In my 3rd year of university, I landed a competitive co-op position (a.k.a. paid internship) at one of the Big Four global accounting firms. And although I have decided not to pursue accounting, having this firm on my resume has opened a lot of doors for me in the corporate world, including a short stint as a poster child for my business school:
Now, at that time, they weren’t even actively recruiting from my university. In fact, I wasn’t even in an accounting program – I was studying business and IT!
So how did I land this job?
In this blog post, I’ll take you through each step of the interview process at the big firm, while using snippets of my own story to show you how to crush your own job interviews. 💪
Here’s a secret all successful interviewees know: 80% of the work required to succeed in an interview is achieved before the actual interview.
The pre-interview tips are designed to help you prepare and relax so that when you get to the interview, it’ll seem more like a conversation and less like an interrogation.
“I used to walk in a room and wonder if they liked me. Now I look around and wonder if I like them.” – Harvey Specter, Suits
1. Understand what an interview is
An interview is a conversation between two people who have things to exchange. Come to the interview table with the mindset of “I want to see if there’s a good fit between us,” and you’ll feel more confident.
2. Consider the hiring manager’s perspective
Keep in mind that, even if you’re desperate for a job, the company is almost as anxious to find someone capable to hire. Most companies need to attract the best talent, but don’t have their pick. Even at Google, the talent war is real.
And here’s a pro-tip that will help boost your confidence: The hiring manager wants to hire someone who will make them look good in front of their boss.
If you can show them that you are that person, then you’ll be exponentially more successful in your interviews.
With those two perspectives in mind, here’s how I went about preparing for my interview at the accounting firm.
“I don’t have dreams. I have goals.” – Harvey Specter, Suits
3. Use your school’s career planning resources
Way before I applied for this specific position, I went through a lot of preparation, including:
- Mock interviews – The year before I applied to the accounting job, my co-op program scheduled a mock interview for me with someone in the financial industry. This mock interview helped me get the jitters out and organize how I told my story in an interview (more on that later). Ultimately, it led me to my first full-time summer job.
- Resume critique – If I hadn’t gone through resume-writing classes, I doubt I would have known about how embarrassingly bad my resume was. You can see my current resume (and learn what mistakes to avoid when writing your own) here.
- Portfolio review – Get a professor or someone in the industry to critique your work (or “crit” as fancy art school students call them), especially if you’re applying for a creative role like graphic designer or a digital artist. (Caveat: I didn’t have to go through this myself, since I was applying for a technical role.)
4. Leverage connections
This is a key step. As soon as I submitted my resume and cover letter, I contacted someone I knew at the company to ask (a) what the company was like, and (b) if he could recommend me to the recruiter who was sorting through all the resumes.
My contact agreed to drop my name to the recruiter, and this helped me get into the first round – a recorded video interview. And assuming I made it past the video interview, I made sure to get on the phone with the recruiter to get some details about the in-person interview.
My contact also put me in touch with two students who had worked at the company the previous summer, and they told me all about the in-person interview process, which consisted of a 45-minute case interview and two 30-minute interviews with partners.
Now, if you don’t know anyone at the company you’re working for, here are a handful of ways you can make that connection:
- Ask your school’s career centre for a list of alumni who have worked at the company
- Search for and reach out to an alumni or 2nd degree contact on LinkedIn
- Ask your network of family and friends if they know someone who worked there
5. Prepare to answer classic interview questions
Interviews have enough unknown variables to potentially throw you off. Because of this, you should try to prepare for as many of the known variables as you can. These are questions like…
- “Tell me about yourself.”
- “What’s your greatest weakness?”
- “What’s your biggest strength?”
- “Tell me about the time you overcame a challenge.”
