What makes someone a slam dunk in a job interview?
June 22, 2013 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Hiring managers, have you ever encountered a spectacular candidate who blew your mind while searching for a new employee? What did they do that made them so memorable?

I've recently been interviewing and the process has got me thinking a lot about how to leave a great impression. There's a lot of common knowledge about how to not totally blow it, but I guess after years of doing it the same way over and over I'm interested to hear about unique approaches that really left a lasting impression beyond having great background fit. Has anyone encountered a candidate that wow'd them in a wonderful way? There's a fine line between making an impression and seeming crazy, so I'm interested in anecdotes of people who did that well in your experience.
posted by amycup to Work & Money (23 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Honesty is number one. If you don't know something, and wing it, I know you're useless. A simple "I don't know" goes a long way.

Attitude is another factor. Much like when you meet new people, and you can tell by their attitude and humor whether or not you'd be friends. It's the same thing. The rock stars click very quickly.

One particular interview stands out in my mind. I'd asked the candidate a question about how he'd implement a particular design in HTML and CSS, and he gave an answer that was in direct contradiction to the current best practice, and he backed up his logic with very reasonable, practical explanations. We hired him. People who know what they're talking about, and are willing to go after sacred cows if they have good reasons to are extremely valuable.
posted by colin_l at 4:45 PM on June 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

Never forget that people usually spend more time with co workers than at home with their spouses (time awake, anyway). A genuinely likable personality goes a long way. People want to like the people they work with.
posted by 2oh1 at 5:08 PM on June 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

You know, at the end of the day, people hire people, and I don't think that gets enough airtime. Be personable, be friendly, be engaged. Ask the interviewer about their experiences with Company X. And if the interview is good, I would close with enthusiasm: "Based on everything I've learned, I'm really enthusiastic about this role and I hope you'll consider me for this position."
posted by DarlingBri at 5:36 PM on June 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

In city employment we often ask outside raters to do first round interviews.
Every so often, there is a candidate with so much confidence in their abilities to manage our people, facilities, public, and projects that these outside raters tell us that if we don't hire the candidate, THEY WILL!

It is a quiet confidence: one where the candidate makes known his/her abilities in a way that makes us think that they should already be working for us.

There is a fine line between this quiet confidence and arrogance--and we will notice those who are arrogant or will not be good team players.

Showing that you are a good human being, that you have an interest in working well with others, that you are open to direction, and that we can trust your initiative and judgement will all go a long way towards showing us that you should already be on our payroll.

And there are often multiple "perfect" candidates for individual jobs. Then we try to divine who is the most "ready to go" and who will fit the easiest into our current employee dynamics.
posted by calgirl at 5:51 PM on June 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I interview job candidates for a living, performing psychological assessments on them. What tends to wow me, and my clients generally agree, is ego strength and self-awareness. If you don't take things personally (ego strength) and are always interested in how you can manage yourself better (self-awareness) you have that "special something" that, in combination with your knowledge and skills, can go a long way toward making you successful no matter what happens.

Of course, if you're looking for how you can "ace" an interview, it's incredibly hard to fake ego strength and self-awareness. Perhaps that's why they're so valuable.
posted by DrGail at 5:52 PM on June 22, 2013 [17 favorites]

Willingness to learn new things
That certain something - sparkle in the eye/energy
posted by michellenoel at 6:23 PM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The last person I hired had the qualities I mentioned above. He came into the interview, sat down, had a genuine smile, and I recall that he leaned the slightest bit forward in his chair with his hands folded on the table. I could tell he was eager and truly interest. I knew within the first 60 seconds that he was our man.
posted by michellenoel at 6:25 PM on June 22, 2013

I am not an interviewer, but I interviewed for a job a few weeks ago that I didn't get, because there was someone who was just a million times more qualified than me (I was second choice). I heard later through the grapevine that there was one person on the selection committee who was completely blown away by me and strongly wanted to hire me rather than the more qualified dude. (Unfortunately she was outnumbered).

Apparently what clinched it for me (in her opinion) was that there was an accomplishment that I hadn't even mentioned on my CV, because it doesn't actually seem a big deal to me, but it is a bigger deal than I had realised, especially in that selection committee member's field, and I casually mentioned it near the end of the interview. She seems to have taken that as evidence that (a) I am not conceited and (b) the stuff I did highlight as impressive achievements but that she is not in such a good position to judge must be REALLY amazing and (c) that maybe I have a bunch more awesomeness up my sleeve that I hadn't even mentioned at all. This was an accident, but I wonder if there are ways to make it happen again in the future...
posted by lollusc at 6:36 PM on June 22, 2013

I interview people for pretty specialized programming positions, so I'm always hoping to find a star. What always really impresses me, besides clear technical competence, is when the candidate 1) is obviously an expert about something specific, knowing it like the back of their hand, and 2) can explain it very clearly to someone who knows very little about it (me). If someone has done a lot of difficult work but isn't capable of helping me understand it, that's a lot less impressive.
posted by dfan at 7:20 PM on June 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Here's this little project I've been working on in my spare time..."

