The 90-Day Career Diet: Prep for the Interview

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on conquering your mental game before an interview. Fifth in a series.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see

You’re not auditioning for Annie.

But when it comes to interview preparation, most candidates put all their focus on scripting and rehearsing what they’re going to say. While you should know your “lines,” learning them is not the first thing you should do. You need to focus first on your “ACT”: being authentic, making a connection, and giving others a taste of who you are and what it’s like to work with you.

It’s Not an Interrogation, Either

Focusing on your ACT will also help you control your emotions, which are bound to be mixed and intense—it happens to everyone regardless of level. This was clearly happening with a man I saw recently at a Starbucks: his leg pumping up and down as he shuffled anxiously through his notecards. On top of his table I could clearly see his resume.

“Job interview, huh?” I asked as I approached him.

His eyes bulged from caffeine and desperation. “Yeah, and I really need this job.”

“Well, you’re not doing yourself any favors.” I pointed to his triple red eye (coffee with three shots of espresso). “Take some deep breaths and relax. If you go into the interview looking like this, you’re going to blow it.”

Now I had his attention. “This is not an interrogation,” I told him. “Your goal is to have a conversation with your interviewer—pure and simple.”

Conquering the interviewing mental game is crucial now that you’re finally at this phase of the 90-Day Career Diet. You’re ready—so stop psyching yourself out!

Your Homework

Perfect your mental game so you can be at your best at the interview. Otherwise, all your targeting, networking, and your newly revised resume are going to go to waste.

  • Dentist and Disneyland: Most people view interviews as a cross between a trip to Disneyland and a visit to the dentist to have a tooth extracted: While you look forward to it, you also dread it. If you let your imagination run wild, you’ll amp up your panic until you can’t put two coherent sentences together, or you overcompensate by talking nonstop.
  • The Old Standards: While you never know what you might be asked, you can count on some version of the “old standards” of the most likely questions:
    • Tell me about yourself – Start with something personal—where you were raised, where you went to school, your family, when you moved to your current city, or why you went into the career you’ve chosen. Invest a minute in making a connection.
    • Tell me about your most recent position – Be prepared to discuss what you’re doing in a way that’s relevant to the position you’re seeking. Use brief stories to illustrate key points: challenge, action, result, and lessons learned.
    • Your greatest career accomplishment – Tell a 30-second story, highlighting key details. Talk about a problem that was overcome or an opportunity that was realized.
    • What Are Your Strengths? – Identify two or three strengths and discuss each with a specific example.
  • Avoid the “Deadly Sins of Interviewing” Your preparation should focus on you as well: your appearance, your logistics, how you present yourself. The more you prepare, the better you’ll avoid committing a “deadly sin”:
    • Dressing like “Dancing with the Stars”: Not every job interview requires a suit, but you still should present yourself as well-groomed and professional. Know the difference between business professional and business casual, and when in doubt dress one step up.
    • Arriving late. You’d think this one is obvious, but it’s not. Do a practice run so you know where you’re going. Arrive well in advance—an hour ahead is fine. Sit in a coffee shop or in your car to relax, then walk into the building 10-15 minutes before your appointment.
    • Being clueless. Do your homework and check out the bio and LinkedIn profile of your interviewers. Read everything you can about the company, its mission and values.
    • Winging it. You don’t want to over-rehearse, but you do have to prepare. Have sound bites of your three top accomplishments to tell the interviewer.
    • Lying, inflating, exaggerating. If you misrepresent yourself in something small, suddenly everything you say is suspect.
    • No questions, thank you. You must ask questions—for example, about job responsibilities or how the department functions. Being able to insert your questions into the interview will turn an interview into a conversation.

Your Stretch Assignment: The First Seven Seconds

During the first seven seconds or so, the interviewer will make crucial determinations about you, including your likability, your trustworthiness, how aggressive or passive you seem, and how well you would fit in with others on the team. Based on this initial determination (which is typically unconscious), your interviewer will decide (probably also unconsciously) whether to help you in the interview by rephrasing questions, giving helpful feedback, assuring you with verbal and nonverbal cues.

Your ACT can help you make the most of those seven seconds. Do some sleuthing on LinkedIn to see if you share a commonality with your interviewer—e.g., same college or a passion for a sport or pastime (don’t fake this or you’ll quickly trip yourself up). Scan for something interesting in the person’s office that you can talk about. Don’t be a snoop, but if you can see it in the open, it’s fair game. This small talk will help forge a connection as you relax and allow the interviewer get to know you.

Interview prep is crucial. You’ll never present your best self if you’re jittering with every response. So, skip the Annie audition, forget the interrogation, and enter into the conversation.

Follow the steps in the 90-Day Career Diet

Step 1: Learn About Yourself

Step 2: Set Your Targets

Step 3: Nurture Your Network

Step 4: Refresh Your Resume

Step 5: Prep for the Interview

Step 6: The Face to Face

Step 7: On to the Next One

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