The importance of a job interview can’t be under-stressed. If you don’t impress your prospective employer in the interview, it can cost you the position – even if you’re fully qualified.

Your ability to communicate well, be assertive, think on your feet and work compatibly with a prospective employer is just as important as the skills you have on paper; if you’re one of several candidates with matching qualifications, your in-person skills will make or break you. While there’s no exact formula to interviewing, you can give yourself an advantage by being well-prepared.

Telephone Screening

Many job interviews start with a phone screen. It’s vital to do well, because the purpose of this step is essentially to weed out candidates. You will probably speak to someone in Human Resources, rather than the hiring manager who will conduct face-to-face interviews. Phone screens typically last about 30 minutes or less, but may go as long as an hour. Be sure to schedule the time so you’re not rushed or distracted. The most important thing you can do at this stage is show that you understand what the position entails. Your skills will be gauged, as well as your interest, so be enthusiastic and confident. Don’t allow the screening to go on longer than the time allotted. Be clear, concise and respectful.

Be mindful that, during the phone screen, your communication skills are being put to the test. If you can’t articulate yourself without rambling, the screener may become annoyed that you’re throwing off the schedule, or, worse, you may be cut off before you’re finished. Either possibility will hurt your chances of moving forward. Don’t get ahead of yourself and ask too many questions, either, as the screener may not know every detail of the job. Simply follow the screener’s lead, and stay on track. At the end of the call, it’s acceptable to express your desire to move to the next step and to ask when you might meet with someone to discuss the job further. Assuming you’ll move forward might be presumptuous, but it shows confidence.

Don’t expect the screener to schedule you for a face-to-face interview. Most likely, they’ll tell you you’ll hear from them if they wish to proceed. If you sense any doubt on the screener’s part, ask if they have any questions that you can answer to ease any hesitation. Anything more than that, and you’ll come off as being pushy, which will hurt your chances. Don’t panic if the screener doesn’t give you a sense of where you stand, and don’t assume that awkward silence equals dissatisfaction. Screeners are likely just taking notes during long silences. Always thank the screener for his or her time at the end of the call. A Thank You note is not necessary after a phone screen, but it can be helpful in keeping you on the radar.

Once you’ve landed the in-person interview, you really have to put your best foot forward. Keep these Do’s and Don’ts in mind:

DO know the company you’re applying to. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to articulate what you will do in the position. Research the company as much possible before facing the interviewer.

DO be prepared for ambiguous questions. Prospective employers routinely ask deceptively simple questions like “what interests you?” or, even more vaguely, “tell me about yourself.” Keep the focus on your achievements and what you can offer the company as much as possible. Avoid talking about your hobbies and family life unless specifically asked.

DO communicate clearly and concisely.

DON’T ramble. Answer the question, and stop talking so the interviewer can move on to the next question.

DO listen carefully to the interviewer, and answer the questions you’re asked.

DON’T exaggerate, especially when it comes to your past income or responsibilities. Remember, if they’re interested in you, they’re likely to follow up with references and past employers. If the information doesn’t match up, it can kill your chances.

DO make eye contact with the interviewer.

DO dress appropriately, and carry yourself with poise. Sit up straight, and lean slightly forward when listening.

DON’T badmouth. Talking negatively about past employers – even if they’re the competition –reflects negatively on you. If you’re asked why you left a certain company and you have nothing nice to say, simply express that the position didn’t fit with your goals and leave it at that.

DO know your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. The interviewer will want to know what you’re best at, and you should be able to articulate it with confidence. Don’t forget to consider your weaknesses before you interview as well. This can be challenging, because you’re selling yourself, and want to keep things as positive as possible. The trick is to turn a weakness into a strength, but not to the point where it sounds like pandering. Something like “I worry too much about making mistakes” or “people tell me I’m over-optimistic” is a “weakness” that may help you.

DO express past accomplishments in terms of “we,” not “I.” This shows your teamwork ability, and your willingness to give credit to others when it’s due. Highlight your leadership experience, but also focus on your ability to learn.

DON’T make assumptions. Ask questions, if necessary, to help pinpoint their current needs.

DO be spontaneous. While it’s important to prepare for your interview and have an idea of what you’ll say, you don’t want to sound rehearsed and phony. A certain amount of spontaneity gives the potential employer confidence in your honesty and sincerity – that you’re being real.

DO give specific examples of situations when you’ve used your knowledge to solve problems, and use those examples to demonstrate how you can apply the same knowledge to suit their needs.

DO display energy and motivation. This will help the interviewer engage with you, which will increase your chances of a successful interview.

DON’T rush into discussing salary. If a prospective employer brings it up right away, ask for more information about the position first. Not only will this give you a better idea of what the job is worth, it shows your interest in the job beyond the paycheck. Too much focus on salary on the employer’s part may be a warning that their priority is to hire someone within a budget, regardless of qualifications. It’s appropriate to discuss salary near the end of the interview, so be prepared with a desired salary range, not an exact figure. Asking the interviewer the typical salary range for the position is acceptable to help guide your answer.

DO follow up. Within 24 hours of your interview, send a Thank You note to each interviewer that reiterates your key selling points and expresses your enthusiasm for the job. An emailed note is acceptable.