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Got a Second Interview? Make It a Killer One!

Much of my advice on this site is about preparing for and doing well in your first interview. After all, if you don’t make it past the first interview, you don’t get the job!

This is because very few job offers are made based simply on the first interview. Your goal in the first interview is to do well enough to make the cut of candidates that are invited back for a second interview. That’s when many job offers are made.

How Recruiting Works

But before I discuss how to do well in a second interview, I want to spend a bit of time reviewing with you what a typical recruiting process looks like in a large organization. I’ve been a Hiring Manager in five different large organizations and the overall process is generally the same.

After posting an opening, in pre-pandemic times I’d usually get from 25 to sometimes over 100 (or more!) job applications, depending on the type of position and how hard it is to meet the requirements. In today’s world, that number can vary widely in either direction.

The current job market is wildly polarized based on which employers were hit hardest by the pandemic, plus how fast recovery is taking place. Based on the industry and where you are located geographically, there may be few candidates for the job you’re seeking or you may face massive competition.

As you may guess, the less competition for the job the better your chances of making it to the second interview.

Let’s say, for this example, that I receive about 40 applications. I’ll then ask a couple of my staff, or perhaps other managers and/or HR, to screen the applications based on criteria that I’ve created (which are usually based on the posted job requirements).

I’m usually looking for them to narrow down the applications to the top four to six candidates, who will be scheduled for the first round of interviews.

Incidentally, this is why you must have a strong resume and cover letter (which you should have customized specifically for this job), as they are the items that determine whether or not you get that important first interview.

One thing to keep in mind about first interviews is that the actual Hiring Manager is sometimes NOT involved, as odd as this may seem. The purpose of the first interview is to objectively narrow down the candidates to the top two or three – these are the ones who will get a second interview.

The Holy Grail Second Interview

Ace your second interview
Got a second interview?

The second interview is usually the one done by the Hiring Manager. I’ll frequently make a final decision after the second round of interviews but will sometimes conduct a third interview if I have two equally good candidates. I may also decide to have one or two other fellow managers participate in the second interview, particularly for highly technical positions.

It’s important that you understand there are some major differences when it comes to the focus and intent of the first interview versus a second interview. The primary intent of the first interview is to determine how well you present yourself and if you sufficiently meet the requirements to merit further consideration (in other words, a second interview).

Consequently, the initial impression you create and how well you sell yourself are the most important considerations for the first interview. As I’ve hammered home in so many other posts, how well you prepare is the single most important thing for making it past the first interview.

In a nutshell, the two most critical factors for doing well and making it to the second round of interviews are:

  • Your ability to articulate well and sell yourself
  • Your ability to convince the interview panel that your experience and qualifications are a great match for the job

Once you make it past the first interview, the game completely changes in the second interview.

The Soft Skills Take Center Stage

soft skill are most important in an interview

While experience and technical skills are still important, those who make it to the second round are usually pretty well matched in these areas as a result of the first interview screening process. This means that the softer skills, such as personality and how you come across as being the best fit for the organization, become the most important factors in your ability to get the job offer.

Once again, the thoroughness of your preparation and research about that company will help you stand out from other candidates.

In the second interview, technical skills and experience sort of go into the background, as those have already been established in the first interview. They are for the most part assumed since you made it to the second interview.

Of course, for extremely technical jobs, the Hiring Manager may do some additional probing in the second interview, primarily to help in deciding between equal candidates.

But it’s the soft skills that take center stage in the second interview. These are the things that by and large can’t be learned  – you either have them or you don’t.

Technical skills can be taught to almost any intelligent person who has some aptitude. It’s the soft skills that will determine how successfully you’re able to apply your technical and other skills.

With over 30 years of management experience, please believe me when I tell you that your soft skills will determine your long-term success. These are what I look for in the second interview.

