Admissions Consulting
Telephone 1800-212-2670
Career Services
Telephone 310-309-1998

The Defin­i­tive Guide to Ace Your Inter­view and Get the Job

By Vijay Ingam, CFA


Click To Download

This short guide is designed to help a typ­i­cal job appli­cant pre­pare for an inter­view. As far as we are con­cerned it’s the best guide to job inter­view prepa­ra­tion because it’s com­pre­hen­sive but suc­cinct. We’ll advise you on:

  • What to bring and wear to a job interview
  • How to research the com­pany prior to your interview
  • What aspects of your back­ground to empha­size dur­ing the interview
  • How to answer the most com­mon job inter­view questions
  • How to avoid pit­falls in the process
  • How to deal with a tele­phone inter­view or a panel interview
  • How to write a thank you note after the interview
  • How to accept a job offer

Business woman asks for help with her job interview

Don’t panic if you just got invited to a job interview!

You should expect to spend 2–8 hours prepar­ing for a typ­i­cal job inter­view. The more time you spend prepar­ing for a job inter­view, the more likely you are to get the job. Remem­ber that your over­all goal in the job inter­view process is to impress the hir­ing manager(s) enough to pick you over the other appli­cants by pre­sent­ing your edu­ca­tional back­ground, skills, cre­den­tials, work expe­ri­ence and per­son­al­ity in the best pos­si­ble light. If you come to an inter­view hav­ing com­pleted the prepa­ra­tions described in this guide you should be bet­ter pre­pared than the vast major­ity of job appli­cants; that’s how you get the job.Candidates with spe­cial sit­u­a­tions or those apply­ing for spe­cific job types may require addi­tional prepa­ra­tion. Con­sult your Inter­view SOS coach for guidance.

  • Always be 30 min­utes early for a job inter­view and plan to have reli­able trans­porta­tion ahead of time.
  • Start your con­ver­sa­tion with each inter­viewer with a smile and a firm handshake.
  • Dress in busi­ness for­mal attire (see our guide­lines below).
  • Express your inter­est in the com­pany very early in the inter­view. You can say, “I am very excited to have the oppor­tu­nity to inter­view for this position.”
  • Main­tain eye con­tact with your interviewer.
  • Ask each inter­viewer to give you a busi­ness card or pro­fes­sional con­tact info, includ­ing email (you will need this to send a thank you note and fol­low up later).

Plan to be 30 min­utes early to your job interview.

We have the fol­low­ing sug­ges­tions for attire and per­sonal groom­ing for men and women for job interviews.

Rec­om­mended Attire for Men

  • A recently dry cleaned and pressed navy blue, grey or black suit
  • A blue or white col­lared button-down long sleeve shirt (pin­stripes are acceptable)
  • A nice but con­ser­v­a­tive tie
  • Dark col­ored socks
  • Brown or black leather belt and shoes
  • No san­dals or open-toed shoes
  • Con­ser­v­a­tively combed hair (if you have long hair, put it in a ponytail)
  • The only jew­elry you should wear is a wristwatch
  • Pull out your ear­ring if you have one (you can wear it later, just not dur­ing the interview)

Rec­om­mended Attire for Women

  • A recently dry cleaned and pressed dark blue, black, cream, beige or grey dress suit (make sure the length is below the knees) or pantsuit
  • Con­ser­v­a­tive leather shoes (no open-toed shoes)
  • Hair in a bun, pony­tail or in a carefully-combed con­ser­v­a­tive hairstyle
  • Lim­ited jew­elry and taste­fully done makeup


Appro­pri­ate Attire for a Job Interview

For both sexes we suggest:

• Shower well, groom your­self, and rinse with mouth­wash or use breath mints before the inter­view.
• Con­ceal any tattoos.

These guide­lines are applic­a­ble in the vast major­ity of job inter­view sit­u­a­tions. Please con­sult your inter­view coach if you need any clarification.

