Prepare for an Interview

A job interview is a formal meeting with an employer to determine if you are a good fit for a position or opportunity. An interview is usually structured as:
Introductions → Opening questions → Specific questions → Candidate’s questions → Closing/next steps

Types of Interviews

A screening interview is a short (15-30 minute) interview that is intended to screen candidates before moving to the time-intensive interviews. The questions are usually based on learning about your background and skills.

If all goes well, you’ll be invited for a longer follow-up interview, usually at the employer’s offices.

One-Way interviews, or asynchronous interviews are a type of screening interview, but you will be recording video responses to online prompts, rather than talking to someone. You are typically given a set amount of time you can answer the question for, and you may be limited on the number of times you can attempt to record your response.

Traditional job interviews can take a wide range of forms, including in-person or virtual, with the direct manager or a panel of people, in one round or more. Regardless of the format, it’s important to be prepared to answer common interview questions, and behavioral interview questions. They may also include demonstrations of skills (e.g. presentation, role-play sales call, etc.), depending on the industry.

A group interview is an interview wherein multiple candidates are interviewed at the same time. They are most often used when a company needs to screen a large number of candidates at one time, or when teamwork and “people skills” are a large part of the position. In these types of interviews, it’s important to be well-prepared, and be respectful of the other candidates. You can find specific recommendations for group interviews here.


Preparing for Interview: Step-by-Step

Preparation is vital to help you conduct a successful interview and to help you feel self-confident.

  • Before the Interview
  • Introductions & Opening Questions
  • Specific Questions
  • Behavioral Questions
  • Candidate Questions
  • Closing & After the Interview
  • Before the Interview

    Know the job requirements. Identify the key skills, qualities and experiences that the position requires. Review your work, volunteer, and academic background to identify experiences where you have developed and displayed these skills and abilities.

    Research the Company. Researching the company allows you to get an understanding of your audience so you can best tailor your answers in an interview. It is hard to make the argument that you’re the best candidate for the position if you don’t know about the place you’d be working at!

    • Places to look: Job Posting, Company Website, Handshake, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Talk with Alumni
    • What to look for: Organizational Structure, Potential Career Paths, Office Locations, Products/Services, Competition, Mission, Vision, Values, Candidate-Reported Interview Questions (Glassdoor), Diversity of Staff/Administration

    Manage Your Nerves. It’s okay to be nervous! If you got the interview, the employer believes you are qualified, so have faith in yourself (even when you don’t see it). If you’re worried your nerves will impact your performance, practice deep breathing.

    Practice for the interview. By anticipating types of questions and practicing your responses, you will be better prepared to articulate your skills and strengths during an interview. Forms of practicing:

    1. A friend, a professional colleague, or a professor can give clear, honest feedback about your answers and your nonverbal behavior.
    2. Make an appointment for a mock interview or interview coaching with the Career Development Center.
  • Introductions & Opening Questions

    In the introduction and first few questions, the interviewer(s) may take some time to tell you a bit about them, including their roles at the organization. When it comes time for you to introduce yourself, they will ask some version of the question: “Tell me about yourself.”
    To answer this question, we recommend the following format:

    1. Start with the present. Talk about who you are professionally. Are you a student? If so, what year are you? What do you study? If you have a full-time job, what role do you have? What are you interested in?
    2. Give context. Talk about past/present roles, experiences, and accomplishments that are relevant to what you are interviewing for.
    3. End with the future. Talk about why this role/opportunity is a logical next step.

    Note: If you are making a career transition, find commonality between the experience you have and the role you’re hoping for, and discuss the transferable skills.

    Example: “I’m currently a second-year student at St. Kates, where I am majoring in graphic design with a minor in Digital Humanities. I’m currently serving as an R.A. in one of our dorms, where I’ve been able to put my passion for content creation to use when designing resources for the students I assist. I’m excited to merge my passion for graphic design with my interest in community development in this role.”

    Other Common Introduction Questions

    Regardless of if these questions are asked or not, it’s helpful to have an understanding of your answers before you interview.

    “Why are you interested in this position?”
    What they are looking for: Talk about what responsibilities and components of the job are attractive, and how you have developed the skills to meet the requirements of the job.

    “What makes you qualified for this position?”
    What they are looking for: Articulate your skills with examples of situations where you demonstrated the abilities they seek and the successes you have had.

  • Common Interview Questions

    While interview questions may differ across industries, there may be some common questions to keep an eye out for.

    For a list of general interview questions and how to answer them, click here.

