Interview enough people and it all becomes one big blur. But the interviews you remember years–or even decades–after the fact are memorable for carrying important lessons. I remember interviewing an applicant for a receptionist and recruiting assistant position. Candidates came in with years of experience. I read countless polished résumés. But the applicant who shined brightest was the one with the least professional experience.
When asked about what she had learned at her last job, she hit it out of the park. “As a waitress, I learned that you have to treat every person as if they’re the most important customer in the world–you can’t prejudge them as cranky customers or let your energy and attitude be a reflection of them. I learned to exercise the discipline to treat each person as if he’d be my only customer for the day, regardless of our moods.” She got the job.
Dreading your turn at the interview table? We’ve all been there. Use these tips to prepare to crush this question.
Don’t pad your answer with fluff
If the lesson you claim to have learned doesn’t align with the amount of time you worked the job, it’s fluff. Personality changes, attitudinal changes, and philosophical changes are all well and good. But if you’ve been in the job for only a year or two, those loftier answers might lead your interviewer to think you’re embellishing a story in which you played little part. Stick with describing a tangible skill set you gained, such as how to keep the books for a large company or manage a team of coworkers.
Don’t sound or look hesitant
The three seconds when the question hangs in the air tells interviewers so much. It’s best to remain silent or, if you’re nervous and feeling expressive, to fill your thinking space with an, “I learned a lot during my [months or years of experience] at my previous job.” Don’t look distracted or nervous while you think. According to a CareerBuilder survey, fidgeting too much is one of the top 10 body language-related mistakes a candidate can make. Your restlessness signals to your interviewer that you haven’t considered the question before. If you have to think about your answer in the moment, you haven’t thought about it in the past.
Do focus on company culture
Talking about your experience with your previous company’s culture proves that you’re discerning enough to perceive how you fit into the bigger picture. Plus, according to a survey by Jobvite, 60 percent of recruiters believe it’s critical to consider how a candidate would fit into their companies’ current cultures. Start your answer with this: “Working in an environment where (specific detail), I learned (specific lesson) that will help me thrive in this future position because (specific reason).”
Your answer should sound something like this: “Working in an environment of strict deadlines taught me how to be self-disciplined. I learned there was no such thing as a good excuse. That will help me thrive in this remote position because you’ll never have to wonder whether I’m being productive.”
Do talk about your coworkers
Want to prove you’ll fit in with the people around you? Tell your interviewer about the people you’ve worked alongside in the past. The same Jobvite survey revealed that 82% of recruiters focus on communication style as the clearest indication of a culture match. It makes sense to emphasize your relationships and ability to communicate with previous coworkers. Try, “Working with (colleagues or boss) who would always/would never (behavior), I learned (specific lesson) that will help me thrive in this future position because (specific reason).”
For example, “Working with team members who would always double-check my work and call me out on mistakes, I learned to be detail-oriented and to think three steps ahead about what I would be asked. That will help me in this client-driven role because I’ll always have prepared, well-thought-out answers to questions they haven’t asked yet.”
Do mention your day-to-day tasks
Homing in on your daily duties proves that you’re paying attention not only to the task at hand, but also to how you’re performing. Self-awareness? Check. Quality discernment? Another check. CareerBuilder’s survey also showed that lack of accountability is a major reason recruiters don’t hire someone. What better way to show accountability than to describe duties that match those listed on your résumé? Follow a template like: “Working on (specific task), I was expected to achieve (specific result). Over time, I developed the habit of (specific behavior) that will help me thrive in this future position because (specific reason).”
Consider this: “Working on the product development team, we were expected to produce one major win every six months. Most of our ideas would fail. But over time, I developed the habit of keeping a log of failed tests each day. If you choose to hire me, you’ll never have to teach me the same lesson twice.”
Good interviewers will throw a lot of hard-hitting questions your way, but your answer to, “What did you learn at your last job?” says far more about you than you might think. Rehearse a few of these before your next big interview and impress your potential employer in just a few sentences.