We sug­gest that you bring the fol­low­ing items to your interview:

  • Two copies of your resume on resume paper
  • A list of ref­er­ences (call your ref­er­ences to con­firm they are pre­pared to answer inquiries) or let­ters of recommendation
  • A com­plete work and salary his­tory includ­ing dates of employ­ment, loca­tion, salary and con­tact infor­ma­tion for all prior employers
  • Copies of any pro­fes­sional certifications
  • A leather port­fo­lio with a notepad
  • Two pens (black or blue)
  • Your cel­lu­lar phone (turned off before the inter­view begins)
  • A copy of your driver’s license, social secu­rity card and passport

Hav­ing these items on hand will facil­i­tate your appli­ca­tion process and aid you in com­plet­ing any required paperwork.

Groom­ing and hygiene are always important.

You should antic­i­pate spend­ing 2–8 hours research­ing the job, the com­pany, and prepar­ing answers to inter­view ques­tions prior to a typ­i­cal job inter­view. If you know the com­pany or the indus­try well, you may need to spend less time.

Research the com­pany and your role in it

Read the job description

  • Iden­tify the key skills and traits required for the position
  • Iden­tify aspects of your back­ground (edu­ca­tion, job his­tory, inter­ests, etc.) that show you have those skills and traits. Make a list and try to touch upon these in the job interview

Research the company

  • Read the com­pany web­site and recent press releases
  • Google the com­pany and the busi­ness unit you will be work­ing in
  • Know basic facts about the com­pany such as how large they are, where they have offices and the nature of their main business
  • Research how your role fits into the company
  • If you can learn about the peo­ple who will be inter­view­ing you, research their back­grounds as well
  • Reach out to any con­tacts you have in the orga­ni­za­tion, tell them you will be inter­view­ing for a job and ask them for feed­back and advice

Pre­pare 4–8 ques­tions for the interviewer

  • These ques­tions should sub­tly show that you researched the com­pany and think pos­i­tively about it. Examples:
    • I noticed you recently hired a new CEO, Per­son X, do you expect pos­i­tive changes in the company’s busi­ness as a result?”
    • On your web­site you describe your excit­ing new prod­uct Z, how are cus­tomers respond­ing to this product?”
  • You can always ask your inter­viewer ques­tions about their per­sonal expe­ri­ence at the com­pany. Examples:
    • How long have you been at com­pany X?”
    • “What has your expe­ri­ence at com­pany X been like?”

The best pre­pared job appli­cant usu­ally gets the job.

What Employ­ers Are Look­ing For

Before you begin prepar­ing answers to com­mon job inter­view ques­tions, you need to know the char­ac­ter­is­tics that employ­ers are look­ing for in poten­tial appli­cants. Employ­ers typ­i­cally like job appli­cants with the fol­low­ing traits:

  • Reli­able
  • Proac­tive and take initiative
  • Work well in teams
  • Have energy and enthusiasm
  • Self-motivated
  • Ver­sa­tile
  • Orga­nized

Through­out the job inter­view, try to sub­tly show you have the above char­ac­ter­is­tics by pro­vid­ing exam­ples from your pro­fes­sional or aca­d­e­mic expe­ri­ence in which you demon­strated these traits.

Moti­va­tions, Aspi­ra­tions, and Thought Process

The biggest mis­take that most job appli­cants make is not pre­sent­ing their moti­va­tions, aspi­ra­tions and inter­nal thought processes in a pos­i­tive light. Some exam­ples of com­mon mistakes:

  • Don’t say you quit your job because you dis­liked your boss, say you did it because you felt there was no room to grow or you were inter­ested in another oppor­tu­nity, etc.
  • Don’t say you’re inter­ested in a posi­tion because of the money, say you’re inter­ested in the growth oppor­tu­ni­ties or your admi­ra­tion for the com­pany, etc.

Accept­able moti­va­tions include inter­est in the job and the indus­try, a desire to expand your knowl­edge and skills, or seek­ing greater chal­lenges. Your thoughts are your own, so always present your inter­nal thought process in a pos­i­tive light.

Pre­pare your answers to com­mon job inter­view ques­tions before the interview.

