Here's how to set yourself up for interview success.

By Real Simple Editors
Updated March 09, 2021
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While landing a job interview is extremely exciting, it can also be nerve-wracking, especially if it's your first interview ever. No amount of interview tips (however brilliant) can help you see into the future and know exactly how the conversation will go—sometimes you just get lucky and totally click with an interviewer. But that's no reason to leave it all to chance—it's your job to focus on what you can control, like coming prepared, making a good impression, practicing your answers, and dressing the part.

If you have a handle on these essential interview tips and to-dos from seasoned hiring managers—for before, during, and after your interview—you'll automatically set yourself up for success.

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1 Research, Research, Research

Know as much about the company as you can. Start by reading the website to familiarize yourself with its polished mission statement, key staff members' names and bios, and any news they're willing to make public. Then take it a step further with a deeper internet search. This is where you might find some juicier tidbits: who their competitors are, industry news, important new hires, recent deals, and more. Read the company's press releases from the past six months. "Press releases tell you what the company is promoting and cares about most, so if you're prepared to talk about those things, you have a leg up," says Jane Ashen Turkewitz, president and chief talent officer at Hi-Touch Executive Search agency.

Once you've brushed up on the company and industry, do some sleuthing into your interviewer's career background. Not only will this give you general context, but it could also provide key talking points. People love making connections. You might learn through their LinkedIn that they attended the same university as your brother or started their career working for someone you've always admired (perfect to mention and ask about in your interview if the opportunity comes up).

2 Hone Your Elevator Pitch

All employers are looking for the same thing: An employee who's great, committed, and loyal, says Jennifer Gefsky, JD, an employment and labor lawyer and the co-founder of Après, a career site connecting companies to female talent. One way she suggests communicating (concisely) that you're all three? Use a practiced elevator pitch that conveys you know who you are, what you want to do, and how you're going to help the particular company. It might take a lot of effort to create the perfect elevator pitch that doesn't feel contrived, but once it's under your belt, it's the best way to effectively communicate your enthusiasm and commitment.

3 Visualize the Conversation and Prep Some Answers

Think realistically about potential questions they might ask and topics that might come up, then physically write down (or type up) talking points you want to hit. And don't just write them down, practice saying your answers out loud. It'll reinforce the points in your head and help you refine your delivery. All of this isn't to say you should come with robotic responses, but having the foresight to prep some talking points will help you avoid drawing a blank when it's time to speak up.

4 Plan a List of Questions for the Interviewer

Write down three to five questions to ask your interviewer, and actually plan on asking them. Questions shouldn't be generic or forced—ask real questions you truly want to know the answers to: "What is the company culture like?", "What would my typical day to day look like here?", "What are your team's biggest pain points right now, and how can I assist in alleviating them?" are all great places to start.

Not only are questions a sign of intelligence and interest, but they're also a good way for you to better evaluate the opportunity. Turkewitz recommends asking the hiring manager why they decided to come to the company. If the interviewer is quick and enthusiastic to answer, it's a great sign the employees are happy to work there. But if they're unable to really answer the question, it could be a red flag that that company might not be somewhere you really want to work.

5 Have a Salary in Mind

In many interviews, salary isn't even mentioned (it's often saved for the job offer conversation), but it's still smart to come with a realistic figure or range in your head, just in case. It's never fun to be caught off-guard and have to give a random number out of panic. Not sure how much this type of position typically pays? Use online salary search engines, such as Salary.com or Glassdoor.com, as part of your company research from earlier. And remember, if you're going to request a salary on the high end, make sure you can back up your ask with worthy credentials (second language, job experience, advanced degree, or knowledge of the current market value).

And be wary of lying about your current salary to receive a sizable pay jump. It's a very small, very connected world, and people within your industry can easily find out what you're earning, so it's always best to tell the truth. "There are two smart ways I've seen this question handled," says Bucky Keady, the SVP of executive search at Media Link. "The first is to reveal your current salary, but be clear about your thinking: 'I'm earning X, but I'm not interested in making a change unless I can hit the Y mark.' Or, instead of answering the question directly, say, 'I'd like to be considered for the best salary possible for this position, because I feel my experience checks off most of the boxes.'"

RELATED: Are You Paid What You're Worth? Here's How to Figure Out What You Should Be Earning 

6 Dress More Nicely Than You Want To

It's OK if you're a tad overdressed compared to everyone who works there—it shows respect and that you care. It's not worth underdressing and under-impressing a potential employer (that's one of the biggest interview mistakes not to make). Wear something more neutral, conservative, and flattering (for confidence!) to your interview while keeping the industry and company in mind. (A creative media office will have different attire expectations than a corporate law firm, for example.) A good rule of thumb: skip denim, open-toed shoes, shorts, and skin-tight pieces altogether. If you have to stop and wonder whether or not you should risk something, you probably shouldn't.

7 Don't Come Empty Handed

Make yourself a checklist of items to bring to your interview so you don't forget them. Absolute must-haves include a notebook, writing utensils, government-issued ID (for getting into the building), and copies of your resume (yes, even if your interviewer already has one, and yes, copies plural). And it never hurts to bring random essentials like tissues, breath mints, hand sanitizer, a hair brush, a small umbrella, and mini makeup bag.

