6 Actually Helpful Interview Tips From a Former HR Specialist

In college, I was a member of a dorky professional business club in which we conducted loads of mock job interviews and passed around revelatory tips like “over-prepare,” “be yourself,” and “ask a lot of questions.” Now it makes me laugh. (What the hell does it mean to “be yourself”?) Ten years later, after having actually gone through real interview processes and, most helpfully, conducting hundreds myself as an HR Partner, I’ve picked up some tips I think are more helpful. Here’s what I tell my friends when they have pre-interview jitters.

When preparing, work through your answer out loud.

Listing out questions you may be asked and thinking through your answers isn’t enough. Neither is writing them out. You have to say them out loud. I’m always shocked at how I think I have an answer nailed in my head, or on paper, then proceed to stumble over my words as soon as I try to communicate it verbally. Especially if you’re new to interviewing or a little rusty, have a full out-loud interview with yourself. Ask yourself question after question — and answer them to completion over and over. The interviewer may not ask you the same exact questions, but practicing talking about yourself will help you avoid rambling.

Don’t under-dress, but don’t over-dress, either.

People always say you can’t over-dress for an interview, but that wasn’t true in my experience. If you’re massively over-dressed for a casual workplace, it might hint that you don’t understand the company culture, or haven’t done your research. Before the interview, figure out the dress code and then kick your own outfit up a notch, out of respect. If it’s a jeans-and-T-shirt place, wear flats and a blazer. If it’s a flats-and-a-blazer place, go business casual. If it’s a business casual place, go full professional.

Remember this is just a person getting through her busy work day.

You know how it’s freaky when you get older and watch people you know become doctors and realize doctors are just the random doofuses you partied with in your twenties? (If this hasn’t happened yet, just wait! It’s scary.) The same can be said for recruiters. These are just kids who chose a recruiting career path, with their own biases and problems. They’re not all-knowing. If your interview isn’t with a recruiter, even better: She isn’t a professional interviewer. You’re just two people, seeing if there is a match between person and open role. Interviewers won’t remember everything you say, and in some cases may be distracted or trying to come up with questions to ask, and they’ll mostly remember how you made them feel because people are self-absorbed.

Be as conversational as possible.

When an interviewer asks you a question, it’s not a test! You don’t need to deliver a prepared speech in return. Avoid buzzwords or speech patterns you wouldn’t normally use; this is just a conversation. Turn the question over in your mind, feel free to think out loud as you do so. “Ah, I’ve actually thought about this myself. It reminds me of X. My instinct is to say Y, but I can see the draw of Z too because of Q…”

Flip the convo back to your interviewer: Does she know what you mean? Has she experienced that, too? An interview doesn’t have to be this stale game of question/answer/question/answer. Lob it back, include the interviewer, make it more dynamic, just like you would while networking or talking at a cocktail party. Whenever I was interviewing and it turned into a casual chat, the person usually got hired.

No more fake weaknesses. It’s obvious.

If an interviewer asks for your biggest weakness, claiming to be a perfectionist or something similar is an obvious ploy. If you’re confident enough in your ability to do the job, I think the best approach is to be honest about where you struggle and what you’re actively doing to grow in that area. A sort of “working” problem, something you’re in the middle of (and at least somewhat successfully) tackling. Of course, don’t shoot yourself in the foot, but being mature enough to admit an area that needs growth reflects well on you. You could also admit a weakness that’s not overly important for the job, but I think the authentic route is ideal.

Definitely ask questions, but real ones!

By now everyone knows to ask questions at the end of an interview, but if you do so out of obligation, the interviewer will be able to tell, and answering them will feel like a chore. Instead of the lazy question (What’s your favorite thing about the company?) or the canned question to make you look smart (What are the company’s five-year objectives?), consider what it is you actually want to know. Are you curious about the company culture? The interviewer’s most memorable project? The management style of your would-be boss? What the company values most in its employees? You can ask anything, just do it from a genuine place.

Interviewing gets much easier as you get older, gain experience and no longer have to sell yourself on potential. But even if you’re green, remember you have something to offer (and something they’re looking for), and that an interview, like a date, is two-sided. If you spend more energy trying to connect than impress, you’ll probably do both.

Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Ashley Hamilton

    I feel like people say the scariest thing about adulthood is responsibility but for me it’s been watching the people I know become surgeons.

    • l o l

    • Or teachers, but maybe for a different reason. Remember that girl who fell off the table she was dancing on while drunk at a house party sophomore year? Or that guy who snapped your bra strap repeatedly when you were 16? She’s teaching middle school math, and he’s in elementary ed. **Cringes**

      • Adrianna

        I started realizing those people were teachers back in high school. But that might speak to the kind of public school I went to…

        (Fun fact – a gym teacher was fired after he snapped a freshmen’s thong when she was bending over)

    • Mariana

      Someone for my college who used to smoke pot often is now a pilot in a well known european flight company.

  • Abby

    I’ve recently been involved in several hiring campaigns in my office, and a thing that’s been interesting to me is everyone’s varying ideas around thank you notes. I took a class in “interviewing skills” during grad school that was very clear that you should only send an email thank you note. I’ve also heard from a few other professionals that they don’t send them and don’t want to receive them, because a job interview isn’t a favor it’s a business transaction. One of the higher ups in my office recently was deciding between three candidates and chose the one that sent a hand written thank you AND an email thank you, rather than the person who sent a handwritten one and the other person, who sent her note by email. It’s like you can’t win! Someone, please clear up the thank you note confusion for me!

    • Kimbones

      This is the first time I’ve ever heard of this. Just for context I’ve been working, interviewing (both sides of the table) in London for 15 years. Is this just a US thing?

      • Same! I’m in the Netherlands and I’ve never heard of thank you-notes after an interview.. I guess it’s different in the US!
        I seriously can’t imagine sending someone an email thanking them for an interview, it would seem very.. pushy to me? Like you’re reminding the person how polite you are and not to forget you interviewed or something? But that might be one of the big differences between working culture in the US vs Europe..

        • JessK

          I agree. I spent the first 15 years of my adult life working in Europe and the American working culture is so different. Here, there is no such thing as letting your work speak for itself and focusing on doing a good job. You are a brand that has to be marketed and sold. It feels so, I don’t know, desperate, fake, and pretentious, to brag about professional accomplishments.

          • Wow that is indeed very different.. Whenever I read these things I’m glad I don’t live in the USA, bc I’d probably never get a job. I can do a shitload of things but marketing myself is not one of them. Also I’m very very bad at networking.
            How did you adjust to the difference?

          • JessK

            It took a lot of time to get used to the difference, that’s for sure. I try to focus on projects and my contributions and back it up with quantitative results and qualitative anecdotes.

          • Ana

            I think it depends really on the industry. I work in film/advertising (in the UK) and I have definitely followed up all my interviews/meetings with emails. Equally marketing yourself and making sure you stand out is really important because it’s so competitive. You don’t tend to get jobs the conventional way (by applying) but only really through networking so having a “brand” (for the lack of a less horrible world) is definitely important.

          • gfy

            How did you brand yourself, so to speak?

      • Whatwould Slashdo

        Sure not, I’ve been told to send them when I first arrived to the UK 15 years ago and have been succesfully doing so.

    • I couldn’t agree more, this part is so confusing. I know people who swear by emails, saying a handwritten note seems outdated and isn’t timely enough, and others who say handwritten is the only way to go because it’s tangible and thoughtful and personal. Then some folks say sending both is a great way to cover all your bases, and others think it’s overkill + desperate. WHAT GIVES.

    • “because a job interview isn’t a favor it’s a business transaction” I agree. Honestly if a job is going to chose me based on whether I sent a handwritten note or not, I probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway.

    • rolaroid

      Who sends an e-mail AND a handwritten note?? That’s too much, the employer can’t possibly care that much, they have other shit to do! Just as this article stated, it’s just another busy day for them.

      • Haley Nahman

        I agree that’s just unnecessary. I think thank you emails are fine — but more so because following up in order to stay in touch is smart and helpful. Too much doting is a fresh-out-of-school thing, I think, and I don’t think it helps as much as people think.

