knowing what the company does; it’s about understanding the nuances of their business model, the challenges they face, and the market landscape they operate in.

For public companies, a wealth of information is often available at your fingertips. Dive into their annual reports, pore over the CEO’s letter to shareholders, and keep tabs on their stock performance. Understand their financial health, strategic priorities, and market positioning. This will not only help you answer questions more effectively but also allow you to ask more insightful questions of your own.

If you’re interviewing with a private company, the information might not be as readily available, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your homework. Look for press releases, news articles, and industry reports that can give you a sense of the company’s reputation and standing in their field. Social media platforms and professional networks can also offer valuable insights.

The goal is to weave this research naturally into your interview conversation. For example, you might reference a recent company announcement when discussing your skills, or bring up a market trend when asked about challenges. This shows that you’ve done your homework and are already thinking about how you can contribute to the company’s success.

By thoroughly researching the company, industry, and competition, you’re not just preparing for the interview; you’re laying the groundwork for a successful tenure at the company should you get the job.

Stalk the Interview Participants

Just as you would research a company before an interview, it’s equally crucial to gather information about the people you’ll be meeting during the interview process. This isn’t about stalking in the creepy sense; it’s about doing your due diligence to understand who these individuals are, both professionally and personally.

You’d be amazed at what you can find out with a simple Google search or a scroll through LinkedIn. Where did they go to school? What’s their career trajectory? Have they been cited in industry publications or do they contribute articles? Do they serve on any boards or are involved in non-profit work? Even personal interests or affiliations, like where they worship or what causes they support, can offer valuable insights.

Why is this important? Because interviews are not just about skills and qualifications; they’re also about cultural fit and interpersonal dynamics. Knowing a bit about the interviewers can help you establish rapport quickly and effectively. For instance, if you find out that an interviewer went to the same university as you did, that could be a great icebreaker. Or if you discover that they’ve recently been recognized for a professional achievement, acknowledging it can set a positive tone for the interview.

However, a word of caution: there’s a fine line between coming across as well-prepared and appearing overly invasive. The goal is not to memorize their entire life story but to find common ground that can help facilitate a more meaningful conversation. Mentioning a detail or two about their background can make you memorable, but overdoing it can make you seem intrusive.

Also, you may have contacts who know your interviewers and can provide additional insights. This can be especially valuable, as it gives you an insider’s perspective that you can’t get from online research alone. But be careful here; you don’t want to compromise the confidentiality of the interview process or make the interviewer uncomfortable.

In essence, the more you know about your interviewers, the better you can tailor your responses and questions, making for a more engaging and productive conversation. It shows that you’re not just interested in any job, but in working specifically with the people at this organization.

Be Prepared with Thoughtful Questions

One of the most telling moments in an interview comes when the interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions for me?” Your response to this question can be a game-changer. Saying “No, I’m good” might imply a lack of interest or preparation, which is why it’s crucial to have a list of thoughtful questions ready to go.

These questions should be designed to not only clarify any uncertainties you might have but also to further demonstrate your interest in the role, the team, and the company. They could range from asking about the day-to-day responsibilities of the job to inquiring about the company’s culture, leadership style, or strategic direction. For example, you might ask, “Can you describe the team I’ll be working with?” or “What are the most important qualities you’re looking for in the person who fills this role?”

It shows you’re engaged and allows you to capture details that you can refer to later, either in your follow-up thank-you note or in subsequent interviews. So, don’t forget to bring a pen and a portfolio pad of paper. It’s a small detail that can make a big impression.

One powerful question to consider asking at the end of the interview is, “Was there anything in our discussions today that would prohibit me from being offered this opportunity?” This question serves multiple purposes. It shows your eagerness to address any potential concerns head-on, gives you a chance to clarify any misunderstandings, and leaves a lasting impression of your proactive approach.

As a final note, always wrap up the interview by expressing your enthusiasm for the role and your interest in joining the team. This can be especially impactful if done during your final conversation of the day, generally with the hiring manager. It’s your last chance to leave a strong impression, so make it count.

Stick the Landing

So, you’ve navigated the interview process, asked insightful questions, and made a compelling case for why you’re the right fit for the job. You’ve essentially completed the interview on a high note, asking for the job and leaving a positive impression.

While it may seem like your work is done, there’s one more crucial step to truly seal the deal.

If you truly want to stick the landing, there is one final step that I always recommend in the process.

Yes, you need to send a thank-you note.

Sending a thank-you note is not just a formality; it’s an opportunity to reinforce your interest in the role and the company. This should be done promptly, ideally within 24 hours of the interview. Each note should be personalized to the individual interviewer, thanking them for their time and mentioning a specific topic or moment from the interview that stood out. This not only shows your attention to detail but also helps you remain memorable in the minds of the interviewers.

Email is appropriate, connecting on your favorite professional network is expected, but if you truly want to stand out from the crowd, consider sending a handwritten thank-you note in addition to your email.

In a digital world, the personal touch of a handwritten note can be incredibly impactful. It shows you took the extra time and effort to express your gratitude and interest in a unique way. And timing is everything; a handwritten note arriving a few days after the interview can serve as a timely reminder of your candidacy just as final decisions are being made.

“Sticking the landing” is about more than just completing the interview; it’s about leaving a lasting impression that sets you apart in a competitive job market.

This is the seventh in a series of articles for my upcoming book, “How to Hack Your Next Job Search”. For my readers, I will be sharing insight, observations, and specific coaching on how best to conduct a job search. These strategies are simple, yet diverge greatly from most traditional approaches. It is my goal to share a proven process and cultivate a mindset that will elevate you into the top 5% of job seekers in any particular market or industry.

I. Deciding to Take Action | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

II. Approaching Your Search Like a New Job | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

III. Begin With Realistic Expectations | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

IV. Rethink the Resume | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

V. Uncovering Hidden Job Opportunities | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

VI. Addressing Gaps in Employment | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

VII. Ace the Interview | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

VIII. Defining Your Personal Brand | How to Hack Your Next Job Search

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