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Non-Technical Interview Prep

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In the past I was a mentor with Minds Matter, an organization that helps high-achieving high school students from low-income backgrounds prepare for college. (It’s a great organization: you should check it out!) I’ve kept in touch with the student I worked with, who is now preparing to interview for his first post-college job. I pulled together the following list of interview advice and preparation tips for him, and thought there might be value in sharing it more broadly.

He’s not seeking a job in tech, but I think a lot of the advice is widely applicable. Our industry (rightfully) spends a lot of time focusing on technical interviews, but communicating technical proficiency is only a component of the interview process. While it’s well and good to know how to bubble sort, it’s also worthwhile to spend some time thinking about how to answer the “soft skills” questions. You’re not just being judged on your CS knowledge; you’re also being evaluated on your holistic ability to be a good employee and co-worker. That includes things like your communication, your approach to problem solving, your dependability, your time management, and your ability to work in teams.

This advice is about those soft skills interview questions, plus general advice that may not be obvious to those who don’t have much interview experience. (This is a “your mileage may vary” situation; if something doesn’t work with your personality, find something that does! Being authentic is important!) This is geared towards students and people early in their careers; if you have constructive thoughts/perspectives that might be helpful for this crowd, please feel free to drop them in the comments.

Questions to Prepare For

You won’t be asked all of these, but here are some common questions to think about.

Their First Question

So tell me a little about yourself.

This is almost certainly the first question they’ll ask you, so be ready for it! This is the time for your personal elevator pitch.

If you’re a student, think about something along these lines:

“I’m (your name), I’m currently a (your year in school) at (school). I’m studying (major) with an emphasis in (area of emphasis / favorite topic of study). I’ve also been busy with (your student job / clubs / leadership positions ) while I study. I really enjoy (topic related to the job you’re applying for), which is why I’m so excited about this opportunity at (employer).

Other options:

  • You can also add in a sentence about your success in school like GPA or honors, if those are things you’d like to highlight.
  • You can talk more about specific coursework you’re excited about, specifically if you’re light on other leadership positions.

Questions About the Employer

How did you hear about the position?

No tricks here, just talk about how you found it. It’s cool if you can mention an employee referral or a job fair that referred you. If you found it online, mention why their posting stood out to you.

What do you know about the company?

Give a few lines that show you did some research and know what they’re working on (see the end of document for research suggestions), and then to show you’re not just regurgitating their About page and that you care about the company add:

“I’m personally drawn to this mission / I believe in this approach / I’m excited about this opportunity because (fill in the blank).”

Why do you want this job?

Talk about:

  1. why the role is a great fit for you
  2. why you’re excited about the opportunity with company

Why should we hire you?

This question is awful. I hate it. I’m sorry it exists.

Try to have your answer focus on:

  1. why you can do the work
  2. emphasize that you can deliver results
  3. talk again about why you’re really excited about the position and mention that you’ll bring a great energy to work every day.

What other companies are you interviewing with?

I think in most cases it makes sense to answer this one vaguely. By all means you can directly list the other companies, but if you don’t feel comfortable about doing that, you can also talk about the general characteristics of what you’re looking for in your applications.

“I’m exploring a variety of options within (industry) firms where I can do (list a few things that excite in your job search.) (sources of inspiration: details from the job description, tasks you will be responsible, characteristics of problems you’re interested in solving, etc).”

Behavioral Interview Questions

You may have heard the disclosure “past performance is not an indicator of future success.” When it comes to interviewing for a job, a lot of interviews ignore this entirely: they try to get a sense for how you will perform in this job based on how you’ve approached similar situations in the past.

When questions come up about what you’ve done so far, try using the STAR method to frame your answers.

Situation: describe the background
Tasks: describe what you were trying to accomplish
Actions: explain what you did and why
Results: talk about the results

A few big areas employers will be interested in:

  • Teamwork
  • Ability to Adapt
  • Time Management
  • Motivation
  • Communication Skills

Start to think about some good stories about your work and schoolwork so far, and use the STAR method so you can tell the stories that highlight how you’ll be an asset in those areas. Here are some common things you might see here.

