Career skills

How To Prepare For An Interview – The Definitive Guide

The good news: there’s a proven path to prepare for any job interview and get the job.

The hard news: the best way to ace an interview is to know what the interviewer is looking for, anticipate what questions they’re going to ask, and prepared to do the job.

Preparing is a skill, and mastering it is hard work. You have to train.

How to prepare for and ace any job interview

To crush your interview and get the job, you need to:

  1. Understand what you need to know
  2. Do desk research to get informed
  3. Interview people who’ve done and hired the role you want
  4. Learn and demonstrate the skills you need to get hired
  5. Practice the art of interviewing
  6. Nail your interview logistics

In addition, you can also use these:

But, first: some motivation

To give you some motivation, I want you to think of the Winklevoss Twins. If you’ve seen The Social Network, they’re the smug Harvard twins who hired Mark Zuckerberg to build them a website.

The point is, these guys had every advantage: their father taught at a top business school and sent them to a $50,000 private school. Their hometown has an average income of $700,000 – they’d made it before ever stepping onto Harvard’s campus. Look at that face!

Do you think the Winklevoss twins needed to spend time preparing for interviews?

But, when you prepare for a tech interview, the better the job, the more Winklevi clones you’ll be competing against – people with SAT coaches, Ivy League schools, parental bankrolls, and inside fraternity knowledge and connections to help them.

Just like Mark Zuckerberg, you can crush the Winklevi. But you need to put in the work. Let’s get to it!

Checklist of questions you need to answer to prepare for an interview

To prepare for any job interview, you need to be able to answer eight questions:

  1. How will you spend your time in the job? What activities will you do? Activities are the things you do each day in the job. (Go here to find complete list of activities for dozens of functions in tech, from sales to marketing to product management.)
  2. Which skills will you need to succeed? Skills are abilities that let you do activities well – knowledge and experience, like being a great writer or understanding how implement websites in Webflow.
  3. What is the interviewer looking for? People hire to solve specific problems: they need to write emails for their mailing list, they’re proven the ability to sell the product and need to increase revenue with more reps. They also have specific “ideal candidates” in mind. A well-written job description will tell you exactly what the hiring manager has in mind.
  4. What experience and results would be enough to grab your interviewer’s attention and prove you can do the job? The best candidates have “already done it.” They’ve mastered the skills required to do the job and can point to accomplishments that prove their mastery. Your job is to understand these ideal experiences and results, and achieve them (or at least frame your own experience to be as close as possible to them).
  5. Which questions will they ask you? (And how should you respond?) You can brainstorm the types of questions hiring managers might ask, or conduct informational interviews to get actual questions from people who’ve interviewed for similar roles.
  6. What projects / case exercises will they give you? (And how should you respond?) Brainstorm a list based off the experiences and results you identified in question (4) above.
  7. What red flags will they see? (And how should you respond?) Think about what your interviewer is looking for. What are gaps or red flags? How can you explain them?
  8. What story should you tell (past experiences, future goals)? Your story should answer the question, “Why are you the perfect person for this role?” Your job is to knit together your experience to tell a story for why you are motivated and qualified for the job role – as if your life’s culmination will be crushing this marketing job. Silly, but that’s the game.

Example interview preparation checklist

While no role (or person), will have the same answers, here’s what my response might have looked like 2 years our of college, if I were preparing for applying to work as a product manager.

QuestionSample answers (for product management role)
What activities will you do on the job?-Prioritize product features
-Write specs and tickets
What skills will you need to succeed?-Technical knowledge
-Product judgment
-Data analysis
What is the interviewer looking for?-Understanding of product & business
-Ability to prioritize features consistent with goals
-Ability to communicate needs precisely to design and engineering
What experience and results would be enough to grab your interviewer’s attention and prove you can do the job?-Building, designing, or working with engineer to design and build successful product
-Starting company with $100K revenue
-Having managed a feature that delivered quantifiable results reaching 100K+ users or driving $100K+ revenue
What questions will they ask you? (And how should you respond?)-What should our top product priority be?
-Walk me through how you’d prioritize what we should build in the next quarter?
-We’re thinking about a feature to do X. Walk me through how you’d validate the need before building it.
What projects / case exercises will they give you? (And how should you respond?)-Prioritize features on product roadmap
-Write a PRD to accomplish a feature idea
-Propose a feature to solve a particular problem for users or the business
What red flags will they see?-Experience fit (i.e. only working at startup, if it’s established company; or bigger company if it’s a startup)
-Technical knowledge (no design or engineering background)
What story should you tell (past experiences, future goals)?My startup experience:
-Validated need for features by selling product that didn’t exist
-Managing eng contractors to build the product
-Studied data science, learned coding basics as hobby
-Interested in intersection of business and engineering – what’s the best way to solve problems for customers that let us grow
Example interview preparation checklist filled out.

How to prepare for an interview with desk research

Each step in the interview preparation process gives you a different way of answering the eight key questions above. Go through each step and add notes to your outline (i.e. what they’re looking for, what questions they might ask, etc.).

