You have more control than you think in a job interview -- it's up to you to take it.
Employers say that even though an interview can be a formality, you need to actively prepare and listen for cues in order to stand out.
We talked to seasoned employers, who have clocked thousands of interviews between them, to hear what strategies set apart the superstars they hired from the merely proficient candidates they let walk out the door.
1. Be prepared: The interview has already begun
Long before you're face to face with your potential employer, they're evaluating you in other ways: your résumé, your social media presence, colleagues you have in common. Ensure that your professional, digital and personal appearance all present the story you want to convey.
"The interview begins when you apply for the job and doesn't end until you sign the offer papers," says Mike Steib, chief executive officer of the XO Group, which includes sites like The Knot and The Bump.
Have questions ready. But never ask about anything you can find online.
"When someone's questions could have been answered with a simple web search, it tells me they didn't prepare," says Steib, who has also worked in cultures as diverse as McKinsey and Company, NBC Universal/General Electric and Google.
Preparation is the main area where employers immediately see who's serious.
"I've seen everything from to obsessive prep to winging it," says Michael Dougherty, the chief executive officer of Pencils of Promise, an international non-profit supporting children's literacy.
2. Know your 'win-themes'
Unless you're in the enviable "buyer's side" position of being courted by an employer, you'll probably need to sell yourself in the interview.
Why not prepare like a salesperson? In sales, "win-themes" are the pithy but powerful takeaways a pitch person wants buyers to get from a presentation like "small but nimble" "reliable" or the "best value."
For job candidates, it might be that you're a "leader," have "strong relationships in the industry," or are a "creative problem solver."
Take the time before the interview to clearly establish what your "win-themes" are. They should be the strongest and most compelling reasons you are a match for this organization.
Once they're set, you'll have a clear map for memorable responses in the interview because they will all lead back to your "win-themes," reinforcing the qualities you want to get across.
"Your fate will come down to two or three things and how they felt when they met you," Steib says. "But if in every question I asked you, you found a way to work back to those win-themes, those will be the things I'll remember."
3. Drop everything for a test
Nearly a quarter of interviews in 2014 involved a skills test, thought exercise or other kind of experiential task. That's up from 16% in 2010, according to a study from Glassdoor.
It's easy to understand why. For hiring managers, that kind of hands-on audition is what pushes one candidate clearly ahead of another.
If a position elicits 100 résumés, says Dougherty, there may be 15 who get an introductory call. That's whittled down to two or three who have the skills and would likely be a good fit for the role, he says. They get the skills test.
With few exceptions the test is what determines who is going forward, said Dougherty. His advice: "Crush the homework. Drop everything to nail it."
4. Be real, even on weakness
Many interviewers ask some version of a question about your biggest weakness.
Please don't say: "I'm a perfectionist," "I work too hard," or "I care too much."
When he hears those, Steib replies, "I'm going to give you one more chance."
Your interviewer may not be so generous.
Steib says it's important to be authentic when talking about your weaknesses because it shows self awareness, humility and the ability to grow.
Instead, he said, set up your response like this: "In the past I've gotten feedback on this, I've taken it on in this way and this is how I'm improving on it."
5. Listen for cues for connection
Especially when there's a big experience or age gap between you and the interviewer, it's up to you to find ways to connect. Listening is the way to do it.
It may be connecting around the interviewer's specific goals for the company or small talk she made before the interview began. Latch on to those as ways for her to remember you.
Dougherty said he recently had a terrific interview with a woman who mentioned a photographer he hadn't heard of. The next day the candidate followed up with an email thanking him for his time and linking to information about the photographer and why his work might be great for the organization.
That's a candidate who made a lasting impression.