The thing is, you can crack almost any interview, as long as you have a good answer to the tell-me-about-yourself question. Don’t make it chronological. Instead, pick 3 qualities and tell 1 story for each. Because it’s a given that you don’t have a ton of experience, for most student positions those three qualities are:
- Unafraid to approach people and ask questions
- Pick things up quickly
- Eager to learn the job/company/industry
Once you have your 3 stories, you can use them as jumping off points to answer the other questions. All you have to do is use parts of your stories and elaborate on those to answer most questions.
6. Have data/hard numbers to back up what you’ve done
Similar to how numbers give your resume credence, having solid data woven into your story helps give it weight. Your numbers don’t have to be pinpoint accurate. But do make sure that they are verifiable and that the important points check out, just in case the hiring manager decides to do some fact-checking.
For example, at the company I work at now, one candidate failed the interview because he consciously or unconsciously switched the genders of someone who was involved in a story he told to the interviewers. Although, it might have been an insignificant detail, the change made him seem dishonest to the decision-making panel.
7. Practice and actually pretend that you’re answering the questions
Lock yourself in your room and say your responses to the questions! Make sure you keep your stories short. Here’s a good framework to build your stories around:
- Say your point
- Tell the story
- Say your point again
I’m someone who asks a lot of questions to make sure I get the job done right.
At my last job, they asked me to create a document of all the equipment serial numbers we had in the office. I assumed that they meant the head office, and not any of the other overseas ones, but I asked just to make sure I got it right. It turns out that my manager was referring to the UK office and because she had just transferred from the UK, she forgot to specify it. Good thing I asked, because I would have spent a few weeks documenting the equipment for the wrong office!
So yes, I’m not afraid to ask questions to make sure that I fully understand the job before I get started.
8. Have a list of references
… and make sure you have their permission to use them.
This is a list of 2-3 people who know you well — not just people who will sing your praises — and who can vouch for your skills. Have their full names, email address, and phone number typed up or written down in a sheet of paper, so that you can just hand it over to the interviewer if they ask for it.
I’ve personally never been asked for a list of references during an interview, but I have heard of it happening with other candidates.
9. Have an interview kit with materials you need
… and some redundancy just in case.
This kit should include a couple of extra copies of your resume, your list of references, a notebook and pen, and maybe a bottle of water so you make sure your throat doesn’t run dry before the interview!
“A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.” – Harvey Specter, Suits
Now that you have a general list of things you need for every interview, it’s time to get into the weeds and prepare for this specific interview.
10. Know who will be interviewing you, and then research them
OK, definitely don’t be creepy, but it’s fine to check out their professional profile – their LinkedIn, personal website, or company bio. Even just knowing their position at the company helps!
For myself, one of my interviewers was a partner at the firm, and the other one was an associate director (which is just a half step below partner). Both of them were about my parents’ age. While knowing these things about them made me nervous how high up they were, they also helped me know how to approach the interview – with more formality and respect than if the interviewers were closer to my age.
11. Ask about the interview format in advance
This is important to know because there are different types of considerations. For example, software developers often go through a technical interview before a behavioural one. Then they go on site visits. And sometimes, the interviews can go on for many rounds, with individuals or groups of interviewers.
For my case, there was a recorded video interview, before an in-person one. During the in-person interview, there was a 45-minute case analysis (there’s a business scenario and I have to answers on it), before two separate 30-minute interviews with the partners.
Knowing this helped me have the right mindset going into the interview – I knew it was going to be long and I mentally armed myself.
12. Arrange for a tour if possible
This is often a part of the interview itself because the recruiter or hiring manager will have to take you through at least some of their office on your way to your interview or out of it. But if not, request for this in advance as it’s a good way to meet more people and show your interest in the company/position.
13. Prepare your Briefcase Technique
The Briefcase Technique is an advanced-level job interview strategy. With this technique, you walk into an interview with a ready-made plan or fully-written out recommendation in hand and present this during the interview. I didn’t do this for my interview, but for creative positions, this can make or break you.
