How do you feel about job interviews?
If you’re like most people, interviews probably make you feel nervous, self-conscious, or apprehensive. The more you want the job, the more pressure you feel to perform.
And if you’re a non-native English speaker, you’ll probably start doubting your English ability and whether you can clearly express your professional experience and job skills in an intense interview situation.
If the thought of a job interview in English stresses you out, I have excellent news: this conversation will help you feel more relaxed and confident about what truly needs to be communicated to your potential employer.
As you’ll learn, creating strong answers to interview questions is not about perfect English at all.
Once you understand what the interviewer is expecting you to share, you’ll be able to respond to interview questions with specific examples, structure your answers clearly, and communicate your personality.
In this conversation with Jennifer from Interview Genie, you’ll learn what really matters in American job interviews and how to respond to interview questions confidently.
How Your Background Can Demonstrate Your Unique Experience
Jennifer is an interview prep coach for non-native English speakers who are looking for jobs in an English speaking company.
As it turns out, Jennifer and I have a lot in common! We both studied literature in college and then started working in more corporate environments before transitioning to teaching English in Boston.
Because we understand that the style of communication in corporate America can be confusing, we’ve decided to help non-native English speakers navigate professional interactions.
When you watch our conversation, you’ll get more insight into how our backgrounds have given us unique perspectives and approaches to teaching.
Although we don’t specifically discuss this in the video, I encourage you to consider how your own diverse experiences can be a professional advantage; your work history provides you with special insights and skills that make you a more valuable job candidate.
Because we’re used to interviewing and working for American organizations, we frequently explain how our professional backgrounds relate to our current work, so we automatically shared without thinking about it!
(Want more guidance? Learn how to create strong answers to “What do you do?” here.)
Keeping these considerations in mind will help you as you learn how to structure your answers to the most typical job interview questions.
Four Categories of Questions in a Job Interview
In job interviews, the precise questions you’ll be asked will vary based on the position being offered.
As you can imagine, the job requirements for a first grade teacher are quite different than for a product manager in an engineering department.
While all types of interviews share some characteristics, preparation for these interviews will need to be specific to the position.
At the beginning of the interview, you’ll start with small talk about neutral topics.
Here are some questions you might be asked at the beginning of an interview:
- How was the weather?
- How was your drive over here?
- How was your commute to our office?
- Did you find everything okay?
- Did you have any trouble finding our office?
From there, the interview will move on to “basic questions,” the standard questions that are asked in almost every interview.
As we’ve discussed previously, the first question is almost always “Tell me about yourself.”
This is everyone’s favorite question – because it’s predictable – but also their least favorite question, because you have to construct and communicate a clear answer right from the beginning of the interview.
Here are some other questions you may be asked:
- Why do you want to work for us?
- What brings you here (to our organization)?
- Why are you interested in this role?
- What interests you about our company?
After these more general questions, you’ll likely be asked behavioral questions.
For these types of questions, you need to tell a specific story with real examples from your work.
You can’t respond with a vague answer; you need to identify a specific experience or instance that answers the question.
Here are two examples of behavioral questions:
- Tell me about a time that you ran into a challenge on a project.
- Give me an example of some time when you showed leadership skills.
Most people think these behavioral questions are harder because you need to be prepared with stories that illustrate what was asked.
Lastly, depending on the type of job being discussed, you’ll likely be asked technical questions related to the position itself.
As you can imagine, these will vary widely depending on the job you’re applying for! In general, these questions will revolve around the specific job duties.
Why Preparing for Interviews with a General List of Questions Doesn’t Work
Now that we’ve identified the four categories of questions you’ll likely be asked in a job interview, you can see why preparing for a job interview in English is not as simple as working through a list of questions one-by-one.
In our experience, most non-native speakers tend to go through a general list and answer the questions (often in writing!).
However, to be well-prepared, you also have to take into consideration the goals of the company, the needs of the position, and what you want to convey about your experience.
As we delve deeper into interview questions, you want to keep these in mind to think about how you personally can create strong answers.
Interviews are Not Usually About the Skills
Here’s the truth: when you’re invited for a job interview in the United States, the hiring managers are already mostly convinced that you qualify for the position.
They’ve looked at your resume and cover letter and determined that you meet the majority of requirements and already have the necessary skills.
