Tell me if this sounds familiar: You continually make it to the interview stage, and then—crickets. You have the skills to get in the door, but for some reason, you stall out when it comes to getting the offer. It’s super frustrating, and you can’t help but wonder why.
As someone who was responsible for recruiting and interviewing applicants for fellowship openings at organizations nationwide, I can tell you it’s true that being qualified isn’t always enough to edge out the competition.
So how do you become one of those people the hiring manager will fight for when it comes down to just two qualified people? The answer is simple:
Build a real connection with your interviewer. Without a doubt, that was what made me pick one similarly qualified applicant over another. (I’m only human, after all.)
Doing this is easier than you think—in fact, all the applicants who “connected” with me during the process only had to do the following:
1. THEY MAKE IT CLEAR WHY THEY FIT THE ORGANIZATION
It’s fair to think of an interview like a test. After all, someone’s asking you questions and judging you based on your answers.
However, this mind-set will backfire. That’s because you ace a test by studying up and giving the right answers. But the “perfect” answers are almost never the best in an interview situation, because they make you sound like everyone else. If you say you want to work at a company because it’s number one in its field—and leave it there—odds are you’re giving the same answer as others.
The trick is to push yourself a step further and make sure you figure into your reply. For example, I interviewed a candidate, who in discussing her commitment to public interest work talked about efforts to raise awareness about sexual assault on her campus. While it wasn’t directly relevant to the role she was applying for, it showed that she volunteered on causes she cared about—and that’s the sort of civically engaged applicant we were looking for.
So work into your answers a few stories that show why you’re interested in the company. Often when you relay a story, you share more about how you think—and that helps the other person feel like he or she’s getting to know you. Plus, it feels like a more genuine way to talk about yourself.
2. THEY SHOW THEY’RE LISTENING
You know that asking questions at the end of your interview is a great way to build a connection. However, posing them is not enough.
The crucial next step is to actually listen to the answer. I know, it sounds obvious. But you wouldn’t believe how many people asked me something, and then when I finished dove right into an unrelated next question without even taking a breath. This made me feel like they had no interest in what I had to say, and just wanted to score points.
Conversely, I was always impressed with the applicants who listened close enough to what I said to ask an unrehearsed follow-up question. Too nervous to think on your feet? It can be a simple as saying “Can you tell me more about [something the interviewer just said]?”
When you listen, it becomes a two-way exchange. That makes your interview feels more like a conversation, which boosts the likelihood of feeling connected.
3. THEY WRITE THOUGHTFUL THANK-YOU NOTES
Another way I knew a candidate was listening was if they referenced something I said in their follow-up.
Some people will tell you that all that matters about thank-you notes is that they’re sent. And it’s true that simply following this rule would put you leagues ahead of those who forget. However, I always appreciated one that went the extra mile and discussed something specific to the conversation.
Ask yourself: Did you learn anything new during the discussion? Was there a story they seemed especially interested in (by asking more)? Or something you feel you only touched on that you could’ve discussed further?
Let these answers guide your message. It’ll give you something meaningful to say between “Thank you for taking the time…” and “I look forward to hearing about next steps.” Plus, it’ll reinforce the connection you started to build.
Pro tip: In addition to sending an email within 24 hours, also send a handwritten one so the hiring manger will be reminded of you fondly a few days after the fact.
It’s not enough to just have the skills or passion. The candidates who rose to the top of my list also took the time to connect with me, to make it clear they saw me as a person, and not just an obstacle standing between them and the position. And because of that, it was easy to say to my team, “This person is the right one for the job!”