I was on a hike with a friend who is getting ready for a high-stakes interview for grad school. We were talking about various questions which may be asked during the interview. After a few of these back-and-forth, they said, “I’m not sure we should be doing this. I mean, shouldn’t I just go to the interview and answer naturally what comes to mind?” I imagine some of you may have similar thoughts, so I want to talk about the assumptions and misperceptions that contribute to this idea.
Assumption one: Prepared answers cannot be genuine and honest. You may believe that interviewers want spontaneous answers because they are more genuine, but this is not necessarily so. You can prepare good answers to questions which are 100% genuine and honest. In fact, your answers SHOULD be 100% genuine. It doesn’t happen often, but twice now I have encountered interviewees whom I felt were giving the answer they thought I wanted, not their actual genuine answer. Whatever answer you prepare, make sure it is true to you.
Assumption two: Interviewers want spontaneous answers. Most people do not have much experience with interviews. As a consequence, spontaneous answers are unlikely to be particularly GOOD answers. When I ask a question in an interview, I want the most representative answer the interviewee can produce. It is unlikely, in that small window, in that high-pressure context, that an interviewee can come up with a great example to answer a question. I want interviewees to have good, genuine, substantive answers. I don’t want it highly practiced and polished, but if the interviewee has at least considered the question before, they can give a good answer.
Assumption three: I don’t need to prepare. You do realize that others applying for these positions WILL be preparing, don’t you? My question to you is: do you want the position or don’t you? Some of the others who are interviewing ARE preparing, and their interview will be better as a consequence. If you want the position, you should prepare.
Assumption four: Preparation warps the whole idea of the interview. The interview, like the application, is intended to distinguish those applicants who get a position and those who do not. Do you think that an applicant who puts effort into the process will be viewed more or less favorably? The application and interview indicates how hard and well the person will work in the position. Someone who puts more effort into the process, who does a better job, will be more likely to be chosen. This is a feature of the interview, not a bug: we WANT to identify those who put more work into the process, because that indicates they are more likely to have what it takes to be successful in the position for which they are interviewing.
Preparing for an interview is an important, integral aspect of the process. It’s simple: those who prepare will do a better interview and are more likely to get a position. If you want to be successful, you must prepare and practice. After all, you wouldn’t take an exam without studying, would you? Preparing for an interview is no more cheating than studying for an exam would be.