By soft skills, I’m referring specifically to the four I believe to be the most important:

  • Initiative
  • Work Ethic
  • Customer Service Attitude
  • Personality


Let’s talk about initiative first. It’s the trait I look for first in applicants during a second or final interview. The reason for this is that, based on my experience, employees with a high degree of initiative will take it upon themselves to:

  • Come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things
  • Find out answers on their own
  • Do whatever is needed to get the job done, without having to be told
  • Require very little management oversight

These are traits every Hiring Manager wants to see and it’s important in a second interview to have specific examples from your prior jobs that demonstrate a high degree of initiative. This is why your initial pre-interview preparation is critical.

Work Ethic

My second important soft skill, work ethic, has a lot in common with initiative. Applicants that can convince me of their good work ethic will get high marks in a second interview.

By good work ethic, I specifically mean:

  • Consistently coming to work on time and staying until it’s time to leave
  • Not complaining about the workload
  • Frequently volunteering to take on extra assignments
  • Frequently offering to help their co-workers.

These are exactly the traits of employees who I want on my team.

I’ll even go so far as to say that these first two soft skills – initiative and work ethic – will trump experience and technical knowledge almost every time (assuming that your basic experience and technical knowledge meet the job requirements). Most experienced Hiring Managers will give more consideration to these two soft skills than almost anything else.

Customer Service Attitude

customer service skills

My third important soft skill is customer service. This surprises many people since a lot of jobs don’t have “customer service” in the job description, so how important can it be?

The answer is: very important!

And the reason it’s very important is that every job has customers – they just may not be your typical definition of a customer. For example, your boss is your customer. So are your co-workers and anyone elsewhere in the company whose work may be impacted by your job.

It’s just as important for you to give these people good service as it is for someone in, say, an outside sales position. Your reputation – and the reputation of your boss – can be made, or broken, by your customer service attitude.

Every manager wants employees who make other people’s jobs easier. Outstanding customer service to internal customers is a great way to do this.

In a second interview especially, this is exactly why you’ll need to convince the Hiring Manager that you have a great customer service attitude. You’ll need to be able to back it up with specific examples from your prior positions, so be sure to do this in your second interview preparation.

I estimate that less than 10 percent of the candidates I see in second interviews make it a point to highlight their customer service skills. Those that do are the ones who get final interviews and job offers.


attitude is everything in an interview+

Lastly, there is the soft skill I call “personality”, which means your personal attitude overall.

This is probably the hardest skill to pin down with quantifiable measures. It doesn’t mean patronizing the Hiring Manager or telling jokes, but rather coming across as friendly, sincere, inquisitive, and enthusiastic.

Many times in second interviews (first interviews, too!) I’ve seen candidates answer questions in a robot-like manner, never smiling, and generally trying hard to appear as what they consider to be ‘professional”.

Trouble is, in large doses this can come across as boring and unenthusiastic. Boring applicants are simply not as memorable as applicants that show some personality and genuine enthusiasm.

So how do you project a good personality and attitude? Here are some suggestions:

  • Smile, at least occasionally.
  • Be enthusiastic when you give answers.
  • Project an attitude that you like the job for which you’re being interviewed.
  • Make them believe you are an excellent fit for the job by giving specific examples of your prior accomplishments.

The bottom line here is that Hiring Managers want to hire the person they feel is most likable and best able to perform the job. Your goal in the second interview is to convince them that you are that person.

One Final Tip

I’ll close with a final tip on how to increase the overall impression you make in a second interview just a bit more and that is: manage your interview time very exactly.

At the beginning of the interview, if you’re not told right up front, ask how much time is allocated for the interview. Then, remove your watch (be sure to wear a watch to every interview – do not use your cell phone for this) and place it right in front of you. As you do this, explain that you want to be sure to stay within your allotted time.

I rarely see candidates do this, even though it’s one of the most impressive actions you can take in an interview. More than anything else can, it demonstrates that you have consideration for the Hiring Manager’s time and are truly a professional.

Believe me when I tell you that this will make a very favorable impact on any Hiring Manager.

You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to do well enough on the first interview to get that second interview. Be sure to prepare equally well for the unique aspects of second (and even third) interviews. That’s where the job offers are made.

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