I am the CEO of an early-stage health tech startup, Cydoc. Over the past four years I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for software engineering positions. In the past, I’ve also been the interviewee many times – at tech companies and universities for my gap year after college (I ended up choosing a research position at UPenn), and multi-day interviews for MD/PhD programs (I ended up at the Duke MD/PhD program).

When I was the interviewee, I made a lot of mistakes – but I only recognized those mistakes in hindsight years later, after I’d spent a lot of time as an interviewer! I’ve learned more about how to interview from being the interviewer than I ever did from being the interviewee. This post is an aggregation of all the advice I would’ve given my younger self if I could go back in time.

Always Ask Questions

Any time your interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions?” the only acceptable answer is “Yes”. Why? Because asking questions is a sign of interest.

I recommend planning to ask 3 – 5 questions, and to have these questions in mind before you interview. You should ask one question at a time, and listen to the answer from your interviewer before asking the next one. Once you’ve asked three questions you should gauge how interested the interviewer seems in answering more questions. If they seem like they want to answer more, you can ask a couple more; if they seem done, it’s fine to stop at three. Most interviewers love to hear themselves talk, so it’s fine if the interviewer ends up talking a lot.

You need to choose the questions you ask carefully. Two good rules of thumb are:

  • Never ask questions that are directly answered in the job posting or that are easily answerable from a Google search.
  • Do ask questions that are best answered by a company insider.

Questions that are often answered in the job posting, and thus questions you should NOT ask, include: how much will I get paid, is this full time or part time, is this in person or remote, and what is the tech stack. (Any of these are fair game if for some reason they’re not answered in the posting). If you ask a question that’s directly answered in the job posting it suggests you’re really not that interested at all because you didn’t even bother reading the posting of the job you applied for.

Questions that are generally good questions to ask (in that they express interest, may provide you with legitimately useful information, and aren’t easily answered through another mechanism) include:

An “ideal candidate” question (pick one): What characteristics will make someone successful in this role? / What are the characteristics of an ideal candidate for this role? / What advice would you give to someone about how to be successful in this role?:

  • From the Interviewer’s Perspective: This is a good question because it implies that you are interested in being the ideal candidate and want to know how to be successful if you’re given the position. It makes the interviewee sound enthusiastic and ambitious.
  • From the Interviewee’s Perspective: The answer to this question may implicitly give you some pointers about the skills or attributes you might want to mention throughout the rest of the interview in order to emphasize that you’re a good fit for the role.

A “why is this company good” question (pick one): What do you like best about the company? / What do you like best about working at the company? / What’s the best part of your job here?:

  • From the Interviewer’s Perspective: This is an uplifting question and gives the interviewer a chance to tell you something positive about the company. They’re probably trying to recruit you too, so this helps them get that part of their job done.
  • From the Interviewee’s Perspective: You may actually learn something new about the company from the answer.

Who would I be working with? / What is the team like?

  • From the Interviewer’s Perspective: These are fairly fact-based questions and thus should be straightforward to answer. Asking questions about the team also make you seem like a more collaborative, “team player” person.
  • From the Interviewee’s Perspective: The answers to these questions can provide you with more insight into what your day-to-day will look like at the company, and may also give you a sense for whether the company’s setup matches your work style (e.g. if they say you’ll be checking in with your manager five times a day maybe that job’s not a good option if you have an independent work style).

What are the company’s most important values? / What is the company’s culture like?:

  • From the Interviewer’s Perspective: These are reasonable questions to ask since it’s unlikely the company’s values or culture will be described extensively in a job posting, and it’s something that a company insider like the interviewer is best qualified to comment on.
  • From the Interviewee’s Perspective: The answer to this question will likely help you gauge whether the company is a good match for you.

A “what’s the company niche” question (pick one): How is your company different from the competition? / What sets your product apart from other similar products on the market?

  • From the Interviewer’s Perspective: This question displays an interest in gaining a deeper understanding of the company’s product(s) and/or strategy. Personally, I also find this question fun to answer.
  • From the Interviewee’s Perspective: You will almost certainly learn something interesting from the answer to this question.

It is completely fine to ask the same questions of multiple interviewers. I will emphasize this again: if you have several different interviewers for one job position, it really is fine to ask all of them the same set of questions. If you’re asking open-ended questions like the ones shown above, each interviewer will provide a different answer. The interviewers are also NOT going to write down the questions you asked and compare them behind the scenes and then give you bad marks for asking the same question to different people. Maybe you really did want to know what each interviewer, as an individual, likes best about working at the company for example. Besides, if you had to come up with totally distinct sets of questions to ask each interviewer, you might end up having to generate an absurdly long list of questions, which puts unnecessary mental pressure on you during an already stressful time and increases the chances that you’ll ask an interviewer something weird (“Would you rather fight one elephant-sized rabbit, or a hundred rabbit-sized elephants?…”)

Be Honest. No BS.

