Everyone agrees that good preparation is the key to a successful interview. But what sets the top performers apart? They ensure that their preparation goes well beyond simply researching the organization and the interviewer. They’ve considered—and can articulate with specific details—what about a position interests them and makes them a good fit. They’ve also practiced answers to questions they’re likely to be asked. (Knowing what you’ll say and actually saying it are two different things.) Targeted practice separates successful interviewers from the rest.
Here are eight tips to make your next interview an A+ and a forerunner to a job offer.
1. Make the case for your hire.
The question behind every interview question is: “Why should we hire you?” Think of your interview as an oral argument for why you should be hired over all the other applicants for the position. You’ve already briefed your case with your cover letter and resume. Start with your opening statement, develop your argument in response to the interviewer’s questions, and finish with your closing statement.
2. Prepare an agenda of points you want to be sure to make.
These are the main points to get across so you don’t leave the interview saying to yourself, “I can’t believe I forgot to say…” Your agenda can be a mix of three to five accomplishments, skills, or work-related qualities that are relevant to the position. It should definitely answer the question, “Why should we hire you?” or provide a well-crafted response to the common interview opener, “Tell me about yourself.” (The two-point method, where you offer two points on your agenda, works well here. For example, you might say: “The two things I think you should know about me are that I work hard and that your organization is a great fit for me.” Then give a brief example of each point.)
If you’re interviewing with government and public interest employers, your agenda also should include qualities those employers especially value, such as a commitment to public service and a desire to assume responsibility early on in your career.
3. Be ready to give specific examples to illustrate each point.
To come up with these, make two lists. The first is a list of all your skills and strengths—everything you have to offer an employer: I’m hardworking, a strong writer, collaborative, and so on. The second is a list of illustrations or examples of your skills and strengths in action. These should be short, vivid anecdotes that demonstrate what you bring to the position. It won’t be enough merely to say you are a strong leader. You’ll need to provide some evidence to support that by describing a group or project you led.
If you prepare these lists, you’ll be ready to answer almost any question. You can mix and match the skills on list one with the examples on list two depending on what the interviewer is trying to elicit.
Your lists will also help you answer behavioral questions, which are based on the premise that past behavior and performance predict future behavior and performance. These types of questions often begin with, “Tell me about a time…” or “Describe a situation when…” They’re designed to assess certain skills and qualities that are desirable for the position. If an interviewer wants to probe for your ability to take initiative, she might say, “Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new in a short time. How did you proceed?”
If you get a behavioral question, pause to think about what qualities or skills the particular employer is looking for—or if you don’t have that information, remember the common characteristics valued by legal employers generally, such as good judgment, problem-solving skills, research and writing ability, work ethic—and then respond with an appropriate example from your list.
4. Review your resume and make sure you’re prepared to talk about—and strategically deploy—everything on there.
You want to know it backwards and forwards, including activities and interests, which can be used to demonstrate a point on your agenda or a skill that’s relevant to legal employers.
If the interviewer asks you about your tap dancing hobby, for instance, you might respond with, “I’ve always loved being on stage, and performing has really built my confidence and creativity.” This lets you redirect the conversation back to the points on your agenda and ensures the interviewer has a sufficient basis to evaluate or recommend you. An interview that gets sidetracked on soccer or photography—even though it might forge an immediate connection with the interviewer—could actually undercut your chances of getting hired because focus has shifted away from your work-related skills.
5. Know your writing sample.
Be prepared to describe the issues you analyzed and how you came to your conclusion. The goal here is to show your keen legal mind at work and how well you understand your audience.
6. Ask questions throughout the interview.
Don’t wait for the end. You’re aiming for a conversation! Your questions are another chance to show your interest in the position and the organization and that you’re a strong candidate.
You can even set up some of the points on your agenda with your questions. For example, ask what qualifications the organization is looking for in a candidate or the characteristics of successful attorneys in the organization. Listen carefully to the interviewer’s response, and then explain how your skills and experiences meet those qualifications. In addition to the questions you’ve prepared in advance, ask some that arise from the interview to indicate that you’ve been engaged and attentive throughout.
Always, always say “yes” when you’re asked whether you have any questions for the interviewer. This is another opportunity to advocate for yourself. Have a few questions ready that show your insight into the employer’s work and needs. Your questions should draw attention to what you can do for the employer— not to what the employer can do for you. Save all questions about benefits, hours, and quality of life for after you have an offer.
Can’t think of anything to ask? That’s when you resort to my personal favorite: “I’m so excited about the possibility of working here. Is there anything else I can tell you about myself?”
7. Remember that your preparation is meant to serve as a guide to what you’ll say during the interview.
Don’t go overboard so that you sound like you’ve memorized a speech. Practice different responses, and organize your thoughts into key sound bites. Interviewers will be looking for people who can think on their feet. If you’re too focused on what you plan to say next, you may miss important cues or, worse, fail to answer the question altogether.
8. Be confident and enthusiastic.
Try your best to relax. Your interviewer will expect some nervousness and may actually be nervous, too. Above all, keep in mind that someone has already made a determination that you’re qualified. In fact, you’re more than qualified—you’re an A+.