Get the Inside Scoop on How Job Interviews Work

Two businesswomen in office shaking hands with businessman nearby
••• Tom Merton / Getty Images

Maybe it’s been a while since your last job interview ​– or maybe you’re about to embark on your very first real interview after graduation. Whatever the case, it’s normal to have a moment of panic after making arrangements to meet the hiring manager. Do you even know what this meeting is when it comes right down to it? What's the typical format of a job interview?

At its simplest, a job interview is a chance to learn more about the job while showcasing your skills and experience. Your goal is to find out if the job is right for you, which means learning as much as possible about the duties, expectations, opportunities, team, and culture. You also want to show the hiring manager that you’re the perfect person to solve the employer’s problems and skyrocket the company to even greater heights of success.

All Job Interviews Are Not Created Equal

If you’ve watched any workplace sitcoms, you probably have one very specific image of what a job interview looks like. You expect a long table in a conference room, with you on one side of it, dressed in your best business apparel, and the boss on the other side of it, dressed in his or her much fancier workwear. But job interviews don’t all look alike.

For instance, your interview might:

  • Take place in the manager’s office, a conference room, an open space at the company, a restaurant, or a coffee shop.
  • Involve just one person – a representative from Human Resources (HR), for example, or your potential new boss – or a panel of people. You might meet with prospective colleagues, people from other departments, the owner of the company, the Vice President of sales, just about anyone who works at the company.
  • Last 15 minutes (generally not a terrific sign, but potentially OK, if it’s an early screening) or several hours. You could even spend a whole day participating in several rounds of interviews.
  • Be an exclusive affair, where you’re the only candidate interviewing, or a group interview involving several other candidates.

Find Out How it Will Work Before You Go

The many possible variations are one reason why you want to communicate clearly with the hiring manager, recruiter, or HR representative before you arrive for your meeting. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to get a sense of what you’re going into.

For example, you might ask:

  • Whom will I be meeting, and what is this person’s role?
  • What materials should I bring with me? (Regardless of what the hiring manager says, bring several copies of your resume and any other materials you might need to show your work, such as a portfolio.)
  • What is the dress code? (If there’s no dress code, tidy business casual is the best choice. Your interviewer might be wearing jeans, but you shouldn’t be.)

What the Interview Format Might Look Like

Assuming that you have answers to all your questions (and that you’re the only candidate interviewing that day, and will be meeting with just one person) the job interview format will probably look something like this:

  1. You’ll arrive at the office, at least 15 minutes early, having confirmed the address, including the floor and suite, ahead of time and mapped out your route to avoid traffic surprises.
  2. A receptionist or administrator will announce you.
  3. You’ll be ushered into an office or conference room, whereupon you’ll meet the hiring manager or HR representative, and begin your conversation.
  4. Let the hiring manager set the tone but be on the lookout for an opportunity to ask your questions and make a case for yourself. The hiring manager might help with this, for instance by leading with an invitation to tell him or her about yourself. Come prepared with an elevator pitch, in which you explain who you are and what you do. A good pitch lasts 60 seconds or less, and “sells” you as a candidate to the HR person
  5. At the end of the interview, you'll have the opportunity to ask the interviewer questions of your own. Be ready with a few questions about the job and the company, and anything else you need to know to make a decision if you were to be offered the job.
  6. After the interview, follow-up with a thank-note email or note to everyone you interviewed with.

Be Prepared to Be Flexible

Understand that no matter how thoroughly you prepare, and how much information you get from the HR person on the phone, you’re probably going to have to roll with some punches the day of the interview.

Maybe the representative said that you’d be meeting with one person, and you’re actually seeing three people. Maybe you’ll have to move to a different floor or another location or change your approach when it becomes clear that the hiring manager isn’t buying what you’re selling.

Just remember that a job interview is, at its heart, a meeting between two or more people who might work together someday. You all have the same goal in mind: to see if you can have a happy and productive working relationship.