For example, if you’re applying to be a web designer for a startup, you can take a look at their website beforehand and see if you can improve their logo, mock up illustrations for their blog posts, or even create a wireframe for their site. This way, you’re showing them a highly customized sample of your work that helps them see how you fit into their team. (See #35 for another similar idea.)
14. Scope out the location the day before
While this isn’t always possible if the interview is in a different city, you can always pull up the venue on Google Maps to plot out your route and make sure you don’t get lost. You can even click on “Streetview” and get an idea of what the buildings and neighborhood looks like.
The Day of the Interview
Before Leaving Home
“Anyone can do my job. But no one can be me.” – Harvey Specter, Suits
15. Get enough sleep
This is a major key, plus it’s one these small things you can do that reap big rewards. Getting enough sleep means you’re more alert and can think on your feet during the interview, instead of falling sleep on your feet.
16. Proper grooming
Another simple thing that can be very effective. Get a haircut; trim your nails; brush your teeth; take a shower; put on some deodorant.
Get cleaned up!
17. Dress the right way
First off, if the company gives specific info on how to dress, follow that. For example if part of the interview involves touring a factory, avoid loose clothing. Otherwise, err on the side of being overdressed.
And then, there are different considerations for men and women. For example, guys can put on a dress shirt, a skinny tie, dark slacks and blazer, cool socks, and dark leather shoes, and be good to go. (At least that’s my personal take as a woman — if you’re a guy reading this, you should definitely check out this podcast episode on dressing better and upgrading your wardrobe.)
For girls, generally, light make-up (avoid the multi-colored eye-shadow!), a pencil skirt, a nice blouse and jacket, and black stilettos work best. Dark slacks are fine and are more comfortable, but skirts look classier and make a bigger visual impression, in my opinion.
Finally, limit your heels to 4 inches or less – prioritize function over style as much as you can. And if you’re not used to wearing heels, don’t try to do it on the day of your interview! A pair of close-toed flats work well, too.
18. Bring a notepad to take notes
Even if you have zero intention to take notes, bring it anyway. You can pretend to take notes to make yourself look smarter.
19. Be hydrated and fed
Just eat something you know won’t upset your stomach or cause other issues. The key is to feel your best, so you don’t have to think about anything else but crushing this interview.
At the Interview Location
“I like to smile at people who don’t like me.” – Harvey Specter, Suits
20. Don’t walk in wearing headphones
This one is a small, quick win you can have – by walking in without headphones, you’re free to be present and to pay attention to the office environment. And instead of fumbling with your wires and headphones, you can…
21. Chat with the receptionist and others that you encounter
I’ve heard stories of people who lost job positions because they were dismissive or rude to the receptionist or secretary. The hiring manager might even actively work with the receptionist for input on what you’re like outside of the interview, like what Harvey and Donna do in Suits.
This means that very point of contact that you have with anyone in the company is fair game. So put your best foot forward as soon as you walk into the building!
22. Arrive early
Aim to arrive at least 20 minutes before the interview starts, just in case there are detours or unexpected circumstances on the way. Then, call or make yourself known to the hiring manager 5-10 minutes before the interview time. This way, you’re not interrupting their work too early, while also giving them enough time to wrap up what they’re doing and meet you.
During the interview, keep in the mind that hiring managers are looking for subtle hints that point to who you are as a person. This means that the interviewer isn’t looking at what you say, as much as why you say it, and how you behave.
They want to know if…
- They look good to their bosses if they hire you
- You actually want to work in their company, and that they’re not just another interview out of dozens for you (even if that is the case)
- They would enjoy working with you (The airport test – if my flight gets delayed and I get stuck in an airport with this person, will I find it pleasant or excruciating?)
- They can trust you as a human being
This next section will help you exhibit behaviours that hit all the right buttons for an interviewer.
“I don’t play the odds. I play the man.” – Harvey Specter, Suits
23. Have a firm handshake
When you walk into the interview room, subtly wipe your possibly clammy/sweaty hands on your pants or skirt and get ready for the first competence trigger – the handshake. If the interviewer doesn’t initiate one, feel free to extend your hand yourself, and give their hand one firm shake.
