You crafted a stellar résumé and a kickass cover letter. You made the shortlist. Now, you have to nail the interview. Take a moment to celebrate making the cut to even get to this stage of the hiring process, then allow yourself a moment to wallow in anxiety. Get it all out of the way, because that twenty minutes or so scheduled with a potential employer could have an enormous impact upon your life.

Interviews impose pressure-cooker stress on the person trying to start or advance a career. So much rides upon the success of this single conversation that many sabotage themselves out of sheer nervousness. You find yourself searching for something clever and witty to say, for something meaningful, for a way to toot your own horn without coming across as a conceited braggart, for those prepared and rehearsed answers that disappear with the job candidate’s version of stage fright. You babble.

Recruiter Adam Karpiak notes that “Anyone can answer specific and factual questions about their experiences and career. … But there are two key areas that are difficult for candidates. When you get to these ‘open-ended’ portions of the interview, that’s where panic can set in.” According to him, the most panic-inducing questions that turn well-spoken job candidates into blathering idiots are 1) “Tell me a little about yourself,” and 2) “Do you have any questions?”

Less is more

When the interviewer asks you tell him a little about yourself, that does mean beginning with “Once upon a time” or relating your life story. Summarize. The interview asks this question to get a sense of your personality. The interviewer isn’t looking for a potential best friend or romantic partner; he wants to discover the professional you. So, winning the three-legged race with your best buddy in the fifth grade or your prowess at karaoke don’t merit a mention, although your hobby in building miniature steam engines just might.

Yes, keep the conversation relevant to the job or profession, but allow a little of the “real” you to seep in there. Show confidence—after all, who knows you better than you?—but avoid arrogance. Let the interviewer know that you’re smart, talented, competent, and whatever other qualities for which the job calls, but don’t proclaim yourself as the be-all and end-all of that particular skill. Remember, there’s always someone better at that particular skill than you. Always. In his famous autobiography, even the now, mostly forgotten Benvenuto Cellini condescended to admit that his own amazing skill could not compare to Michelangelo’s.

The hiring professional interviewing you knows that he can find someone who’s better at <insert your favorite skill here> than you, but he’s looking for a whole individual, not a single skill. Case in point: an engineer I know recently hired a new graduate with two associate’s degrees in engineering-related disciplines; however, she did not have the CADD experience he needed. He considered the sum of her skills and decided that she had potential. “She can learn and I can teach her,” he said.

Follow-up questions

When the interviewer asks whether you have any questions, the answer is always “yes.” This requires advance preparation to learn as much as you can about the company and the position as possible, so you can ask intelligent questions that will affect your understanding of the opportunity dangled before you. Telling the interviewer that you have no questions means that you just want a job, any job, and that you have little interest in the company except as a means of fulfilling the need to earn money.

Even if the job isn’t your dream career, don’t dismiss it as not worth your while. That attitude will dismiss you from consideration in favor of someone who might not have the best qualifications, but who does have the positive, enthusiastic attitude they want.


Karpiak lists a number of questions that demonstrate your interest and throw the proverbial ball back into the interviewer’s court. Biron Clark also offers questions to ask a recruiter to distinguish you from the vast hordes of desperate candidates submitting their résumés to a third-party hiring agency. These questions enable the candidate to exhibit a basic understanding of the job, the company, how her experience matches the job requirements and where it doesn’t.

If nothing else, use this portion of the interview as an opportunity to obtain permission and a date to follow-up with the hiring manager. Often hiring professionals neglect to follow through the interview with a call or message to the interviewed candidates. Sure, that’s rude, but taking the initiative shows a touch of assertiveness, the willingness to take action, and a commitment to see things through to completion.

Avoid these other pitfalls

Another popular question hiring managers ask is “Why did you apply for this position?” That’s usually followed by “Why do you want to work here?” As the candidate, you’d better have good answers. This is your opportunity to show that you’ve done your homework: you researched the company, you understand the kind of work the project entails, and that you’re a good match. Remember, the qualifications for the job compile a wish list.

Since the hiring manager will likely have a copy of your cover letter and résumé and will have reviewed it immediately prior to the interview, you need not review what’s already written in those documents. Pick something else and use succinct anecdotes to show your superior suitability. The interviewer, says Biron Clark in his article “Top 10 Tips for Interview Success (From a Recruiter),” wants specific details—you know, all that stuff that just doesn’t fit into a 1-page cover letter or 2-page résumé.

The hiring manager knows you want the job; otherwise, you wouldn’t have applied. But why do you want the job? Because hiring and training employees is expensive, companies seek to make long-term commitments. Hiring manager face pressure to find people who will mesh well with the rest of the team, who will readily adapt to the culture and contribute to it. Therefore, leave bitterness and desperation at home. Show interest, not nonchalance. Clark states, “[W]alk in knowing specific things about the company and the job (study the job description), and be able to explain how it fits what you’re looking for in your current job search.”

Be human.

Really. Hiring managers know you’re nervous and that you’re not perfect, so this is not the time to fake it until you make it. If you stumble once or twice answering a question, the hiring manager will understand.

Remain professional.

Many offices offer a casual environment; however, the absence of three-piece suits does not allow for sartorial sloppiness. Writing for Monster.com, Carole Martin advises taking your cue from the hiring manager’s demeanor. If the interview occurs in-person and on-site, then call ahead to discuss the company’s dress code and then dress to match. If the interview is conducted via Skype, Zoom, or other video-enabled venue, make sure to dress professionally. The interviewer doesn’t want to see your favorite bathrobe and uncombed hair. Don’t gossip. Mind your manners. Ensure your clothes fit properly and are in good repair. It’s okay to give fashion a nod, but make sure you’re classy, too. Observe proper business attire, which generally means preserving modesty. Hemlines, necklines, sleeve length—they all matter and affect the interviewer’s perception of you a professional or not.

Your vocabulary matters.

Even if the hiring manager sprinkles the conversation with profanity, the candidate must not. Curse words and vulgarity have no place in the interview. Not only should you mind what you say, be cognizant of how you say it. Employ good grammar. If this requires reviewing your kids’ language arts lessons, then do so. Understand the language you speak. You need not pretend to an erudite vocabulary or speech patterns suited to having tea with the Queen of England or Jane Austen. Just ask Judge Judy when faced with a plaintiff who used “conversate.” She interrupted the proceeding in order to explain that “conversate” is not a word; the correct term is “converse.”

Rehearse your answers.

With a little research into the many articles on interview success tips and tricks, you can predict standard questions. Spend time developing concise, detailed, and intelligent answers to those questions and the rehearse them. Stand in front of a mirror and review them. Answer the questions aloud so you can hear yourself and internalize the best, well-spoken responses.

This is your decision, too

The interview goes both ways. While the hiring manager evaluates your suitability to work for the company, you must simultaneously evaluate whether you really do want to work for this company. According to Pamela Skillings, co-founder of Big Interview, your goal in this phase of the interview is not to stump the interviewer with vague or irrelevant questions, but to explore the culture and expectations that develop good rapport and leave a good impression.

A job affects more than just your bank account. It takes time, energy, and focus. If an offer comes from a company that suffers from low employee morale or that gives you a bad feeling, then don’t accept it unless you have no other alternative. Money’s nice, but peace of mind is crucial.

MotherWorks makes the effort list opportunities that suit a wide range of job candidates. Not every open position will suit every candidate, so use good judgment in determining whether the position and the company suit you at least as well as you suit the job and company.