Interviewing 101: Common job interview mistakes and how to avoid them

In the last few years I’ve interviewed thousands of people for all sorts of jobs. For the amount of time people spend preparing and stressing about job interviews there are a surprising number of common mistakes that people still make. First let’s review where people are going wrong, then I’ll share some advice for avoiding these common mistakes. 

Common mistake #1 -Underselling your value: It’s surprising (and unfortunate) how many candidates we interview who sell themselves short on what they’ve accomplished. While humility is a virtue it can also work against you in a job interview. Interviewers have to make decisions on limited information -- don’t expect them to know how awesome your accomplishments are unless you spell them out explicitly.

Which leads to the #2 and #3 most common interviewing mistakes...

Common mistake #2 -Overselling yourself with fluff: Simply saying you’re a “team player” or a “quick learner” or an “analytics guru”  or any of the hundreds of buzzwords that companies seem to care about doesn’t mean much, especially if you can’t back it up with past experience that demonstrates this quality. In fact, this is a surefire way to lose credibility and torpedo your interview. Instead of staying you’re a “team player”, give an example where your teamwork skills led to an important result. 

Common mistake #3 - Convoluting your story with excessive details: Diving into the details without first providing context is most likely going to confuse your interviewer. If you’re lucky, the interviewer will guide you to first setting up your story before getting into the details but don’t count on this. Also don’t count head nods and “uh-huhs” as understanding.

Common mistake #4 -Too much “we”, not enough “I”: While being a team player is important, keep in mind that an interviewer needs to assess your specific contributions. An overemphasis of “we did this” or “we did that” makes it extremely difficult to distinguish between your accomplishment versus the team’s. Help your interviewer make that distinction by being explicit about your contributions. Example: “The team worked on building the strategy. I was specifically in charge of X and delivered Y as part of the greater team goal.”

Common mistake #5 -Throwing out numbers without context: While it helps to include metrics about your accomplishments, it’s extremely important to contextualize the numbers you provide. It’s often a bad assumption that an interviewer will recognize the significance of your accomplishment without more context. As an example, is 5% revenue growth good or bad? Well the perception of that growth figure can vary depending on context (i.e. could potentially look good in an environment where growth is stagnant, but could look insignificant in an environment experiencing hyper-growth). Takeaway is that context is just as important as the actual metric. 

So how do we improve our communication in an interview and avoid the mistakes above? 

When answering an interview question, it’s always advisable (when possible) to use actual work examples to highlight what you’ve accomplished vs. talking abstractly about things you’ve done. Ahead of an interview you should always prepare specific work examples that address situations a company might want to evaluate. Examples may include a time where you had to meet a deadline, or a time when you needed to address a customer promise. Our interview question bank has examples of common situations you might be asked about. 

Once you’ve selected work examples to highlight, practice how you would structure your response to be easy for an interviewer to follow. Here is framework we recommend when thinking about structuring your response:

Step 1: Frame the situation. Start by framing the situation for the interviewer in a few sentences. Your answer should address the circumstances of what was happening, who it involved, and what was your role/responsibility in the situation.

Example: “When I worked at Amazon as a buyer, I was given the goal of adding 30k new items to my category. This meant going and finding manufacturers and vendors who weren’t already selling on Amazon, convincing them to do business with us, then handling all the logistics of getting those items listed on the site and the inventory into our warehouses.”

Before continuing, pause to make sure the interview understands the situation. It’s nearly impossible for an interviewer to evaluate your example if they don’t understand the situation.

Step 2: Present the problem that needed to be solved. Next be explicit about the problem or issue that needed solving and why it is important. Your response should answer in a concise manner, what was broken and what needed to be fixed?

Example: “The main problems I needed to solve was how to find 30k new items and as efficiently as possible get them on the site. I was solely responsible for this project.” 

Step 3: Tell the interviewer what you did. Be specific about what you did to tackle the problem. Your answer here should focus on explicit actions you took to solve the problem.

Example: “I looked at the problem a few different ways. First, I identified products sold on other websites but not Amazon. Then I identified products sold in other countries but not the US. And finally I identified products our current partners had but weren’t selling on Amazon. For each of these scenarios I developed a strategy and began working on it.”   

Keep in mind that you’re not trying to spell out every single thing you did here. You’re just trying to provide enough context so the interviewer understands at a high-level what you did and why it led to your results. 

Step 4: Impress with the results you delivered. Metrics here will help, but the result could also be intangible things like a better work environment, strong team participation, etc. Finally contextualize it with why the result was important.

Example: “Each of the strategies contributed to meeting my goal, some more than others. By the end of the year I had added 32k new items that generated $5M in new revenue in that first year.”

Step 5: Be prepared to dive into the details. A good interviewer will always want to probe your answers. Steps 1-4 should give them a good baseline understanding of what you’ve accomplished. The details you provide in follow-up questions will help validate the interviewer’s understanding of what you’ve accomplished. Note: if you can’t speak to the details, you’ve chosen a bad work example.

Need additional help preparing for an interview? Ask a question here.

Thanks for reading. I hope this helps.

- Joe Shao, Head of Talent Advocacy