    For industry-specific examples, you can view this resource created by the Macaulay Honors College or look at the following resources:

    • Nursing. Interview Questions by
    • Teaching/Education. Interview questions by UMN.
    • Glassdoor. Glassdoor has a feature that allows previous interviewees to post the questions that they were asked in the interview.
    • Professional Associations. Professional Organizations often have career information, which may also include common interview questions.

    Additionally, it’s important to be prepared if you are asked about salary/pay expectations. It is preferred to wait to discuss salary until you have been offered the position, since you know that they want to hire you. If you are asked about salary during the interview process, you can respond:

    • Could you share the typical range for this role?
      • This gives you the opportunity to see what they have budgeted for the position. Always advocate for being paid on the higher end of the range.
    • I’d like to learn more about the role before I set my salary expectations. As we move forward in the interview process I would hope and expect that my salary would line up with market rates for similar positions in this area.
    • Based on my understanding of the market, positions like this typically pay in the X – Y range. Based on [specific qualifications], I would feel comfortable closer to the Y range. That being said, I would love to learn more about the job, the benefits, and the work environment here. I can be flexible with salary for the right fit.

    To learn more about salary negotiation, click here.

  • Behavior-Based Questions

    How to answer the question that starts with “Tell me about a time when…”

    Behavior-Based Questions are questions that ask about a specific time/situation where you demonstrated a skill, quality, and/or behavior.
    In asking these questions, the interviewer is looking for details about how you behave in certain situations. So, to answer them, it’s important to think about what skills and attributes the employer wants to see in a successful candidate (e.g. communication, problem-solving, leadership, etc.).

    To successfully structure your answer to a behavior-based question, include each of the following elements: Situation, Task, Action, Results.

    How to prepare stories: Choose based on key skills required by the job . Prepare 1 story per each key skill/experience listed in the job description.
    Example: If you are asked to describe a situation in which you had to work as a member of a team, your answer might include the following elements:

    Situation: I was taking a biology class last semester, where we put together a presentation on our experiment. My group was struggling to communicate, and was beginning to stress about the upcoming deadline.
    Task: As the group leader, it was my responsibility to help the group get on the same page, so we can finish the project on time.
    Action: I organized a special group meeting to discuss what was keeping our group from effectively collaborating, and realized that some group members were not feeling heard. By bringing the topic out in the open, we were able to discuss it and move forward with the project.
    Results: We were able to finish on time, receiving an ‘A’ on the project and solid feedback from classmates on the presentation.

    Common Mistakes:

    • Spending too much time on the background information, and not enough on your actual actions, such as how you got to the solution or what you did to resolve the conflict.
      • Think of STAR like a burger. If you’ve every had a burger (meat or otherwise) that has an oversized bun, you know that it takes away from the experience of eating a burger. This is what it’s like when there is too much context given in a STAR answer. The S and T are the top bun, the A is the patty, and the R is the bottom bun. You don’t want a bun to overpower the burger–keep it just large enough to make it easy to grasp. You want the A to be the most detailed–it should be juicy and informative. The R should be just big enough to wrap things up.
    • Forgetting about the result. It can be just 1-2 sentences.
  • Candidate Questions

    Asking questions at the end of the interview is arguably one of the most important parts of the interview–not for the interviewer, but for the candidate. Asking questions at the end allows you to gather information about the work, company’s culture, and organization. Think of this as an opportunity for you to interview the interviewer!

    Prepare 3-5 questions to ask the interviewer at the end of the interview. These questions are just a few examples of the type of questions that you can ask:

    • In a typical day, what does [open role] do?
    • What’s the biggest challenge the new [open role] can help solve?
    • Can you tell me about the most difficult client situation you’ve faced in the last six months?
    • I imagine that [innovation at the company or change in the industry] will change how you’re working on [project or product]. How are you developing your workforce to keep up with this?
    • What’s different about working here than about anywhere else you’ve worked?
    • Can you tell me about a time when someone was encouraged to step outside the confines of their job description?
    • How does your organization promote a healthy work/life balance for their employees?

    If you would like some assistance with coming up with questions, take this work values assessment and get questions based on what you value the most.

    We recommend you time your last question to be: What are the next steps in the hiring process? This creates a smooth transition into wrapping up the interview.

  • Closing/After the Interview

    Thank You Notes. Sending a professional thank you note is an important courtesy. Try to send the note within 24-48 hours of the interview. The content should be clearly written, professional in tone, and carefully proofread. Try to include specific information that was discussed in the meeting.

Know Your Rights: Illegal Interview Questions

As a job candidate, there are laws protecting you against discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, sexual orientation, gender, religion, national origin, disability, age, marital status, family status, pregnancy, and birthplace. Additionally, some states have protections against discrimination based on salary history (Minnesota is not one of them–click here to see a full list).

