Interviewing Skills

10 Steps to a Successful Interview

10 Steps to a Successful Interview

  • Arrive on time.
  • Introduce yourself in a courteous manner.
  • Read company materials while you wait.
  • Have a firm handshake.
  • Listen.
  • Use body language to show interest.
  • Smile, nod, and give nonverbal feedback to the interviewer.
  • Ask about the next step in the process.
  • Thank the interviewer.
  • Write a thank-you letter to anyone you have spoken to.

Facts to Gather Before Interviewing

  • Key people in the organization
  • Major products or services
  • Size in terms of sales and employees
  • Locations other than your community
  • Organizational structure of the company
  • Major competitors
  • View of the company by clients, suppliers, and competition
  • Latest news reports on the company or on local or national news that affects the company.
Facts to Gather Before Interviewing

Handling Illegal Questions

Various federal, state, and local laws regulate the questions a prospective employer can ask you, the job candidate. An employer’s questions—whether on the job application, in the interview, or during the testing process—must be related to the job you’re seeking. For the employer, the focus must be: “What do I need to know to decide whether this person can perform the functions of this job?”

If asked an illegal question, you have three options:

  • You can answer the question—you’re free to do so, if you wish. However, if you choose to answer an illegal question, remember that you are giving information that isn’t related to the job; in fact, you might be giving the “wrong” answer, which could harm your chances of getting the job.
  • You can refuse to answer the question, which is well within your rights. Unfortunately, depending on how you phrase your refusal, you run the risk of appearing uncooperative or confrontational—hardly words an employer would use to describe the “ideal” candidate.
  • You can examine the question for its intent and respond with an answer as it might apply to the job. For example, the interviewer asks, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” or “What country are you from?” You’ve been asked an illegal question. You could respond, however, with “I am authorized to work in the United States.” Similarly, let’s say the interviewer asks, “Who is going to take care of your children when you have to travel for the job?” You might answer, “I can meet the travel and work schedule that this job requires.”

The following are examples of some illegal questions and their legal counterparts.

Inquiry Area
Illegal Questions
Legal Questions

National Origin/ Citizenship

• Are you a U.S. citizen? • Where were you/your parents born? • What is your “native tongue”? • Are you authorized to work in the United States? • What language do you read/speak/write fluently? (This question is okay only if this ability is relevant to the performance of the job.)


• How old are you? • When did you graduate? • What’s your birth date?

• Are you over the age of 18?


• What’s your marital status? • With whom do you live? • Do you plan to have a family? When? • How many kids do you have? • What are your child-care arrangements?

• Would you be willing to relocate if necessary? • Would you be able and willing to travel as needed for the job? (This question is okay if it is asked of all applicants for the job.) • Would you be able and willing to work overtime as necessary? (This question is okay assuming it is asked of all applicants for the job.)


• What clubs or social organizations do you belong to?

• Are you able to lift a 50-pound weight and carry it 100 yards, as that is part of the job?


• How tall are you? How much do you weigh? (Questions about height and weight are not acceptable unless minimum standards are essential for the safe performance of the job.)

• Are you able to lift a 50-pound weight and carry it 100 yards, as that is part of the job?


• Do you have any disabilities? • Please complete the following medical history. • Have you had any recent or past illnesses or operations? If yes, list them and give dates when these occurred. • What was the date of your last physical exam? • How’s your family’s health? • When did you lose your eyesight? How? • Do you need an accommodation to perform the job? (This question can be asked only after a job offer has been made.)

• Are you able to perform the essential functions of this job? (This question is okay if the interviewer has thoroughly described the job.) • Can you demonstrate how you would perform the following job-related functions? • As part of the hiring process, after a job offer has been made, you will be required to undergo a medical exam. (Exam results must be kept strictly confidential, except medical/safety personnel may be informed if emergency medical treatment is required, and supervisors may be informed about necessary job accommodations, based on exam results.)

Arrest Record

• Have you ever been arrested?

• Have you ever been convicted of _____? (The crime named should be reasonably related to the performance of the job in question.)


• If you’ve been in the military, were you honorably discharged?

• In what branch of the Armed Forces did you serve? • What type of training or education did you receive in the military?

Interviewers' Favorite Questions...and Answers

You’re wearing your best interview suit and facing your best friend, who’s wearing the most inscrutable hiring-manager face she can muster. You’ve carefully positioned a video camera to record your every move. All is in place for your mock interview.

“Tell me about yourself,” your friend/interviewer intones, adjusting her glasses and gazing steadily into your eyes.

What should you tell her? What would you tell a real recruiter or hiring manager?

“Don’t tell me where you were born and raised,” says Jonathan Ferguson, assistant director of career services at George Washington University and a veteran of countless mock interviews with students. “Don’t tell me that you were a cheerleader. Focus on your academics and experience. Ask yourself, ‘what are the top five things I want this person to know about me?’”

Ferguson says that while many recruiters ask questions that are a bit more pointed than “tell me about yourself,” it’s still likely to come up in many interviews and it’s best for students to prepare for it.

