How to Nail an Interview: A Checklist

If you've ever felt nervous walking into a job interview about etiquette or how to answer certain questions, we put some tips together on how to absolutely nail it.  Then we threw those out and got a job interview expert with 25 years of experience in Human Resources to put together the definitive list of everything you need to know to score the gig, guarantee a great salary, and have everyone wondering how they ever got along without you.

By Judith Marshall

Where to start?

  • Do your research – if you haven’t already, go to the company website and write down everything important about the company – number of employees, product info, any important info from recent press releases.
  • Find out who will be interviewing you – check them out online. Look for commonalities: same alma mater, similar hobbies or interests. Make a note to bring these up in the interview.
  • Ask what the dress code is.
  • Ask for a copy of the job description in advance – then match up your skills and experience.
  • Get directions and plan to arrive early (take a phone number to call in case you get stuck in traffic). If unfamiliar with the location, you may want to make a trial run.

More Preparation

  • Write down and memorize three accomplishments you’re most proud of. Try to quantify them; i.e. “At Marshall Associates, I reduced the workers comp rate by 50% which resulted in a $12,000/per year cost savings to the company.”
  • Non-work accomplishments work, too!

At the Interview

  • Dress appropriately; don’t look too prosperous, but don’t look like a bum! Cover tattoos.
  • Bring your resume and a notepad to take notes.
  • Be pleasant to the receptionist and everyone else you meet; they’re interviewing you, too!
  • Start with an equal handshake.
  • Watch your body language; relax in the chair, but don’t slouch; don’t fidget; look confident.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Use your hands to be expressive; smile when appropriate. Laugh if the interviewer makes a joke, even if it isn’t funny.
  • Be aware of sloppy speech habits:
    • Avoid filler words like “um”, “ah”, “OK”, “like”. Think before you speak.
    • Avoid grammatical errors. Speak in complete sentences.
    • Slow down. Avoid rushing to answer a question. Wait two beats before responding.
  • Use power words – “I’m confident that,” “ I believe,” “My goal is.”
  • Take notes, even if you’re just doodling. It makes you look conscientious.
  • Ask questions; i.e. “What type of person succeeds at ABC Systems?” “What are the top priorities for this position?” Don’t ask about salary or benefits in the first interview. Wait until you’re a final candidate.

The Three Toughest Questions:

  • Why should I choose you?

Here the interviewer is looking to understand your qualifications, motivations, as well as understanding how your brain works. The worst responses are when you simply focus on yourself. For Example: “I think you should choose me because this position offers me a chance to learn new things and be part of a winning organization.” Employers want to know what’s in it for them. The best responses are when you tie your candidacy back to the problem they’re trying to solve. Something like, “With my proven experience in _____________, I’m confident that in a very short time I can _______________.”

  • What’s your greatest weakness?

This question is geared toward finding out if you are self-actualized, and committed to self-development. A great answer might be, “Each year I focus on one or two skill areas where I know I can make improvement. This year, I want to improve my word processing skills, so I’m taking an advanced Word class at night.”

  • What are your salary expectations?

In today’s economy, this question is difficult for nearly every interviewee. Many people, including new college graduates, are willing to take any amount just to get a job, and they’re ready to say this to the interviewer. This is a mistake. It positions you as a weak negotiator. My advice is to simply say that you want to be treated fairly for your relative level of education, skills and experience within the department and the company.

After the Interview

  • Send a hard-copy thank-you note, email, or, if appropriate, call. In the note or on the call, reaffirm your qualifications and express your interest in the position.
  • Follow-up: Send one short email a week for four weeks; then assume they are not interested.

Below are a few of my favorite interview questions. Spend a few minutes thinking about how you might answer each one.

  • What kinds of people push your buttons? How have you handled them?
  • Describe the most stressful assignment or task you've ever been given. How did you handle it?
  • What are you looking for in the work environment?
  • What is your long-range career objective? How do you plan to reach this objective?
  • Describe an obstacle you had to overcome to get where you are today. How did you overcome it?
  • Tell me about the most boring job you’ve ever had. What did you do to make it more rewarding?
  • How do you persuade others to get what you want?


