It feels like a whole new world when it comes to job search and interviewing in 2021. Virtual interviews have become common practice for professional positions, with people sometimes being hired without ever having met their boss or co-workers in person!
Although social distancing rules resulted in the widespread move by employers to virtual interviews, due to the efficiency and cost-savings of virtual interviews, many employers were already moving in that direction prior to the global pandemic. We can expect virtual interviews to stick around post-pandemic.
That said, whether your interview is virtual or in-person, most of the interview preparation process is the same. And where things are different for virtual interviews, there are specific steps you can take to set yourself up for success for the new normal.
Interview Preparation Tips & Exercises for 2021
What is the purpose of an interview? From the employer’s point of view, interviews are used to assess the extent to which you can do the job, whether you will find the job motivating, and how well you fit with the team and organizational culture.
Interviewing does not come naturally to most people, and even people well into a successful career still get a case of the butterflies when it comes to interviewing. The good news is that interviewing is a skill that can be learned and improved on with time and practice.
Here is a checklist you can follow when preparing for either a virtual or in-person interview.
Interview Preparation Checklist
To prepare for the interview, you will need to have a strong understanding of the job, the company, and your related strengths and qualifications. You will also need to understand what the interviewers are really trying to assess with the questions they ask. Then strategize in advance how to respond to a variety of questions in a way that addresses the question behind their questions. Practicing the delivery of your responses is the final step in the preparation process.
1. Know the Job
Start by learning as much as you can about the company, the job, and to the extent possible, the people who will be interviewing you. Review the company’s website, search for external news about the company. Read employee reviews of the company. Do you know anyone who works there? See if they are willing to talk with you about the company. What is the company’s mission, values, organizational structure, culture, and products? Who are their customers and competitors, what kind of challenges or growth opportunities do they have ahead of them?
Next, analyze the job posting. What can you infer from the posting about the kinds of problems and opportunities the person filling this position will encounter? What are the main job responsibilities and qualifications? If you were interviewing someone else for this position what would you want to know about them?
In most cases, you will be given the name and title of the person(s) interviewing you ahead of time. If not, don’t be afraid to ask for this information – it shows that you are interested, organized, and that you plan ahead. Take advantage of the company’s website and other sites such as LinkedIn to learn about your interviewers. What is their career progression, where did they go to school, do you have any common background or interests?
2. Know Yourself
Now that you’ve done your research on the company, the position, and your interviewers, take time to list out your strengths and assets. These are the unique personal qualities (e.g., attention to detail), hard skills (e.g., advanced spreadsheet skills), soft skills (e.g., the ability to mediate conflict), specialized knowledge (e.g., expertise in integrated circuit design), and experiences (e.g., 5 years working in the healthcare industry) you bring to the table.
Next, map your strengths and assets to what you have learned about the job and the company. What are your unique strengths and how have you used these strengths to add value to your work in similar roles and contexts? Write down specific examples of how you used your strengths in prior jobs or similar situations to achieve successes.
3. Anticipate Questions & Strategize Responses
While there is infinite variation in questions and the wording of the questions you may be asked in an interview, the information the interviewers are seeking to learn about you can be anticipated – making the interview preparation process a bit less daunting.
As mentioned earlier, what it all boils down to is this: employers want to know whether you are able to do the job, want to do the job, and if you will work well with their team. Keep this in mind when strategizing and preparing for job interview questions.
4. Are you able to do the job?
Employers often use Behavioral Interview Questions to determine whether you are able to do the job. Behavioral questions focus on your past behaviors to see how you handled situations that are similar to the job opening. These questions almost always begin with Tell me about a time when… or Describe a time when….
Looking back at your research on the company and job, you can infer what kind of past experiences and behaviors the interviewers will most likely want to know about you. For example, if the job involves customer service, they will want to know about your experience interacting with customers and may ask questions such as,
- Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.
- Describe a time when you had to escalate a call to your supervisor.
- Tell me about a time when you received positive recognition from a customer.