Situations where you succeeded! Tell me about…

  • A time when you met a goal
  • A time you collaborated well and worked on a team
  • A time you worked well under pressure
  • A time when you went above and beyond expectations
  • A time when you learned quickly
  • A time when you made a strategic decision
  • A time when you handled multiple responsibilities at once
  • A time when you had a proud moment
  • A time when you saw a problem and solved it
  • A time when you worked without close supervision
  • A time when you were creative
  • A time when you met a difficult deadline

Situations where you overcame obstacles. Tell me about…

  • A time you had a conflict with someone (your answer should emphasize how you worked through it / what you learned)
  • A time when you made a mistake (your answer should emphasize how you handled it / what you learned)
  • A time when you didn’t meet a deadline (your answer should emphasize what you did about it to make it right / what you learned)
  • A time when you made an unpopular decision (your answer should emphasize why you made it and how you handled disagreement)
  • A time when you dealt with change (and how it impacted you and what you did next)

Things to keep in mind:

  • Think about the “Hero’s Journey” for your approach to storytelling. (Call to adventure > challenges > transformation > results.) What makes success stories interesting is overcoming challenges. Failure stories can be great things to share so long as you can end talking about what you learned and how you grew.
  • You don’t necessarily have to have a unique answer ready for all of these. You can probably find about 8-10 stories to have ready, and then you can adapt these stories to answer a lot of different questions. For example: you may have had a group project at school where the material was challenging, you had a teammate that didn’t pull their weight, and you had to juggle a lot of deadlines with other classes. Depending on what you decide to emphasize in your story telling, you can answer lots of questions with that one incident.
  • You need to be able to speak to every single line on your resume! Your resume should be your primary source of content for your STAR stories.

Other Common Questions

How do you get along with your boss?

Your answer here is ALWAYS saying something positive!

How do you get along with your co-workers?

Your answer here is ALWAYS saying something positive!

What is your greatest strength?

Don’t be arrogant! Good examples would be:

  • “I’m a problem solver” and then talk about how you approach problem solving or maybe a quick example of a time you solved a problem
  • “I have a great work ethic” and then talk about how you’re driven and motivated and responsible

You get the idea. Other good traits you could highlight here are:

  • Positive
  • Organized
  • Act with integrity
  • Creative
  • Team player
  • Reliable
  • Adaptable
  • Dependable

What is your greatest weakness?

Don’t:

  • deny that you have weaknesses
  • give a lame answer that’s like “my greatest weakness is that I care too much” or “I’m a perfectionist”
  • be too honest
  • use a weakness that will send up a red flag

Do:

  • be direct
  • be introspective
  • be relatable
  • be brief

The goal is to talk about

  1. something that is a relatable flaw
  2. why it’s a problem
  3. then talk about how you’re working to overcome it

Some good examples would be:

“I can be a little shy when I first meet people. Sometimes people perceive shyness as being distant or rude because they think I don’t want to interact with them. I’m definitely a friendly, warm, and positive person, so I’m working hard to let that side of my personality shine through sooner in my relationships. I’m working to be aware of my natural comfort zone and trying to consciously extend myself.

or

“I get really nervous in public speaking situations. I’ve noticed that sometimes my reluctance to speak up (especially in big lectures) means that the conversation doesn’t benefit from my ideas or perspectives that I think would help the group have a better dialogue. I’ve been working on this by (some examples would be: setting goals about how often you participate, trying to practice speaking in smaller groups to build your skill set, working with a classmate to give each other feedback, etc). It’s not always easy, but I know this skillset will be important for me to become a strong leader.”