You’ll want to fol­low these guide­lines in answer­ing inter­view questions:

  • Make sure your answers are clear and easy to under­stand (as a guide­line your answer should be sim­ple enough that a high school senior could under­stand it).
  • Focus on ful­fill­ing the needs of the com­pany that is hir­ing you, not your own needs.
  • Pre­pare your answers to com­mon job inter­view ques­tions before your inter­view and rehearse your answers.
  • Show you have the skills described in the job descrip­tion as required.
  • Prove you can han­dle your­self pro­fes­sion­ally in the work­force and will be a reli­able employee.
  • Show you have insight into the impor­tance of your work and its impact on your pre­vi­ous employers.
  • When­ever pos­si­ble men­tion the pos­i­tive finan­cial impact of your activ­i­ties (“saved $100K annu­ally” or “led to $300K in addi­tional revenue”).
  • Pro­vide exam­ples of your­self proac­tively seek­ing solu­tions to work­place problems.
  • Never repeat a neg­a­tive assess­ment of your per­for­mance made by some­one else.
  • Never say any­thing bad about a past employer, coworker, boss, teacher, or any­one else dur­ing a job interview.
  • Never swear.
  • You can sugar coat the truth, but never lie dur­ing a job interview.

A firm hand­shake and a win­ning smile can get you the job.

Ques­tion 1 : Tell me about yourself

Give a short 2–3 minute pitch sum­ma­riz­ing your back­ground, cre­den­tials, and skills as related to the job you are apply­ing for. This is often called an “ele­va­tor pitch.” Focus on your per­sonal, pro­fes­sional, and aca­d­e­mic achieve­ments. There are many ways to answer this ques­tion; we sug­ges­tion start­ing with your pro­fes­sional goals and cur­rent pro­fes­sion. Then go through your resume in chrono­log­i­cal order, includ­ing jobs and edu­ca­tion. End by say­ing how your expe­ri­ence and back­ground make you the ideal can­di­date for this position.

Cur­rent Job or Profession

Exam­ple: “I’m an expe­ri­enced finan­cial analyst”

Aspi­ra­tion or Pro­fes­sional Goal (should be related to the job you are apply­ing for)

Exam­ple: “Seek­ing a role as the Direc­tor of Finance in your company.”

Edu­ca­tion: Insti­tu­tions stud­ied at, degrees pur­sued includ­ing notable, career-relevant achieve­ments, or activ­i­ties at each institution

Exam­ple: “I got my BA in Account­ing from USC, where I was pres­i­dent of my soror­ity Kappa Zeta and took course­work in finan­cial modeling.”

Work His­tory : Men­tion passed jobs, includ­ing com­pany name, your role, the num­ber of years you worked there, and major accom­plish­ments, achieve­ments, and recognition.

Exam­ple: “After grad­u­at­ing, I worked as an accoun­tant at Bank of X for 5 years, dur­ing which I was pro­moted from junior accoun­tant to man­ager. My major accom­plish­ments included land­ing 3 new accounts for the com­pany totalling $3 m in new rev­enue for the com­pany and stream­lin­ing our account­ing sys­tem result­ing in $100 k in annual cost sav­ings. I cur­rently man­age 3 junior analysts.”

Men­tion Credentials:

Exam­ple: “I have com­pleted the require­ments for the CPA des­ig­na­tion and I am licensed in the state of California.”

Sum­mary: End by sum­ma­riz­ing how your skills, edu­ca­tional back­ground and work expe­ri­ence will make you an ideal can­di­date for the posi­tion described.

Exam­ple: “In sum­ma­tion, I think that my edu­ca­tional back­ground, and work expe­ri­ence have made me into a proac­tive, detail-oriented finan­cial man­ager who is a good fit for this role.”

Com­plete Example:

I’m an expe­ri­enced finan­cial ana­lyst seek­ing a role as the Direc­tor of Finance in your com­pany. I got my BA in Account­ing from USC, where I was pres­i­dent of my soror­ity Kappa Zeta and took course­work in finan­cial mod­el­ing. After grad­u­at­ing, I worked as an accoun­tant at Bank of X for 5 years, dur­ing which I was pro­moted from junior accoun­tant to man­ager. My major accom­plish­ments included land­ing 3 new accounts for the com­pany total­ing $3 m in new rev­enue and stream­lin­ing our account­ing sys­tem result­ing in $100 k in annual cost sav­ings. I cur­rently man­age 3 junior ana­lysts. I have com­pleted the require­ments for the CPA des­ig­na­tion in the state of Cal­i­for­nia. In sum­ma­tion, I think that my edu­ca­tional back­ground and work expe­ri­ence have made me into a proac­tive, detail-oriented finan­cial man­ager who is a good fit for this role. “

After going through the major items in your resume, you’ll have to trim or add con­tent in your ele­va­tor pitch to fit into the 2–3 min­utes. Always try to focus on the most impor­tant career rel­e­vant por­tions of your resume when writ­ing the ele­va­tor pitch.