After identifying what the interviewers will want to know about you, think of specific examples where you were able to successfully demonstrate the characteristics they are looking for when you handled similar situations or tasks.
The STAR format
Use the STAR format to outline your response:
What was the SITUATION or TASK? What ACTIONS did you take? And what was the RESULT?
Also, what did you learn from that experience, and would you do anything differently next time (this shows self-reflection and the ability to learn from prior experiences).
More examples of Behavioral Interview Questions:
- Tell me about a time when you had to juggle competing priorities on a tight schedule.
- Describe a time when you dealt with a conflict at work.
- Give me an example of a time when you had to convey bad news to a customer.
- Tell me about an ethical dilemma you encountered on the job.
- Are you motivated to do the job?
Employers want to hire someone who will be motivated to do the job, not someone who is just settling for the first employer that will hire them or someone who will quickly lose interest. They want to see how this position makes sense for you in terms of what you like and dislike and in terms of your personal career goals and trajectory.
You need to show them how this job makes sense for you at this time in your career. Common job interview questions for assessing motivation are:
- What interests you about this role? Our company?
- Why did you leave past jobs?
- Who was your favorite supervisor and why? Least favorite?
- What motivates you best?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- Do you have any questions for us?
Regarding, “Do you have any questions for us,” not having any questions for your interviewers is usually viewed as a lack of interest in the company and job. On the other hand, if you ask about things like compensation, benefits, and vacation days (without them bringing it up first), it looks like you are more motivated by these factors than the actual job.
Instead, prepare a few thoughtful questions ahead of time that show you did your homework on the company and are interested learning more.
5. Will you fit with the team?
Interviewers do not typically use direct questioning to assess how well you will work within their team or corporate culture. They usually infer this through your responses to other questions, your nonverbal communication, and informal interactions such as small talk when the interview is just getting started.
The best interviews are conversational rather than just interviewer question, interviewee response. Asking a few clarifying and insightful questions throughout the interview can help establish rapport and bring about a clearer understanding between you and your interviewers.
Also, look back to your research on the company and your interviewers. In what ways are you aligned with the company’s mission, values, and culture? Work this into the conversation and your interview responses where it makes sense. This information usually fits in well when responding to questions such as tell me about yourself or why you want to work for the company.
Likewise, during your research, did you find that you and your interviewer(s) have anything in common? Did you learn something about them professionally that genuinely interested you? There are sometimes opportunities before, during, and as the interview is wrapping up for casual conversation. Use these opportunities to make a personal connection with your interviewer(s).
For example, “I noticed on your company bio that you are involved with the LA Rescue Mission, I used to volunteer there when I was at student at USC.” Or, “I saw on your LinkedIn profile that your research is on neuroplasticity and aging, I would love to learn more about your work.”
And when it comes to inferences made from how you respond to other questions regarding “fit,” check in with objective observers as you practice your interview responses. Do you come across as overly talkative or quiet to the point of being unhelpful? Are you able to stay on point in your responses? Do you come across as having a big ego? Do you disparage former companies or supervisors? Ask your objective observers for their candid feedback and impressions of you.
6. Additional Opportunities to Sell Yourself
There are other questions that could be referred to as “softball questions” — these are questions that provide you with the perfect opportunity to promote yourself yet are so common that you can expect some form of them to come up in every interview. For example,
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why should I hire you over other candidates?
- What makes you a good fit for this job?
- What are your greatest strengths in relationship to this position?
Each of these questions opens the opportunity to pitch yourself.
Here’s how to sell yourself: think back to the unique combination of assets you bring to the table as aligned with this particular position and prepare a compelling story highlighting why you are the right person for the job and why this job is a great career move for you. Keep it concise and to the point—think elevator pitch, not life story.
However, you want to come across as natural, so don’t memorize this (or any other interview response) word for word, just remember the main points you want to convey.
7. Other questions
Depending on your field and the job, employers may ask other types of questions around your technical knowledge and skills or give you case studies/scenarios to see how you think through a problem.
