Image of a coach drawing up a game plan on a blackboard

Interviewing? You don’t need to check the internet for 100 questions. You need a game plan.

When you’re a career counselor at a university, helping candidates prepare for interviews is the second most popular appointment topic. After seeing hundreds of students and postdocs, I can safely say that the first go-to action for candidates who have interviewed is to look online for field-specific interview questions to practice. They are easy to find – check out your professional association’s website to see sample interview questions by field, Glassdoor’s collection of interview questions by the company, or visit About Careers to read interview questions by job title. While reviewing interview questions is a good way to prepare, a better way to prep for an interview is to first develop an overall strategy by developing at Tell/Know List.

Tell/Know Lists are quick and easy game plans
The most low-tech version of a Tell/Know List is to find a sheet of paper and create two columns. On the left side, write down everything you want to tell the employer by the time the interview is finished. On the right, write down everything you want to know about an employer by the time the interview is finished. The sum total of these two columns is your overall game plan to approaching an interview. Your strategy is to figure out how to use whatever questions you are asked during the interview to share and learn the information on your Tell/Know List within the allotted time.

Preparing a Tell/Know List helps candidates stay on message
After listening to hundreds of candidates practice responding to questions in mock interviews, “staying on message” is one of the biggest problems almost everyone has – and this includes experienced professionals with several interviews under their belt and hiring managers who have personally experienced candidates who ramble and are off point. Taking 15-30 minutes to jot down a Tell/Know List is useful because it helps avoid several interviewing pitfalls that get in the way of a candidate presenting clearly, concisely and compellingly.

Here are three ways that Tell/Know Lists help you succeed:

  1. Tell/Know Lists let you identify your key themes:
    To understand a common reason candidates fail to interview well, you don’t need to look any further than the “Tell” side of a Tell/Know List. Folks I help prep using a Tell/Know List often start by saying they don’t really have anything to say, but end up with so much information on their Lists that it becomes clear that they are trying to say too much. I once worked with a candidate who filled over two pages of notes with information she initially thought was relevant to tell a potential employer. It’s understandable; it’s not always clear what it was about your resume/CV or cover letter that appealed to an employer, so there is a tendency to want to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, particularly if the job is a top choice. But even in all day interviews, individual conversations last 30-60 minutes, making the distillation of your overall message a requirement.  In general, I suggest candidates create 3-5 bullets of key themes to tell an employer, and cluster evidence of those themes underneath. It would include information about their academic training, relevant skills and experience, and interest in the position. If you’re wondering what key points should be on the “Tell” side of your list, grab a highlighter and circle the top four ‘required’ qualifications of the job description and all of the listed ‘preferred’ qualifications. Regardless of what you want to say, those skills and experiences are the information the hiring manager probably wants to know about, since it’s quite possible they personally wrote the job description you read.
  1. Tell/Know Lists help you layer answers around those themes:
    When you have a Tell/Know list, you can look at interview questions differently.  At its core, for employers, interviews are just as a series of questions that give them multiple data points to increase their level of confidence that you have the range of skills and experience needed to do their job. When you know what the key themes are in your overall message, you can use interview questions to repeatedly make the point that you possess those key skills by highlighting different aspects of that theme in your answers to different interview questions. Let me explain.

    For example, if you want to highlight your significant project management skills, then examples demonstrating your range of project management experience would need to be peppered across several interview questions. Answers to questions like “Tell me about yourself?”, “Why are you interested in this job?” and “Tell me about a time you made a mistake?” need responses like, “I have 7 years of project management experience in both private and public sectors….”, “This job interests me because it is another opportunity to do work I am both skilled at and enjoy: managing multi-year projects that…”, and “One mistake I made early in my career was a time I failed to get buy-in from key stakeholders when managing a collaborative project on…..”. The result of layering answers around key themes means you’ll is an overall interview that lends itself to an impression of coherency and polish, because it lets the employer see several facets of your project management experience. This is what it means to stay on message.

  1. Tell/Know Lists helps you think through and avoid sharing inappropriate information:
    Finally, because candidates occasionally haven’t resolved a disappointment or issue from a previous job(s), some feel the need to include and share inappropriate information that will tank their candidacy. For example, when asked, “Why did you leave your previous job?” or “What are you looking for in a job?”, It’s easy to feel inspired to be not just honest, but candid, and say your previous boss was a jerk or that you are tired of being taken for granted. These are important pieces of information – but only for you, not your potential employer. Reflect on this information when evaluating the employer once you have the job offer in hand. You don’t need to include them on your Tell/Know List. Having to write out your themes on a List helps you clarify your thinking, and reduce the possibility of blurting out and processing your feelings about your boss or how you felt undervalued during the interview.

    That said, if you’re going to include that information in your interview, reframe in a way that makes it clear what you’re looking for, not just what you’re trying to avoid. For example, not that your boss is a jerk, but that you’re “looking for an opportunity where you have a positive relationship with your team and boss.” Or not that you don’t want to feel you’re taken for granted, but that you’re “seeking a place where everybody balances working hard with a sustainable workload.” Be honest, but diplomatic.

Click here to view an example of a Tell/Know List
Click here to view an example of a Tell/Know List

So how should you use a Tell/Know List?
Once you’ve written your List, view it side by side with a series of interview questions. Then consider the following: which interview questions are a possible vehicle to talk about a particular key point on the “Tell” side of your list? For example, candidates often want to share a quality – say, that they are “hard workers” or “innovative problem solvers”. If you want to demonstrate, say, innovation, look for those behavioral questions, such as “Describe a situation where you had to solve a problem without clear guidelines” or “Tell me about a time you reduced costs or increased efficiency”. After demonstrating your role in creatively solving a problem without clear guidelines, or under cost, or with increased efficiency, you can close by using language such as, “What was innovative about the solution/our approach was that we…..”

How do you know you’re ready for the interview?
You can test your readiness by randomly picking sample interview questions. Can you quickly identify 2-3 points you’d like to address based on a particular theme from the “Tell” side of your list? If so, then you’ll be able to improvise and stay on point, no matter what variation of question an employer asks.

How do you know it’s been a successful interview?
As to how you know you’ve succeeded – If you’ve touched on 80-100% of what was on your “Tell the employer” side of your List and 20-50% of “Know from the employer” side of your List, declare victory. That’s because one goal for an interview is to give the employer enough information about your skills, experience, and interest that they can make an informed decision about selecting you over other candidates. For that, they need to know 80-100% of the relevant information about your candidacy. On the other hand, you can always find out more information about the position after the employer makes you an offer, so you only need about 20-50% of your interview questions answered by the time the interview is finished.

In the end, knowing that you’ve made the strongest case possible as to why you are the strongest candidate is all one can ask for in a successful interview. Using a Tell/Know List serves as a checklist to make sure you’ve done just that. So next time you have an interview, don’t start with questions, start with a game plan.

photo credit: inertia_tw via photopin cc