Make sure you ask for feed­back about your ele­va­tor pitch from your Inter­view SOS career coach (or a friend). Prac­tice your pitch until it comes nat­u­rally to you.

Inter­view SOS career coaches really add value when pro­vid­ing feed­back on your answers to com­mon job inter­view questions.

Ques­tion 2: Why are you leav­ing your cur­rent or pre­vi­ous job?

When answer­ing this ques­tion, always focus on the pos­i­tive. Men­tion the things you will gain from the new posi­tion such as added respon­si­bil­ity or new oppor­tu­ni­ties rather than neg­a­tive aspects of your cur­rent or last job. You should never crit­i­cize your cur­rent employer or the peo­ple you work with. Don’t men­tion salary as a pri­mary motivator.

Ques­tion 3: What is your great­est strength? What are your strengths?

Select strengths that are appro­pri­ate for the job. Be ready to cite exam­ples from your work expe­ri­ence or edu­ca­tion that demon­strate you have that strength.

Ques­tion 4: What is your great­est weak­ness? What are your weaknesses?

This ques­tion is impor­tant for show­ing self-insight as part of the job inter­view process. Don’t say that you have no weak­nesses. Instead, focus on:

  • Weak­nesses you have corrected
  • Strengths that are weak­nesses in spe­cific situations

Ques­tion 5: Why are you inter­ested in this posi­tion or company?

You should say that you are inter­ested in the com­pany or job because of growth oppor­tu­ni­ties, your admi­ra­tion for the company’s prod­ucts or mis­sion, or other aspects of the job that align with your per­sonal goals and ambi­tion. Don’t say your pri­mary moti­va­tor is salary.

Ques­tion 6: Tell me about your great­est achievement

It’s bet­ter to use a work-related suc­cess to answer this ques­tion, but you can also use exam­ples from your edu­ca­tional back­ground. The situation-action-result frame­work is use­ful in answer­ing ques­tions like this one. You should iden­tify the sit­u­a­tion and prob­lems that you encoun­tered (sit­u­a­tion), how you over­came them (action), and the pos­i­tive con­se­quences of your efforts, prefer­ably finan­cial (results).


My great­est achieve­ment is the turn­around plan I wrote for the under­per­form­ing smaller stores of com­pany Y.”


Com­pany Y had under­per­form­ing small stores about the size of Radio Shack that were run as if they were larger stores the size of Best Buy.”


After speak­ing to the stores’ staff and ana­lyz­ing their finan­cial state­ments, I began to real­ize the smaller stores were under­per­form­ing due to excess inven­tory, inef­fi­ciently sched­uled staff, and lack of locally tar­geted mar­ket­ing. I came up with a com­pre­hen­sive turn­around plan that included reduc­ing inven­tory, adjust­ing staff sched­ul­ing, and tar­get­ing mar­ket­ing expen­di­tures to local markets.”


The com­pany saved $500 k in reduced inven­tory and saw sales increase by 30% or about $1 mil­lion a year. Mak­ing these smaller stores work was crit­i­cal for the poten­tial future growth of the com­pany in smaller markets.”

The situation-action-result frame­work can also be used to answer other job inter­view questions.

Ques­tion 7: How do you deal with conflict?

The appro­pri­ate answer to this ques­tion is to say that you are a “peace­maker” or a “medi­a­tor” who tries to resolve work­place con­flicts and enable peo­ple with con­flict­ing per­son­al­i­ties to work together. Pro­vide a spe­cific exam­ple of a sit­u­a­tion at work or at school in which peo­ple found them­selves at odds, but were nev­er­the­less able to over­come their dif­fer­ences and work together. Men­tion spe­cific things you did to over­come conflicts.

Never say or imply that you often find your­self in con­flict with other peo­ple (regard­less of who is to blame).

