Interviews are spontaneous experiences. Different from a monologue, a keynote speech, or a presentation, an interview requires you to interact dynamically with the person or people to whom you are talking. The conversation should be fluid and collaborative; this is especially important because one of your primary aims in an interview is to make a genuine connection with your interviewer.
You have probably heard it said that preparation is key to your success, and that is good advice. But don’t make the mistake of memorizing pat answers to the questions you expect to be asked. Doing so will put you at risk of sounding canned and stiff, needing to cram your prefab responses into questions with different nuances, and being unable to improvise when you are asked tricky or challenging questions.
Instead, think deeply about the following five questions, and you will have a firm foundation from which to elaborate robust and spontaneous answers to almost any question you will encounter. Take note: If you are preparing for MBA interviews instead of job interviews, these same five questions apply.
Who are you?
If anyone ever asks this question directly in an interview, please send me an email! I have never encountered it myself, but knowing the answer to this question is the foundation of every other answer you will give. What matters to you? What do you value? What do you want to be known for? If you think deeply about who you are before you walk into the interview, you will be in a much better position to communicate your values when an interviewer asks you questions such as these:
- What is your leadership style?
- How do you overcome conflicts within a team?
- What has been your most meaningful professional accomplishment?
- Why did you choose to transition roles?
- Why do you want to work with us?
If you take the time to examine your values, your responses to these questions will naturally express your true character, creating a cohesive impression of who you are without the need for you to over-engineer your responses.
What do you want to gain from your next career step?
Whether you are applying to business school, a summer internship, a full-time job, or a senior leadership position, you had better know what you want to get from that experience. Recruiters understand and appreciate that humans are essentially selfish beings. They know that if you stand to personally gain from an opportunity, you will bring yourself to the task fully. And as it turns out, for most people, personal gain includes the ostensibly selfless experience of having a concrete and measurable positive impact on people, processes, and outcomes. So think about what you want to gain through your next move. What skills do you want to develop? What experiences do you want to amass? What specific impact do you want to have? And with what types of people and groups do you want to connect? So when you are asked questions about your goals, about why you want to work for this firm or attend this school, or about what you hope to learn, you will be ready.
Where have you struggled (and what did you learn)?
Inevitably, you will encounter questions about a failure, setback, mistake, missed opportunity, challenge, or disappointment. People ask these questions because they know that the way a person responds to challenges and setbacks reveals their truest character. When the going gets tough, your true self comes out. Interviewers want to understand how resilient you are, how you behaved when the chips were down, how you handled criticism and negative feedback, and how you have used your own failures to grow. If you are destined to succeed, then you must weather a few setbacks along the way. So take some time to examine the experiences you might deem failures or setbacks. Think about what your specific struggle was, how you strategized to overcome it, what actions you took, and what you found challenging about the experience. And don’t forget the most important part: what you learned. How did you grow and change as a result of this conflict?
How did you achieve your greatest accomplishments?
Simply knowing which specific achievements of yours are worth highlighting is not enough. Deciding upon your top leadership story, your best teamwork experience, and your greatest example of executing complex analysis is just the first step. You must look closer and try to remember the concrete details: how did you achieve those outcomes? When your team was fighting late into the night over the details of the PowerPoint presentation, how did you cool the mood, refocus the team on the outcome, and get everyone working in harmony again? When you were tasked with building the model for a deal that was a new industry for you, how did you chase the right information, prioritize assumptions, and move up the learning curve fast enough to have an impact? Just remembering that you did those things is not enough. You must recall how—because doing so is what will enable you to improvise robust and vivid answers to questions about those experiences that don’t sound like boilerplate bragging.
Why did you make the choices you made?
The opening gambit in many interviews is something like these:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Walk me through your resume.
- Tell me about your professional timeline.
- Explain how you arrived at your current position.
What these interviewers really want to know is why. Why did you choose your major? Why did you pick that first job? Why did you leave it, and why did you choose the next one? Inherently, the why connects to the who. You did what you did because of the values you hold. Thinking about your career to date holistically and connecting the dots for yourself is a critical step in preparing for any interview. Even choices that seem random or driven entirely by circumstance (e.g., “The recruiter just called me up and asked me if I wanted to take the job.” or “My boss was a micromanager and my work was boring.”) belie choices driven by your values.
Yes, the recruiter called and offered you a job leading a strategic team to reorganize a small line of business, but you took the position because you saw a chance to bring efficiency and order to a chaotic organization—a process you are really passionate about. And yes, perhaps your boss didn’t give you the kind of work you wanted, but you decided to change jobs so that you could take more ownership of the outcomes of your work and use your analytical skills—which were being underutilized in your previous role—to make a greater impact. Questions that cover your career as a whole are not about the what—what you did or the circumstances surrounding your decisions. They are about the why—why you did what you did and why you made the choices you made.
So in preparation for your upcoming interview, be sure to think about your who, what, where, how, and why, and you will be in great shape to conquer at least 80% of the questions your interviewer will throw at you. What about the remaining 20%? Well, remember, interviews are spontaneous. They require you to think on your feet. If you get caught off guard, take a deep breath, pause, think, and then surprise yourself with an impromptu answer.
Related Essays by Angela Guido:
Angela Guido runs Career Protocol, the web’s most refreshing destination for no-nonsense career advice and awesome professional development coaching. She’s helped thousands of MBAs get into dream schools and dream jobs while staying true to themselves. Want to turn your career from meh to HOLY COW AMAZING?!!! Angela has an MBA from Booth and extensive post-MBA experience at the Boston Consulting Group.
Follow her posts to learn how to get the most out of your career by building meaningful professional relationships, elevating your self-awareness, learning to talk about yourself powerfully, and positioning yourself to get what you want in the long term while making the most of the opportunities you encounter along the way. To learn more about how to actively manage your career, check out additional advice at the MBA Career Coaches blog or schedule a free consultation with an MBA Career Coach.