How to avoid the most common interview mistake with the least effort

Kevin Landucci
Pass Interviews
min read

Right under our noses

Engineers spend dozens of hours practicing answering interview questions to help pass interviews. Often enough, those same engineers will spend no time at all to avoid the most common interview mistake, which has nothing to do with the answers you give and plays a not-insignificant role in helping you pass.

Who we are

ApplyPass helps engineers thrive in a broken hiring system by getting them more interviews than humanly possible on their own. Our expertise from generating 57,000 interviews has shown that one costly mistake engineers make is super easy to fix.

The problem

According to company feedback, what is the most common reason engineers fail interviews?

  1. Not senior enough
  2. Inexperience with tech stack
  3. Culture fit
  4. Lack of experience in their domain

None of the above. According to Triplebyte’s dataset of 100k+ interviews, the most common reason companies reject engineers is: “They didn’t seem to know anything about us, and they didn’t seem to care.” The lowest-lift highest-impact solution for candidates is to change the questions they ask their interviewer. The status quo is laughably bad, yet it persists. Here are three of the riskiest questions to ask in an interview:

What’s the location for this position?

What is the tech stack?

Is this remote?

Put yourself in the shoes of an employer. Assume that your most frequent headache is engineers who appear not to give a darn and do not do their homework. What do these questions signal? Another one of those frequent headaches! It signals a lack of interest, because the company can easily jump from: “They didn’t prepare so they’re asking general questions they could ask anyone,” to “If they’re treating us like the rest, they must not be that interested.”

The venue for when you can ask generic questions is to the recruiter asynchronously or to anyone after you get an offer. As a professional negotiation coach, the best negotiator I worked with told me:

“Before a company can increase their valuation of me, I have to improve their opinion of me.”

If you want an above-market offer, every single touch point is an opportunity to impress. The questions you ask in an interview can improve, flatten, or decrease your value. After you get an offer, the tides turn and it becomes the “reverse interview” process, which is the time to ask any and all questions you want, including generic ones. Yet until the offer comes, make every touchpoint improve their opinion of you .

The solution

Refrain from attempting to be more enthusiastic. That can cause more issues. Instead, quickly search things about this opportunity you find genuinely interesting. The bonus of doing this quick research is naturally increasing your enthusiasm (or, their “perception of how much you care”). To clearly demonstrate you know a fair amount about the company, prepare at least 3-5 highly specific questions.

How do you know if the questions are specific enough? Do a litmus test; imagine asking them in a different interview. The goal is to make questions so specific… if you asked them to a different interviewer for a different opportunity… they wouldn’t make sense.

This can be completed in 10-15 minutes. Even in a rush, you have 10 minutes before any interview to log off of leetcode or put down CTCI to increase your odds. After a handful of repetitions or so, if you’re iterating quickly you can cut that time in half.

A list of questions is better with both depth and breadth. Specificity gives the questions depth; to have breadth, cover a wide variety of topics such as company, team, role, industry, and individual interviewer.

When to use this solution

If you have one upcoming round that’s purely technical, you can skip it. Onsite, hiring manager, cross-functional, and all other conversation-based rounds benefit from this tactic. If you pass recruiter rounds less than ~80% of the time, this one can help you dramatically.

Use at the following stages:

*Recruiter screen

*Hiring manager screen



Follow this starting-block structure to get 3 highly specific questions in 5-15 minutes. Find and add your ways after getting the hang of it.


Scan an engineering blog. What 1-2 key ideas can you pluck out?

Do a “Google News” search, find an article and pick a theme


Google “[Founder name] interview”, what is a memorable soundbyte?

Look at any “Team” pages on their website, what idea resonates first?


Scan the job description. What do you want more details on?

Look up their tech stack, what piece of tech in here do you desire to use?


Google “[Company Name] competitors”, and scan a web page about a competitor

Individual interviewer

Look up the interviewer on LinkedIn. What jumps out at you from their profile?

No matter which method you use, do it quickly. You aren’t reading or listening, you’re scanning. Don’t attempt to deeply understand any of it. Simply grab resonant talking points to ask smart questions. There will always be time to understand it more deeply later, perhaps after you know you’ve passed this round. And no, asking a question about a topic you don’t fully understand won’t backfire. This isn’t a deep dive into databases y’all, this is basic rapport-building.

Highly specific question and source examples

After using the source to quickly extract a piece of relevant data, this is what good questions can look like.

Eng blog

“I saw you just migrated to MySQL, sounds like it was a fun challenge. What role did this team or org play in that process?”

News article

“Congrats on the recent round of funding. What are the engineering team’s plans for growth?”

Cofounder interview

“I just heard Natalia talking on [Website] about infrastructure, how has that perspective shaped your team?”

Job description

“It seems like this role will involve some testing. How much of the day-to-day would involve testing?”

Tech stack

“It looks like you all use AWS. What specific flavors?”


“What do you say when people ask how the product is different from GIT?”

Individual interviewer

“It looks like you were here before the acquisition. How have things changed since?”


Remember, companies’ most frequent headache is candidates who “don’t know anything about us and don’t care.” Compare any highly specific questions with the worst offenders (ie, “can I work from home?”), from the perspective of a company, the difference is night and day. It seems impossible to think of an activity with a better ROI-to-effort ratio, only a few minutes of work yet actually increases your odds.

Plus, when you do quick research you’re absorbing info you might use later, even if you don’t put it on your question list. For example, I read a hiring manager’s LinkedIn profile before an interview, and noticed she was following Robert Greene. I didn’t have an opportunity to use it in our first interview, and I began lamenting doing this extra research for nothing. Then in our second interview, I mentioned a quote by Robert Greene to which she said “Oh, I love him!” An interview is decided by the smallest of margins, why not accrue as many tiny points as possible, especially if they’re so cheap to acquire.

Dan Klos
Co-Founder & CEO @applypass
Dan has spent the last 8 years helping software engineers level up their career. He created Outco to help over 2,000+ engineers secure top-paying job offers. Currently, his entire focus is on building ApplyPass to aid engineers in getting 40% more interviews and saving more than 5 hours per week on job applications. When he's not at work, he's deeply involved in activism, challenging hikes, and canoeing.
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