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When you’re facing an interview for a job, internship, or other opportunity, you may be thinking that the interviewer has all the power and it’s on you to sell yourself. Maybe you speculate about questions the interviewer might ask, and wrestle with how to answer them. Nervous? Sure—because this way of anticipating interviews is potentially paralyzing. It’s also outdated. You also come to your interview with some power, and that’s how you can present yourself.

What you know well is yourself and your history. Instead of trying to read your interviewer’s mind, you can speak confidently about your own experience. A company or organization uses the interview for reassurance that they’re making a good bet on you. The way you reassure them is by using examples from your past to illuminate your future.

What else should you do (and not do)?

Rigorously review your online footprint

Assume the interviewer will look at everything. Those photos from undergrad with the red cups, or anything suggesting questionable life decisions—get rid of them.

Dress conservatively

Dress the way you expect your interviewer to dress. Search online for appropriate career wear.  Do not look as though you’re going to meet your friends. You never want your clothes or hair to be what people notice; you want your words to be what matters. Cover your tattoos and piercings.

Even if you’re interviewing at a fast-paced, youthful internet company, you can’t go wrong showing up in conservative attire. No one will ever think that a guy in a dark business suit is overdressed or underdressed. And cut the tags off. (You don’t know how many guys I’ve seen show up for interviews with a tag still on their new suit.)

Never say anything negative about a previous employer

Come up with something like this: “I was there for a year and I was excited about the publication. I was hired in a production role and over time I realized what I was really interested in was developing content. That’s why I’m looking to move on, but it’s a great company.”

Immediately send a follow-up note

Show them that you follow through. Email is fine. Don’t wait a day to thank the interviewer for the opportunity. Send something like this: “I really enjoyed our meeting and learning about the organization; I would feel very fortunate if had an opportunity to work on your team.”

What are your greatest hits?

Review your experience. Pick out five or six main points and examples that are designed to present you in a favorable light.

Think about what you’ve accomplished, what you are proud of, and times when you were singled out for praise. If we had videotaped you for the last two years and edited that down to 15–20 minutes, you would see yourself doing impressive things that right now may be barely on your radar.

Those five or six points are material for just about any question an interviewer asks you. Think about how you can use that material to pivot interview questions toward something specific about you.

“What are your strengths?”

  • Provide enough detail for the interviewer to picture you in a working environment. Include an example in which you demonstrate problem-solving skills. 
  • Show enthusiasm for tasks that you successfully completed.
  • Employers are likely to be impressed if you are in a challenging program or conducting difficult research and making progress in it.

Strong response
“For instance, when I was working on the Exploding Planet project, I was given a set of data I’d never seen before. I figured it out and took it to the team, and we combined our materials. It was a great experience—we were there till midnight one night to make the deadline, and we got a lot of praise. I really enjoyed bringing all the different parts together.”

Weak response
“I work well independently and also as part of a team.”

“Tell me about yourself.”

  • This is a wonderful question because it allows you to zero in on what you want the interviewer to know.
  • If you’re concerned about your past academic performance, or something else that may be perceived as a weakness, think about how to frame it.
  • Stay on topic. Don’t take “Tell me about yourself” literally.

Strong responses
“Let me start with my special project on XYZ software last quarter. That really appealed to me because it allowed me to be creative and visual while staying grounded in the data. In the past two years I’ve found the projects and classes that bring together those ways of thinking really represent who I am.”

“I got a 2.7 GPA at Glory Poly, which, as you may know, is ranked the number six engineering school in the country. That 2.7 put me in the top 15 percent of my class.”

“It took me a year or so to get my bearings at Enterpreneur University. Once I did, I was able to achieve a 3.0 average for the remainder of my undergraduate career.”

Weak responses
“I have three children and in the summer I enjoy surfing and running.”
“What would you like to know?” (Avoid answering with a question.)

“Why should we choose you?”

  • This is the same question as “What are your strengths?” If you know your five or six greatest hits, this question won’t faze you.
  • The interviewer is asking what you can do for the organization—not how the organization can help you.
  • Phrases like “I’m a people person” have no meaning. What does have meaning is an example of how you have successfully worked with or helped others.

