Personal Finance

Here's how to ace the most important part of a job interview

Key Points
  • Thank-you notes after an interview are terrific, but what really counts is the interview.
  • Two-thirds of hiring managers say the questions you ask on an interview are extremely important, so candidates need to research the prospective company and the role to craft insightful questions.
Woman discussing ideas and strategy in studio office
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Everything you do while job-hunting — polishing your resume, curating your list of references and finding the perfect interview outfit — takes time. But what really matters? Interview questions.

More to the point, your answers to certain questions matter most. That's what Netquote, an online comparison site for insurance, found when they polled more than 800 current or former hiring managers in June. They asked what recruiters do with the information an applicant provides before, during and after the interview.

Two-thirds of hiring managers also said job applicants asking their own questions in an interview is extremely important.

Thinking about following up? Only half of hiring managers said it's important to follow up after the interview. Stressed about your handwriting? Only 17 percent of hiring managers said a handwritten note is extremely important to the hiring process.

Ever been asked what your biggest strength is, and wondered what you should say that would make you sound like a stellar candidate — modest, but still highly accomplished? Based on the study results, say you're a terrific problem-solver. You're great at communication. And you shine when it comes to time management.

During the interview process, you definitely walk a line between showing your best self and not sounding overly boastful.

Instead of one-word descriptions or adjectives, give full descriptions of your strengths, says Heather Barker, director of human resources at TGS, a Houston data company.

"The answer can't just be, 'I'm really good at communication,' or 'I'm a perfectionist,'" Barker said.

Tell a story or anecdote that illustrates your commitment to long hours, and the results of your superior communication ability.

List three ways you pay attention to detail. "Identify what you are good at, why and how you've done so in the past," Barker said. If your manager gave positive feedback on a project, mention that, as well.

One piece of advice Paul Wolfe, senior vice president of human resources at, the job site, always gives is to research the company. Understand as much as possible from Glassdoor reviews and other information that's available online.

"You're probably a few degrees of separation from someone who works there," Wolfe said. By all means, reach out for advice.

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Get a handle on the culture and mission. This background can help you come up with a set of go-to questions to ask the recruiter.

You definitely want to arrive armed with questions. "The thing that strikes me [is] when I ask candidates what questions they have for me and they don't have any ," said Wolfe. "That's a bit of a red flag. Are they really interested in this company?"

A good question in most situations is asking what the company culture is like. Wolfe recommends asking it of everyone you meet during the interview process to see if the answers are similar or not. "Asking about the company's mission is good," Wolfe said. "It helps you to understand their focus and if they can clearly state it."

Ever wonder about the reasoning behind the so-called curveball interview questions?

"The company is trying to evaluate a unique skill set or culture fit that isn't easily identifiable using other types of questions," Barker said. So if you're asked to figure out the weight of a 747 jet, but all the documentation has been lost, and there's no large-enough scale, don't panic.

"Ask for clarification," Barker said. "Provide alternative solutions and ask questions. How many resources do you have?"

Sticky questions about salary or why you left your last job should be answered honestly. "Anyone should expect these to come up in an interview," Wolfe said. "Focus on what you're looking for in a new company or a new role. Don't focus on the negative."

No need to lie. Wolfe recommends moving on quickly to your future goals and the type of role you are looking for.

As the interview is ending, have at least three questions prepared, says Regina Duffey Moravek, an HR professional with Bravely, a confidential HR and workplace coaching platform.

This final stage is a chance to burnish yourself as a candidate. Make your questions all about them, not what the position can do for you. "It's your chance to show you understand their goals and challenges, and show how you are going to help meet those challenges," Moravek said.

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