Interview Preparation

Interview

Employers want to hire someone who will do great work and thrive with their team. Read the tips below to prepare to impress employers during interviews. Still have questions? Visit us during walk-in hours, or make an appointment.

You can also download this information as a PDF packet.

General Interview Preparation

Follow these tips to impress in any type of interview. Check out the sections at the bottom if you need to prep for a video or phone interview.

  1. Prepare your interview intro

Almost every interview will start with some version of the question, “Tell me a bit about yourself.” Prepare a response that will help set a positive tone for the interview, give the employer a clear sense of who you are as a professional, and take no longer than 1.5–2 minutes.

Note: Include information that is relevant for the hiring committee. Avoid topics such as hobbies, family, and pets in this formal setting.

To prepare a response to this question:

  • First, review the job description and research the organization, in order to clearly understand what qualifications are important to the employer (Robert Half, 2020).
  • Second, write a list of your qualifications that are relevant to the position you’re interviewing for. Include your education, knowledge, skills, experience, and characteristics.
  • Third, write bullet points in order of what you want to say. While each situation is different, here is a common formula you may find helpful:

Present → Past → Future

  • Present: What paid/volunteer work or studies are you doing now, and how do your knowledge, skills, experience, and characteristics relate to this position?
  • Past: What work or studies have you done in the past, and how do your knowledge, skills, experience, and characteristics relate to this position?
  • Future: What are you interested in doing next at this position, why do you want this position, and how are you qualified for it? Note: Don’t tell them this job will be a stepping stone to something outside their organization.

Note that if a past experience is the most relevant to the position, you can switch the order to Past → Present → Future (Indeed, 2020).

IMPORTANT: Learn and practice the points you want to share until you are confident, but DO NOT MEMORIZE this word-for-word, or you will almost definitely get stuck and freeze in the moment.

Remember to keep your response professional and positive. The employer doesn’t want to know about your pets, your family, and your hobbies. And you don’t want to start the interview by talking about why you got fired from a previous job. Focus on your education, skills, experience, and characteristics as they relate to the job.

Example 1: Present → Past → Future

  • Scenario: English major applying for a staff writer job.
  • Your outline:
    • Present
      • English major, Comms minor, grad December. Work at SUU Facilities. Assistant editor of Kolob Canyon Review.
    • Past
      • Intern with Iron County Weekly
    • Future
      • Staff writer, then editor
  • What you might say:
    • Present
      • Sure! I’m currently finishing my bachelor’s degree in English at Southern Utah University and will graduate in December. I’m also working with our campus Facilities Management team and volunteering as assistant editor of the Kolob Canyon Review, an annual literary journal. Getting so involved has helped me hone my skills in writing, editing, and time management, and helped me build strong relationships through teamwork across the community.
    • Past
      • Last year, I worked as an intern for the local newspaper Iron County Weekly. I gained firsthand experience with all aspects of the publication process, including information gathering, writing, editing, and publishing. This experience solidified my desire to continue working as a journalist.
    • Future
      • I am looking to apply my skills and experience to work as a full-time staff writer for several years, with the eventual goal of working as an editor. I see this position as an excellent opportunity to reach my professional goals and use my skills and experience to benefit your team.

Example 2: Past → Present → Future

  • Scenario: Outdoor Recreation major applying for a National Park Service position.
  • Your outline:
    • Past
      • Two internships: Bryce Canyon, Zion
    • Present
      • Just graduated: Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism
    • Future
      • Visitor Services Assistant, then Park Ranger
  • What you might say:
    • Past
      • I’d be happy to. I have experience working with the National Park Service over two summers of internships at Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park through the Intergovernmental Internship Cooperative. During these internships, I was able to gain firsthand knowledge and experience in various aspects of park management, including conservation and visitor education.
    • Present
      • I just completed my bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Recreation, which gave me the foundational knowledge and skills to be a valuable contributing member of the National Park Service team.
    • Future
      • I am now looking to join the National Park Service on a full-time basis, with the eventual goal of becoming a Park Ranger. This position as a Visitor Services Assistant would help me build on my education and experience while I serve as part of the NPS team to maintain the public lands that we love.
  1. Prepare professional attire

In most cases, you should dress one level higher than what workers typically wear at that job. Frequently, this will be business formal or business professional. See the Professional Dress 101 page for detailed information about professional attire.