To test your grip, grasp your left hand with your right and give yourself a reverse handshake. If it’s too tight/limp for you then, chances are, the other person will think it is, too.
Something that helps me get my handshake just right is to make it feel reassuring for the other person – through my handshake, I want to convey warmth, confidence, and trustworthiness. I don’t aim to intimidate them with my crushing grip, nor do I want make them feel my discomfort or insecurity in the situation.
I know, I know – relaxing in an interview is easy to say, but hard to do. But one thing I’ve learned from swimming competitively is that practice begets confidence. Here are a couple tactics I used in my swimming days that you can use to stay relaxed and confident:
- Remind yourself of the work you’ve done upfront – Practice interviews, research, coffee meetings, etc. If you’ve done your best to prepare, then you’ll do your best at the interview – which is all that you can ask of yourself, whether or not you get the job. In line with that…
- Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” – More often than not, that means totally bombing the interview and not getting the job – not fun, but then again, it’s not the end of the world, either. 🙂
If you have time, you can also quickly run to the washroom to calm yourself down, have a few quiet moments, and take a few deep breaths.
25. Show your excitement and enthusiasm
Know the feeling when you’re finally going on a trip or to a concert that you’ve always wanted to go to? Yeah, you should try to get into that hyped-up state before the interview.
You can do that by reminding yourself about how cool the job or company sounds in the job description, or even about all the stuff you can buy once the dough starts rolling in – whatever gets your blood pumping.
So, before you walk into the interview room, slap on a big grin on your face, and reflect your enthusiasm in your…
26. Body language
In an interview, you want to come across as confident and personable. How to be more personable will be covered in the next section, but to accomplish the first one, you need to take up space when you sit, and minimize movement. If you’re sitting in a chair, lean forward a little – this shows that you’re interested. Speaking with your hands is OK, so long as you slow down your movements.
Don’t cross your legs when you sit. Instead keep both feet flat on the ground to discourage movement while taking up more space. Similarly, keep your hands flat on your lap (and not on the interviewer’s desk!), or clasped together with your elbows on the chair’s arms. Again, this helps with any unwanted fidgeting or nervous tics, while making you look more confident.
How to Respond
“It’s not bragging if it’s true.” – Harvey Specter, Suits
27. Build rapport with the interviewer
This will be easier if you’ve done your research on them, but you can also do it when you make small talk in the beginning of the interview. Ask about how they are, and compliment them on their outfit or their office (if the interview is in their office).
Also look for uncommon commonalities – stuff that you have in common with them, that isn’t so easy to spot. Maybe they have a book on their shelf about scuba diving or photography, and you happen to be into those things. Make sure to point that out, so you can geek out with them on local dive spots or DSLR camera bodies.
28. Use storytelling
If you took only thing you away from this post, it should be this – winning an interview is about telling the right stories in the right way. To craft winning responses to interview questions, aim to have…
- A beginning to introduce the problem that you faced
- A middle to tell the interviewer about what you did to solve the problem
- An end to highlight the result of your actions
When done well, you can convey a great response in as few as 3 sentences, while keeping the interviewer engaged in the conversation. Dive deeper into using storytelling for interviews in this podcast episode.
29. Be honest without oversharing
While you want to personable in a interview and showcase your personality, an interview is not the time to share all the juicy details of your previous jobs’ politics. Instead, keep it professional. If it’s not something that would add value to how they see you, keep it out of your story.
30. Stay positive
This is an important point. No matter how crappy your previous job or volunteer experience was, stay on the positive side when you talk about yourself or your previous employers. If your experience was really bad, then you can say something like, “My previous job wasn’t the best fit for me,” and then tell a story about how you made the best of a bad situation.
A good interviewer should be able to read between the lines and deduce that the previous place sucked, without you having to go into the gory details.