8 Treat a Virtual Interview Like It's In-Person

Handle any interview you take, whether it's by phone, FaceTime, video call, or another medium, like an in-person meeting. For a video interview, dress as if you're going in for real. "Use a chair that allows you to sit upright. Don't eat or drink. Act as if you're sitting across the desk from the person you're talking to. And think about what's going on in the background—don't let us see the kitchen cabinets or the bathroom door open," Keady says. Also, based on her experience as a hiring manager, she highly recommends taking phone interviews from a landline, if at all possible. "You sound better, you come off as much more professional, and you'll be sitting still, which will help you concentrate. With these sorts of interviews, your listening skills have to be very good, especially if there's a slight delay. Don't be quite so intent on getting your message across. Take in what the other person is saying, wait a beat, then respond."

9 Open the Conversation With a Compliment

The catch is that this only works if you can do it organically (forced, cheesy flattery isn't what you're looking for). Stay away from complimenting something on your interviewer's person, like their outfit or hair, which can veer into iffy territory. Instead, if you can praise the artwork on their office wall or mention how gorgeous the view is, why not do it? A light, warm exchange like this can help ease you both into the conversation and make you stand out from the pack.

If you can't find something organically, fall back on gratitude: "Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me."

10 Always Keep It Professional

A general compliment can work wonders, but don't forget that this person isn't your pal. Stay away from oversharing, gossip, inappropriate personal questions, and curse words (you'd be surprised how often that happens). Keep the "likes," "uhs," and "so, yeahs," on lockdown. In short, always err on the side of formality.

11 Be Yourself

We know this sounds like conflicting advice with the above interview tip, but the truth is that it's all about balance. These days, company culture plays a huge role in who actually gets hired, and often showing off the real you can be the ticket to employment. "[Personality is] a candidate's 'secret sauce' that lands them the best opportunities," says Christine DiDonato, the founder and CEO of Career Revolution and AwesomeBoss.com. "This means the most qualified job candidate doesn't always get the job." Rather than just checking for skills, hiring managers also consider how a candidate's sense of humor, work style, and values mesh with those of their employer to ensure longevity in the position. "Today's companies are just as concerned with keeping the right talent as they are hiring them," DiDonato says.

And you might be wary of coming off too eager, but Turkewitz actually recommends letting the interview know, point blank, that you want the job: "Enthusiasm is half the battle," she says.

12 Pick Up on Body Language

Being observant can help you tailor your answers. If your interviewer has a short attention span they'll shuffle items on the desk or let their eyes dart around the room. Don't let it fluster you; instead, once you notice those signals, simply shorten your answers. If they lean forward, nod eagerly, and seem engaged, feel free to embellish and give longer answers. Your best bet is to keep answers to a maximum of three minutes.

13 Take Your Time

It's OK to pause and think before answering a question, especially a difficult one. The last thing you want to do is jump into something and start rambling. Try offering something like, "That's a really interesting question, I've never been asked that before," to give yourself more time. 

14 Don't Get Thrown Off by the "Weaknesses" Question

Say you're asked an interview question asking, directly or indirectly, about any potential weaknesses or areas of growth—should you dive right into your greatest character flaws or paint a perfect picture? Keady says honesty is the best policy, but it's all about your approach. "The important thing to emphasize is genuine enthusiasm for learning and growing," she says. I've had a few people handle this in such a bright way—their faces light up and they're excited to answer the question. They'll talk about wanting to improve their presentation skills or become better at managing and mentoring. Show that you've given this some thought—not through a canned response, but through good preparation. And try not to see the question as a trap. If you need to redirect because of the way it's phrased, you can say, 'I don't view this as a weakness, but as an area I'd like to grow in more.' If you mean what you say, it'll come across well.

15 Send a Thank-You Note to Everyone You Spoke With

This includes your interviewer's assistant who coordinated the meeting and explained how to navigate the office building's tricky-to-find entrance. Following up with a post-interview "thank you" email is a great opportunity to drive home some of the key points you discussed in your meeting (as well as why you're the best for the job!). No need to write a novel—a genuine note thanking each one for taking the time, telling you about their experience, and further elaborating on the role is all you need. But don't write the same email to everyone you met—they'll quickly realize they all got the same, canned message. Mix it up and mention a particular detail you talked about to show how engaged and on top of it you are.

Want to go the extra mile? Follow up with a handwritten thank-you note. It'll show you've got your stuff together and are willing to put in the time and effort to show gratitude—that's huge.

16 Follow Up in Two Weeks

Even if you're chomping at the bit for next steps, resist the urge to follow up until it's been about two weeks. People are busy and the hiring process takes time, so don't take the delay personally.

17 If You Don't Get the Job, Thank Them Again and Ask for Feedback

It's a real bummer, but not the end of the world. Even if they broke the news over the phone, send a brief email afterward expressing how much you appreciate the opportunity to be considered, see the office, and meet with everyone. You can also include a request for constructive feedback. Without prying, try something like, "If you have the time, I would be so grateful for any feedback you might have regarding my interview." It might seem like overkill, but this kind of professionalism speaks volumes and is incredibly helpful for honing your interview skills going forward. Plus, if you were a close contender for the position, you never know if another position might open up, so it's worth taking the high road and closing the loop.

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