You can research what type of technical or case study questions to expect by asking mentors, tutors, and other people familiar with the field
8. Practice, practice, practice
Now that you have done the hard work of understanding the job, company, and yourself, and strategized on potential interview questions and responses, it is time to practice your delivery.
Practice in front of a mirror, record yourself, practice with friends, family members, mentors, and tutors. Conducting a mock interview, where you simulate being in an actual interview setting with another person acting as the interviewer, is a great way for getting comfortable with the interview process before your real interview.
An Overview of Virtual Interviews
Now let’s take a look at virtual interviews and what kinds of additional preparation are needed. There are two common types of virtual interviews used by employers: live interviews and pre-recorded interviews.
Live Virtual Interviews
Live virtual interviews are conducted using videoconferencing or virtual meeting software such as Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc.
These interviews are more like a traditional in-person interview, with a two-way connection and real-time conversation between the candidate and interviewer(s). Many employers were already conducting some of their interviews virtually prior to the pandemic, because they reduce the amount of time needed to coordinate logistics and travel costs since multiple parties can participate from multiple locations.
Pre-recorded Video Interviews
Pre-recorded video interviews (also referred to as “on-demand” interviews) are one-way, asynchronous transmissions.
Employers typically provide all applicants or selected applicants with a link to a virtual interview software platform with a set of pre-recorded questions. Applicants are given a set amount of time to respond to each question while their responses are captured by their webcam or smart device. On-demand interviews often have a few practice questions to help candidates familiarize themselves with what to expect, and some allow for deleting and re-recording responses a few times.
Employers tend to use on-demand virtual interviews as an initial screen of applicants, often replacing the traditional practice of a real-time phone screen. On-demand interviews eliminate scheduling challenges by allowing candidates to record their interview at a time convenient to them, while allowing multiple interviewers to view the recordings at separate times unlike a virtual live interview when all parties need to be present at the same time.
Advice for Job Seekers on Virtual Interviewing
While the bulk of the work of preparing for an in-person and virtual interview is the same, here is another set of items to add to your preparation checklist for virtual interviews.
Virtual Interview Preparation Checklist Addendum
For the most part, the additional preparation needed for virtual interviews relates to your tech and interview setting.
9. Technology Setup and Hardware
Use a computer with a high definition internal or external webcam. Although you can use a smart phone or other wireless device, there is a higher chance of running into issues with video software compatibility, bandwidth and connection, lighting, and sound.
Position the webcam just above eye-level and adjust the angle slightly downward. If you are using an internal webcam, this may mean piling a stack of books under your laptop and tilting the screen down a bit. Set up the camera so that the top of your head is not cut-off and there is a little bit of space above your head. In order not to look like a floating head, make sure your shoulders and top of your chest are visible.
10. Internet Connection
If you are relying on WiFi, you will want to be as close as possible to the router and minimize WiFi use by others in your household. Better yet, use a network cable to physically connect your computer to the router and turn off your computer WiFi.
Find out which video communication software the employer will be using to conduct the interview and whether you need to download the program.
Then check out the official website for the program and follow their instructions for downloading and setting up the program ahead of time. If your interview is the pre-recorded type, no need to worry about software.
Although webcams have microphones, using a headset can improve the quality of your voice and reduce ambient noise. If you use a headset, be sure to test it out ahead of time and adjust the settings as needed.
Good lighting does wonders for making a positive first impression (consider the difference in lighting between professional vs. home videos). The goal is to evenly illuminate your face. This can be achieved using one or more of these low-cost methods:
Sit facing a window covered with a translucent shade or sheet to diffuse the light
Position a clip light about 3’ to your left and another on the right; use some type of translucent material to diffuse the light
Turn on additional monitors and open documents with an off-white tint
Choose a private and quiet location for the interview. Make sure others around you know about the interview and are ready to help you keep external noise and distractions down (e.g., pets, children, lawn mowers, etc.).
Choose or create a literal or virtual background that is professional looking and free from clutter. Ideally any wall behind you will be at least 3’ away to reduce unflattering shadows.
