Interview Insights: Do Not Over Prepare

“I get nervous and forget what I prepared to say in interviews. What is wrong and how do I do better?” — This is a very common issue from students and even experienced candidates.

In this post, I want to share a key insight I learned after conducting many interviews in the past 3 years. The answer is simple: do not over prepare, allocate more mental capacity for real time listening and responding.

Let me play out two scenario from my own experience. Hope these examples can provide context for what I am sharing.

Scenario 1 — I was a student being interviewed

I sat down in the lobby of 30 Wellington Street (the old Deloitte office). My palms are getting a bit sweaty because I was about to have my final round interviews with two Partners (the bosses). I did a quick look up on their profiles the night before. One Partner led consulting on the nationally, the other was the head Partner at the largest client. Knowing this only made me feel more uneasy.

I waited at lobby for about 10 mins. I kept rehearsing all dialogue scenarios I could possibly imagine and read through my resume over and over. Shortly after, I was sitting in the office with one of the Partners. He wrapped up his email and turn to me with a smile, and asked “So, what do you think of Apple Watch?”

“WTF? I didn’t plan for this question! The news came out only this morning …”, hammering myself in my imagination while trying to stay composed. I forced a smile and started saying whatever came to my mind.

5 mins later, he asked “Nice, you read this book too? What do you think?”

“Sh*t …”, I started to blank out and wanted to get out of the room.

Scenario 2 — I was a recruiter interviewing students

I was running to an interview scheduled at 3:30. I looked at my watch, my heart started to pump really fast because I was delayed by a client meeting. The worst part is that I didn’t even see the candidates resume yet.

Without knowing the experience of this student, I was trying to warm things up and asked “Did you see the tea machine prototype we are testing for a client in the cafe?” (no, we don’t just build slides)

The student said: “Yeah, it’s very cool.”

I asked: “do you think it will work in Toronto?”

The student blanked out for about 1 minute, then started to ramble for another 5 minutes. I wonder what was going on in his mind.

Over preparation means trying to rehearse all possible scenarios and fixate answers to pre-defined scripts. Many students hope to impress the interviewers by reciting a series of well-crafted stories. Doing this clearly does not work. Many people still get nervous because they know, deep down, that there will be unexpected questions and off-script conversations.

From these two examples, you should see that, although there are common interview questions and formats (e.g. business or technical cases), which you should prepare fore, randomness and fluidity do exist. This is because interviews are not as mechanical as many of you might imagine — interviews are natural dialogues. Remembering some details, listening to questions, and responding with details appropriately and articulately are the core elements in any conversations.

Unfortunately, all of us have a limited mental capacity to remember, listen, and respond. Since we simply cannot predict all the questions, the key for doing better in interviews is to allocate more thinking power to listen and responding dynamically, instead of trying to memorize answers. I actually feel a lot more relaxed, confident, and fluent in interviews and even important meetings, such as client sessions, team meetings, etc.

So, how can you improve your interview performance by feeling less nervous, appearing more confident, and coming across as genuine? 

Here are a few tactical suggestions:

  1. Reduce mental capacity spent on memorizing and accessing information. To do so, you need to know your content. Yes, you still need to prepare. But start doing this at least 1–2 weeks before the interview. Instead of looking at and reading your resume, try replaying the scenario in your mind. Our brains work better with experiential rather than textual information. The key is not to recite information, but being able to sift through details when you need to describe them dynamically based on the situation.
  2. Limit mental capacity spent on absorbing shocks. This usually happens when we hear unexpected questions, which may lead to the battle of voices in our minds. You should accept the fact that there will always be unexpected questions. This is a mindset change. I, personally, found this change had greater impact on many aspects of my life. Being comfortable to face uncertainty allows me to be more relaxed, ironically, but always attuned to new information and be ready to respond.
  3. Lower mental capacity spent on the mechanics of structuring response, especially in real time. Developing the mechanics of creating a clear and influential message takes some practices. A good way to do so is to have thoughtful and constructive debate with your friends at dinner tables, bars, or any social setting. Find a topic that you and your friends need to pick a position, then share your views and supporting facts in order to convince each other or defend your position. Such low risk setting allows you to consciously practice the mechanics of listening, thinking on the spot, articulating your points, and responding to a dynamic situation. The less effort you spend on the delivery mechanics, the more capacity you have to think through the content, logics, and details. These are the keys to any meaningful and impressive response.

By practicing these techniques over time, I hope you can be more confident by trusting your brains that they know the content, be more relaxed because you expect and embrace uncertainty, and be more fluent in articulating responses under any unforeseen situations. 

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback, as always.