        • I was just about to reply the opposite, that I think just the handwritten note is a lost art and a personal touch that makes email feels like a millennial copout.

          However, thinking back, I have had a few instances where mailing a card didn’t work as well as I’d hoped: the address I had was for some all-encompassing mailroom, not the specific HR, or the hiring manager was an outside agent who didn’t even get the note I sent to the office, or we met at a nearby coffee shop and google only gave me a vague notion of the correct business address, or the the interview was on a Friday afternoon and by the time they received a card via USPS, it was Tuesday and it didn’t tip the scales in my favor, the list goes on.

          So now I agree that email is best: it reinforces that they have your most direct contact info and gives them the easy option of hitting “reply” instead of digging up your resume for clarification.

    • Laura Guarraci

      I find recently most times I don’t even have the interviewer’s email address to send anything because we were put in touch through a recruiter! I think it’s altogether a bit of a dated concept. Hand written thank you’s may be appropriate out of respect for someone from an older generation, otherwise it feels weird. Who gets mail AT ALL anymore?!

      • I think that’s why it’s effective and sets you apart from other candidates. It can backfire as not modern, though.

    • Emily

      I like to send an email, soon after the interview (same day if possible), thanking the interviewer for their time. it can be pretty simple and doesn’t feel like too much. i’ve never done a handwritten card though!

    • TBH, I’ve done the follow-up email with positive reactions, but what I’ve found even more effective is a follow-up voicemail. It doesn’t always work, but if you are interviewing for a company that has a receptionist who can put you through to the interviewer’s voicemail – not connect you directly – I’ve gotten positive responses from leaving a short follow-up VM thanking them for the opportunity to sit down with them, and letting them know to just reach out if they have further questions.

    • I think it depends on the job and the company. I recently interviewed for a communication design position and a big part of what they do is print design. So I designed a thank-you card and had it professionally printed, then sent it to them. I sure wouldn’t do that for everyone, though!

  • rolaroid

    I think the “biggest weakness” question is just a question for the interviewer to know if you have thought about this for yourself — do you know what your biggest weakness is, and have you been able to make the necessary changes? That’s really what they want to know, I think — like how good at you at evaluating yourself, how good at you at recognizing your faults, how good are you at improving. Another tip a good friend gave me is to always back things up with examples. Don’t just say “yeah that’s the project I worked on” — go into detail even if they haven’t asked yet.

  • Adrianna

    I still cringe when I think about my first interview, for a sales internship when I was 18, NYC 2007. My only source of information was my mother, who actually never held an office job – she cleans offices and houses in wealthy parts of New Jersey.

    I wore a skirt suit, white button down shirt, heels, and nude hosiery in the middle of the summer. I was completely drenched in sweat after the subway ride, and I locked myself in the next-door Starbucks to dry my clothes with the hand dryer. The woman interviewing me had a chic baggy black top with black leggings. She kept asking me (kindly, out of pity) if I was sure that I didn’t need to use the restroom first. (probably because I still looked sweaty)

    ps, my mother still tried to buy me nude hosiery for my job in 2012.

    • Imaiya Ravichandran

      omg <3 <3 u poor thing. as a side note, though, i think itd be amazing if mr ran a "worst first interview" story. let's commiserate together.

      • ihaveacooch


        • tmm16

          I concur

    • Senka

      Nude hosiery is a crime against fashion and femininity and should be banned. Last we all suffer from it.

      • june2

        SO TRUE, yet…I know someone who was hired in junior
        management at a 4 star hotel in HAWAII *because* she wore hosiery to the interview! She said the interviewer told her she admired “her commitment”, indicated by the hosiery, after she was hired. Yikes, is all I could think. That is so wrong, particularly for Hawaii.

    • Lyla

      Ugh, I had a totally similar situation. My black full skirt suit was totally right for the job, but the hour and a half commute left me drenched in sweat. I was 20 minutes early so I went into a bathroom on another floor, took off all of my clothes and pressed my naked, steaming hot body to the cold tile walls and metal toilet stall door (ew) and then sat on the toilet until I felt semi-human again. I bummed a hair tie from another woman in the bathroom, scraped my hair back into a bun that I hoped looked sophisticated, prayed my still sweaty face looked glowy and youthful, swiped on some lipstick and marched into the office . . . without realizing that I had forgotten to swap out my brown Minnetonka moccasins for work appropriate pumps. The interview lasted ten minutes and I didn’t even bother to send a thank you note.