Close all programs and tabs on your computer except those needed for the interview. This will free up computer memory and improve your system’s performance, and eliminate distracting email/app notifications. Have a bottle of water within easy reach during the interview.
Dress professionally as you would for an in-person interview but avoid white, black, and super-bright colors that can interact negatively with the webcam and lighting. Also avoid anything with a busy pattern that can be distracting.
Even though the lower half of your body will not be in the camera’s view, it’s recommended to wear professional clothing in case you need to get up from your seat and forget the camera is on.
18. And Once Again, Practice, Practice, Practice
You’ve done the hard work of understanding the job, company, and yourself. You’ve strategized on potential interview questions and responses. You’ve set up your background and tested out the technology. Now practice your delivery virtually.
Now, set up a virtual mock interview or two with a tutor, mentor, family member, or friend. Confirm that they can hear you and that your lighting is good.
A Few More Tips Regarding Virtual Interview Etiquette
- Join the virtual interview 5-10 minutes in advance so you are ready to go when the interview starts.
- Give your interviewer(s) a virtual handshake by smiling and showing interest during initial introductions.
- Avoid verbal affirmations/agreements when others are speaking because they can cause the speaker tiles to jump around. Use non-verbal communication instead, by smiling and nodding.
- Make virtual eye contact with your interviewer(s). Eye contact shows you are listening and interested. However, making eye contact becomes a challenge when there are multiple people’s video tiles on your screen. If this is the case, the next best thing is to just look directly at your camera instead of trying to focus on multiple people. From the observers’ point of view, it will appear that you are looking at each one of them rather than having your eyes dart left and right, up, and down as you try to look at all of them.
Breathe! Tips for Managing Interview Anxiety
In the end, keep things in perspective, it’s an interview, a conversation, not the Hunger Games competition!
Think of each interview as an opportunity to practice and build on your interviewing skills. Also, keep in mind that the interview is a chance for you to vet the employer; it’s not just about them liking you. Advance preparation and practice are the best ways to build up your confidence for an interview, but even after that, it is normal to get nervous before and during an interview.
Here are some methods for managing those nerves:
Take Deep Breaths
Sometimes when we’re nervous, we start breathing shallowly, even holding our breath, and our muscles tense up. Break the anxiety cycle by taking slow deep breaths. This will deliver more oxygen to your brain and your body will automatically start to relax.
Set aside time earlier on the day of the interview to exercise. Even a simple walk can increase your endorphins, reduce anxiety, and help relax body and mind.
Accept & Channel
Remember almost everyone gets nervous when it comes to interviewing and if you are afraid, just acknowledge it. Say aloud to yourself, I am afraid but that’s normal, everything is just as it should be. Then channel the nervous energy into positive enthusiasm for the upcoming challenge.
During the Interview
Here are a few more tips for managing anxiety during the actual interview:
- Pause before responding to a question, take a sip of water or repeat the question you were asked aloud before giving your response. The short pause gives you a little extra time to gather your thoughts.
- When others are talking, check your breathing and take some slower, deeper breaths (but not so deep and loud as to be noticeable!).
- If you are someone who speaks faster when you get anxious, intentionally slow down your rate of speech to a more natural pace and use pauses for emphasis. This will keep you from running out of breath and becoming even more anxious.
Are You Ready for Your 2021 Job Search?
Although interviewing in 2021 may feel like a whole new world, aside from preparation related to the use of virtual technology, the steps to prepare yourself for an interview have not changed.
Interviewing is a skill to be learned through preparation and practice, not an inborn trait that you either have or don’t have. It is a skill you can develop and apply as you prepare for and go through each unique job interview process. That said, job applicants with stronger or more desirable skills related to the job opening are going to have an advantage that all the interview preparation in the world will not change.
The labor market was already changing long before the pandemic of 2020 and continues to change at an accelerating pace. It is important to be aware of the knowledge, skills, and trends related to the current and future job market and to be continuously upskilling, that is, acquiring new knowledge and skills to stay relevant and marketable.