Definitely avoid party clothes (things you would wear to a club or a night on the town are often not appropriate for professional environments) and avoid clothes that are too casual! If you’re not sure, ask the Career Center team or stop by the Career Center for tips from the Leads, and we’ll be happy to help. Need professional clothing? We can help with that, too—just fill out the Professional Dress Funding Application.

  1. Prepare a portfolio

To look professional, bring a portfolio—a professional-looking folder to carry your documents. Include the following items:

  • A few copies of your resume and your separate reference list, in case there are employer reps joining the interview who don’t have copies.
  • A printout of key info on the organization and interviewers, if you know who will interview you.
  • Some blank paper, so you have a space to take notes. At the beginning of the interview, ask the interviewer if they mind if you take notes. (Some may ask you not to if their work is confidential.)
  • A list of questions to ask (that you couldn’t find while researching the organization). You should generally ask at least 2-3 questions. If you’re serious about the position and have more questions, you can certainly ask! Here are a few examples of questions you could ask:
  • What does the typical day-to-day work include?
  • What are your expectations for new hires?
  • What kind of training program does the company have?
  • How do you feel about working for the company?
  • What are the position’s biggest challenges?
  • What are the long-range goals established for this department?
  • What is your time frame for hiring for this position?

For a more detailed list of questions you could ask, check out page 6 of this PDF packet by GradLeaders.

  1. Practice answering the most common questions

These are the top five questions you need to be prepared to answer:

  • Tell me a bit about yourself. Answer this question with your interview intro.
  • Why do you want this job? Give reasons why the job is a good fit for you. Don’t just say, “I need a job.” Be sure to answer why the specific job you are interviewing for is the one you want.
  • Why should we hire you? Explain what makes you an excellent candidate. What might set you apart from other candidates?
  • Why do you want to work for this organization? Share what excites you about their organization, their work, and their culture.
  • Do you have any questions for us? Ask some of the questions you have prepared or ask questions that came up during the interview. Always have at least a few questions ready as this is a good sign to the employer that you’re seriously interested in the job.

In addition, be prepared to answer trait-based questions like “What are your strengths?” or “What are your weaknesses?” Share your strengths that are the most relevant to the job and briefly explain how this would help their organization. If you do get a question about weaknesses, emphasize how you’ve mitigated a weakness to turn it into a strength. For example, “A weakness of mine is _____. However, I have learned to _____.”

Another common type is behavior-based questions like “Give us an example of a time when you _____.” One way to answer this type of question effectively and concisely is to use the SAR method:

  • Situation: Briefly tell them what the situation was.
  • Action: Explain what you did to face the situation.
  • Results: Tell them how the situation turned out.

Example:

  • Employer’s question: Tell us about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.
  • Answer: Sure! Once when I was working an evening shift in Facilities Management at Southern Utah University, a recruiter from a company holding an information session came into our office and was irate that the big-screen TV cart they had reserved was not set up, and her event started in just 15 minutes.

    First, I said, “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. Let me check on that for you.” When I checked the schedule, it showed that a TV cart had indeed been delivered to the room as requested. But rather than tell the customer she was wrong, I said, “I believe I can resolve the issue for you. Would you be so kind as to show me where the TV should be placed?” I then followed her to the room where she was setting up and discovered that she was actually in the room next door to where she was scheduled! I peeked into the correct room, which not only had a TV cart set up, but also had a sign on the door for their event. I told her, “It looks like everything is set up for you in this room next door. Would that room still work for you?” When she saw the sign, she turned bright red and realized her mistake. She said, “I’m so sorry. Yes, we can use that room.” I told her it was not a problem at all, and offered to help her move her materials into the other room and get her slide deck running.

