Interview Prep.

Understanding The Interviewer's Perspective


Interview Preparation: Understanding The Interviewer's Perspective
Interview Prep.
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I. Interviewees’ concerns

In contemporary society, people build work experience by continually seeking organizations that can help them grow as individuals.

  • College clubs and internships: Besides gaining specialized knowledge in their major, undergraduates develop the skills they need through a variety of college club activities and internships, while strengthening their networks with other people.
  • First job: After graduating from college, people are hired as a junior at their first workplace, where they learn practical skills on the job and adapt to working as part of a larger organization.
  • Changing jobs or departments: Using the skills and insight gained from their first job and assigned position, people transfer to another team or move to a new company, continuing to improve their professionalism and seek out the work that best suits them.
  • Leadership track or studying abroad (MBA, LLM, MA): After 3-5 years of corporate experience, people take on roles as the team leader of a small group and eventually grow into a department head who leads multiple teams or a leader who directs multiple departments. At this stage, some people take courses in leadership and management at professional schools.

In this process of developing their career, people must go through a difficult interview process to join the organization of their choice.

  • Most organizations operate difficult recruiting processes to select talented individuals who are exceptionally capable for the position and can also adapt well to the work culture of the organization.
  • Human resource (HR) personnel closely review applicants’ resumes and cover letters before interviewing a small number of selected candidates.
  • Interviews usually proceed with approximately 3-8 rounds of in-depth interviews with personnel and leadership groups, during which the company learns about each applicant’s capacity for work and communication, compatibility with the organization’s work culture, and character.
  • The applicant must pass all interviews conducted in various ways in order to become a part of the organization.

This Ringle lesson examines what makes an applicant successful from an interviewer’s perspective, using my insight as someone who has experienced numerous interviews from both sides of the table.

  • Self-introduction: During my undergraduate years as a business major, I was active in a business studies club called “S&D” and interned at companies such as Bain, PwC, and KT. Then I worked for about six years at a global consulting company before getting my MBA at Stanford. Afterwards, I co-founded Ringle, an English language education service.
  • Experience as an interviewee: I interviewed with over 20 companies while applying for college internships. I also interviewed with the Big 3 consulting companies for a job after college and with over 10 graduate school admissions officers and alumni of the program for my MBA application.
  • Experience as an interviewer: I interviewed over 200 applicants for the business club at my college, as well as numerous applicants for first-round interviews at BCG. Through Ringle, I have conducted many mock interviews for consulting and MBA applicants as well.

II-1. My time as an applicant who used to fail repeatedly

As an undergraduate, I prepared for interviews by focusing on differentiating my strengths from other applicants’. Back then, I thought I could differentiate myself with:

  • A logically sound and special reason for applying: When asked why I was applying to a particular company, I made many efforts to produce a logical answer that stands out from other applicants.
  • Answers drawing from thorough background research: I worked hard to build my background knowledge and form articulate answers by studying relevant topics in politics, economics, and society, as well as the industry and competitors relevant to the company I was applying to.
  • Practice answering interviewers’ questions: I wrote down possible questions and practiced answering each question perfectly.

In retrospect, I think I practiced packaging myself as a special person ready for the job.

However, my interview results at the time were much more often bad than good, and I didn’t feel all that great leaving the interview either.

  • I received rejection after rejection from major conglomerates, foreign companies, and consulting firms in my early undergraduate years.
  • I was even rejected from three different business clubs at my college.
  • After interviews, I felt more like I’d become a parrot, instead of having had a conversation with the interviewer.

II-2. My insight gained after numerous failed attempts

My attitude as an interviewee began to change while I was preparing for an interview with a consulting company during my last semester of college.

Because it was for my first job, I was preparing to the best of my abilities using my previous strategies. But I was really struggling, unable to form any satisfactory answers for possible questions, and often scolded during mock interviews by senior students.

  • Though I tried to construct different versions of logical answers to extremely basic questions such as “Why consulting?”, “Why this company?”, and “Why you?”, I didn’t like a single one and didn’t receive any positive or encouraging feedback from the senior students who were helping me prepare.
  • The more I struggled, the harder I tried to produce a logically perfect answer, but my answers only got more and more convoluted as I trapped myself in this vicious cycle.

A week before the big interview, I learned an important lesson when I became an interviewer to help a club select its new members. While watching someone who was doing exceptionally well in the interview, I started thinking about why this applicant was winning me over—and this consideration brought about a lot of changes.

  • To regain my confidence and help my junior students, I participated as an interviewer for a college club interview conducted similarly to that of a consulting company.
  • I found myself actually not really drawn to the applicants whose answers resembled mine for the consulting interview. Quite the opposite, I was more impressed by applicants who simply presented their answers in an honest, down-to-earth way.
  • Afterwards, I thought less about preparing a special answer of my own or preparing a logically perfect answer. I thought more honestly about why I want to apply to this consulting company and why I believe that I can do well, as well as how I could approach this in my own way.

At the long-awaited interview, I was able to honestly lay out when I came to take interest in strategic consulting and how I became so passionate about consulting, while sharing anecdotes about the many trials and errors I’d experienced over the past six years. I enjoyed the interview and thought right after, “Even if it doesn’t work out, I have no regrets.”

After passing the first interview, I could feel that my answers were consistent yet varied, even when I met different interviewers in the following rounds. I think I was able to tell my story to whomever I met because I was offering my honest thoughts and accounts of experiences. I could feel myself giving honest and extemporaneous answers rather than canned responses and found the interview very enjoyable as a result.