How do you plan to respond to dis­crim­i­na­tion if you encounter it?

Deal­ing with Ille­gal Questions

In the United States, it’s ille­gal to ask job inter­view ques­tions about:

  • Race
  • Reli­gion
  • Eth­nic background
  • Sex­ual orientation
  • Chil­dren
  • Mar­i­tal status
  • Age

How­ever, we live in the real world, where com­pa­nies and inter­view­ers are not aware of the law and some­times dis­crim­i­nate. We sug­gest that you use your own judg­ment in answer­ing these types of ques­tions if they do come up. You may no longer be inter­ested in work­ing for the com­pany after being asked a dis­crim­i­na­tory question.

Our sug­gested response to an ille­gal ques­tion is:

“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel it’s appro­pri­ate for me to answer that ques­tion as part of my job inter­view. How­ever, I would be happy to dis­cuss how my skills and qual­i­fi­ca­tions make me the best can­di­date for this job.”

Com­pa­nies often use tele­phone inter­views to screen job appli­cants before bring­ing them into fur­ther rounds of inter­view­ing. Tele­phone inter­views can also be used if a hir­ing man­ager is in a remote loca­tion. Tele­phone inter­views should be viewed just as seri­ously as in per­son inter­views. Sim­i­lar prepa­ra­tions are required.The pri­mary dif­fi­culty with tele­phone inter­views is that it can be hard to respond to ques­tions given over the phone because you don’t have the visual cues from facial expres­sions and body lan­guage to assess your interviewer’s think­ing. How­ever, there are also some advan­tages to tele­phone inter­views. For instance, you can eas­ily refer to your notes dur­ing a tele­phone inter­view. We sug­gest you take advan­tage of this ben­e­fit by hav­ing your notes handy dur­ing the inter­view (Don’t read straight from your notes.).

Our rec­om­men­da­tions for tele­phone inter­views include:

  • Pre­pare as it if was a reg­u­lar interview.
  • Sit alone at a table in a quiet room with your inter­view prepa­ra­tion notes handy dur­ing the inter­view. Make hand ges­tures and speak as if your inter­viewer were in front of you.
  • Make sure you have a reli­able phone, prefer­ably a land-line ready for the inter­view. If you have to use a cel­lu­lar phone, make sure it is com­pletely charged and has excel­lent recep­tion prior to the interview.
  • Remem­ber that your tone of voice is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant in a tele­phone inter­view because that’s how your enthu­si­asm and feel­ings will be conveyed.

You can refer to your notes dur­ing a tele­phone interview.

Some­times you’ll face a team of inter­view­ers instead of a sin­gle inter­viewer. The panel inter­view requires that you con­nect with all of these inter­view­ers at the same time. Expect to get ques­tions from all of the panel mem­bers at some point dur­ing the interview.Our sug­ges­tions for panel inter­views include:

  • Pre­pare as it if was a reg­u­lar interview.
  • Move down the line of inter­view­ers and make sure you intro­duce your­self to each one with a firm hand­shake and a smile at the begin­ning of the interview.
  • When you answer a ques­tion from a spe­cific panel mem­ber, start by hav­ing eye con­tact with the panel mem­ber ask­ing the ques­tion, and then adjust your eye con­tact to address other mem­bers of the group after about 20 sec­onds to show you are direct­ing your answer to the group.
  • Ask for a busi­ness card from every mem­ber of the panel and send a unique thank you note to each.
Intimidating Panel of Interviewers

Don’t be afraid of panel interviews!

Some­times employ­ers will give you skills tests to assess your knowl­edge of the soft­ware pro­grams and other skills or knowl­edge you need for the posi­tion. They will usu­ally warn you ahead of time so you can be pre­pared for such test­ing. Some­times an employer will use test­ing soft­ware that is designed to assess your skills and knowl­edge. Other times they will ask you to demon­strate your abil­ity to do a few com­mon func­tions on a com­puter pro­gram or answer a few ques­tions about a spe­cific subject.The best way to pre­pare for a skills test is to know the sub­ject or com­puter pro­gram you are being tested on but be aware that some­times skills tests can be on aspects of a sub­ject or com­puter pro­gram that you do not use reg­u­larly. Inter­view SOS sug­gests the fol­low­ing preparations:

