How to Prepare for the Most Important Interview Question
You’ve landed an interview for the job you just know you’re perfect for. Cue the nervous energy!
So much to prepare for!
What if they ask why I’m looking to leave my current job?
Will I get a chance to tell them why I love their company!?
So where do you start?
The most important thing you can do in your preparation for the interview is to think about the questions you’re likely to get asked and make sure you feel ready to answer them.
Often the first question that hiring managers ask is one of these:
Tell me about yourself…
Can you walk me through your resume?
(Sometimes they ask why you’re interested in the job, but hopefully that feels relatively easy to answer!)
Here’s why this first question is the most important question:
- It sets the tone for the rest of the interview.
- It immediately tells the person you’re talking to if you’ve really thought through the role, the company’s mission, and what you can bring to the team.
- It allows you to drive your narrative and their impression of you (you get to highlight the most important things they should care about and create the message!)
- Nailing the first question gives you confidence that carries over throughout the rest of the interview.
These two questions can seem like a lot to work through – which parts should you talk about, how much do they want to know, and how long should you talk for?
The good news is that you can usually tweak your answer for one to answer the other. Once in a while, they’ll ask you both questions, but if your first answer is framed in the right way, they won't need to ask the other.
We’ve got three exercises you can do before diving into crafting your answers, and a few different frameworks for you to try on for size to see what fits you and your career story.
Exercises for interview prep.
First, read the job description thoroughly. After you’ve done that, pretend you’ve just told a friend over a drink that you’re really excited about this job and you’re telling them all about it.
- How would you sum up the job responsibilities in three bullets or sentences that sound natural (like you’re explaining it to your friend)?
- What are the top three skills or past experiences you think would be important to be successful in this job?
- Thinking about your answers to the above. What are the examples from your career and work that tie directly to those responsibilities, skills, and experiences?
Answering these three questions gives you, 1) Clarity on what the most important elements of the job are so you can tailor your answers more effectively, and 2) Collateral for highlighting your most important skills and experiences.
Armed with this, you’re now ready to start composing your answer. Here are a few frameworks.
Framework 1: Start at the beginning.
It might feel right for this job to demonstrate a historical interest or experience in a type of role, topic, or subject matter. That might mean you have to start at the beginning.
To envision how your framework might sound, let’s use an example: Jessica is applying for a position as a marketing manager at a large education nonprofit.
Framework 1 for Jessica might sound like this:
[Start with where you began that’s most applicable] "After graduating from college, I spent two years as a teacher through Teach for America in Los Angeles. Experiencing what it was like to be a teacher, I realized that I wanted to help provide support and resources to teachers like me."
[Explain your pivots and career moves] "That led me to the Broad Foundation, where I worked in the development department. I wrote grants for the work that they do supporting and training leaders in education. I really liked how writing grants was like pitching and marketing for the programs we were running. This led me to find a marketing-specific role and try out the corporate world. As a marketing coordinator currently for WeWork, I love the marketing work, but I miss doing the marketing on behalf of a cause I’ve been passionate about my whole life – education."
[Wrap up by showing enthusiasm for the role and the company] "That’s why I’m super excited to be talking to you about this position, because it blends my interest in marketing and my passion for education. In particular, I’d be really excited to promote the great work this organization is doing in making it easier for students to get access to great teachers."
This framework walks the reader through chronologically and explains the various career shifts made.
You might be thinking that your path isn’t nearly as logical or linear as Jessica’s, though. Try Framework 2.
[Related: Four More Job Search Myths Busted]
Framework 2: Start with where you are.
Let’s say Jessica hasn’t had experience specifically in education before applying for this role. Her story might sound more like this:
[State your current job] "Currently I’m a marketing manager at WeWork. I’m responsible for the promotion and success of all our events at our Southern California locations."
[Use your answers from the second exercise above to highlight a few things you currently do that connect to the role] "Over the last few years in my role, I’ve grown our community through strategic promotion of events at our locations, I’ve collaborated with various departments and community members to create and execute unique programs that draw large audiences to our spaces, and…etc."
[Use your answers from the third exercise above to highlight the most applicable experiences from your resume] "As you can see from my resume, I’ve had a number of different roles prior to my current one. When I think about what makes the most sense for me to highlight, three things come to mind. First, I spent two years at the Red Cross, which gave me a solid understanding of the nonprofit world and the opportunities and challenges currently facing the sector. Second… Third…"
[Wrap up by showing enthusiasm for the role and the company] "The ability to combine so many of my past experiences and interests is why I’m super excited to be talking to you about this position. In particular, I’d be really excited to promote the great work this organization is doing to make it easier for students to get access to great teachers."
Framework 3: Tell a story.
Let’s say Jessica is making a larger pivot and it’s pretty clear from looking at her resume. If it’s genuine, here’s one last framework she could try:
[Explain where you are now and why you’re pivoting] "As you can see from my resume, I’ve spent the last twelve years in corporate communications and PR. I’ve been a communications professional for a long time, but have been searching for the right opportunity to find more meaning in my work. That led me to the education field."
[Tell a genuine story] "Growing up, my grandmother and I were very close. She was a seventh-grade teacher for thirty years. On Sundays, I used to have dinner at her house and help her prepare for her lessons the following week. Sometimes that meant organizing papers and materials, sometimes it meant cutting out articles or pictures for her to decorate her classroom with. Her love for teaching and the relationships she built over her decades in the classroom was so evident. I was always so inspired by her passion and commitment."
[Explain what the story means for your career] "Over the last few years I have seen many teachers I know struggle to manage the current demands of the profession. My grandmother is no longer with us, and I find myself constantly thinking that if she could see what teachers today are up against, she’d be so disappointed and upset. I want to contribute to solving this problem."
[Wrap up by showing enthusiasm for the role and the company] "When I saw the marketing role at this organization, I was excited about the potential opportunity to take my prior corporate communications experience and apply it to a cause that’s truly personally meaningful to me. The work you are doing to make it possible for more students to have teachers like my grandmother is so inspiring and I’m so excited to hear more about this position and how I might help promote its mission."
This answer works a bit better for the "Tell me about yourself" question, but even if Jessica was asked the "Walk me through your resume" question, the goal is to share the most important experiences that would add value to this organization.
Ideally, your answer to this first question should be one to two-and-a-half minutes, depending on your career experience and level.
Lastly, practice makes perfect. There is no shame in writing out notes, practicing it in front of the mirror, or getting a friend or coach to help you craft your answer. You’ll be so happy you did when you get the call for a second-round interview!
Emily Lamia has been helping people grow and develop in their careers for over a decade. In 2015, she founded Pivot Journeys to create experiences to help individuals navigate their next career move and find meaningful work.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Founder & CEO
Pivot Journeys LLC
I have been helping people grow and develop in their careers for over a decade. In 2015, I founded Pivot Journeys to create experiences that help individuals navigate their next career move and find meaningful work. Pivot offers individual career coaching and group programs, and we work with organizations to help them build strengths-based cultures that increase engagement, collaboration, and productivity. I spent the first few years of my career working in politics, serving in... Continue Reading
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