What You Need to Know About American Interviews
Author: Jennifer Scupi, Interview Coach for International Students and Professionals at Interview Genie.
Successfully interviewing for American companies requires a set of tactics that might seem unnatural to you if you're from another culture. With practice and the right mindset, you'll have no trouble learning the American interview behavioral norms.
Note: When I talk about “American” interviews or interviewing with an American company, I'm talking about interviews in American companies in the US, interviews in American companies in other countries, or interviews in companies, most likely multinationals, that use the American interview style.
Let's review the tactics you should adopt for maximum success.
What interviewees should do in an American interview
1. Sell yourself
Job interviews in the United States require selling yourself.
What does this mean?
“Selling yourself” is the process of talking openly, clearly, and straightforwardly about your strengths and explicitly stating how they can help the company.
If you don't know how to sell yourself you’ll have to learn before your US interview.
In some countries you’re expected to talk about your work experience and your education in your interview, but you don’t have to explain how you can help the company. In American interviews you need to take it that step further and connect the dots for the interviewer.
For example, saying "I studied CS at Stanford" is telling us one of your strengths but it isn't connecting that to how you can help the company.
If you say "I'm an excellent Python programmer" you're showing how your CS skill, in this case Python, can be used by the company.
You could also take it one step further and say "I'm an excellent Python programmer and I've completed two Python projects this quarter" or "...and I've been working on...." It's especially useful if you can say you've been working on some kind of project that directly relates to the open job.
You might not think that there's that much difference between saying you studied CS at Stanford and saying you're an excellent Python programmer who's worked on relevant projects, but the latter really paints a picture for the interviewer that lets them envision you doing the same work for their company.
Cultures where people aren’t taught to sell themselves
- Japan and many other countries in Asia
- the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran
- South America, including Brazil
- most countries in Africa
In interviews in these cultures:
- Bragging is seen as negative because group performance is more important than individual performance
- Focus is on where you went to school and where you’ve worked more than on your skills and your ideas
Cultures where people are taught to sell themselves
- the U.S.
- the U.K.
In interviews in these cultures:
- Bragging is okay (and it's called selling yourself or talking about your strengths) because individual performance is valued
- Focus is more on what you've done, as opposed to your academic credentials or past companies
How to succeed in US interviews
When interviewing for jobs in the U.S., explain what you bring to the company. If you don’t, the interviewer will think you aren't a good candidate.
2. Develop strategies to explain your background
Most Americans aren't very familiar with foreign cultures, unfortunately.
This means you may have to explain the relevant aspects of your background.
For example, your university may be prestigious in your country, but the U.S. interviewer may not know anything about it.
I often work with clients who are surprised that I've never heard of their school. The truth is, I don’t know much about schools that aren’t in the US or Europe, and I probably know more than most Americans do because of my job.
How can you ensure that your interviewer knows that your school was good?
You could say, “I went to X University, which is the top engineering school in China.”
I had one client who was the number one student at one of the top three medical schools in China. I had never heard of her school, and if I hadn’t asked her questions about it she wouldn’t have told me that it was so good. I encouraged her to explain in her interview that the school was such a high quality.
She practicing saying, "I went to X University, which is one of the top three medical schools in China."
You may also need to explain what your company does or how successful it is, even if everyone in your country already knows this.
You can say, "Currently I work at X, which is an e-commerce platform for sports equipment. We have $400m in revenue."
This shows what your company does and how big it is.
3. Show what you've done and can do, not who you know
In some countries, who you know is important. In the US your relationships aren't as valued.
For instance, if you've been introduced to the company by a third party, the interviewer may ask you about your relationship to this person. However, although knowing this person helped you get the interview, in most cases it won't help you get the job. Your skills will.
Don't talk about well-known family members, friends, or connections you have. While some Americans may be impressed, others may judge you as arrogant or elitist.
Instead, you should focus on what you personally have accomplished and what talents and abilities you may bring to the company.
