(This article originally appeared on Fast Company.)
1. “HOW DID YOU PREPARE FOR THIS INTERVIEW?”
This “meta” question is a great way for me to gauge your attention to detail. Candidates usually come ready an anecdote to illustrate their focus on details when it comes to their work, but asking about interview prep forces them to stay on their toes. I can almost always tell whether you’ve Googled our company last-minute or have really done your homework.
But in my experience, the key to mastering this question is to not just answer it literally. Browsing our website, our social media profiles, and our Glassdoor reviews are a given. Instead, I’m looking to be impressed with something you unearthed in your research on us that you can weave back into the conversation. For example:
When I was browsing your site, I thought it was so smart to include sample score reports in the testing section. That’s the first thing I’d want to see if I was an employer considering purchasing your product.
(I run a company that creates pre-employment tests to help employers make more informed hiring choices.) This little anecdote tells me you took more than a cursory glance at our site. You’ve proven you have a knack for detail and the patience to dig a little deeper.
As a job candidate, even if you’re not asked the “How did you prepare?” question, you can still find ways to drop hints about your stellar interview prep into the conversation. Bring up something you found puzzling or interesting in your research, and use it to segue into a relevant personal story that makes you look good (and maybe even flatters the employer a little). Say you learned on The Muse that the company hosts hackathons every quarter. It’s totally appropriate to brag about your hackathon win at your university, and to ask about the coolest “hacks” the company’s employees have come up with over the years.
2. “COULD YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS JOB YOU HELD A FEW YEARS AGO?”
Not the job you’re in right now but the one that’s two or three positions down your resume. I love this question for two reasons. For one, it gives you a chance to tell me a story about how you process information on the job and adapt accordingly. And because it taps into your past experience rather than something you’re doing every single day already, it pushes you to reflect on a job function you’ve moved on from. So not only does this shed light on your critical thinking skills, it also asks you to think critically about the experiences through which you developed them in the first place.
So if I ask, for example, about your university telefund job, don’t bore me with mundane details like your donation numbers. Show me how it trained you to be the problem-solver you are today. Maybe you found yourself discouraged by the percentage of alums who hung up on you after 10 seconds, so you volunteered to revise the standard call script. In just a week or two, donations started ticking upward. Every employer wants to know they’re hiring someone who can absorb information, understand the details that matter, and can make smart decisions on their own.
The second reason I love this question? It helps me test your attention to detail once again. Sometimes when I ask a candidate about a job listed toward the bottom half of their resume, I’m stunned to hear, “Oh, I forgot that was on there.” That’s a huge red flag. If you haven’t taken the time to familiarize yourself with the resume you’ve just handed me, how can I trust you with my company’s documents or codebase?
Before every interview, take time to read your own resume. Familiarize yourself with every stat, detail, and job you’ve included—but don’t stop there. Use your resume as a mnemonic device for triggering memories and stories you spin out on the fly. Make sure every job you’ve ever held has a corresponding story that showcases another soft skill (otherwise don’t include it).
3. “DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?”
I admit this is a tricky one—and that in a lot of professional settings, it’s just tossed off thoughtlessly and sounds condescending. But in a job interview, if I ask a candidate, “Does that make sense?” after I’ve just explained something important, I’m not just looking for affirmation that it does.
So just responding, “Yes, makes sense!” isn’t the way to earn high marks. The real purpose of this question is to probe your active listening skills. In other words, how well can you summarize what I’ve just said, and how attuned are you to understanding my needs as a hiring manager? Say you’re interviewing for a social media manager position with our company. A great way to demonstrate active listening is to first ask what social media success looks like to me. As soon as I’ve finished answering the question, it’s your time to shine.
At the very least, try to summarize my point of view in your own words. Then, if you want to go the extra mile, try segueing into a personal anecdote or philosophy that complements what I’ve just said. For example, if I mentioned that increasing follower counts isn’t a top priority, it’s a great opportunity for you to mention your personal conviction that certain vanity metrics aren’t the end-all-be-all of social. (Whereas if you start bragging about how you doubled your last company’s Instagram followers, I’ll know you weren’t listening.)
In today’s job-search climate, it’s crucial to master the subtle art of selling your soft skills to a potential employer. But it’s just as crucial for hiring managers to offer candidates a chance to do that. If you don’t know how look for soft skills, you’ll never find them.