If these don’t resonate with you, other options would be:

  • Struggling with confrontation / having a hard time telling people things they don’t want to hear. Then talk about the value of your perspective and how you’re working on saying hard things
  • Having a hard time delegating, getting stuck in the “if you want it done right you have to do it yourself” mindset. Then talk about how you’re working to trust teammates and appreciate everyone’s contributions. (This one can be good because you can talk about group projects at school, and is also good for junior employees because you probably won’t have delegation as part of your job responsibilities so you can talk about wanting to mature this as a leadership skill)

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

The goal of this question is to just not throw up any red flags! Be open-ended and try to talk about why this job is a good part of your goals. Try something like

“As you know, I’m just getting started in my career, so I’m excited about all the growth opportunities I have ahead of me! I’m excited about (career/industry related to the job you’re applying for) because I really like (list a couple of things you think are exciting) so that’s a big reason why I would love to build my career here. I really value education and hope to always be learning. I’m looking for a job that will allow me to grow my skills and learn in a supportive environment.”

What’s your dream job?

You don’t have to have an exact answer. You can answer with skills you want to use, things you value, what interests you. Example:

“Based on my skills and interests, I would love to have a role that allows me to do (ideally this is something that is related to what you’re applying for), in a company that values growing their employees and collaborating as a team. I’m excited for a job that lets me grow my skills and add value while I do it.”

What are your salary requirements?

Don’t answer with a number if you can avoid it. Some options:

“I’m primarily interested in finding a position that is a good fit, and I’m confident you are offering a salary that’s competitive in the current market.”

or

“I prefer to talk about salary and benefits as a whole once we know that we’re good fits for each other.”

If they keep pressing you can also turn the question around and ask “What range are you offering?” and then respond that you think that range combined with other benefits should work for you and you look forward to discussing later.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Be yourself and let your personality shine! (Use good judgment and don’t overshare!)

Their Last Question

So, do you have any questions for us?

The answer ALWAYS needs to be yes! This is your chance to tell if the job is a good fit for you and to get a better sense of the employer, and it also shows that you are engaged. Some good options:

Ask about the role:

  • Tell me about the team I’d be working with.
  • What kind of projects are you working on right now?
  • What does a typical day look like?
  • If I were hired, how would I be trained?
  • What attributes are needed for someone to be successful in this position?
  • What are the biggest challenges of the position?
  • Do you expect the responsibilities of this position to grow and change over time?

Also ask about the person interviewing you:

  • How long have you been with the company?
  • What’s your favorite part about working here?
  • What do you think are the biggest challenges in working here?

Ask about the company:

  • Where do you see this company in the next few years?
  • How does this team support the company’s overall goals?
  • What gets you the most excited about the company’s future?

Your Last Question

What are the next steps?

Here’s where they hopefully tell you general time frames, whether there will be more rounds of interviews, whether you need to provide references, etc

Other Things to Think About When Interviewing

You can’t control what they’re going to ask you, but you CAN be really prepared!

  • Have your STAR stories practiced.
  • Lookup “common interview questions” and at least think about how you would answer them.
  • Know your resume inside and out.
  • Research the company
    1. browse through their website.
    2. if they’re a public company, glance at their annual report and see if you can get a sense for their financial performance / priorities / etc. (don’t spend a ton of time here, but at least look at the big items.)
    3. See if they’ve been in the news lately.

You wouldn’t show up to a test at school without having done your homework. Don’t show up for an interview without having done your best to prepare. The more preparation you’ve done the more relaxed you’ll be.

Preparation doesn’t mean that you have all these answered completely memorized; it means you’ve thought about themes (for example: above you probably noticed several times where I said “list several things that excite you” — think a lot about the job and what you can bring to it!) Be authentic and prepared, but not canned.

Be on time! For an interview: “on time” means at least 10 minutes early! Ideally you get there 20-30 minutes early and take some to relax and collect yourself so you don’t feel rushed or panicked (and so you’re still on time if something unexpected happens). Then you go check in with the receptionist/security guard 10 minutes before your appointment time.

Don’t read your cell phone while you wait. Instead use it as a moment to re-read your resume / think about your answers / psych yourself up!

