TCW #004 | The Minimum Viable Interview Prep part 4 of 4: Formulating High-Signal Questions for Interviewers
Learn the 4 high ROI interview prep activities that got 93% of my clients through their first-round interviews at top-tier companies like Google, Airbnb, Microsoft, and Uber.
In today’s issue, we’ll continue our deep dive into the Minimum Viable Interview Prep (MVIP) system for passing first-round interviews.
(If you’re joining the MVIP series for the first time 👋 Welcome! I suggest you start with #001 to get up to speed on the MVIP basics.)
In this final post of the series, we’re diving into System #4: Formulating High-Signal Questions for Interviewers
Today I’m going to teach you how to brainstorm, research, and formulate questions to ask your interviewers.
In a crowded job market, it’s difficult to stand out from other candidates.
This is especially true if you’re interviewing for premier roles that attract top 1%, 5%, or 10% talent.
Most people spend all of their time preparing for the questions interviewers will ask them. They only spend a couple of minutes thinking about what to ask the interviewers.
This is a mistake.
The real interview arbitrage opportunity lies in the questions you ask interviewers.
99% of candidates ask generic questions that they grab last-minute from listicles, ie: “Top 10 Questions to ask Interviewers (and knock their socks off!)”
I am guilty of this as well. I have a YouTube video with the “5 Killer Questions to Ask in an Interview.”
It’s so tempting to grab these questions and use them, I know.
Candidates say, “I’m just going to use them because I’m running tight on time.”
But we all know that you can’t stand out by doing what everyone else is doing.
In any interview, your goal is to leave an indelible impression. You need to get into a league of your own.
Instead of copying and pasting generic questions like “What’s the 30/60/90 plan for this role?” you can use a system to brainstorm, research, and formulate questions.
If you do this well, you’ll:
stand out head and shoulders above all other candidates (in a league of your own)
gain interesting intel from interviewers (to help you decide if you want the role)
position yourself to negotiate a strong offer (be the Top Choice)
Let’s dive in.
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Why your Q&A questions matter
Most people think interview prep is all about answering questions...and it is. But it's also about the questions you ask the interviewer.
Asking good questions pays off — every time.
In my ~15-year career, I’ve hired hundreds of people onto my teams, including 38 direct reports at Google, one of the most discerning tech employers in the world.
“It’s harder to get into Google than to get into Harvard.”
I’ve often hired the less qualified candidate who got me thinking over the more qualified candidate who asked me generic, unthoughtful questions.
Interviewers are people first and foremost. In assessing you for the role, we’re also deciding who we want to work with. We prefer to work with interesting people who get us thinking.
Hiring for Potential. Increasingly, employers hire for potential. They want to find the diamonds in the rough that can help them innovate and grow their businesses. High-signal questions are demonstrate potential.
High-signal questions provide bidirectional signal
I’m a big fan of double-dipping. I teach candidates how to formulate questions that offer two-way signal:
FROM the interviewer (intel to help you decide if you want the role)
TO the interviewer (that you’re engaged, interested, invested, and prepared)
Brainstorm (what you want to learn)
To know what to ask, you need to know what you want to learn.
Ask yourself: what do you need to learn to decide if this is the best industry / company / team / role for you?
Below are some prompts for you to consider, but so many of these are going to be personal. You should craft your own list.
Is the industry promising? Is it growing?
Is the company on a good trajectory? growing? profitable? well-capitalized?
Is the culture at the company a good fit for you?
Is the team on a good trajectory? scope, work patterns, relationships
Does this role offer growth opportunities? what do those look like?
What is the manager like? respected? promotes their people? work patterns?
But first, Research.
The foundation of a high-signal question is good research.
You’ll want to research:
the competitive landscape
(possibly) the team and interviewer
In your research, your goal is to extract key insights. They form the foundation for high-signal questions.
Industry insights to glean:
The top 3 industry trends. In particular, look out for ones that you believe may boost or threaten the company. Some starting points:
up-and-coming regulations or policies
IP protection expirations
new technologies ripening
social, technological, economic, and business trends
Company insights to glean:
bad news (execs leaving, lost customers, bad press, stock dip, layoffs, etc)
good news (new execs, recognition, new partnerships, funding, awards, etc)
employee reviews and opinions
Competitive Landscape insights to glean:
big competitors (market leaders, incumbents)
new competitors (disruptors)
existing competitors making big moves (M&A, private equity, partnerships, new branding, platform expansion)
Role insights to glean:
how previous employees in the role have fared (promotion vs attrition)
how critical is this role to the company? is this function growing?
does this role serve temporary or evergreen needs for the organization (is it a critical core competency?)
Guidelines for high-signal questions
You want to design questions that get at the signal you need while making it clear that you’ve done your research (bi-directional signal).
Some general rules of thumb for the questions you ask the interviewer:
Avoid leading questions. If you signal what you want the answer to be, interviewers will be tempted to tell you what you want to hear.
❌ “I’m trying to understand if the culture is supportive of early career PMs. What are some ways that PMs are supported at this company?”
✅ “What resources are available for early career PMs?”
Look out for tone. Avoid questions that put the interviewer on the defensive (these questions often start with “Why” and question past actions).
❌ “What should I think about the recent negative press?”
✅ “What is one area where you think the leadership team could have done better?”
Get clever about how you ask about touchy subjects. There’s always a way to get high signal without poking a bruise (or getting a canned HR-approved response).
❌ “Why did the company lose its largest customer?”
✅ “What does the company do to retain key customers?”
Memorable by design. Ask in original ways. Keep interviewers on their toes, and they will remember your unique take and how it made them think and feel.
❌ “What do you love about this company?”
✅ “If you weren’t working here, what would you be doing?”
Now, formulate your questions.
Start with what you need to learn (the signal FROM the interviewer), then check the guidelines above. In 1-3 revisions, hone your question for intent, tone, and originality.
Expect to spend about 2-3 minutes honing each question. And know that you will get faster at this with practice.
As a bonus, formulating high-signal questions for interviewers will improve your questions (and the intel you gather) in all parts of your life — not only in interviews.
The “Formulating High-Signal Questions” companion workbook for my course First Round Ready provides 6 high-signal question research categories and >31 prompts to get you started, plus 10+ mad-lib style pre-formulated questions and 23 pre-made high-signal questions to use in an emergency. Get it here.
⏰ Wow, we’re already at the 5-minute mark!
This post continues for paid subscribers with a step-by-step guide (with screenshots) for How To:
do targeted research (exactly where to search and how)
extract key insights (methodically)
formulate high-signal questions (that get your interviewer thinking)
Here’s a sneak peek of one section:
….there are 3 more sections with this level of detail (company, industry, role).