    She was able to start on time and was grateful for the extra assistance.

If you haven’t had the specific experience they ask about, tell about something similar. Keep it positive and do not criticize.

Finally, you may be asked scenario-based questions like “What would you do if _____?” This is another great time to use the SAR method:

  • Situation: Briefly restate the scenario they gave.
  • Action: Explain what you would do to face the situation.
  • Results: Tell them how you expect the situation would turn out.

Example:

  • Employer’s question: How would you handle criticism from your supervisor?
  • Answer: Well, although no one loves to be criticized, I do like to grow and improve through feedback. For example, if my supervisor told me that I was working too slowly, I would say, “Thank you for that feedback. I’m sorry I haven’t met your expectations for efficiency yet. Could you please give me some suggestions on what I could do to increase my speed?” When I respond to the feedback with humility, I expect that my supervisor would be willing to give me specific guidance that would help me improve.

For a more detailed list of questions employers are likely to ask, see this PDF packet by GradLeaders.


  1. Prepare to discuss pay and benefits

IMPORTANT: Do not ask about pay and benefits unless they offer you the job. And try to get them to give a number first.

Pay: Prepare for the pay discussion early by understanding what your knowledge, skills, and experience are worth in this position. Use labor market information provided for the type of position and geographic area. Two excellent resources are the Utah Economic Data Viewer and the nationwide Occupational Outlook Handbook. For data on international pay, try an internet search for similar sites.

Benefits: While you can discuss negotiating both salary and benefits, it’s important first to know what the employer includes in a standard benefits package. Many employers list benefits on a public website. Otherwise, you can contact HR and ask whether they are able to share information with you about employee benefits.

  1. Arrive early and act professionally

Remember that the interviewer’s impression of you starts the moment you leave your home. If you’re rude, unprofessional, or late, the employer may decide not to hire you. Plan to arrive 10 minutes early. It can be awkward for the employer if you’re more than 10 minutes early, and you give a bad impression if you’re less than 5 minutes early.

  1. Greet the interviewers professionally

Make eye contact when you say hello, give them your name, shake hands, and thank them for taking the time to interview you. Wait for them to ask you to be seated.

Note: Handshake etiquette may change due to Covid-19. Traditionally, you want to give a firm handshake when you greet them. If you’re not comfortable shaking hands for health reasons, you can place both hands behind your back and nod/bow slightly as you greet them.

  1. Maintain eye contact

Look them in the eye when you’re talking to them and when they’re talking to you. Don’t stare awkwardly, just focus on them rather than looking around the room or looking at your phone. In fact, be sure your phone is OFF for the duration of the interview!

Note: We recognize that American business culture views direct eye contact as a sign of honesty and respect. If your culture shows respect by not looking others in the eye, please note that you can still maintain respect in your home culture and use eye contact in professional settings. Still uncomfortable? Try looking at the space between the interviewer’s eyes.

  1. Don’t bring up pay—but know your worth 

IMPORTANT: Do not ask about pay and benefits unless they offer you the job. And try to get them to give a number first. See the “Before the interview” section for how to prepare to talk about pay.

  1. Say thank you again—and ask about following up! 

At the end of the interview, thank them again for considering you for the position. Ask them when might be a good time to follow up with them.

Follow up with each professional contact after any significant time investment, which includes interviews. At a minimum, send an email thanking them for talking with you and let them know you are interested in learning more about the company and possible positions.

After you’ve sent an email, consider sending a handwritten card—these are golden! Who handwrites anything these days? You do, if you want to impress them! If it’s an in-person interview, you can even have a card ready in your car/portfolio that you can go out and write, then give to the front desk.