Think of a job interview as a test — the more time you spend studying, the better the chance of a positive outcome.

I hope you find this advice helpful and good luck!

Judith Marshall is President of Human Resources Consulting Services in Concord, CA, and is an associate consultant with Merit Resource Group. She is also a member of the faculty of the Council on Education in Management, an international public seminar company for whom she teaches a number of workshops on HR-related topics. Ms. Marshall is an author, trainer, public speaker, and former human resources executive with over twenty-five years of broad-based experience in a wide range of industries including manufacturing, real estate and high tech. Prior to establishing her own consulting practice in 1998, Judith held the position of Vice President, Corporate Human Resources for Vanstar Corporation, a $2.2 billion technology services company based in Pleasanton, California.


  • Reply October 1, 2009


    Great guide. I’ve also heard that you should dress the part whenever doing a phone interview, too. And stand up. People can hear confidence over the phone, I guess.
    .-= Jack´s last blog ..ReveNews: Skip Dry Corporate Language if You Want to Instill Confidence in Your Readers =-.

  • Reply October 1, 2009


    Jack, That’s a great point. Even over the phone, I find talking with my hands and things like that really enhance my communication skills.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..How to Nail an Interview: A Checklist =-.

  • Reply October 1, 2009

    RPG Ike

    Yes, really, an excellent guide. I’m going to bookmark and refer to it during my next jobhunt (which I hope is far off). I find many of these also double as helpful business meeting tips.

    I once managed to get so confused during a rambling response that I had no choice but to ask for the question to be repeated. Ugh. Another tip might be to get to the point.

    What’s an equal handshake?
    .-= RPG Ike´s last blog ..Make Monsters, Win Prizes, Get Famous! =-.

  • Reply October 1, 2009


    @ RPG, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to ask someone to repeat a question or ask what were talking about after I had been rambling on a tangent.

    It’s important to offer an equal handshake, in terms of pressure, posturing, and duration. Too hard and you’ll come off as aggressive or a jerk, too soft, and you’re weak, nonconfrontational, and not comfortable with people.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..How to Nail an Interview: A Checklist =-.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Primer Magazine and Jack Busch. Jack Busch said: RT @primermag New on Primer: How to Nail an Interview: A Checklist […]

  • Reply March 13, 2012


    I have a phone interview with T. Rowe Price tomorrow for an internship and this article and the tips definitely helped boost my confidence going into it!

  • Reply April 26, 2012


    Great guide. One question that tends to always get me stumped saying uhhhh, are the reflection questions for example. “Give a specific example of when you had to sort out a complex problem for a dissatisfied customer recently”. Always stumps me.

  • Reply March 1, 2013


    Go to Amazon, find Employment books by Jeff Altman, ignore the silly stuff he writes, he has been a headhunter for close to forty years and is one of the very best in the business. These are available on Kindle FOR FREE:
    The Single Best Question You Should Ask on Any Interview by Jeff Altman
    Job Interview Q&A: 25 Job Interview Questions and Answers So That You Can Win at Interview Karate by Jeff Altman and
    No B.S. Job Search Advice: Clear Advice from The Big Game Hunter That Will Help You Land Your Next Job FAST! by Jeff Altman
    I retired with 35 years experience as a headhunter and Jeff’s models for applicant preparation where models I adopted.
    Judith Marshall, thank you for your service to these people more or less fresh on the job market.

  • Reply March 21, 2013


    I would almost completely disagree with the interview questions. Interviewers have been doing A LOT more behavioral type interviews. They think that the past dictates the future. They will ask you to tell you a specific story (beginning, middle, and end) of a time when…: you had an argument with a manger, you satisfied a customer, went above and beyond the call of duty, had trouble training someone, had to keep a promise to someone, had a troubling co-worker, etc.
    If you aren’t prepared for it, it will lay you on your ass, leave your head spinning and you won’t get the job (i know). Think having to write a short paragraph when you have been studying for a multiple choice test. Look it up and be prepared!

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