For this reason, the goal of interviews in American organizations is to get more information about how you’ll behave at work.
They want to feel confident that you would succeed in the position, manage the work environment, and work well with the corporate or organizational culture.
As Jennifer explains, interviewers want to find out what your personality is like, whether you have social skills, and if you’ll fit in with your future team.
They want to ensure that they’ll be comfortable with you.
For people coming from other cultures, this is not always clear when they start interviewing for positions in American companies. They tend to focus on proving their skills or intelligence, but what’s more important is showing you’re a good fit for the organizational culture!
If you’re used to a different approach to power dynamics, this can be surprising.
Americans care about how you present yourself when interacting and making small talk in the office, as well as when representing your company at networking events or conferences or when interfacing with clients.
As Jennifer states, if you simply answer the question is a very direct, cut-and-dried way without any personality, they’re not going to be interested in being around you.
Preparing for interviews is about becoming comfortable with these questions so that your true personality can show through in your responses.
(For more guidance on how to be professional while showing your personality, check out my series of videos on how to sound more professional.)
Understanding Company Culture When Interviewing
I often work with clients who didn’t get a clear read on the company culture during the interview process, so they struggle to connect with their colleagues once they have the job.
You want to try to recognize the organizational culture before and during your job interviews.
After all, working at a tech startup in California will be quite different than working for a finance company or law firm in New York City.
Most Americans can already identify characteristics of organizational cultures and we naturally keep this in mind when we’re preparing for interviews.
However, if you’re not originally from the US, you may not be familiar with these subtle aspects of professional culture, so you won’t automatically understand the best way to answer questions about fit.
You may need guidance in order to understand what is unique about the organization you’re applying to.
You also have to keep in mind that smaller organizations will care more about personality fit than larger corporations because the work environment is much more intimate.
(Watch the video for amusing stories of when Jennifer and I applied for our first teaching jobs and were too formal and very overdressed! No one’s perfect – we all miscalculate based on our previous experiences!)
Why It’s So Important to Learn How to Answer Questions Like Native Speakers
In addition to understanding company culture, you also want to consider culturally-appropriate communication styles.
Different cultures have widely varying styles of communication; depending on where you’re from, you may be used to giving longer answers or explaining your ideas with more roundabout logic.
For success in job interviews in the United States, it is essential that you deepen your understanding of the preferred style for interview responses.
Both Jennifer and I have noticed that non-native speakers tend to give too much information at the beginning of an answer.
On the other hand, Americans tend to jump to the key points of the message.
If your answer is too long-winded or rambling, your interviewer may stop paying attention before they hear your full answer.
Even though there’s nothing wrong with these different communication styles (after all, they’re cultural!), they don’t meet the expectations of the American interviewer.
You want to deliver your answer in the same style that your interviewers are expecting to hear.
If you know that in American interviews you need to get to the point without much extra detail, then you can practice that.
(For more information, read my article and watch the video on how to communicate clearly and professionally in American business culture.)
How the the Five Paragraph Essay Structure Can Help You Create Strong Answers
In professional situations, people are often expecting a clear structure to your responses to their questions.
Americans tend to be impatient to hear the information that they asked for, so you want to get straight to your key message.
If you’ve ever studied academic writing in English, you’ve probably heard of the five paragraph essay structure: you introduce your topic, provide three supporting details, and come to a conclusion.
(In my video on communicating clearly in American business culture, I share a visual of this expected structure with examples from other countries.)
According to Jennifer, a strong answer to an interview question will follow this same structure, but in a more condensed format.
Your answer should be about five sentences long and will take you about 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes, if you need additional detail.
Within this short period of time, you want to be sure you identify your main point first and then support it with examples if necessary.
Like the five paragraph essay, you’ll start answering the question, give some examples, and then conclude with a statement that indicates you’re done responding.
As far as I’m concerned, this is good news for non-native English speakers!
Rather than needing to talk at length, you want to focus your attention on making your point clearly so that the interviewer can continue with his or her questions.
You don’t have to lead the interview; the interviewer will be in charge of the flow of questions and will follow up with another one if they need more information.
Don’t Forget to Give Specifics in Your Answers
As we’ve emphasized throughout the conversation, American interviews are expecting specific examples that illustrate your answers.