Close read the job description

Start your preparation by closely reading the job description. This is where companies tell you exactly what they want. For example, take this B2C marketing technologist role from Stripe:

Example job description for preparing for a job interview: B2C marketing from Stripe. 
"You will:
 Identify and capture business needs and requirements
 Build strong relationships with stakeholders and manage expectations
 Create email and landing page templates
 Execute experiments and A/B tests 
 Stay up to date with marketing technologies, vendors, and best practices
 Ensure compliance with company policies, privacy and legal requirements
 Ensure our marketing technology stack is utilized effectively
 Drive the advancement of our marketing technologies and capabilities
 Educate stakeholders on new capabilities and best practices
We’re looking for someone who has:
 5+ years experience working in a Marketing operations role
 3+ years of web development experience (HTML, CSS, JS, etc)
 Experience using Salesforce and Marketo APIs
 Familiarity with databases, SQL, and reporting tools
 Strong experience in planning, scoping, and priority setting
 Comfort driving projects forward in ambiguous environments 
 Proven history of working with business stakeholders and technical teams
 Strong collaboration skills to drive business requirements
 Ability to manage multiple stakeholders and priorities simultaneously
 Excellent interpersonal and communication skills
Sample description and requirements from a Stripe B2C marketing role.

From this job description alone, you can fill out the eight-question interview preparation checklist (above).

One key thing to look at, in this stage is whether you’re truly qualified for a role: if you’re borderline (say you have 4 years experience instead of 5), you can still apply, but if you’re missing an essential qualification (for example, if you have no experience in software development, while this role requires 3+ years – even in a marketing position, you shouldn’t bother applying.)

Look at other people in the role on LinkedIn

After reading the job description, search the role and company on LinkedIn.

For large companies, you can search the exact role, and look at the background of people doing the role.

For example, you see that the “Marketing Technologist” role at stripe is technical – current employees are engineers with marketing experience.

At startups and smaller companies, look up the department. First search the job function, then click “people,” and then select the companies you’re interested in:

To prepare for an interview, find employees at a company on LinkedIn.
First search the job title or function – "Marketing." for example.
To find employees at a smaller company, first search the job title or function – “Marketing,” for example. Then click “people” to restrict your results to people with the “marketing” keyword.
When preparing for an interview, you can restrict your search results to a single company by adding that company to the "Current Company" filter.
Next, click “Current Company” and type in the company you’re researching. This will filter out everyone not currently employed by your target company.
Finally, you can see all the people employed at your target company with the keyword you searched.
Finally, you can see all the people employed at your target company with the keyword you searched.

In both cases, a LinkedIn search will show you who’s currently working at the company, what their background is, and many of the experiences and accomplishments they’ve had – both in the role and leading up to it.

Research the role

If you’re applying for your first job in tech, an entry-level role, or are interested in switching careers or functions, you might want to research the role online.

A good starting place is to read through the functional overviews I’ve created here – which includes a description of the role, typical activities and how to get the jobs, as well as great external resources.

Research the company

You’ll also want to make sure you understand the company. To do this, make sure you can answer the following questions:

  1. What is the company’s product?
  2. What is their competition? One easy way to figure this out is to search “[TARGET COMPANY NAME] competition” in google. Another is to just search the company and see who else is advertising based on their name.
  3. How do they acquire customers? Typically, this will be through product led growth, sales, advertising, SEO, influencer marketing.
  4. What are their unit economics (i.e. their cost of acquiring customers, customer lifetime value)?
  5. What are their competitive barriers (i.e. economies of scale, network effects, brand, etc.)?
  6. What is their strategy?
  7. What are (or should be) their biggest priorities this year?
  8. Do you have any questions about them? This could be anything you couldn’t figure out when researching them online.

How to prepare for an interview by talking to people

If you want to go deep preparing for an interview, you need to talk to people.

There are two main ways to “source” the people you speak with: your extended network and the job application process itself.

Prepare for an interview with informational interviews

Informational interviews are the single best way of getting a job: not only do they give you inside knowledge of what it takes to get and succeed at a role, but they also build your network among people who could hire you – giving you inside access to upcoming jobs.

I’ve written a complete guide on getting hired with informational interviews here.

The basics are:

  1. Reach out through your network and on LinkedIn to people who have done (or hired for) the job you’re interested in
  2. Ask them questions about the role, how they hire for it, and what you can do to improve your competitiveness
  3. Ask them for introductions to people who might be hiring
  4. Follow up when you act on their recommendations, so they know that you actually listened (and that their time advising you was well-spent)

If you do these four things, informational interviews will not only let you know exactly what hiring managers are looking for, but they’ll also build your network of people who could potentially hire you for the role you want.

Prepare by asking questions in your interview process

A more direct way of preparing is to make sure to ask questions in the interview process.

