10 Job Interview Skills Employers Look For
Whether Dezzi Rae Marshall is coaching future software engineers or interviewing people as a talent recruiter, there’s one skill that she sees candidates most often overlook — interviewing.
Most people think they know what to expect in an interview. They might prepare for questions about their strengths and weaknesses, know to make eye contact and sit up straight. But that’s not what the modern, behavioral interview entails, said Marshall, who’s the founder of the recruiting firm, The Recruiting Ronin, and a career success coach at Fullstack Academy.
Instead, interviewers are looking for candidates to back up their skills with anecdotes and examples. They’re looking for people who can think on their feet and are passionate about the company. They’re also looking for hints at what you’d be like to work with.
“In order to be successful in your job search, you need to know how to interview.”
How you present yourself during the conversation and the stories you tell will impact your evaluation score as much as your knowledge and skills will, Marshall said.
“In order to be successful in your job search, you need to know how to interview,” Marshall said.
Fortunately, interviewing is a skill you can develop just like any other. The more you do it, the better you’ll become at it, and the more confident you’ll appear.
To help you prepare for your next interview, we spoke with Marshall, Rise Career Development founder Jeremy Mingo and Silicon Valley-based career coach Kyle Elliott about the top interview skills hiring managers look for in candidates — and what you can do to work on them.
10 Job Interview Skills Hiring Managers Look For
- The ability to manage your nerves
- Confidence in your approach
- Explanatory skills
- Clear sense of purpose
- The ability to relate your skills to the job posting
Dezzi Rae Marshall — Founder, The Recruiting Ronin; Career Coach, Fullstack Academy
Why It’s Important: As [“Game of Thrones” character] Tyrion Lannister said, “There’s nothing more powerful than a good story.” When you’re interviewing, keep in mind that the hiring manager is speaking to a whole slew of candidates. The candidates who have the best stories to tell are the ones that we usually remember. We’ll talk about the marathon runner or the person who worked at 24 Hour Fitness because they incorporated those stories into their interview. Stories also help us evaluate your skills. We don’t just say, “Are you a creative thinker?” Our questions lead you to tell us a story.
“The candidates who have the best stories to tell are the ones that we usually remember.”
Do This: It starts with knowing your pitch and practicing it. Don’t just practice it in the mirror, don’t just record it, but say your pitch in front of a family member or friend. It doesn’t need to be rehearsed, but that way it’s not something you have to think hard about. I also teach people to bullet point their responses in their head using the STAR method [situation, task, action, result]. That helps you tell an illustrative story and keeps your answer within two minutes.
Why It’s Important: Not enough people actually prep for their interview. Two of the main questions are going to be “How did you find out about our company?” and “What do you know about us?” I can tell right away when somebody has prepped or not. As a recruiter, you want to know that you’re hiring somebody who is going to be the right fit. We want to see that they can do the job, they’ll enjoy working with us and that we will enjoy working with this person.
Do This: As you’re doing your research, look at the company’s mission statement and philosophy, read their news from the last six months and try to research the people you’ll be interviewing with. Then you should also think about what you can bring to the table that’s relevant to their company and team.
Why It’s Important: A lot of people don’t realize that it’s OK to have pen and paper out during the interview. If I see you writing stuff down, it comes across that this person really cares about what I have to say and is interested in the company. It shows your enthusiasm and that you’re somebody who pays attention to detail. But you can also use those same notes to send your “thank you” email and promote yourself even more.
“If I see you writing stuff down, it comes across that this person really cares about what I have to say and is interested in the company.”
Do This: It’s as simple as always keeping pen and paper handy, and at the beginning of the interview asking if it’s OK for you to take notes while you’re chatting. But there are also situations where the interviewer is going to ask you a three-pronged question. Use that pen and paper to bullet point the question, that way you don’t lose sight of what you’re answering.
The Ability to Manage Your Nerves
Why It’s Important: Some roles require you to have ice in your veins, like a C-level role that requires talking to stakeholders, so your ability to manage your nerves is important. But if you’re applying to be a software engineer, it’s OK to be a little nervous and acknowledge it. If you’re nervous throughout the entire interview, however, that might be a red flag. It won’t preclude you from moving forward, but it does reflect on your flexibility and adaptability. If you haven’t settled in after 10 minutes and you’re shaking the entire time, I might be wondering what other things you’ll be nervous about in real life. Still, it’s just one factor we consider out of many.
Do This: Some nervousness is actually healthy for you. But I always tell people, if you feel like you’re getting too overwhelmed, think of yourself as [actor] James Earl Jones [who played Darth Vader in Star Wars]. If you think about James Earl Jones, he has a way of speaking that’s very cool, calm and collected. When you’re nervous you talk a lot faster and your voice goes up, this forces you to slow your breath down and drop your voice a little bit. You can also release your nervous energy by gripping your pen tighter or in your note-taking.