Note: Carefully follow the employer’s instructions. For example, if they say “contact us by email only,” then don’t call them. If they say “don’t contact us until we contact you,” demonstrate your professionalism and ability to follow instructions.

Special Cases

While the interview advice above generally applies to all interviews, it’s important to be prepared to succeed in two special cases: video interviews and phone interviews.

  1. Prepare professional attire

Even if you’re calling from your home, you still need to dress to impress. At a minimum, wear business casual: a blouse or collared shirt with a skirt or slacks. Business formal is even better. See the Professional Dress 101 page for detailed information about professional attire.

Definitely avoid party clothes (things you would wear to a club or a night on the town are often not appropriate for professional environments) and avoid clothes that are too casual! If you’re not sure, ask the Career Center team and we’ll be happy to help. Need professional clothing? We can help with that, too—just fill out the Professional Dress Funding Application.

  1. Set up your video background

To ensure the recruiter’s focus is on how impressive you are, rather than being distracted by your surroundings, make sure you have a professional-looking background for your video interview. Use a blank wall, bookshelf, curtains, etc. Make sure you do not have a mess in view, including clothes, dishes, distracting posters, etc. Also avoid having your bed in view—when others view your bedroom and bed, they can feel really awkward, like they’re invading your privacy.

What about virtual backgrounds? Generally avoid virtual backgrounds for interviews. They can be distracting to the interviewer, particularly when the outline is fuzzy and parts of your body fade in and out.

  1. Create a quiet space

You want to make sure the recruiters will be able to hear you. Plan to join the video interview from a quiet environment. Let others in your space know you’ll be on a video interview, and if your space is not quiet enough, use headphones to cut out background noise.

  1. Test your equipment & prepare a backup

Well before the video interview, test your equipment to make sure everything works—software, apps, devices, and internet connection. Make sure all devices are fully charged and plugged in if possible. Be sure you also have another way to contact the interviewers (phone, text, email) in case your video stops working.

  1. Maintain eye contact

Keep your face fully in frame with your eyes in the upper 1/3 of the screen. When the recruiter is speaking to you, you can look at their video, but when you are talking, look directly at your camera so they feel like you are making eye contact with them.

Note: We recognize that American business culture is based on mainstream white culture, which views direct eye contact as a sign of honesty, confidence, and respect. It is important to note that conceptions regarding eye contact are not static across cultures. In many cultures, avoiding eye contact is not perceived negatively but rather as a sign of respect. If your culture shows respect by not looking others in the eye, please note that you can still maintain respect in your home culture and use eye contact in professional settings. Still uncomfortable? Try looking at the space between the interviewer’s eyes.

  1. Purpose

Phone interviews are generally used as a screening or first-round interview. The employer’s goal is to decide whether they should invite you for a face-to-face or video interview. Your goal is to impress them and get invited to the next interview!

  1. Prepare your space

Ensure you’ll have a quiet space free from distractions. Let others in your space know you’ll be on a phone interview, and if your space is not quiet enough, use headphones to cut out background noise.

  1. Get your phone ready

Be sure you charge your phone! Make sure you’re in a place where you have a strong signal for a good connection. Mute all notifications, and never interrupt your interview for anything other than a genuine emergency.

  1. Act professionally

Since the employer can’t see your smiling face, focus on using your voice to show your enthusiasm, positive attitude, professionalism, and communication skills. Smiling helps you sound positive, and dressing professionally can help you act professionally. Be careful not to speak too quickly, and make sure you don’t eat, drink, or chew gum during the interview. 

Need more help? Visit us during in-person walk-in hours, or make an appointment.

Works Cited

GradLeaders. (2016). Interviews. theCampusCareerCoach.com

Indeed. (2020). How to Answer "Tell Me About Yourself" (Tips and Example Answers). indeed.com

Robert Half. (2020). How to Answer, ‘Tell Me About Yourself,’ in a Job Interview. roberthalf.com