We’ve all been there: sitting in a chair, armpits sweaty with nerves, an incoming headache from all the fake smiling — y’know, a job interview. This general aura of shittiness is a temperature that has at some point in time made all of us at once the most and least interesting version of ourselves.
Hopefully you’ve prepared some canned responses to some of the interviewer’s canned questions about weaknesses and strengths, accomplishments and failures and, of course, the anecdote about that one time you were faced with an obstacle and instead of giving up, you created a spreadsheet with the perfect combination of fonts and colors to eradicate inefficiencies from the process.
But just so you know, it wasn’t always like this. The job interview has only been around for a little over a century: It used to be that you were born into a role — if your father was a blacksmith then you, too, would become a blacksmith. But in the 1920s, as the story goes, Thomas Edison — a notable asshole — would get hundreds of applicants whenever he was seeking to add someone to his workforce. Edison being the genius that he was (or so they say), and increasingly frustrated with a lame applicant pool, “created a ‘test’ for all prospective employees in the form of a series of questions of general knowledge,” reports The Spirited Hub. The test consisted of a variety of questions, some related to the position and some that were more “esoteric and related to topics such as world geography or literature,” per the same report. It is from this precedent that we, as a society, were bequeathed the job interview.
Amongst the myriad questions in a job interview that help the interviewer feel as though they possess some sense of clairvoyance, there is this question: Why do you want to work here?
It should be fair game to respond to such an asinine query with honesty: “Well, sir or ma’am, without this job I will have no money and as you know, money is essential for a shot at true happiness — and you know, food.”
But of course, that’s not something you can say, particularly if you’re applying to a job you actually want. So what do you do?
There’s Usually a Question Behind the Question
According to Tom Denham, a professional career counselor, if somebody asks, “What’s your greatest weakness?” what they’re really asking is, “What is your liability that we should be concerned about? Do you know what the weakness is? And are you addressing it?” In that way, he says, there’s always a question behind the interview question. The question of “Why do you want to work here?” is no different. “Hopefully you’ve done some research on what are the five most important things that appeal to you about them,” says Denham. “The question behind the question is: Do you know something about us? Have you done your homework on us? That’s a homework test.”
Do Your Research
Denham advises that to respond to the question appropriately, “Obviously you should be doing your research online.” However, if you know somebody who worked at the company, they could probably give you a better sense of what the corporate culture was like. Really, the question that you’re responding to is, “Do you know our products and services?” says Denham. “Have you been watching us in the news? What do you have that you could offer us? And what do we have that appeals most to you?”
Job search expert Amir Shayan advises job seekers to take it one step further, to “not just learn about the company, but to find out something noteworthy or newsworthy about them and even check out their mission,” he says. “Find a common denominator that may connect you and the employer or even the hiring manager if you know who they are.” For example, he says, if you’re going to work for a large nonprofit, find out their mission and let them know how their mission is in line with the work you seek to do. “The greatest mistake job seekers make in answering that question is answering by not including any information related specifically to that prospective employer,” says Shayan.
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Enthusiastic
“Too many times, people answer questions like it’s a Senate confirmation hearing,” says Denham. The problem with that, he explains, is that the interviewee doesn’t inflect any kind of enthusiasm. “I think you also have to say, ‘I really want this job.’”
That’s not to say that you should sound desperate, but, Denham says, if you don’t have energy or enthusiasm for making that connection, you’re probably not going to get the offer. “People hire people they know, like and trust,” says Denham. “The interview is a popularity contest.”
Obviously, appearing enthusiastic is easy when you’re applying for your dream job. But as one redditor asks, how do you maintain that enthusiasm when “you’ve applied to 10 different health-care companies and 12 different trading firms?” “Why do I want to work at your trading firm?” he writes. “Well, because I need a job and Google said no.”
Denham suggests that you don’t have to lie when asked why you want to be hired for your “safety survival job.” Again, he says, it’s all simply about making a connection. For example, he recommends that if you’re applying for a job at a fast-food restaurant, you can still say something like, “My dad used to take me to McDonald’s when the hamburgers were like 35 cents, and I remember the Hamburglar and Ronald McDonald and all this kind of stuff. You know what the other thing is? I have really good customer service skills, and it doesn’t take a lot to put a smile on somebody’s face.”
His point being that the connection you draw between yourself and the company you’re interviewing with doesn’t always have to be directly related to the position and its responsibilities. In fact, in some cases, a personal anecdote can come across as far more authentic.
In addition, Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume, says that in case you’re not particularly enthused about the job opportunity, you should still consider what aspects of the role you’re pursuing will allow you to leverage your strengths and help you gain skills or experiences that are beneficial to your career. “Will this position help you improve your sales skills or help you become more knowledgeable about an industry you’ve wanted to pursue?” asks Augustine.
She also says you should ask yourself how this type of role fits into your current lifestyle and household responsibilities. “Sure, you might not have wanted to take a remote customer service job, but the flexibility of working from home may be exactly what you need right now,” she says. “You shouldn’t divulge details about your health or your responsibilities at home (e.g., children being homeschooled), but you can simply add that this role and its hours/work environment are exactly what you’re seeking.”
Ultimately, per Denham, during the interview process the interviewer is really thinking about three things: “Number one, can you do the job? Number two, will you do the job? And number three, can we stand you while you do the job?”
To that end, Denham says that every time somebody asks a question, “it’s almost like you’re taking a foul shot.” “They’re giving you the basketball and you want to get it in,” he continues. “You want to get it in as many times as you possibly can if you’re going to win this game.” Which is why he says with every question, you have to be thinking: How do I win the point?
One final word of warning, though: Keep it succinct. “If it’s an hour-long interview, maybe your answer’s going to be a minute or so,” says Denham. “If it’s a half an hour interview, your answer is going to be 30 seconds to a minute. If you ever listen to somebody talk for two minutes straight, it’s rambling.”