      • Tierney Elizabeth Gilroy

        i love this story thank you ahahaha

  • Damn – I didn’t expect much from the title (no offense, just a trite subject historically) but this was super helpful! Loved this line, so true: “they’ll mostly remember how you made them feel because people are self-absorbed.”

    • Katie M

      That was my favourite line and I’ve found it’s the case for most interactions, both professional and social. I’ve just moved back to Australia from New York and am missing American friendliness. I had an interview the other day and was horrified at how uncomfortable the interviewer made me feel… This is the person who is the first point of contact for prospective hires? Who is theoretically selling the company and its culture? Really?? Funny how that line about how someone makes you feel (or how you made someone feel) works both ways, for both the interviewers and interviewees.

    • Oh yes! That line was my “EXACTLY!” moment. It’s always better if you don’t get the recruiter – they aren’t the one you’re working for. I don’t see this as making the interviewer like you, or sucking up to them. It’s more about being someone they can relate to and see themselves in. A lot of folks are looking for a protege (and I don’t mean that in the creepy sense) and that does mean projecting themselves onto you. The key is You Can’t Fake This One. You are or you aren’t; you have to take your genuine self to the interview, because if you get the job, your genuine self will eventually come to work with you.
      And if they are being creepy, it’s better to find that out NOW rather than later. At this point, you can still run for the nearest exit (and be very satisfied that you set off the fire alarm on the door).

      • Adrianna

        “A lot of folks are looking for a protege”

        The tech company I work for in NYC has been putting in the effort to combat this kind of hiring bias. It limits diversity both in demographics and how people solve problems. We’re not going to combat problems of inclusion and racism if we continue to hire people that remind us of us.

        And I recognize that this kind of bias got me hired in the first place. It’s ridiculous that my entire team is comprised of Eastern European immigrants. I’m more Americanized out of the three of us, and I see how cultural homogeneity stunts the team.

  • My favorite response to “What are your weaknesses?” is “Does anyone ever answer this honestly?” and I giggle a little bit and the interviewer usually giggles back and everyone relaxes. I follow-up with something like “I know the standard answer is that I’m a perfectionist and that I care too much, but honestly…” and then I throw something in there about my actual weaknesses, like sometimes I ask too many questions (but it’s because I want to make sure I have a firm grasp on the project at hand).
    Second favorite response (depending on my read of the room), is, with a very straight face and direct eye contact, “I have none, I’m perfect” and I deadpan a bit before I laugh and, again, the interviewer laughs and everyone relaxes. And again, I follow that up with something ordinary that I actually struggle with that’s not a big deal.

    • Mariana

      I can imagine saying the “I have none, I’m perfect” then DROP THE MIC 😀

  • C. Killion

    “Biggest weakness?” I’d reply, “I have no fear that I will get the job done”. My area of expertise is deadline-driven, and one needs nerves of titanium, as well as the ability to inspire one’s staff. With much experience comes the assurance. As a note: I operate well under pressure.

    • Mariana

      Wow, I like your answer, it shows confidence. But if the recruiter insist for you to give him a weakness, what do you answer? Or, normally, after you first answer they don’t insist?

      • C. Killion

        Hello, Mariana
        Good question! My answer: I can’t read minds. Left unsaid, of course, would be my thoughts, “Why do you keep asking”?

