How to nail an interview: 20 tips & to-dos

What are the steps you should take to prepare for an interview? What can you do to really stand out and make an impression? How can you stay calm, cool, and collected even though inside you're sort of freaking out? 

Interviews are a tricky beast. The stakes can feel massive, and there are so many variables that are out of your control (what questions the interviewers will ask, what kind of mood they’ll be in, etc.). But with the right prep, mindset, and attitude, there’s a lot you can do to gain control and (hopefully) nail it. We crafted this step-by-step guide to help you get through it all and show up as your very best self. You can even use it as a check-list as you get ready for the big day. 

The week(s) leading up

Make a pitch and show your stuff. Consider whether you have an opportunity to show up with some sort of deliverable that provides an example of your work, particularly how you write and craft presentations or other materials relevant to the role. The piece could be something you’ve done that’s unrelated to the company but brings to life who you are and what you can do. Or, if you have an opportunity to build some sort of pitch on what you would do to make the business better, then that’s all the more compelling. Even if you’re wrong on your recommended approach, the potential employer will likely appreciate your entrepreneurialism and the opportunity to see how you think, create, and deliver.

Dry run the interview. If you have a good friend, or even an objective mentor (see Women at Work's Mentor Marketplace), consider dry running the interview to ensure your thoughts are organized around what they’ll likely want to know and the key points you want to make about yourself. Solicit honest feedback about your form and substance—did the points you emphasized resonate or do you need to consider highlighting different ones? When you convey your points, do your tone and gestures come across in the right way (i.e., engaging and connected to what you’re saying, not too distracting or annoying)?

Brainstorm your icebreaker and key points. You may not know what they’re going to ask, but prepare yourself with a short-fun-interesting icebreaker story or anecdote that will bring your personality to life and forge a connection. Think about three to five key points you want them to remember about you and ensure that you hit on them throughout and at the end.

Research the company, competitors, and market space. Ensure you have a good sense of what the company or organization does and how they fit into their broader ecosystem of customers, competitors, suppliers, and other stakeholders. Read recent press releases as well as the basic stuff on their website. Do searches to find other interesting information that might emerge. This will help you tee up the right questions about the business, prove you’re invested, and enable you to make smart suggestions about how you can add value.

Check your social media presence. Look at what they’ll find if they do research on you. See if you can eliminate anything that won’t do you any favors on the professional image front. Having fun in photos is fine. Even party pics are fine, but ensure they don’t cross the line into a world where you appear to have poor judgment or are irresponsible or reckless. If reviewing all of your accounts and giving everything a complete scrub seems too stressful and time-consuming, you can always set them to private/friends-only, giving you more time to scrub. And if you really can't decide whether a particular post or photo passes the smell test, that probably means it stinks. When in doubt, press delete. :) 


The night before

Lay everything out in an organized way. Including what you plan to wear and print out a hard copy of your resume (or multiple copies if you’re meeting with more than one person). Have you checked on the mode of dress for the office? Are you prepared with an outfit that fits with their culture and what others will be wearing? When in doubt, always dress “more” vs. less. You’ll never regret erring on the side of being over vs. under-dressed.

Consider transportation and parking. If you’re not sure where you’re going, consider the best way to get there. If you’re driving, make sure you won’t have trouble parking. If there’s any question about the logistics around parking, splurge and take a cab or other car service to ensure you’re not late or frazzled.

Go to bed early. In the world of nailing everything within your control, ensure you’re rested so you look your best, feel your best, and think your best. Being tired compromises focus, alertness, mood, and physical appearance.


The big day

Eat protein. Your brain needs it to think effectively. Avoid a big breakfast, but maybe grab a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a piece of sausage.

Go light on the perfume. Everyone has different taste in smells. You should smell fresh and nice, but avoid going too strong.

Brush your teeth. :) This is common sense, but do everything you can to ensure you have fresh breath—brush, floss, hit your tongue, gargle, pop a strong mint or gum right before.

Don’t forget your ID and cash. Most city buildings require you to sign into security and show an ID (e.g., driver’s license). Be sure to bake time in for that process, which can often require five minutes or even more. Also make sure to have a few one-dollar bills and quarters. You may need them for parking or public transportation.

Bring a notebook and pen. You may not need it, but being equipped helps you look like your act is together. Plus, it’s always nice to take notes if there’s something you’ll need to remember later after the meeting and follow up in an organized way.

Hit the ladies room. Before you go in, take one last moment to ensure you’re squared away. Look in the mirror to catch anything that might be askew. Has your hair gone wacky? Is your makeup smudged? Is your dress gaping on top? Is your fly undone?


The main event

Arrive early. Build in time for the unexpected because Murphy’s Law is a powerful thing. Avoid injecting anything into the process that will make you late and impact your credibility and/or rattle you and compromise your poise. If you’re early, take the time to just hang out and relax.

Take the water. They’ll probably ask you if you’d like something to drink—coffee, tea, water, etc. Politely accept the glass of water because you’ll probably end up wanting it as you talk and need to keep your voice fresh. If you can grab a bottle of water and bring it with you, that’s even better so you have a backup.

Turn off your cell phone. Do everything you can to stay focused, avoid distraction, be professional, build credibility and trust, and appear that you care. 

Consider where and how you sit. Avoid getting too close or too far from the interviewer(s). Defer to them to guide you on where to be vs. those on their side of the table. Be cognizant of how you’re sitting, how your feet or legs are crossed, and the strength of your sitting posture. Put yourself in a position where you’ll have positive, engaging, strong body language.

Avoid going too flat or too animated. Consider how you’re coming across and remember that being professional doesn’t mean being boring. Also ensure you don’t come on too strong. Modulate your voice to be professional, yet human. Figure out how to make a genuine connection. You’re being evaluated for your skills, smarts, and domain, but also whether people can see working with you—i.e., they can imagine enjoying you, trusting you, collaborating with you in the context of the broader team.


The moment you get back home

Follow up immediately. Even if you don’t want the job, always send a nice thank you email and ideally follow it up with a hand-written note. The latter is often overlooked and there’s something exotic, credibility building, classy, and memorable about an old school thank you card received via snail mail. If you didn’t bring a deliverable to the meeting, but have an opportunity to send one after to boost your memorable/credible/committed factor, consider doing that as well.

About Alexis


Alexis Harding is Women at Work’s resident HR expert. A long-time HR professional based in the Boston area, Alexis has rich experience in the HR departments of several large institutions over nearly two decades. She is here to engage with your questions about a range of topics that might be impacting your career and your overall success.


About Christina


Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.

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