Be SUPER polite to everyone you encounter. Security guards, receptionists, people in the lobby, other drivers in the parking lot… everyone! You never know who will have a chance to give the hiring manager feedback on your interview, so be friendly to every single person.

Dress nicely. In most cases you’ll want to wear a suit. (For some tech/startup-y companies you don’t need to dress up quite that much.) When in doubt, it’s better to be overdressed than under-dressed.

Bring your ID. Most offices require you to have a guest badge to go in, and a lot of times the security guards will need to check your ID in order to get you a badge.

Make sure you remember the name of the person you’re meeting with, because they will ask you when you check in (and I know from experience that it’s somewhat embarrassing to have to pull out your phone and look it up.)

Bring a portfolio/notebook with you. In it you should have:

  • paper
  • a pen
  • at least 3 copies of your resume (sometimes they’ll have more than one person in the room, or you’ll meet with more than one person at a time. be prepared with extras just in case.)
  • things you’ve prepared for the interview: in particular you can come with a list of questions for them prepared. (Remember that your resume can be your crib sheet of the stories you want to tell! You’re allowed to have a copy for yourself with little notes on it to help you with your stories if you’re nervous.)

Silence your cell phone.

Body language matters.

  • Posture signals engagement. Aim for a neutral-to-engaged posture. To accomplish this, my general goal is to try to not use the back of the chair. It forces me to sit up straight and lean in. I also try not to cross my arms or touch my face.
  • Eye contact!
  • Smile more than what you think feels natural. It will show positivity and excitement, and also it will help you relax!
  • Don’t fidget. (Know your nervous ticks and try to think about ways to mitigate them in advance. For example, I never interview with my wedding ring because I know that I have a tendency to twist it when I get nervous.)

Try to reframe being nervous as being excited. The feelings are actually pretty similar. Every time you feel butterflies in your stomach, tell yourself that you’re excited about finding your next opportunity.

Frame your job hunt as you finding something that makes you excited, not you trying to get someone to give you a job. (Especially while you’re in the interview!) I know it’s hard, because it seems like they have way more power than you and you really want the job they have. But remember: you are excited to find what you’re doing next in your life, just ask much as they need to pick you, you need to pick them. The more confident and excited you seem, the better off you will be.

If a question catches you off-guard: pause, take a deep breath, smile, and give it your best shot. It’s fine to be a little human and say something like “I’m not 100% sure, but here’s my understanding of (fill in the blank) ” or “I don’t have experience with that exact situation, but here’s a similar time when I did (fill in the blank).” You’re also allowed to ask them for more clarification! “Sure, happy to talk about that. Can you give me an example of what you’re looking for?”

You’re allowed (and encouraged!) to jot down notes while they talk! If you think of questions you want to ask at the end, details you think are important, or anything that stands out to you: make a quick note. (This isn’t like class where you are all-out taking notes. Quick little 3-4 word messages, only occasionally.)

At the end, ask your interviewer if they have a business card if they haven’t already given you one. (If they don’t, ask if you can please have their email address and write it down.) You need to send a thank you email to everyone who takes the time to interview you after you get home.

Thank you emails look like this:

Subject: Thank you – (job title) interview
 
Hi (person’s first name),
 
I just wanted to send you a quick note letting you know how much I appreciate you having me in today! It was great chatting with you and hearing more about the (job title) position.
 
I’m excited about the opportunities at (company) and look forward to the prospect of helping your team with (list the main thing you’d be responsible in the position that you discussed in the interview).
 
I look forward to hearing from you about next steps in the hiring process. Please feel free to reach out if I can provide any additional information.
 
Sincerely,
 
Your name
Your email address
Your phone number

Pretty much everyone leaves an interview with things they wish they had answered differently. That’s totally normal and doesn’t mean you blew it.

Hopefully this is helpful in preparing for your first interview. If you’re reading this and are a little nervous: I’m 100% in your corner! Reach out and I’d be more than happy to talk with you about any question/concerns or advice on how to prepare. Good luck, team! You’ve got this!

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