Interviews are an inevitable part of the internship and job recruitment process. Whether it’s a behavioral, case, technical, group, qualitative, or quantitative interview, the interviewer(s) look for candidates to meet two key criteria: competency and engagement.
More often than not, candidates prepare for the interview by focusing on the former. Aspiring consultants “case” for months on end, hoping that by the end of the recruiting cycle, their competency in being a strong analytical thinker and problem solver is what gets them an offer at their dream firm. The same goes for aspiring investment bankers, product managers, accountants— you name it. Many candidates only prepare in terms of boosting their competency levels, while ignoring the preparation needed to also meet the “engagement” criteria of the interview.
Herein lies the explanation to why top firms only select so few candidates, even from the most elite universities around the world. If they’re all equally smart and capable, why do only the top 3% receive offers?
This is because candidates don’t pay enough attention to the “engagement” aspect of the interview.
When you step into the interview room, the interviewers already have a good sense of where your competency levels lie via your resume, cover letter, and transcripts. Whatever intellectually stimulating questions they ask during the interview is only to validate, or invalidate, what you represent on paper. As long as you’ve put in the work to prepare for this aspect of the interview, you’ve checked the “competency” box of the interview, and nothing more can be done (unless you completely bomb a section of an interview; it happens).
But that’s only half the interview.
Interviewers judge your engagement levels on three levels: the position, the firm, and the interview itself. In terms of the position you’re interviewing for, there are three questions they’re looking for you to answer:
Why are you interested in this specific position and this firm?
What makes you the ideal candidate to fill this position?
What possible challenges might you face while in that position, and how will you address them?
When analyzing your engagement levels about the firm itself, they internally ask the following questions:
Why our firm and not any other?
Are you the right cultural fit for the firm?
And finally, they are judging the interview itself based on the following criteria:
Is this person likable? In other words, could I envision myself working with this person?
Does this person actually listen to what I have to say, or are they just saying what they think I want to hear?
Did the interview seem like a forced Q&A or a smooth-flowing conversation?
Of course, these are not solely the criteria by which every interviewer operates, but in general, these criteria encapsulate what an interviewer is internalizing on the “engagement” side of the interview. Many candidates, even the brightest, most competent of the bunch, can’t meet all requirements above, no matter the quality of their responses or how good they look on their resume.
To distinguish yourself from the other candidates is not to just simply answer the questions mentioned above. Rather, it’s important that the QUALITY of your responses match the DELIVERY of your responses. Exuding positive energy and speaking with a confident tone is a great start, but it’s also important to ask the right questions—even taking the time to think of a good response is better than blurting out random buzzwords that can easily come across as disingenuous and pandering.
At the end of the day, displaying the competency in an interview isn’t the only thing the interviewer is looking for. It is absolutely vital that you come across as BOTH competent AND engaged, not just one or the other.