On Our Minds
You’ve crafted a compelling resume and landed an interview. Now, it’s time to prepare.
As a veteran career coach and Search Consultant at On-Ramps, Shanna Masdea has coached and interviewed hundreds of candidates. Here’s her advice to candidates on preparing to nail an interview:
1. Do your research
The first step for preparing for any job interview is to do your research. This means going beyond a cursory skim of the organization’s website and really digging into the history of the organization: What is their founding story? How has leadership at the organization changed over time and what have those transitions looked like? Are they going in a new direction that you’re especially excited about?
You’ll need to do your homework on the specific role. Comb through the job description line-by-line to make sure that you understand what the organization is actually looking for in a candidate.
This groundwork may seem tedious, especially if you’re in the process of applying to multiple roles, but it’s worth it. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen candidates make is assuming that the same canned responses will work for every job they interview for. They don’t. I can usually identify when a candidate is in the middle of multiple searches because their responses tend to sound rehearsed and vague.
Of course, there may be some overlap between organizations and positions and, as a result, there may be some overlap between your answers. However, during an interview, you should be able to clearly articulate why you are interested in working at this specific organization and in this specific role. And, if you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to do that very well.
2. Dig deep into the mission
One of the biggest things I listen for during an interview is a candidate’s alignment with the organization’s mission. This can come through when they’re talking about what they’re passionate about and what draws them to this particular organization. And, as with speaking about their interest in the role and positions more generally, it’s crucial that a candidate is able to be very specific.
For example, when articulating why you’re interested in an organization, you could say something broad like “I’m interested in this organization because I’m passionate about social justice.” Although this may be true, it doesn’t tell me why you’re interested in this specific organization or its mission. Afterall, there are many fantastic organizations that work towards social justice.
Instead, try talking about a specific program or initiative at the organization that you really connect with and shape your answer around that. If you’re especially passionate about providing opportunities for folks who are court involved and the organization just launched a new program in that area, you can say something along the lines of “I saw that the organization is focusing on expanding opportunities for people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system, and that’s something I care deeply about.” You can then go on to talk about why you care or your experience working on similar initiatives.
3. Articulate your career journey
Another thing I’m listening for during an interview is a candidate’s career journey. I want to know how their experience aligns with this role and why they think this role should be the next step in their career. That doesn’t mean that your career path has to have been linear or directly related to the role you’re applying for. But I want to know why this organization and this position is the right next step for you, whether that’s a desire to transition to mission-driven work or continue to work in a field or on an issue you really care about.
4. Practice your elevator pitch
So far, we’ve talked a lot about specificity and crafting a coherent narrative about your career. But, it can be challenging to fit all of those things into an interview depending on the length of the interview.
Ideally, you’ll have time to weave bits and pieces of your career story throughout the interview, pulling out parts of it depending on the specific question, and you’ll be asked specific questions about your interest in the role and the organization—but sometimes you just won’t have time for that.
Some recruiters may only have fifteen minutes to talk to you and they’re likely asking two or three basic questions in an initial screen. In these situations, it's still important to convey your story.
For these situations, you’ll need a short and compelling elevator pitch that covers the basic arc of your career journey, a few of your leadership roles, and what’s brought you to this point in your career in a compelling and engaging way that takes no more than two minutes.
To prepare both a short and long version, I suggest working backwards. Have your talking points written out and ready for both versions of your story.
5. Ask meaty questions
Asking substantive questions is a great way to show that you’re really interested in the role. To me, it signals that a candidate is truly trying to envision themselves as a member of the team.
Like every other aspect of a successful interview, asking meaty questions requires advance preparation. I suggest you come into each interview with three to five really meaty questions.
But what do I mean by meaty questions? A meaty question digs into specifics about the organization and shows that you’ve done your research. It goes beyond what you could easily find on the organization’s website and shows that you are really imagining yourself in the role.
Instead of simply asking what the onboarding process is like generally, you can tailor this question to the specific transition around this role. For example, you may have noticed on the website that the outgoing person in the role for which you’re interviewing has been in that role for many years. Use this information to ask something like, “I saw on your website that the previous person in this role was there for five years, I would love to learn more about what onboarding and support will look like as that person is offboarding.” Not only will this show the interviewer that you’re engaged and did your homework, but it will also give you better insight into the culture and systems of the organization. I suggest you check out our previous article on asking meaty questions on company culture and DEI commitment for some great examples of what to ask.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ask more basic questions as well, but make sure that those are in addition to some more nuanced questions. Also, check that those more basic questions can’t easily be answered by visiting the organization’s website.
Bonus: How to prepare for later round interviews
All the groundwork you’ve laid will continue to come in handy as you progress through the interview process. However, it’s important that your answers become more nuanced even if you’re meeting with different stakeholders each round. You should be pulling in information you’ve learned throughout the process and relating your answers and questions back to that information.
For example, “What are the strategic priorities of the organization?” is a perfectly understandable first round question—but by the second round, you should already have that context. Pull that context in by referencing what you learned previously and asking the interviewer to expand on them or speak more to which of those priorities is most important to the role you’re applying for.
Also make sure that you’re offering different examples of your experiences in each round. Again, even if you’re speaking to different people in each round, those people are probably talking to one another and they’ll know if you’re citing the same example over and over again. This may make it seem like you lack the level of experience they’re looking for when filling a mid-level or executive role.
The key to nailing an interview is preparation and specificity. Put in the work to really understand the organization, its mission, and the position, as well as how your career journey has led you to this point. Practice clearly articulating that understanding and you’ll be able to truly shine in your interview.