How to Ace a Job Interview (plus questions to ask and avoid)
While landing the interview is rewarding, the job interview is where you win or lose the offer. It’s time to impress.
Even the world’s best resume and cover letter won’t save you if you commit some common critical mistakes. The REAL way to win an interview is by taking just a few extra steps before it even starts.
With some simple job interview preparation, you can get in the right mindset, reduce your nervousness, and also improve your confidence. To be fully prepared, you’ll want to cover all bases, such as:
- Research on the company and recruiter
- Preparing for the types of questions they’ll ask and how you’ll answer them
- Working on your body language and voice
Here, we share some top ways to prepare for your interview, beyond just thinking of the questions.
1. Research your interviewer
The first step in how to nail an interview is to research, research, research. Make sure you’re doing plenty of research on your interviewer and the company you’re applying for on sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google.
It’s one of the top job interview tips, but most people only research the company itself. The problem is this might not give you all the information you need, especially if it’s a huge company. While it’s a good place to start, if you have the name of the interviewer, dig into their background a little as well. Get to know them before you get in a room with them.
The goal is NOT to stalk them or memorize everything they’ve ever done. Instead, it’s to learn:
- Their background (What schools did they go to? What clubs have they been a part of?)
- Their position with the company (Are they in a new role? Were they recently promoted?)
- Common interests you both share (Are they into volunteer work, sports, hobbies, etc?)
With these details, you can spark deeper discussions and stand out by subtly bringing them up during the interview — you’ll position yourself as someone who goes the extra mile, who’s proactive, and who cares. What’s the result?
A great job offer.
2. Find the question behind the question
When someone asks you, “Can you tell me a little about yourself?” it seems simple and very straightforward, but the reality is, “tell me about yourself” has dozens of questions behind the question.
A great way to uncover the question behind this question is to think:
- What do they need to know about my background?
- What would they be concerned about?
- How will this answer reflect what type of worker I am?
- Are they testing to see if you’ve done your research on the role?
Always take time to pause and think about what they want. If you jump into answering their question or trying to sound good, you can miss what’s really being asked.
Remember, the interviewer isn’t interested in your dog’s name or your favorite flavor of ice cream. They want to know more about you as a professional. And the best way to do this successfully is to think of the answer before you step in the interview room.
Make some notes on potential answers, such as your educational background and how it led you to this industry. Add in some color when you describe this, mentioning the skills and experience you picked up along the way. Bonus points if you can describe a specific situation that made you want to pursue this field/learn more/train for a new role.
To recap, don’t just give a random answer, think about the question and:
- Figure out the question behind the question
- Write out a plain English answer
- Polish your answer and give it some color
Once you’ve got that down, practice giving the answer in a mirror. Do it a few times, and work on making it seem less robotic and more conversational. It still needs to sound natural, especially when you’re talking about yourself.
To help you search for the true meaning behind the question, come up with a list of 10 potential job interview questions. Run them through the criteria above to uncover the hidden meaning behind what the interviewer could really be asking.
While you won’t be able to always guess what questions they will ask, this exercise can help you disassemble what questions are really asking. This is all great practice for when you sit in front of an interviewer.
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3. Avoid using too much jargon
If we try too hard to sound smart and professional, we end up sounding like idiots: “Yes, the occupation filled me with immense joy as I interacted with my supervisor on a day-to-day basis to execute the financial…”
A better strategy is to first translate what we’re trying to say into plain English. Then, if our response is compelling, we can polish the exact language to make the answer interview-worthy.
Imagine the interviewer asks “Why do you want this job?”
Before blurting out something about how you really “love their corporate values” or how you’re “so passionate” about the job, come up with something more realistic.
Here are some real reasons you might want to work at Company X:
- The company does great work
- There are a lot of smart people here
- I think I can do a good job
So here’s what your answer might look like in plain English:
“I want to work here because the company does great work in the local tech community and I’d love to be a part of a growing industry.”
Tip on how to use this in your interview: With the questions you deconstructed earlier, come up with your plain English responses to them. Be sure to also address the question behind the question.
Take some time to write these down. But don’t worry about sentence structure, finding the perfect words, or sounding smart. Just keep it simple and natural.
An answer in plain English is already better than most. Why? Because interviewers aren’t looking for a robot who can give a perfect, rehearsed answer. They want something genuine, an insight into your personality. They want to see how you explain complex issues and your approach to communication.