What other kinds of questions do recruiters ask? Following are 10 more, plus ideas for how to answer or the kinds of competencies the interviewer is seeking, courtesy of Ferguson and three experienced campus recruiters.

1. What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

“I want to hear something related to retail,” says Haley Peoples, college relations manager for JC Penney Co. Inc. in Dallas, Texas. “I don’t want to hear ‘I want to be an astronaut’ or ‘I want to win the Academy Award.’”

Peoples says the question is designed to help the interviewer know if the job seeker will be happy in that position, or if he or she wants to work in it only as long as it takes to find something “better.”

2. How do you make yourself indispensable to a company?

“We are looking for both technical and interpersonal competence,” says Doris J. Smith-Brooks, recruiting and advertising manager for Boeing Co. in Seattle, Washington.

Smith-Brooks explains that students who have interned or completed cooperative education assignments generally answer the question best because they know what working for a company entails.

3. What’s your greatest strength?

“Don’t just talk about your strength--relate it to the position,” Ferguson says. “Let them know you are a qualified candidate.”

4. What’s your greatest weakness?

“Say something along the lines of, ‘I have difficulty with this thing, and these are the strategies I use to get around it,” Ferguson says. “For example, you could say, ‘I’m not the most organized of individuals, so I always answer my e-mails and phone calls right away. I’m aware of the problem and I have strategies to deal with it.”

5. Tell me about a time when your course load was heavy. How did you complete all your work?

“We generally are looking for an answer like, ‘Last semester I was taking 21 credits, so I made sure I had a day planner and mapped out all my assignments,’” says Felix J. Martinez, senior staff recruiter at Abbott Laboratories in Abbott Park, Illinois. “We’re looking for a plan-ahead kind of individual, not someone who just flies by the seat of his pants.”

Martinez says recruiters at Abbott Laboratories use the STAR method of interviewing, which involves getting the interviewee to describe a situation that includes a task that needed to be accomplished, the action taken to accomplish the task, and the result of that action.

“We actually tell the candidate, so they’re aware of what we’re looking for,” he says, adding that the approach can help candidates focus on their answers.

6. Tell me about a time when you had to accomplish a task with someone who was particularly difficult to get along with.

“I want to hear something that shows the candidate has the ability to be sensitive to the needs of others but can still influence them,” Peoples says, adding that he’s heard plenty of wrong answers to that question. “Don’t say ‘I just avoided them’ or ‘They made me cry.’”

7. How do you accept direction and, at the same time, maintain a critical stance regarding your ideas and values?

Smith-Brooks repeats that internship or co-op experience can give students the experience to answer that question, pointing out that students with good interpersonal skills honed on the job can understand how to walk that fine line.

8. What are some examples of activities and surroundings that motivate you?

“Most of our technical disciplines are teamwork professions and require getting along with and motivating other people,” Smith-Brooks says.

9. Tell me how you handled an ethical dilemma.

“Suppose you worked at a bank and a long-time customer wanted a check cashed right away but didn’t have the fund balance in his account to cover the check,” Martinez says, explaining that if the bank’s policy prohibited cashing checks in that manner, the teller would have a choice of violating bank policy or alienating a good customer.

Martinez says the best way to handle such a situation would be to go to a supervisor, explain the situation, and ask for advice. He adds that students who can’t offer a situation that they handled correctly the first time can explain how they learned from making mistakes.

“Explain that the next time, this was how you handled it,” he says.

10. Tell me about a time when you had to resolve a problem with no rules or guidelines in place.

“I’m looking for a sense of urgency in initiating action,” Peoples says, explaining that the question probes a student’s ability to overcome obstacles.

For Peoples, students offering the best answers to the question describe a retail-related problem.

“I’m looking for the right thing in terms of customer service,” he says.

Appropriate Attire Is a Must

The clothing you wear to your interview should make you look like you will fit in at your prospective employer. When in doubt, err on the side of conservatism, suggest the experts. Even if the company has a "business casual" dress policy, you're better off dressing a bit on the stuffy side than in taking a gamble only to find that your idea of casual doesn't match that of your prospective employer.

For Men

Traditional business attire means a dark, conservative suit and a white, long-sleeved (even in summer), pressed dress shirt.

Ties should be silk and coordinate well with the suit. Avoid flashy patterns on ties-the job interview isn't the time to prove how much of an individualist you are.

If you wear an earring (or several), remove it before the interview.

For Women

Traditional business attire is a conservative suit or dress-those thigh-high skirt lengths alá Melrose Place won't cut it in the real business world.

Avoid wearing jewelry and makeup that are showy or distracting.

Forget the excessively long fingernails-they, too, are distracting. If you wear nail polish, make sure it's a subtle color and neatly done.

For Everyone

Avoid wearing too much cologne or perfume.

Your hair should be clean and well-groomed.

Shoes should be polished and coordinate with your suit or dress.

An interview isn't a beauty contest, but how you dress and your overall appearance almost always get noticed by the interviewer. Don't give the interviewer a chance to rule you out because you didn't feel like ironing your shirt or polishing your shoes. Dress in a business-like, professional manner, and you'll be sure to fit in wherever you interview.