Note: If you're in a sales role, you may need to talk about your connections in your interview because making connections is part of your job. In this case it's okay.
4. Use "I" not "we"
In your answers you should focus on what you've done as an individual, not as part of a group or team.
While being a "good team player" is important and you may be asked about your ability to work with others, most of the time you'll need to talk about what you've done as an individual.
You can talk about how you made changes, solved problems, or developed new initiatives, whatever you've done as part of your past jobs.
This may feel like bragging, but you need to do it if you want to succeed in your interview.
Often people who work at very prestigious companies will talk about how "we did this" and "we did that," or they will say "X did this" (X being the company). If you're the CEO this can work, but if you're not, you need to talk about what you did, not what the company did.
5. Quantify your answers
Attach numbers to your experience to be more persuasive in selling yourself.
If you cut costs in your last position, say how much money you saved.
If you gave training programs or language lessons, say how many you gave or how many people you trained.
If you're talking about your sales numbers, say how many units you sold or how muchmoney you made.
If you're talking about your clients, say how many clients.
6. Keep your answers short
Americans value efficiency and time management. Avoid any behavior that may make the interviewers think they are wasting their time.
What do I mean?
- Give quick answers - 1 minute or less. Up to 2 for a complicated question.
- Give the most important information at the very beginning of your answer.
- Give simple answers, not heavy on detail or background.
If an American wants to know more about a certain topic, they'll ask you questions after you finish giving your initial short answer.
7. Keep your answers focused
Americans tend to speak directly to the point and value those who do.
The problem is that in some cultures answering in a roundabout way is the norm.
Not every American cares about this, but some interviewers will notice if your answers have no structure. They think people who take a long time to answer questions or answer in a roundabout way are stupid.
I know this seems harsh, especially if you're not someone who notices or cares about this issue, but long indirect answers really drive some people crazy.
Do you have a tendency to ramble? To go off on tangents? To give too much detail? Do you talk around the point but not directly to the point? Do your listeners ever seem bored?
Then you're probably either talking too much (see #6) or not using a simple, direct structure in your answers.
8. Match the behavior of your interviewer
Try to adjust to the style that the interviewers set.
In general Americans use an informal style in interviews, but some people are naturally more formal so you may have to adjust your behavior when you meet your interviewer.
Although the interviewer and other company representatives are in the superior position during the interview, meaning they have the power, they will still use an informal style.
Elements of informal style:
- use of first names
- a relaxed attitude
- chatting about unrelated topics
If you're too formal and reserved the Americans may think you're arrogant or shy.
9. Be positive
The tone of the interview is expected to be positive, optimistic, and enthusiastic.
What does this mean?
- Don't make self-deprecating comments about your background, abilities, or experience.
- You should appear confident in your abilities.
- Don't be humble. If you're good at something, talk about it.
- Don't focus on the negative or on difficulties you've had in the past. If an interviewer asks about what has been most challenging for you, focus the answer on things you'd like to learn or skills you'd like to acquire so that you can resolve those challenges.
- Don't say negative things about your company or colleagues. Even if you're in a bad situation at work, try to frame this with a focus on the positive.
10. Respond quickly
U.S. interviewers are often looking for people who are “quick on their feet.”
This means that they want spontaneity and a high speed of processing from their candidates.
A U.S. interviewer may jump around, asking you questions out of sequence to see how quickly you respond and how flexible you are. He or she may ask you many questions about one aspect of your experience and virtually ignore the rest of your background.
You may be asked questions about how you would solve or approach particular problems.
You may also be asked how to solve problems that aren't clearly related to the job, as a test of your thinking.
You're expected to answer questions without needing time to think of answers. I know many people freeze when asked questions they haven't prepared answers to and this is very natural, but it doesn't make a good impression on American interviewers.
Interview prep can be useful here, as it can give you practice answering questions that you might not be expecting. If you know you have a problem thinking quickly or dealing with seemingly unorganized conversations, I advise you to do as much practice as you can beforehand.