I don't even care what it is. You're building something in your spare time? Instead of just fucking around doing nothing? You win. When can you start?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:32 PM on June 22, 2013 [18 favorites]

I'm not in the market for a new job right now, but the blog archive at Ask A Manager has been a really great read. I've never felt like a "professional" sort of person, so her advice on office environments, managers, and job behavior is much appreciated. There's a lot of advice about good and bad interview situations and she has a free guide to interviewing, but posts like these address aspects of your question more closely:

A great question to ask your interviewer.
What makes a hiring manager fall in love.
Seven ways interviewing is like dating.
What does it mean to "be yourself" in an interview.

She's been a hiring manager, has a lot of good advice when it comes to real world interview behaviors, and seems to get at the heart of the interview concept: both parties finding the best fit. Like I mentioned; I'm not even in the job market right now, but reading the archives has helped me internalize some of the concepts of business culture, and her posts would be the first thing to turn to if I were to be in an interview situation any time soon.
posted by redsparkler at 7:52 PM on June 22, 2013 [57 favorites]

I have hired a lot of people into a range of roles over the years. I always caution against expecting a candidate to 'wow' you, and against making quick decisions based on gut feel or first impressions.

There is a way to inject some science into an interview process and the best tool available is the well administered structured interview, the results of which should be reviewed carefully.

There is no substitute for a well run recruitment process that takes a comparative inventory of the candidate. Shortcuts like looking focusing on particular traits, or deciding someone is 'a star', often reflect the interviewer as much as they reflect the potential hire.

And you would be amazed how much stuff comes out in a structured interview. Amazed.
posted by fingerbang at 8:06 PM on June 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yes! What the imitable fingerbang said. I had a hard time finding any stand-out interview anecdotes on the Ask A Manager site, and it's because of that reason, I think.
posted by redsparkler at 8:29 PM on June 22, 2013

Know everything about my company. Get genuinely excited about what you could do here.
posted by OrangeDrink at 8:44 PM on June 22, 2013

I don't know if this applies in your particular situation, and I'm on the other side (job applicant, not hiring manager), but I've had a few interviews recently, and have been really surprised at how well they've gone. I think it's a combination of:

* I'm applying for jobs that I really, really want. This makes the enthusiasm part easy, and means that I can explain why I want this job, rather than just a job. It also means it's obvious I've done research on the company.
* I'm excited about getting the interview - even if it doesn't turn out to be a good fit, or even if they hate me, I want to find out more about the industry, and I definitely take advantage of getting to talk to my interviewers.
* I ask questions evaluating the company. I got a great response from asking the guy who would be my boss "I've been trying to get better at/learn more about xyz process. How do you approach that?". His answer convinced me that he'd be awesome to work for.

Yeah, I know I come across as almost naively enthusiastic, and have probably earned some eye-rolls ;-) I think my field is ridiculously awesome, and I still have trouble believing that I can get paid for doing it.
posted by Metasyntactic at 9:55 PM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a candidate at the moment, I agree with fingerbang. I went for an interview recently where the hiring manager hadn't even looked at my CV, and didn't have a copy of it with him. He completely made me feel like I was intruding on his day. My instant reaction was "Well, if you're not bothering to make an effort, how can I? ... And I don't really want to work with you now."
posted by Diag at 10:13 PM on June 22, 2013

a fine line between making an impression and seeming crazy

I once hired a woman whose resume described her having "honed my debugging skills to a sinewy buffness", and who showed up for a February 14 interview with candy and chocolate. The latter would probably have come down on the wrong side of that line if she hadn't been an extremely good fit in terms of skills, but since she was, that stuff helped to show that she'd be a good fit culturally and also that she was confident enough in her qualifications to be willing to alienate the sort of person who would be alienated by that.
posted by bac at 10:22 PM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Demonstrating that you've done serious homework about the company and what the position entails without coming off as a creepy stalker who recites all the facts that the internet gave them.

Being respectful of all people - especially people who are "below" you on the org chart/have no "say" in your hiring.
posted by lalochezia at 7:01 AM on June 23, 2013

Ask good questions! I'm always impressed when people ask good questions. Ask questions of every person you interview with! Even if they are the same questions, when the 4th interviewer comes back and says, "they even had questions for me!" it is a good thing.