Strong responses
“Here’s how I know I’m a good candidate for this job. I’m establishing a track record of exceeding expectations. For example, in my internship, my instructor thought my work on the Manic Mouse project was so good that he started taking me to conferences. In my retail role, they let me close up; they had never previously trusted a student with that responsibility.”

“Here’s why I’m so interested in joining you. I’ve read your literature and looked at your website several times. You’re doing interesting things here, like the TPS Reports, and your company is growing. That excites me.”

Weak responses
“This is a good commute from where I live.”
“This role will look impressive on my résumé.”

“Where do you want to be in five years?”

  • Bring the question back around to why you’re the right person for this opportunity.
  • Don’t oversell your ambition by giving a specific answer or pie-in-the-sky scenario. Stay on track. This is about getting this job now, not your ultimate dreams.

Strong response
“In my last position, because of the quality of my work on the Bright Shiny Things assignment, I was brought back to address a more demanding project. I don’t know what opportunities would open up for me here, but I’m confident that they will be there.”

“Serving as a leader in my community organization, I was able to sharpen my organizational and communication skills, which I think will serve me well in this position. I would like to see myself in this company for at least five years, as I expect to grow within the profession.”

Weak responses
“I hope to be successful enough to start my own business.”
“I hope to make enough money to take a year off to travel.”
“I hope to move to California/Barbados.”

“What are your weaknesses?”

  • Be truthful without over-explaining. It’s OK to admit a little vulnerability.
  • Come up with something that enables you to bring the conversation back to reassuring them about your skills.

Strong responses
“I like to prepare well for meetings; sometimes I feel I might be over-preparing.”

“I had previously thought a weakness of mine was talking to customers on the phone, but having to do it as part of my last job, I think that’s working out well now.”

“I thought it was hard for me to get up to speed on some systems, but I seem to be doing better; I just aced my Excel course.”

“Sometimes it has been hard for me to receive criticism, but I’ve been working on that and have turned it into a positive way for me to improve myself.”

Weak responses
“I’m a perfectionist.” (This is vague; they don’t know what it means.)
“I try too hard to please people.”
“I do so much that others resent me.”

“Do you have any questions about this role or organization?”

  • This question gives you a perfect opportunity. An important goal is for the interviewer to start talking to you as a colleague rather than as a candidate. If they tell you what’s going on in the company, that’s a good sign.
  • Ask open-ended questions that demonstrate your interest in the organization or role. This is about the music as much as the words.

Strong responses
“What departments would I interface with?”
“What are the busiest quarters or periods for this organization?”
“What does a typical day look like in this role?”
“What states/countries are you in?”
“What are your company’s goals in the next two years?”
“What are the biggest challenges facing this organization?”

Weak responses
“Do I get the day off following July 4th?”
“Where do I park?”
“Do I really have to come in at 8:30?”
“What time is lunch?”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“Can you bring leadership skills to this position?”

  • Leadership potential is prized by companies and organizations.
  • Leadership comes in many forms; it’s not just about standing at the podium or getting elected. Think about your experience so far and the ways that you have positively influenced other people.

Strong responses
“The Ping Pong Project needed completion while my boss was on maternity leave. I took it over and made the deadline; it was well received.”

“I’ve done a lot of travel, mainly solo, but there are different ways to show leadership. One way is by having an expert voice that people listen to and perhaps emulate. In the writing and speaking I’ve done, I’ve encouraged and led people to explore the wider world.”

“When someone needs to step up and tell those nutty undergrads why it’s not OK to set the library on fire, that’s me. They listen.”

Weak responses
“In my town’s Ultimate Frisbee club, they always had me arrange the games.”
“My brothers always look to me to schedule the family meetings.”
“I don’t have examples, but I feel that people see me as a leader.”

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Jeff Onore is a career coach based in Boston, Massachusetts. For 15 years, he led an employment consultation business. Previously, he was director of student life at the University of New Hampshire. He is currently in a management position at an international company.