Questions to ask the recruiter, hiring manager and other interviewers
Could you outline the steps in your interview process? This will let you prepare for each step in the process individually.
Could you walk me through what your ideal / archetypal candidate looks like for this role? This will give you a sense for what aspects of the job description are most important to them.
What are the most important skills for this job? Are there any specific projects or activities you’d like to make sure I can do well?
If I get the job, what will I work on first?
What would unbelievable success in this role look like after 1 year?
Looking at my background, are there any concerns or uncertainty about my ability to do a fantastic job?
If you had to choose between X and Y for someone in the job, which is more important? With this question, make sure to insert two good, bit opposed characteristics – like speed vs. perfection, or being good at one vs another skills listed in the job description.
Sample questions you can ask early in your interview process, to prepare for later interviews.

How to learn skills to succeed in the role

If you’re applying for an entry-level job, employers don’t always expect you to have prior knowledge. But, if the job is very competitive (and all good jobs are), it pays to put in extra work preparing in three ways.

Develop “basic,” transferable skills

No matter the role, you’ll benefit from:

  • Good writing. I’ve hired people based on the quality of their writing alone. Clear, concise writing shows thoughtfulness and taste. See an example of cold email writing here, and learn to write by following guidelines from the Elements of Style and On Writing Well.
  • Clear verbal communication. Answer questions directly. Don’t meander.
  • Understanding of business, tech and startups. Understand the basics of tech business. To start, read The Startup Owner’s Manual, The Lean Startup, and Business Model Generation.
  • Ability to use spreadsheets. Be able to create a financial or operational model for the company.

Learn the tools of the function

Each function will have its own vocabulary, concepts, and tools. Start by finding your function here, and exploring specific tools.

For example, a product manager should know how to create user flows in Figma, as well as financial projections in excel. A marketer should be able to implement websites in Webflow or modify designs in Figma.

Do projects that build and demonstrate your skills

The best way to learn how to succeed in a function is through doing the work. You can start by doing exercises, side projects, or even consulting or intern projects for real companies.

Each of the roles listed here includes potential projects to build your skills, or you can explore a comprehensive list of projects here.

How to practice for an interview

Once your interview is scheduled, it’s time to practice:

  1. Create your list of interview questions. If you haven’t already, make sure to go through the process of generating questions
  2. Think through your answers. I like to start by outlining answers to all the questions I might be asked with a few bullet points. It’s OK to take time to think through or research your questions at first.
  3. Practice by yourself. Go through the questions, and practice responding as succinctly as possible. Aim for 30 seconds max.
  4. Get a friend to ask questions off your list. Next, have a friend mock interview you, so you don’t know exactly what to expect. Ask for their feedback.
  5. Get someone experienced in the role to mock interview you. Finally, find someone who has done the role before – they can be from your school’s career services, an alum, or a connection on LinkedIn. Ask if they’d organize a short mock interview. Use a tool like Zoom to record your call. At the end, ask for feedback – what was good and bad? How could you improve? Then review your responses and add the questions to your practice list.

How to prepare for interview logistics

  1. Find out what to wear. In general, you want to match what’s expected for the company. If you’re unsure, just ask the recruiter (or whoever you’ve been communicating with).
  2. Don’t be late. Put the interview times on your calendar, and also create reminder alarms for 30 minutes before the interview (or before your departure time, if it’s in-person). If you’re interviewing in person, make sure to arrive 15 minutes early.
  3. Test video conference equipment. Do a dry run on Zoom or Google Hangouts, to make sure everything is working.

Interview preparation templates

Interview preparation checklist

Question to answer
What activities will you do on the job?
What skills will you need to succeed?
What is the interviewer looking for?
What experience and results would be enough to grab your interviewer’s attention and prove you can do the job?
What questions will they ask you? (And how should you respond?)
What projects / case exercises will they give you? (And how should you respond?)
What red flags will they see?
What story should you tell (past experiences, future goals)?
Example interview preparation checklist.

General interview questions to expect

Interview questions
Tell me about yourself? / Why are you interested in this job? (See a complete guide for how to answer this question here.)
What is your superpower?
Why do you want to work for us? / What do you love about our company/product?
What do you want to be doing in 2/5 years?
Walk me through our company’s business model / growth loops?
What is one aspect of your former company’s culture you’d like to keep? What is one you’d like to change?
I saw on your resume that you did [PROJECT / ACCOMPLISHMENT]. Could you walk me through that project? Why did you make that decision?
Common interview questions.

Other resources for applying and getting a job

  1. Complete guide (with templates) to getting hired through informational interviews.
  2. How to answer “tell me about yourself” in an interview.
  3. My overview of how to get any job in tech.
  4. An overview of employment skills.
  5. My list of projects to build skills and credibility for jobs.

By Taylor Thompson

Taylor is a co-founder at Purpose Built Ventures, where he helps launch mission-driven companies. Before Purpose Built, Taylor led growth at Almanac, strategy for Curious Learning, and product at PharmaSecure. His work helps 100,000s of people collaborate at work, 4 million children learn to read, and protects billions of medicines from counterfeiting. He has hired dozens of people, helped raise more than $50 million, and contributed to as a researcher with Clay Christensen. Taylor is an Echoing Green Fellow, and he has degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School.

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