Tests on Microsoft Office Appli­ca­tions (Microsoft Excel, Word, Pow­er­Point, Access or Outlook)

Before tak­ing a skills test on a Microsoft Office pro­gram, we sug­gest you use the Pro­fes­sor Teaches Office 2010 from Indi­vid­ual Soft­ware. It’s a great pro­gram that shows you how to use most basic func­tions on each of the major pro­grams of the Microsoft Office Suite. Expect to spend 3–4 hours learn­ing the basic func­tions for each pro­gram. We sug­gest doing both the basic and advanced lessons for each office pro­gram prior to a skills test.

Typ­ing Tests

We sug­gest using either Mavis Bea­con Teaches Typ­ing or Typ­ing Instruc­tor before tak­ing a test to improve your typ­ing skills. Depend­ing on your cur­rent typ­ing skills and those required for the posi­tion, you should antic­i­pate spend­ing 10–40 hours learn­ing to type well if you don’t have the skill already.

Account­ing Software

To pre­pare for tests on account­ing soft­ware such as Sage Peachtree, we sug­gest using Mas­ter­ing Peachtree Made Easy Train­ing Tuto­r­ial. To learn Quick­books, we sug­gest Mas­ter­ing Quick­Books Made Easy v. 2013 Video Train­ing Tuto­r­ial Course DVD-ROM .

Sub­ject Tests

If you antic­i­pate a sub­ject test on some­thing like finan­cial account­ing or nurs­ing, we sug­gest spend­ing a few hours review­ing a respected text­book on the sub­ject even if you feel you are already knowledgeable.

Write a thank you note after the inter­view (be sure to get a busi­ness card from the hir­ing manager).The thank you note does the following:

  • Shows your appre­ci­a­tion to the inter­viewer for tak­ing the time to meet with you.
  • Expresses your con­tin­ued inter­est in the job.
  • Men­tions some­thing professionally-related about the job inter­view you found inter­est­ing (always positive).
  • Reminds the inter­viewer about any aspects of your back­ground that make you espe­cially qual­i­fied for the position.
  • Should be sent within 24 hours! Email is best but writ­ten notes are accept­able if mailed the same day.
  • Send a unique note to each per­son you inter­viewed with.
Sam­ple thank you note

Dear [Per­son X],

Thank you for tak­ing the time to meet with me to dis­cuss my inter­est in [posi­tion A] at [com­pany Z]. I par­tic­u­larly enjoyed our dis­cus­sion of _____.

I was very excited about the posi­tion because of ______.

I think I’m a good can­di­date because _______.


[Your name]

If you receive a job offer, do the following:

  • Say you’re excited about the com­pany and thank the recruiter for the offer.
  • Ask for a for­mal let­ter from your future employer pro­vid­ing an offer of employ­ment (email is also good).
  • Ask for a few days to make a deci­sion, say­ing you need to con­sult your fam­ily. Agree on a dead­line for you to respond.
  • Then politely ask if they can improve the offer – most employ­ers have flex­i­bil­ity with salary, so if you’re not ask­ing for more money, you’re leav­ing money on the table. Salary is usu­ally but not always negotiable.
  • Prior to the agreed upon dead­line, call your future employer say­ing you accept the offer they have given you. Then send an email or let­ter to your future employer stat­ing you have accepted their offer:

Dear [Hir­ing Man­ager or HR con­tact],
As I men­tioned on the phone, I am happy to accept the offer for the [posi­tion of X] at [com­pany X].
Based on the doc­u­ments I have already received, my salary will be [$xxx] and ben­e­fits of [health, life, etc.] will be included.
My start date is [Month, Day, Year].
I look for­ward to start­ing.
Your Name

Only after you receive con­fir­ma­tion that your new employer received your accep­tance of their offer should you inform your cur­rent employer that you plan to leave. We sug­gest giv­ing two weeks’ notice if possible.

You're Hired

Fol­low these guide­lines if you receive a job offer.

Thank you for read­ing this guide. We posted it for free on our web­site because we really do want to help you suc­ceed in your job search. We hope you will con­sider using our ser­vices as part of your suc­cess­ful job search. Good luck!

Copyright © 2015