  • Jen

    In my own personal experience, I can attest to the fact that I’ve received exactly 0 job offers from companies where I interviewed without preparing in advance. Though that fact SHOULD seem obvious to most people, I somehow was under the impression in my 20s that I could just BS my experience on the interview without even bothering to do a bit of preliminary research (despite not being the kind of person who can successfully blunder my way through these kinds of life situations). I can recall several instances where my mind when blank after the interviewer asked a question for which I had no answer, and I stumbled over my words so awkwardly that I considered hanging up the phone or bolting from the room to make the pain and suffering subside. The ONLY thing that has consistently worked for me—though this may be more of a confidence issue on my part—is to rehearse what I’m going to say as Haley suggested, out loud, over and over and over and then again one more time. Even if I’m not trying to just memorize answers so that I sound like a robot spitting out answers, it helps to know what I’m going to say so that, when the time comes, it just kind of rolls off my tongue…

  • Kay Ann

    I have two tips that have made so much difference for me!

    1. At the end of the interview, the interviewer will ask if you have any questions for them. In addition to all your well-researched prepared questions, ask, “Do you have any reservations about me as a candidate for this position?” If your interviewer was going to come away from the interview with any negative feelings – s/he has a chance to air them, and you can address the concern head-on. This is your chance to show your assertiveness, your critical thinking, and your radical candor. I have won interviews that were in the balance so many times using this tactic, and felt like a total badass in the process. Never walk away without it. It seriously makes an impression.

    2. In every presentation you ever do, think of one question you really want the audience to ask and one question you really *don’t* want the audience to ask, then incorporate those into your presentation. Same goes for interviews. Does your stomach drop when you think about the gap on your resume, or your lack of a specific software skill the requirements list? Address it confidently and head-on in one of your answers, including your reasons why the interviewer should overlook that little issue, because you’re a superstar otherwise.

    • Mariana

      The first comment is super helpful, never thought about that.

  • orthostice

    One of the best follow-up questions I’ve found is: “Why has this role been created?”. In my experience it can result in some pretty revealing answers and can give you a clue about whether you will actually fit with the position/company.

  • Libby

    Yay I love this!

    I’ve actually got an interview this afternoon and I’m sitting at my current job reading MR (as one does) and I see the most relevant article possible.

    Thanks Haley!! I’m going to utilizing every single one of these tips *fingers crossed*

  • Kattigans

    Great advice! As someone who’s had to interview multiple times within a 2 year time span I can say it gets better and easier as you gain experience interviewing. My most successful interviews have been those where I have no expectations (just meaning that I don’t put all my eggs in one basket), remember to relax, make it conversational – even add some of my own humor in there obvs keep it work appropriate, and just remember to show genuine enthusiasm. Another tip too for the dress code is to ask the internal recruiter or HR person. They are happy to answer and it takes the guess work out.

  • Emily Rose Ma

    This post definitely sounds like it rings true to a lot of administrative and/or related job positions, even/esp. Fashion PR (any/all edition and fashion journalism) but I’m curious for more of for craft-based employment? compare/contrast to an interview based on portfolio-presentations? Or stressing which kinds of industry cultures have this corporate-influenced politics, including dressy-casual, on appearances. Let me know what I’m unaware of.

    • Lyla

      Fashion PR – wear a cool dress and heels or super cool flats. Nothing too fancy that stands out and definitely not a suit. PR people are behind the scenes. A knee length dress from Zara will probably suffice or a funky skirt paired with a crisp button down or black turtleneck. I really wouldn’t recommend anything very short.

  • Allison R

    “If it’s a jeans-and-T-shirt place, wear flats and a blazer. If it’s a flats-and-a-blazer place, go business casual. ”
    shit ! are flats and a blazer- not business casual?! someone help a sista out

    • june2

      I would love a recurring seasonal post on the best work appropriate blazers of the moment, and what to wear under them…is that too boring? Would be so helpful nontheless!

      • Lyla

        BCBG makes great blazers. They fit me really well with a smidge of stretch and don’t wrinkle. They’re usually pretty chic without being over the top. Depending on your style I would choose a light flowy chiffon blouse that shows a bit of your chest without any cleavage or a silk top with a bold graphic pattern.

  • Basil

    I’ve been doing interview recently (as interviewer), and one thing always goes down well is admitting when you don’t know the answer. I have much more respect for someone who can admit to gaps in the knowledge (which everyone does) than someone who tries to BS their way out of it

  • Cynthia

    I am the most rando doofus of them all! I truly can’t believe they’re letting me a doctor.