Remember, these are people you may have to work with every day. They want someone they can get along with, someone who is professional but also has a personality. The plain English answer shows that you’re not simply reading from a script or memorizing what the internet told you was a great answer. You’re explaining things in a simple way that people understand.
Another thing to think about is using jargon. Before jumping into a jargon-filled monologue about why you’d be the perfect hire, take a step back. The interviewer may or may not know what you’re talking about.
If it’s the first round of interviews, you may not be interviewed by someone from the department you’re applying for. It may be someone in recruitment or HR. If you start mentioning technical language they’re not familiar with, it could go over their heads.
A good rule of thumb is to listen to how the interviewer speaks. You can usually get a good idea of whether someone’s on the same page by their job title, the questions they ask, and whether they use jargon themselves.
For example, say you’re applying for a digital marketing role. If they mention things like AdWords, SEO, and bounce rate, you’re safe to use that same type of jargon.
4. Master your body language
Your mouth may be moving and saying all the right things, but is your body saying something different?
Interviews are nerve-wracking experiences for most of us, and that can cause us to tense up. With hunched shoulders, crossed arms, and eyes on the floor, your body language can use some serious work.
There are tons of resources, studies, and books out there to help you master your body language, but here are some quick tips.
Show your palms
According to the authors of “Crazy Good Interviewing,” John B. Molidor, Ph.D., and Barbara Parus, showing your palms is a simple way to show sincerity. This gesture signals to the interviewer that you are honest and open.
Press your fingertips to each other
This gesture makes your hands look like a church roof. It’s considered a way to show confidence and you may recognize it from speeches that politicians, CEOs, or lecturers give.
It’s also a good way to steady your hands if you’re nervous.
Don’t conceal your hands
One thing to avoid is to conceal your hands. Putting your hands in your lap, beneath the table may feel most comfortable for you. But body language experts suggest that this unconsciously signals that you have something to hide. More likely, it’s just because you’re just nervous but we don’t want a hint of doubt in the interviewer’s mind.
The same goes for if you place your hands downwards. Instead, keep your palms facing up to show you’re open and honest.
5. Speak with enthusiasm
It’s not all about what you say, it’s about how you say it. Interviewers don’t want to hire someone who sounds bored to be there. They want someone who is enthusiastic and full of energy.
Being monotone can, at best, mean you don’t stand out, or at worst, put the interviewer off the idea of hiring you at all. Passion and enthusiasm help you stand out.
If you know your voice is a bit monotonous or nervous during interviews, spend some time practicing speaking. Stand in front of a mirror and practice answering questions. Maybe even record yourself doing it and play it back. Try repeating it with a higher inflection and more enthusiasm so it won’t feel as weird or fake when you come to do it for real.
6. Dress slightly better than the job you want
It doesn’t matter where you’re interviewing, play it safe and dress slightly better than the job you want.
Lots of companies now have casually dressed employees. T-shirts and jeans are the new suit and tie in some places.
But does that mean you should whip out the old Levi’s for your interview? Probably not.
Figuring out the dress code can be a bit tricky. You may have to do some investigating or just straight up ask. Once you know the dress code, aim to dress slightly smarter than that.
You’re aiming to impress, not just with your words but also with a non-verbal first impression. Interviewers can already tell a lot about you as soon as you step through the door, so make that first impression a good one.
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7. Use a story whenever you can
A common style of interview question is the “tell us an example of when you handle X” or “tell us about a time you handled a challenging situation at work.”
Before blurting out a factually correct (yet boring) answer, take some notes from the novelists in the world. Show don’t tell is the number one rule in any kind of fiction writing. And you can apply that to interview questions as well.
Instead of telling the interviewer what you did, try to show it instead. Illustrate a more detailed picture of the situation, the challenge, the steps you took, and then the result. This works with any type of question the interviewer asks, including the dreaded “tell me about yourself,” question.
A story, when told well, is the easiest way to deconstruct an answer and elevate yourself in the eyes of the interviewer.
Here’s what to say in an interview when you’re asked, “Why do you want to work here?”
- Start with a broad opening: Set the stage with some high-level background to let the interviewer know what you’re going to talk about before diving into the details. For example: “I want to work at ACME Company for three key reasons. First, you’re doing amazing, life-changing work in the field of X. Second, I’m confident I can make a huge contribution, given my experience in Y. And third, you have some of the smartest people in the world working for you. That really excites me from an intellectual perspective.”
- Then, get really specific. Now, transition into a short story with only the relevant details. For example: “Working with the smartest people is a big deal for me. You’ll notice that I have a history of actively seeking out and working with the top people in my field, such as John Smith and Jane Doe, who really pushed me to accomplish Z.”