Examples of Legal vs. Illegal Questions

The basic rule of thumb to knowing whether a question is appropriate or not is: Does the question have anything to do with your work skills or experience for the job you are applying for?

Almost all questions about race/ethnicity are not acceptable questions in an interview. You are not required to answer any questions about your racial/ethnic identity.

Illegal: Where are you from? Where are your parents from? What is your national origin?
Legal: How long have you lived in (city, town)? Are you authorized to work in the United States?

Illegal: What happened to you? Will you need workplace accommodations? What medications are you on?
Legal: Can you perform the duties of the job you are
applying for (describe duties to candidate)? How would you perform this particular task? This job requires [attendance requirements]. Can you meet the attendance requirements?

Illegal: When did you graduate high school? What year were you born?
Legal: If the job requires a legal minimum age, it is legal to ask about age.

Illegal: What is your religion? Are you practicing? What church do you go to?
Legal: This position requires working on weekends. Are you able to work on weekends?

Almost all questions about gender identity are not acceptable questions in an interview.
Additional Information: It is best practice to not require candidates to disclose pronouns. Instead, it’s important that interviewers normalize disclosure by including it as an option on the job application, and interviewers disclosing their pronouns (when comfortable). When someone’s pronouns are not known, it’s best practice to use gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/theirs) or to avoid using pronouns (refer to them by their name).

Responding to Illegal & Inappropriate Questions

If you are asked an illegal or inappropriate question in an interview, there is no right or wrong way to respond. Instead, it’s up to you to decide what is best for you in that situation. Here are a few possible ways to proceed.

This is a very personal choice, so you are not obligated to answer. However, if you feel comfortable responding, you are welcome to do so.

If you want to bring the interviewer’s attention to the inappropriate nature of the question, you can ask “Can you please rephrase the question? I don’t understand the connection to this role.” This will likely cue them to change the subject.

If you do not want to disclose the information they are asking for, you can try to find a way to answer it without disclosing the specific information. For example, if asked about a disability, you can say “I am able to perform the required duties and responsibilities for the role.”
Additionally, there may be questions that ask about how you have worked with people from diverse backgrounds, which may relate to your personal identity. When answering this question, you can choose whether you would like to disclose or not disclose your identities. You can simply say, “I am comfortable dealing with people from diverse backgrounds and making people from backgrounds different from mine comfortable with me.”

If the question makes you very uncomfortable, and/or you have tried the other tactics and they persist with asking the question, you can be firm and say “I’d prefer not to answer that question.” As a reminder, if you are feeling unsafe in an interview, you have a right to excuse yourself and leave the interview.

If you are asked an illegal interview question during an interview, you can report the incident to the HR department of the company/organization you interviewed with, you can make a formal complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or reach out to the Career Development office.

Common Interview Mistakes + How To Avoid Them

Salary and benefits are often high on the list of what candidates want to know, but it’s encouraged to only ask about the benefits to the HR representative outside of interviews, and to wait to discuss salary until you have a written offer. If the employer brings up the salary before then, here are a few potential responses:

  • Could you share the typical range for this role?
  • I’d like to learn more about the role before I set my salary expectations. As we move forward in the interview process I would hope and expect that my salary would line up with market rates for similar positions in this area.

Even if you didn’t have a great experience at your previous place of employment, try to refrain from speaking too negatively about that experience. Try to focus on the positive, and the aspects of the new position that appeal to you.

Employers are looking for someone who feels like a good fit for the company. In order to make the argument that you’re a good fit, you need to actually understand the company.

Even if you are not excited about the position, try to find something that you’re excited about–e.g. “I’m excited to learn more about this opportunity.”

Make sure to be mindful of the rationale behind the questions you’re being asked–what are they trying to learn with each question?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Appropriate attire for interviews depends on the industry that you are going into. Business attire is typically a safe choice, but it’s recommended that you do some research on the industry by talking to people in the field. To learn the difference and see examples, read this article.

If you don’t have access to business attire, visit Katie’s Closet to get free professional attire.

First, try to buy yourself a bit of time by asking for the question to be repeated, or repeat the question back to the interviewer. It’s also okay to take a few moments to think about your response. If after these tactics, you cannot think of an answer, you can ask to return to the question later, or you can try to think of a way to alter the question to come up with an answer. (Example: If you can’t think of a situation where you disagreed with a supervisor, talk about a time where you had a disagreement with a classmate.)

Bring some extra copies of your resume and your reference list. You can also bring a pen and paper so you can take some additional notes when interviewers answer your questions. You can bring a water bottle or request a cup of water before the interview begins.

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