Always be honest. Don’t try to BS the interviewer, because they will know.

The most common form of BS is when an interviewee tries to pretend they have the exact same interests as the interviewer when they don’t. If you honestly do have the same interests, great! Have a nice conversation about it. But if you don’t have the same interests, don’t try to fake it, because the interviewer inevitably will know more about their real interests than you will about your fake interests.

Be honest. No BS. (This is also a good rule for life.)

Image from Wikipedia (Creative Commons license)

In a Manner of Speaking…

What you say is as important as how you say it. Everyone’s heard the advice to try to eliminate filler words like “um”, “uh”, and “like”. Here are some less disseminated pieces of advice about how to speak as effectively as possible during an interview:

“Show Don’t Tell”

The common piece of writing advice, “show don’t tell” is as true in interviewing as it is in writing.

“Show don’t tell” for your personal qualities. In other words, to avoid sounding arrogant while also showcasing your skills, be concrete:

  • Instead of saying “I have a lot of experience with X…”, say, “I have 3 years of experience with X”. If you say “a lot” of experience, it gives the interviewer the opportunity to start mentally arguing with your definition of “a lot”. If you quantify the number of months or years, they can’t argue with that! Plus, the statement will convey more precisely how much experience you actually have.
  • Instead of saying “I have amazing time management skills” or “I am efficient” or “I am hardworking” say, “I double majored in physics and electrical engineering at the University of Awesome. I took graduate-level classes as an undergrad, was captain of the fencing team, and did high-energy physics research with Professor Nobelprize leading to two publications.” In other words, rather than claiming attributes verbally (“I am smart”, “I am the universe’s gift to humanity”) think about how to show that instead of telling it by mentioning cool things you have done.

“Show don’t tell” when describing your past work experience, too. Here are some useful facts to include when describing a previous software project you worked on: the high-level goal of the project, the company/institution, how long you worked on it, what specific piece you worked on, what your role was, and the tech stack if relevant. Some made-up examples:

  • “I completed a 3-month web development internship at Awesome Company working on their food blog. I was a full stack engineer and during my internship I implemented an authentication workflow and set up a database, enabling 300 new contributors to create accounts and write articles about donuts. I used Angular, HTML, and CSS on the frontend and Azure for the backend.”
  • “Last summer I completed a 2-month machine learning research project at Best College Ever, with the goal of segmenting donuts from food blog photos. I worked under the supervision of a graduate student to create a data set of segmented donuts using Amazon Mechanical Turk, and then I trained a Mask R-CNN model that achieved state-of-the-art performance. We submitted a paper to the Journal of Donut Studies.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Rehash Information on Your Resume

When I was a college student doing real job interviews for the first time in both industry and academia, I was worried that if I verbally restated information from my resume that my interviewer would get bored or, worse, would feel offended that I thought that they didn’t know what was on my resume. Additionally, in academia, I felt intimidated explaining the high-level goals of my research to professors because I had convinced myself that these much more experienced researchers would obviously be able to infer the goal from a description of what I did.

Well, I’ve now realized that in order to interview well, it is NECESSARY to restate information that’s on your resume, and it’s NECESSARY to explicitly state the high-level goals of your projects.

Unless you are the only applicant for a job, the interviewer has looked at a TON of resumes for the position. You are only helping them out if you re-state where you went to college, what you majored in, what languages and frameworks you know, what internships you’ve done, what research projects you’ve done, etc. They will be grateful to you for reminding them of your accomplishments (concretely) in your answers to their questions.

It is also critical to state the high-level goals for any project or experience you mention. I’ve interviewed people who said they had a software engineering internship working on a website but failed to mention what the website was for. It’s nice to know the purpose of someone’s past activities.

Goldilocks Yakking: Not Too Short, Not Too Long

Your responses should be not too short and not too long. Feel free to err on the side of “too long” for positive questions (“What are your strengths?”) and err on the side of “too short” for negative questions (“What are your weaknesses?”)

I strongly recommend doing interview practice with friends and family, because in addition to giving you a chance to smooth out your answers to common questions, you can also get a sense for whether you personally tend to ramble on forever or lapse immediately into silence when you get nervous. If you tend to talk more when nervous, mentally remind yourself to cut off early. If you tend to talk less when nervous, mentally remind yourself to share more of what’s on your mind.