31. Leave room for spontaneity
While I’ve encouraged you to practice your interview questions, when you get to the interview, don’t just spew out canned responses. The purpose of practicing your answers beforehand is so that you can be a bit more spontaneous in the interview. Instead, try to say your answers with different words than what you’ve memorized.
This way, you don’t seem stiff and robotic, while making sure you hit all the key points in your response, especially if you get asked a curveball question.
32. Ask about opportunities for advancement in the company
This is good general career info for you, but it also hits a couple of competence triggers. This shows that you…
- Plan to stick around – Very valuable to HR people given how much time/money they spend not just hiring but also onboarding/training new employees.
- Have a plan – Most students aren’t sure about what they want to do. You can stand out just with the simple fact that you’ve put some thought into your future.
- Are ambitious – Good companies like go-getters who want to take on more responsibility in the company.
33. Don’t discuss compensation (or even job perks!) until you have an offer
Talking about a sensitive topic like cash in a high-pressure situation makes it likelier that you’ll mess up. In fact, asking about pay and perks right off the bat might makes some interviewers question whether you really want to work for them, or if you’re just in it for the money.
If they ask you, however (i.e. “How much did you make in your old job?” or “How much compensation were you looking for?”), here’s what you should say: “I think we can put off talking about compensation. Right now I just want to see if if there’s a good fit.” BAM. Competence trigger, right there. And if they really press, instead of giving a single number, give them a range – this makes sure that you’re not locked into one number, and give you room for negotiation down the road.
Anyways, even though I can negotiate well enough to get a pair of Blundstones for $50 in Israel, I’m not an expert in high-stakes negotiations. So check out this podcast episode for some general advice on negotiating, and then this one for more in-depth advice.
34. Prepare 3-5 specific questions for the interviewer
The end of the interview — when the interviewer asks, “So, is there anything you want to ask me?” — is where many job candidates drop the ball. By coming prepared with questions for the interviewer, you’ll make your mark as a great candidate, versus as just a good one.
Ask specific questions that can’t be Googled easily to add to the positive picture that they already have of you. Here are some examples:
- “How did you get to where you’re at now?” This builds rapport with the interviewer – a good jumping off point for more uncommon commonalities.
- “What are the qualities of successful interns in the past?” This shows that you’re ambitious and that you want to be successful on the job, too.
- “If I get the job, what can I do to hit the ground running?” This is an advanced question that shows your enthusiasm, while also subtly planting in the interviewer’s mind the image of you working for them.
In my interview at the accounting firm, I asked about the difference between two specific IT assurance methods that were mentioned in the job description. I wasn’t afraid of looking incompetent because my question showed that I knew what the methods were, but I wanted to learn more specific details about them.
35. Send a thank you note/email
This is the last thing that will set you apart from most candidates: 2-4 hours after the interview, send a thank you email to the person who organized the interview. And, if they’re not the one who did your interview, let them know how thankful you are to the interviewer(s) for taking the time to talk to you. You can be sure that they’ll pass your words along!
For interviews in a creative field like graphics design, prepare a few leave-behinds for the interviewer – small, useful tokens of your work that will remind them of you.
After my interview, I emailed the recruiter to thank him for organizing everything, and asked him to forward my thank you email to the partners who interviewed me.
I also sent thank you emails to my company contact and the two summer students for helping me. And after getting the offer, I sent another update and thank you email to them, too.
When you get to the heart of job interviews, they’re mind games that are won before you step into the interview room (And if these aren’t enough, here are 97 more tips on stuff you can do to prepare for the big day!).
The truth is, if you’ve been called into an interview, the company or the hiring manager already thinks that you’re just as qualified as the girl sitting next to you. What the interviewer is looking for is a human being they can count on to make the company better, or at least, make them look good.
Keeping that in mind, plus all of the tips in this blog post, you should be ready to crush your next interview!