We always ask, "Why company?" Meaning why do you want to work here, so you have to know something about us and you have to have an answer for this question*. Then during the question period one of the people I was interviewing asked me the same question. Not only was it a great question to ask an interviewer but it also gave me a moment for me to sell us to a good candidate.

*Because my company is fairly well known (I'm willing to bet everyone of you has heard of it before) it is also a good time to find out just how much research the candidate has done. Do they come up with reasons beyond the "You guys are cool!"?
posted by magnetsphere at 8:33 AM on June 23, 2013

About to do my 30th or so interview in the last three months for low-level positions. What "wows" me are simple things:

--Being genuinely interested in the job and the company.

--Knowing more about the job than what is in the job description. Don't quote the job ad I wrote back to me. It's not hard to find similar jobs at similar companies and figure out what they have in common.

--Having imagined yourself in the position and being able to talk about what it would look like if you were here.

--Being ready to have a conversation about anything and everything. You're not in the dock and I'm not a lawyer for the prosecution. Real conversation, with turns, and back and forth, and tangents, and interruptions, and everything.

--Not giving me bullshit answers that you think I want to hear. If you're using them, then you're either too stupid to think for yourself, too impressionable to be much of a go-getter, or too fake to be worth trusting.

--Not having false optimism and positivity. Genuine people show the full range of human emotions.

--Not having tried to get to me through other people at any stage of the game to say I should interview you, or that we should have lunch, or to have other people come out of the woodwork to speak up for you, or to send me gifts, or any of that other stuff that tries to route around a normal hiring process.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:28 PM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

They're smarter than I am, and are enormously gracious about it if they figure that out.

They answer the basic question perfectly. But more than that, when they answer questions, they cover their bases; they're thorough. Instead of diving in to an answer, they ask some questions to make sure they're diving the right way. They then answer the question. And they list some of the costs of choosing that path; even if it's the best choice, there's usually a catch, and they mention it, even in passing. Before I have a chance to ask a followup to make it harder, they figure out some likely things I might ask next, and cover those cases as well.

Or, great candidates can solve problems, know the cost of the solutions they chose, and they anticipate the next problems to come up, while being a nice person in general. The "nice person" is as important as "competent as hell"; I've gotta work with them, not send them in a capsule to Mars.

Eagerness is nice, but someone who's both strongly qualified and friendly about it? That's my win.
posted by talldean at 5:19 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some great answers above, especially the last 2 ^^^^

I've hired a lot of people thru the years with a very high (knock on wood) rate of success.


To hirers, my advice is to use the interview as a sanity check--NOT as the deciding factor in selecting a candidate. ALWAYS give some sort of evaluation; ALWAYS check work history; and always try to find a colleague that the candidate did NOT list as a reference (of course their references will say good things ...)

Consider the recent interview with Lazlo Block.

Interviews should be short--15 to 30 minutes tops (unless the job is a job that requires answering random questions from people. Then, sure interview 'em to death.) For "normal" jobs, have them complete a short WRITTEN exercise in the other 30 minutes and you will learn MUCH more from that, imo.

I've NEVER had a candidate who didn't look good on paper and then sold me in person. Never.

To interviewees, I would advise 3 things:

* know as much as you can about the organization and person who is interviewing you
* dress appropriately
* don't talk too much

I think the most effective strategy for me is to casually convince the interviewer that I know a lot about the industry and his/her company and what they do/how they work ... without seeming like I crammed the night before or am bullshitting.

Knowing more about the job than what is in the job description. Don't quote the job ad I wrote back to me. It's not hard to find similar jobs at similar companies and figure out what they have in common.

Yes, that's it. More specifically, knowing about that job at that specific company, and expressing a familiarity and ease with the work style and production, etc.

The last person I hired had the qualities I mentioned above. He came into the interview, sat down, had a genuine smile, and I recall that he leaned the slightest bit forward in his chair with his hands folded on the table. I could tell he was eager and truly interest. I knew within the first 60 seconds that he was our man.

That's how you get Bob Benson.
posted by mrgrimm at 7:56 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

From my limited experience interviewing people, I don't think I want to be wowed. The awe doesn't last, and could end up shading everything you do, should you get hired. "Well, you seemed pretty great in the interview, but you aren't meeting our high expectations that you've been working here for three months."

I concur with others who say it helps a lot to be generally interested in the work and the company/group/whatnot. This is shown through your energy level and attentiveness, and through any questions you ask.

Also, make sure you listen to the questions and answer succinctly. I recall interviewing someone who at a distance would appear to interview well, as he provided clear answers and was focused and positive. But we had to re-direct him to answer the questions we asked, where other interviewees understood the question straight off. It was as if he had preconceived notions about what he wanted to say to sell himself, and didn't pay attention to the content of all the questions.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:29 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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