I guess her interview didn’t go well… (Image from Wikipedia – Creative Commons – public domain)

Be Vocally Definitive At The End

Trying to eliminate filler words like “um” from your vocabulary can be extremely stressful and mentally taxing if you normally use these words. So, while it is a noble goal, in a pinch you can use this other goal that is easier to implement while also making you seem more articulate and confident:

At the end of the last sentence of your answer, be vocally definitive so that it’s clear you’re done talking. No rising intonation, no trailing off awkwardly into soft volume, etc. “Words words words words DONE.”

Ending your answer in a vocally definitive “I’m done” tone helps your interviewer get a strong cue that you’re done talking, which makes them more comfortable, makes their job easier, and makes you seem self-assured and competent.

Don’t Be Afraid To Think

If an interviewer asks you a question that catches you totally off-guard, it is fine to say, “Let me think about that for a moment” or “I need a second to think.” Then, you can take some moments of silence to gather your thoughts before you answer. It is WAY better to take a moment to collect yourself and then give an okay answer than it is to feel pressure to speak immediately and end up digging yourself into a hole. Saying you need time to think conveys to the interviewer that you are a thoughtful person and that you think before you speak, both of which are good qualities for any job.

Thinking. From Wikipedia (Creative Commons, public domain).

Common Interview Questions

“Tell me about yourself.” When answering this question, you can feel free to mention: your hometown, where you went to school, what you studied, relevant job experience, relevant project experience, your career goals, a couple hobbies, a fun fact. Don’t spend the entire answer on only your hobbies, since the interviewer does want you to mention some professionally-relevant info. Also don’t feel the need to give a ten-minute monologue detailing your entire life story. Being concise is fine.

“How will this job contribute to your career goals?” “What are your ultimate career plans?” “Where do you see yourself in 5 years / 10 years?” etc. For any question that asks about your career plans, (a) remember the “be honest/no BS” rule, and (b) mention a specific job role. It is fine if the job you are applying for is not EXACTLY the same as your ultimate career goals, as long as you can explain how the job you’re applying for will help you get to those career goals. For example, I’ve had software engineering applicants tell me that they want to start their own software company someday – cool! I’ve also had software engineering applicants tell me they want to be a project manager someday – cool! And I’ve had entry-level software engineering applicants tell me that they want to be a senior-level software engineer someday – cool! As long as you have a plan and can say what it is, you’re fine. The only wrong answer is something that is so vague it suggests you’ve never thought about your career (“Well, I guess it would be okay to be working in industry somewhere…”)

If you’re really just applying for the job for the money and it has no relevance to your ultimate career goals, then you can focus instead on what kind of skills you hope to acquire from the job and how those skills will help you in your career.

Annoying Interview Questions

As mentioned above, for negative-valence interview questions, feel free to err on the side of giving an answer that’s too short (rather than an answer that’s too long). Generally, the more you talk when answering a negative question, the more likely you’ll say something you didn’t want to say.

“What’s your greatest weakness?” Alright, I hate this question, and I never ask it…but a lot of people do ask it.

  • Don’t: list something that’s actually intended to be a strength disguised as a weakness. “I’m too much of a perfectionist”; “I work too hard.” I am guilty of using this strategy before because I thought that it was how the question was supposed to be answered. Well…it’s not. Generally speaking the interviewer actually wants you to pick a weakness and talk about it.
  • Don’t: pick a weakness that’s too personal.
  • Do: pick a real weakness that’s relevant to a professional context and talk about how you are working to overcome it, and specific steps you’ve taken to improve.

“Tell me about a conflict you had and how you resolved it.” / “Tell me about a time you failed.” / “Tell me about a mistake you made.”

  • Don’t: list something trivial that isn’t really a conflict, failure, or mistkae.
  • Do: pick something real and focus on what you learned from the situation.

Prep, prep, prep

There are much more extensive lists of common interview questions available on the web. It’s always a good idea to look at these lists and practice your answers to the common questions. You don’t want to rote memorize and recite answers like a robot, but practicing can help you feel more confident and give smoother, more cogent responses.


Interview advice I wish I could have given my younger self:

  • Always ask questions! Plan on asking 3 – 5 questions best answered by someone who works at the company.
  • Be Honest. No BS.
  • Show don’t tell. Don’t say “I have a lot of experience”; say, “I have 3 years of experience.” Don’t say, “I am so awesome”; instead, show you’re awesome by listing a few specific accomplishments. Be concrete when describing past work experiences.
  • Don’t be afraid to restate information from your resume.
  • Don’t talk too much or too little. For positive questions you can err on the side of “too much.” For negative questions you can err on the side of “too little.”
  • End the last sentence of your answer DEFINITIVELY.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for time to think if you need it.
  • Practice your answers to common interview questions.

Good luck interviewing!

About the Featured Image

The featured image is public domain (CC0), from this site.