- Highlight the important takeaways. Lastly, get broad again and highlight the key takeaways. For example: “The bottom line, I thrive in environments filled with smart, ambitious people, and that’s why I’d love to be a part of the ACME team.”
Notice how different this is from what most people say in interviews. It’s crisp and concise with no fluff and packed with details that are engaging and impressive.
Filter your responses to common interview questions through this step-by-step system and you’ll give the perfect answer every time.
8. Don’t trash talk your current workplace
It should go without saying … but don’t trash talk. Anyone. If you’re asked why you left your previous job, you may be able to rant all day and all night. But resist the urge. It’s not a good look.
Honesty is the best policy in job interviews, but when answering the question “Why are you looking for another job?” it’s safer to give a more filtered answer.
The best way to spin it is to deflect and say something positive about the job you’re interviewing for and (if you can) say something positive about your current/previous role. You could phrase it like “I learned a lot in my current role, but I’m looking for a new challenge/the next step/a bigger team.”
This is a much more professional response that also highlights why you want this role, not just that you’re desperate to leave your current one.
Best questions to ask in a job interview
GOOD QUESTION #1: “From my conversations with NAME, I know some of the biggest challenges with this job are X, Y, and Z. What are some of the approaches you’ve used in the past to tackle them and what did you like or not like about them?”
Why this works: It’s obvious this applicant came to play and that they’re very familiar with the position’s demands. Instead of coming in sounding like a total newbie to the role, this question sounds polished, researched, and crisp.
This type of question signals to the interviewer that you’re someone they can bring in, and, on day one, you’ll get to work immediately. Rather than being someone who needs their hand held and has to be trained for hours on end.
This makes the decision a no-brainer for the hiring manager, which is exactly what you want. They don’t want to waste resources on candidates that can MAYBE do the job. They want someone that knows what they’re doing to come in and get things done.
GOOD QUESTION #2: “I read online that you recently won the award for ‘Top X Places to Work.’ What are some of the ways the company continues to set the bar in the industry?”
Why this works: Notice what just happened in that question. If you ask it, you’re pulling out research you’ve done and showing that you’re up-to-speed on recent developments.
Rather than coming across as a random person who’s maybe (kind of) interested in the role, you’re showing that you’re following along with the company’s achievements and are genuinely curious about what’s ahead.
This is vastly different than most people’s approach. Most people barely understand the requirements of a job, much less know what’s going on with the company at large.
GOOD QUESTION #3: “What metrics are most important to you when measuring the success of a candidate?”
Why this works: When you ask this question, the interviewer is basically giving you all the ammunition you need to seal the deal on a job offer.
When they tell you the metrics they’ll be looking for, they’re also telling you EXACTLY what they want in a new hire.
If you want to be a successful applicant, you can then position your skillset as a perfect fit for the role and the success they described.
Questions to avoid asking in a job interview
BAD QUESTION #1: “What’s the salary for this position?”
Why this doesn’t work: This question is a total turn off. Interviewers hate being asked about compensation or benefits upfront.
Top performers do their research and know what a position should pay before even walking into the room.
Also, this information is only applicable to people that are hired — not someone just interviewing for the job. So there’s no point in talking about salary at this stage. It’s like a guy asking a girl to marry him…on the first date.
Sure, the salary is important. But it’s better to spend the time upfront focusing on the tasks you’ll perform, responsibilities you’ll have, and how you can make a strong contribution to the team.
BAD QUESTION #2: “What does your company do?”
Why this doesn’t work: If a quick Google search can answer your question better and faster than the interviewer, DO NOT ask it.
It instantly communicates three things: (1) “I don’t care.” (2) “I did zero research.” (3) “I might just do the same if I get hired.”
The interview is won before you walk into the room. If you’re unprepared, you’ll never get the job.
BAD QUESTION #3: Asking NO questions
Why this doesn’t work: Counterintuitively, not asking ANY questions can be worse than asking bad questions. If you remain silent and robotically only answer the questions you’re asked, your resume will be tossed into the “Do Not Hire” pile right away.
Interviews are supposed to be a two-way street. If you don’t engage with the interviewer in a meaningful way — by asking them questions — you won’t be memorable when you walk out the door.
As frustrating as this can be, hiring managers are people, too. And people hire people they like and get along with. So if you don’t make a connection, there’s no chance you’ll get a callback.
But there’s more to interviewing than just knowing what to avoid. You also need to know makes a great question so you can stand out.