Jennifer explains her experience with the question “Why do you want to work here?”
Most native and non-native speakers start with a vague answer about how the company is well-respected, but the interviewer wants to hear something more concrete.
Here are some ideas that she shares:
- You may say that they’re doing great work on cancer research and you heard they just released a new drug.
- You may mention that your friend works for them and the company culture is fun.
- You may share that you heard their employees are treated well.
As you can see, there’s no one “right” answer; instead, your answer needs to be specific to the company.
Your goal is to show the interviewer that you have done your research and that you understand the organization you’re applying to.
You want to show that you know something about the job that you’re applying for; not that you would accept any job available anywhere.
During your interview, you’re trying to express that you want this specific job at this specific organization, for these specific reasons.
Most interviewers are not interested in vague answers; they want to be able to picture you in this role at this organization.
Rather than saying your last project taught you how to be a better leader, give a specific example of a leadership quality and show them how the experience helped you develop it.
These types of responses show your personality, how you handle uncomfortable or challenging situations, how you express your ideas, and how you do your work.
Why You Need to Practice Interview Questions & Nonverbal Communication
While you don’t want to rehearse your answers to the point of memorizing them, you want to consistently practice so that you know which aspects of your personality or work skills you want to emphasize.
As a non-native speaker, you need to feel comfortable with both the language and the style of communication that is preferred and expected in job interviews.
Strong answers to interview questions are not necessarily perfectly articulated answers with completely correct grammar structures and precise vocabulary.
You should be paying much more attention to the content of your answers, especially the stories you can tell about your work history and specific examples that illustrate your talent and skills.
So many non-native speakers focus on their mistakes, when this is not what truly matters. After all, native speakers make mistakes too – even during job interviews!
As Jennifer emphasizes, there’s more to communication than what you say. Most communication is nonverbal, and this is what people pay attention to in job interviews.
Consider your body language and other aspects of nonverbal communication like facial expressions.
Your interviewer is probably paying attention to how relaxed you feel, whether you smile, and whether they can connect to you personally.
(For more information on demonstrating nonverbal communication and active listening, be sure to check out my course: Participate Actively in Conversations.)
Once You Have the Job, Continue to Develop Your Communication Skills
As you know, the job interview is only the first stage to advancing your career in an English-speaking country or American company.
Once you have the job, you should focus more attention on your communication skills so that you can eventually be promoted to higher-level positions.
Jennifer shares an example of a Korean-born, US-based client who felt comfortable interviewing, but knew he still needed to strengthen his professional communication skills to become an executive in his company.
When you practice the question “Tell me about yourself,” you usually want to learn how to answer it in an interview setting.
That said, you also need to be able to create a strong response to this question so that you’re prepared if you have the chance to interact with the CEO of your company, or in an networking situation where people really do want you to tell them about yourself!
(This is what we often call an elevator pitch.)
Learning how to craft concise, clear, direct answers to questions will help you with your career long after the job interview.
This is why preparing for job interviews can be so fascinating; it’s not just about rehearsing and memorizing answers, but figuring out how to relate to someone else while clearly communicating your value as a professional!
Remember, learning interactional language, rather than transactional language, can truly help you connect with others as well as advance in both professional and academic settings.
After watching this conversation with Jennifer, I hope you understand that the person who is interviewing you is more interested in your personality than your English level!
That’s what they truly want to observe; they want to get to know the real human they may be working with!
Don’t get caught up in the idea of having perfect English grammar or vocabulary or distracted by the pursuit of perfect answers to questions.
We want to work with human beings who are truly interested in the job that’s being offered!
Although job interviews are a more specialized type of conversation than casual small talk, your goal still needs to be connection and communicating yourself and your experience through your words, rather than perfect mastery of English.
You want to communicate clearly and effectively, but in most cases, effectively means communicating yourself!
If you remember that an interview is simply a conversation between two people, it will help you relax and have a good interview.
Now it’s your turn! In the comments below, share your experiences with job interviews.
Have you ever interviewed for an American organization? Have you had a job interview or an academic interview in English? How do job interviews usually work in your native culture?
To connect with Jennifer, head over to Interview Genie. I encourage you to read her many articles on preparing for your academic and professional interviews and check out her resources.
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