Interview Strategy: How to Ace the First Interview

This is the first post in a series on Interview Strategy through the interview process. It will lay out questions you should and shouldn’t ask at each stage of the process and give you tips for how to prepare for the next stage. 

How many candidates take the time to think about the strategy they employ when approaching the interview process? Do you know at what stages to ask the right questions? Do you know how to prepare for the first vs the third interview?

Interviewing for job is kind of like dating. Each interaction is slightly deeper and more serious than the last and it is a process of learning and testing from both ends of the relationship. Things start out slowly, but gradually speed up. You don’t want to “get behind” where the person expects things to go. If you do, you might come off as uninterested or lazy. If you get ahead you might come off as arrogant, controlling or desperate.

Some candidates also find themselves with key questions unanswered despite the fact they’ve made it to the end of the interview process. They feel like it’s too late to ask a simple question and worry if they do the hiring manager might judge them.

Candidates also find themselves worrying about what they are going to say or how they are going to field the questions during the interview. Believe me, most interviewers are looking for the most effective way of figuring out if you’re going to be right for the job. They don’t always know what questions to ask or what the best responses are. So much of what they will conclude it based on intuition and general gut feeling. In my experience, you have the ability to influence that gut feeling more by what questions you ask than you do by what answers you give.

So assuming you’ve made it past a phone or HR screening, here is my take on how to prepare and my list of things to ask during the first interview with the hiring manager.

How to Prepare:

  1. Read the job description. If you’re interviewing with the hiring manager you’ve probably already done this – but just in case I have to say it – read the job description. Understand why you are a good fit and think about the parts of the job you would enjoy the most.
  2. Think through your background. You should be able to easily explain to someone not familiar with your previous employer or college what your experience entails. Being able to elegantly explain things in terms anyone can understand demonstrates greater understanding of your world than using big words. If you want to impress with your superior intellect – do that with your questions.
  3. Think of two example experiences that showcase your potential. You want to have a couple of good examples of things you’ve done or experience you’ve had that really showcase your strengths. Thinking through this beforehand will serve you well in case the question comes up in the interview.
  4. Visit the company’s website. Get a basic understanding of what the company does and if you can how this position relates.
  5. Bring a copy of your resume. Just in case the hiring manager doesn’t have one in front of him, you want to bring a copy. It shows you thought ahead and were prepared just in case.
  6. Dress well. If you’re applying for anything like a staff accountant, financial analyst, or higher you should wear a suit. You might be the only one dressed up once you get there, but that’s fine – you demonstrate you’re serious about the interview and take the time and effort to dress up for it. You can always adapt on the second interview if you feel you need to.
  7. Be five minutes early. Be slightly early and wait with the receptionist to be seen at your appointed time. Most likely the receptionist is going to call the hiring manager when you arrive so don’t be more than five minutes early. Being early might mean leaving early to account for the possibility of traffic. Sitting in your car 1/4 mile down the street for 15 or 20 minutes before your appointment can be a good time to collect your thoughts and think through your questions.

What to Ask:

  1. Make sure you have the right job description for the job. Especially if you apply online or go through the HR department of a large company. You should (in theory) cover this in your phone screening, but not all companies do screening or do them in the same way.
  2. Ask about the salary range. You want a feel for the ballpark estimate now so that if it’s not within your needs you can let them know early. The hiring manager will appreciate that. Be prepared to disclose your current salary.
  3. Make sure you understand the job description. If you have questions about what’s listed ask. If you hear the hiring manager mention something not listed or you think based on your intuition the position might be involved in things not listed, ask about them. Makes sure you understand now what they are hiring for so late you don’t have to ask after you’ve already been telling them how you’re a great fit for the job.
  4. Don’t ask about work hours or vacation yet. You want to come across like the work is more important than the vacation or perks. You know the pay – you can get details later.
  5. Ask about what they are looking for. This will likely be in the job description, but make sure you understand what it is they really want. If they want 5 years of experience, does that make sense for this position? Does the pay fall in-line with this requirement? Do they want any special skills? Learning about what they want will help you later when it comes to selling yourself and asking relevant questions.
  6. Define the company. Are they publicly traded? Subsidiary of another? Private equity? If so which firm owns them? What’s their annual revenue (I mainly ask that so I know I find the right level of corporation when I research) or how many employees do they have? Are they going through a lot of change? You don’t need a lot of detail here, just enough to get a little feel for what’s going on and clue you in on what to research before your next interview. If they mention change in leadership – you’ll want to investigate the background behind that, otherwise you wouldn’t worry about that until later.
  7. Ask about the rest of the interview process. Depending on how well the interview goes, at the end I like to get a feel for the urgency to fill the position and the general process. Who will likely be involved in future interviews and how many will there likely be? This gives you insight into what to expect and how quickly you’ll likely hear back from the company with feedback.


  • Is this a job you want? Think about it and decide based on what you know so far. All you’re deciding at this point is that it is worth your time to continue through the interview process.
  • Research the company. Investigate their financials and leadership. Focus around any lingering questions you might have from the first interview. Visit the company website and review their locations, products, and any initiatives they have going on right now. If the company is publicly traded, go to and pull the most recent form 10-K and/or 10-Q. Review the other filings for anything that pops out to you.
  • Research the industry. Know what the company does within the industry and how significant that is. See if you can get a feel for anything happening economically or technologically in the industry. Don’t get too deep here or off track, but familiarize yourself to the extent you are not already up-to-date.
  • Send a Thank You email to the hiring manager. Thank him or her for the time they spent in the interview and mention how you are excited about the opportunity because your skills and background are a good fit. A thank you email will show the fact you are still interested and have the initiative and thoughtfulness to follow through.