Jeremy Mingo — Founder, Career Coach, Rise Career Development
Confidence in Your Approach
Why It’s Important: I’ve interviewed across so many different industries and roles, and the biggest thing is having confidence in your approach. You need to be prepared to be challenged. If they ask you in a data science interview which model you’d use to solve a data problem, they’re going to ask you, “Why?” They might already have an answer in their head. So, you need to understand the pros and cons of your approach so that you can challenge that idea and make them see things your way.
Do This: What it looks like in an interview is energy to say “I did this, it resulted in this.” Your confidence comes out in the way you tell your story. If you haven’t been in a lot of interviews, find a family member or friend and practice explaining your processes to someone with only a general knowledge of your subject. Go back and read through your old code or notes on a project and think through the pros and cons of your approach. That will give you the confidence to explain your decisions to an interviewer.
Why It’s Important: There are so many people who learn how to code and go on the path to become a data scientist or analyst, and once they get out of school, they can’t communicate their process. They’re so used to only talking to people in their space, but your job will be to explain your models or your decisions to other stakeholders. If you can’t tell someone in an interview how you did something, then how will you do it [at work]? You need to be able to explain your work to everyone, not just other experts.
“They don’t need to know every detail of your model, but you need to be able to explain to them how it works.”
Do This: Talk to someone who isn’t in your industry and help them understand what you’re talking about. Maybe they don’t get some of the acronyms or terminology, but can they piece together what you did and did it sound interesting? I like to teach kids about machine learning. It forces me to explain the concepts in a language they understand. It’s the same if you’re talking to a chief product officer in an interview. They don’t need to know every detail of your model, but you need to be able to explain to them how it works.
Clear Sense of Purpose
Why It’s Important: You need to be able to communicate a clear sense of why you want to work for this particular company and why you want the role. That’s what’s going to stick in the mind of the interviewer. If your why doesn’t connect with the interviewer, it won’t matter how skilled you are technically.
Do This: Always be ready to explain your journey; that pulls people in. Whenever possible, you should also research the interviewers and ask questions about the dynamics of the team in the interview process. If you’re trying to be part of this team, you have to understand where you’re going to fit in. Try to tailor your story to the role of the person you’re speaking with. It can help to speak to people in your network in those roles to learn what they do and how they communicate with each other.
Kyle Elliott — Founder, Career Coach, Caffeinated Kyle
The Ability to Relate Your Skills to the Job Posting
Why It’s Important: What happens is there’s a job posting, and that’s what tells you what they’re looking for in a candidate. So few people use that to prepare for the interview. A lot of people aren’t prepared to talk about every single item on there, and then they get caught off guard when they’re asked about one of the requirements of the job. You really need to be prepared to talk about everything in that job posting.
Do This: For every single bullet in the job posting — the requirement, the qualifications, the day-to-day — write down something that you’ve done that’s similar to that and an accomplishment. List those examples in a spreadsheet. You should also think about what makes your approach different or unique. They’re not just looking for someone who can do the job, but who can also do it differently and better than anyone else. Another exercise I like doing is to list 10 things that make you different from the other candidates. Ask your colleagues and friends for examples. It’s hard for people to think like that, which is why I like practicing it.
Why It’s Important: Employers are looking for you to be flexible and pivot through periods of change and uncertainty. During an interview, be prepared to go with the flow. I’ve had clients who thought they’d be interviewing with one person and it ended up being with four people. Or they were supposed to do a PowerPoint and there isn’t a screen.
“Employers are looking for you to be flexible and pivot through periods of change and uncertainty.”
Do This: I would really encourage people to treat the interview like their job. What would you do at work? How would you approach this situation if it was a work project? Part of it is also preparing for questions that make you really nervous. By practicing those answers, you’re ready for whatever they throw at you. A lot of people avoid those questions and cross their fingers that the interviewer doesn’t ask about their two-year gap in employment or bachelor’s degree.
Why It’s Important: We’re often too nervous thinking about our stories or elevator pitch that we forget about the interview. We get to this formal setting where we forget to have small talk and that it’s a conversation. I really like turning interviews into a conversation rather than a Q&A. I find that it tends to relax you and the interviewer, and they’re able to get a better sense of what it would be like to work with you.
“I find that it tends to relax you and the interviewer, and they’re able to get a better sense of what it would be like to work with you.”
Do This: People love talking about themselves. So ask them: “How was your weekend? How long have you been with this organization?” Simple questions that get people talking about themselves can be really powerful. The biggest tip I have is to be yourself, be honest and just ask questions in return. If they ask you about your leadership style, ask them how your style would fit within the organization. Those questions get them engaged rather than you talking the entire time.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.