In this way, I was finally able to enjoy the interview process and get the job.

III. My revelations as an interviewer

After I was promoted to consultant at BCG, I participated in job interviews as an interviewer. The applicants who gave off the impression that “they wouldn’t work well, even if they got in” shared these qualities:

  • They start every answer from what they know and remember: Interviewers are less curious about the extent of applicants’ background knowledge and more curious about their problem solving skills, but applicants show their limitations when they try to look at the problem only with what they already know. In order to demonstrate their problem solving skills, applicants must define the problem and set the framework together with the interviewers before offering a solution using the given information as foundation. However, many applicants try to offer a limited solution with their background knowledge without having even defined the problem properly. If I met someone like this, I start to wonder whether they’ll be able to effectively work with a client if they get hired.
  • They recite prepared answers instead of conversing with the interviewer to convey their thoughts: Interviewers are most curious about “What kind of person is the applicant, what skills do they have, and what is their character? What kind of life have they lived?” and attempt different conversations to find out as much about these topics in the limited span of 40-50 minutes. However, applicants don’t answer these questions, but spend a lot of time just reciting from the list of answers they’ve prepared. Ultimately, the impression left after the interview is “I think we heard a lot of things from the applicant, but we don’t know who this person is, and there’s nothing particularly memorable about them.”
  • They seem to lack grit or cannot enjoy themselves: During the interview, I came to examine how much the interviewee was enjoying the interview to see “Can the applicant enjoy this work? Can they withstand it even when there are difficult times?” But because they are too nervous, they can’t enjoy the interview process at all and only play defense to interviewers’ additional questions. These applicants’ nervous performances in the interview alone raise doubts about their ability to perform well in actual projects. On the other hand, enthusiastic performances gave a positive impression that they’ll be able to persevere through difficult assignments.

Simultaneously, the standout applicants shared the following characteristics:

  • Their honesty could be felt: Even if the answer itself was simple, I could actively relate to them and listen because the answer included the applicant’s past experiences in specific anecdotes.
  • They ask the right questions: The applicants who ask appropriate questions about what they don’t know well, rather than overextending whatever knowledge they have, and seek help from interviewers gave me the impression that “they ask good questions at the appropriate moments” and “they’ll ask questions well and work well even on the job.” In some cases, I also felt more of a connection with applicants while answering their questions.
  • They are consistent: Reviewing the 40-50 minute interview, there were applicants who could be remembered by one or two keywords. With these applicants, there was a clear set of principles and preferences guiding their answers, giving their answers consistency. As that consistency became a memorable keyword, they were remembered favorably.

IV. My repeated mistakes as an applicant

Just as I thought that I could now confidently take on any kind of interview, I faced another interview-related ordeal while preparing for an interview in English to enroll in an MBA program.

As someone not confident in their English skills, I told myself to “look like someone who’s fluent in English, at least for those 40 minutes during the interview.” So I wrote a thorough script in English for the possible questions and perfectly memorized it.

  • I composed the possible questions as a screenplay, filling out the answers about each question in perfect English, and proceeded to memorize this word for word.
  • The results weren’t great. I was extremely nervous during the interview due to my fear of English and as a result couldn’t recall the memorized script perfectly. And because I relied excessively on my imperfect memory, I couldn’t focus on the interview itself, so much that I actually couldn’t recall the interviewer’s face or expressions after the interview.

But because I didn’t want to have any regrets about my Stanford reapplication interview, I was determined to come out of the interview having said all the things that I really wanted to say, rather than relying on a script. It ended up being the worst interview in terms of my English (grammar, syntax, etc.), but it was the interview I regretted least. And I got into the program!

While preparing my MBA interview, I made the same mistake yet another time. My attempt to do the interview with memorized answers prepared in advance, in a way, was a repetition of the mistake I made in college. The interview that I finally passed didn’t rely on a script like I had in the past; I focused on the interviewer and came out having talked about everything I wanted to talk about.

V. My definition of what makes a successful interview

Because everyone has their own strategies for interview success, I don’t think there is a golden rule for acing an interview. On the contrary, I think there must be a strategy that suits each person.

I just have these following impressions to offer, having participated in numerous interviews as an interviewer:

  • An interview is not a contest for determining who prepared the perfect answer, but an opportunity to select someone great to work with.
  • Accordingly, what the interviewer wants to hear most is not about the applicant’s future plans, but how they’ve lived thus far.
  • The most boring interviewee is someone who talks without engaging the interviewer. Interviewers are also human, so they enjoy and pay more attention in interviews that involve genuine conversation.

I think the ideal interview preparation process is as follows:

  • Honestly reflect on and practice drawing anecdotes from your previous experiences to explain why you came to take interest in this company and why you think you will do well in this job.
  • Talk to your friends, family, and close co-workers about what kind of person you are and receive feedback on whether the statements you’ve prepared about yourself sound honest.
  • Rather than writing up a detailed response and practicing your recitation, try choosing your own keyword for each possible question and practice forming your answers on the spot, out loud.
  • If possible, try walking in the interviewer’s shoes by interviewing applicants for a student club, etc. Consider what kind of applicant you are drawn to as an interviewer yourself. Then evaluate whether you’re a likeable candidate from an interviewer’s perspective.

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