Career Advice

What Makes for A Successful Interview? Giving Substantive Answers. Here's How.

Deanna Montgomery

The job interview is your chance to show that you are a good fit for the position, the team, and the organization (and also to see if they are a good fit for you). Not surprisingly, you do this by answering their questions. However, simple, uninformed answers will not do. You need to provide substantive, meaningful answers that prove you have the knowledge, skills, experience, attitude, and desire to perform the required responsibilities.

Although it is impossible to know every question you will be asked ahead of time, preparing talking points that address common questions and highlight your strengths, interests, and accomplishments is key to giving an impressive interview.

The following tips will help you to pull together thoughtful, specific, and detailed content for your interview so that when you get in front of your interviewer or an interviewing committee, they will be left with no doubt that you are qualified for the job.

Get to know the organization

An interviewer will be looking for a candidate who understands the organization, its mission, and the job criteria. Before your interview, spend some time on the organization’s website to familiarize yourself with the big picture: its mission or vision that tells you what the organization’s main goals are.

Once you have an understanding of the company’s priorities, look into details about its services, products, initiatives, values, partnerships, competitors, and successes. For industry positions, research major and recent accomplishments, emerging technologies, community involvement, and sustainability practices. For nonprofit roles, learn about the organization’s purpose, programs, goals, networks, and community engagement activities.

Be sure to locate the web page of the specific office or department you are applying to be a part of and make note of major achievements, projects, and goals, especially those that may be directly related to the role you are applying for.

A deep dive into the organization, the unit that you would be working in, and their activities will provide you with useful background knowledge to participate in an interesting and productive conversation, and it will show interviewers that you have a high level of interest in the company.

Know the expectations of the role

Interviewers want candidates who demonstrate that they understand what the position entails. Take time to read and reread the job posting, and spend time dissecting the description, looking for key words and phrases that emphasize the most desired qualities for the role.

As you review the job requirements, write down specific examples from your experience that address those requirements. The more you revisit the job posting and your notes, the greater the chance that information will stay fresh in your mind.

Demonstrate that you are a good fit for the position and the organization

Having done your research on the organization and analyzed the job description, you next need to think about how you fit into that picture. To move forward in the interview process, show that you are uniquely qualified for the specific position. Think about the skills and experiences you have that are most relevant to the job’s requirements and determine how to showcase your abilities with examples. You want to be able to talk extensively about your past experiences and make explicit connections between your history and the responsibilities of the role.

For example:  

Position: Research chemist in the Research & Development division of a midsized manufacturing company.

Question: Tell us about your previous research experience.

Vague answer: As an undergrad, I worked in a polymer chemistry lab for two years, and currently I am finishing my PhD in a natural product synthesis lab.

Better answer: As an undergrad, I worked in a polymer chemistry lab for two years, synthesizing novel biodegradable polymers. That experience sparked my interest in simplifying synthetic pathways to complex small molecules, and I am currently working on a new total synthesis of a complex steroid natural product. My experience with a large variety of synthetic methods has enabled me to take on new and challenging synthetic problems. I see that your company is pursuing biodegradable polymers, and I think my experience creating step-efficient syntheses would allow me to optimize current synthetic routes to your desired products.

Make notes for yourself

Brainstorm questions that you think you might be asked. Look for lists of common interview questions, and think about questions that might be specific to the position you are interviewing for. Then write out your answers to these questions.

It can be tempting to simply look at a question and convince yourself that you have an answer ready in your mind, but writing out your answers will ensure that you are ready to give a great response. Put your ideas into words so you don’t freeze up when a familiar question is asked during the actual interview. Depending on the format of the interview, you may even be able to have these notes on hand for reference. Your notes may also be helpful in future interviews.

Most interviewers ask variations on the following questions, so start with these:

  • Tell me about yourself/your professional journey.
  • Why are you interested in this position/organization?
  • What do you think would be most challenging for you in this role?
  • What would your priorities be during the first week/month/year?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Tell us about a time when you had to deal with conflict or a difficult collaboration.

As you research the organization, look for challenges the company might be trying to address, as interview questions might focus on those. Spend some time thinking about what questions will be most relevant to the particular job and create your own list.

Show, don't tell

Concrete information is more useful to an interviewer than abstract ideas. By explaining your skills and interests using specific, well-explained examples, you can make it clear to your interviewer that you can fulfill the role. For example, instead of saying that you have leadership skills, talk about what it was like to hold a role in student government or tell the story of that time you stepped up to take the lead on a research project and how you demonstrated leadership skills in those roles.

Here is an example of a possible interview question with a vague answer followed by a reply with a better answer that focuses on telling a story about a related past experience and connecting it to the present/future.

Question: Tell us about a time when you had to deal with a difficult collaboration.

Vague answer: I think all collaborations can be difficult at times. Whenever there are multiple people involved, there can be lots of opinions about what should be done and when. During my second year of grad school, I had to work with a grad student in another lab, and we often didn’t agree on priorities for the project. Once we set a regular weekly meeting to talk about the project, that seemed to help things go smoother.

Better answer: During my second year of grad school, I started working on a project with a grad student in another lab. We often didn’t agree on priorities for the project, and this caused tension when we talked about planning new experiments. To try to improve communication, we set a regular weekly meeting. Talking more regularly about progress and immediate future plans helped us to make progress even when we disagreed. Through this experience, I learned two important things that have helped me in other collaborations: (1) Consistent communication helps to build stronger relationships, which are foundational for understanding the other person’s point-of-view. (2) Asking why someone wants to do things a certain way can be really helpful in understanding their perspective and laying out a plan for moving forward together.

Practice, practice, practice

Once you have prepared the content of what you plan to say during an interview, you have to practice to make the information stick and develop confidence in your delivery. Practicing is also one of the best ways to make sure that nerves don’t get the best of you during the interview and cause you to forget what you want to say.

Revisit your list of possible questions and practice answering them out loud. Many academic institutions have a career services office that offers mock interviews, and ACS provides mock interviews through its career consulting programs. These are great ways to prepare for both the content and delivery.

You can also consider asking a friend or lab mate to mock interview you to get practice.

Answer the question you are asked

Be sure to answer the question you have been asked—not the one you expected to be asked or wish had been asked. Stay on topic, and avoid rambling. It can be tempting to feel like you need to immediately rush into answering a question. Although you should avoid long, awkward silences, it is fine to think about your answer for a few seconds.

If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification. However, use this tactic only when you genuinely need additional information, not as a stalling tactic, or you risk annoying or alienating your interviewers. If a question has several parts, you may consider asking, “Did I answer your question?” or “Did I miss anything?” at the end of your answer.

Final thoughts

Preparation and practice are critical for showing up as your best self during an interview, and equally important is taking time to develop thoughtful, relevant, detailed responses that demonstrate that you are the person you showed on paper. It will make all the difference in the quality of your interview and increase your chance of landing the job.