I suck at job interviews. How do I get better?
June 11, 2018 9:21 AM   Subscribe

In the past year I've struck out at a bunch of interviews for jobs I'm well-qualified for. What are my best resources for preparing beforehand? How do I present and sell myself more effectively during the interview itself? And finally, is an interview coach worth it? What worked for YOU?
posted by boghead to Work & Money (23 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Treat interviews less like an audition and more like a conversation. Ask questions about the position or the company — not questions that could be answered by doing some research about the company, though!

Be open and interested in what the other person has to say, rather than focusing on what you’re going to need to say to sell yourself.
posted by erst at 9:31 AM on June 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

Interviewing is sooo stressful.

Do you use the STAR method? I do find it a very helpful framework for talking about yourself.

Are you clear about some of your measurable successes and can you share them? You definitely need to be able to talk about concrete results.

Have you reviewed common behavioral interview questions and practiced your responses?

I have worked with a career coach before and found it very helpful. I also have had an informal support group to help practice interview techniques with. It really does take some practice to feel like you can do this naturally.

And finally, remember that you wouldn't be called in for an interview at all if people didn't believe you could do the job. So go in there knowing that the interviewer already think you're qualified and now want to get a little more depth of understanding and see if you'd fit in with their team.
posted by brookeb at 9:34 AM on June 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Did you go to college ? Some career offices offer coaching to alumni in perpetuity.
posted by aetg at 9:37 AM on June 11, 2018

Practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets. So apply for lots of jobs, and make your peace with failing a bunch of them. It will seriously make you way better at interviewing.

Also, realize that failing a job interview is often a good thing -- not every job is good for you, and bad fits can realize in interviews. So while it feels like "you failed", really it's very often "you would have been miserable there, be glad you only spent an hour there, instead of 2 years".
posted by so fucking future at 9:49 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Most of my experience is pitching myself as a freelancer, rather than as traditional job interviews, but there's a lot of overlap between the two -- and in the periods where I switched back to regular employment, the practice at recruiting clients improved my skill at finding "real" jobs immeasurably.

I noticed early on that by a very wide margin my best interviews were the ones where I didn't really need (or sometimes even want) the job. The easy-to-fall-into mindset of supplicant, I-really-need-to-impress-this-person job hunter can read as desperation or lack of confidence or skill. If I go in instead with a "this is what I have to offer, this is how I think it can benefit you, also while we're here I need to learn more about your company so I can decide if you're going to be a good fit for me" attitude... those are the ones where I'm more likely to reject the offer than to not receive one.

You're not asking them for a favor, you're offering them something of value. So focus on how to demonstrate that value, instead of on "preparing for an interview". I do software product design, so my preparation generally consists of spending some time looking at their existing product, thinking though a list of things I'd change and why, maybe putting together a quick mockup -- even if it's completely the wrong approach, it gives them a taste of what I can do and relates it immediately to how I could do that for them; it gives both of us an immediate sense of how well we're going to work together, and it shortcuts right past all the usual boring recitation of the resume and answering of the gotcha questions. Generic portfolio pieces are okay for getting to the interview stage, but once you've gotten that far it's worth spending some time making it specific to the job you're applying for.

Lastly -- this is stupid but it totally works -- use the word "we", not "you", when referring to the company. Like you're already part of the team. I know, dumb, right? Makes a huge difference though.

(It's also worth remembering that you can do nothing wrong and still not get the job; absent examples we have no way of knowing whether you'd benefit from coaching or if you've just had a run of bad luck.)
posted by ook at 10:10 AM on June 11, 2018 [8 favorites]

What is your unique selling proposition? What is special about YOU and why should they pick you over anybody else they may be interviewing? If you can't answer that confidently before going into the interview odds are the interviewer isn't going to figure it out for you. So figure that out, write it down if it helps, usually no more than 3 or 4 bullet points, and then keep referring back to those points in the interview anytime you can work them into the natural flow of the conversation. And don't just say "I'm good at X," have 2 or 3 examples to prove it.

It doesn't guarantee that they will hire you, because your USP may not be what they are looking for, but when that match does hit you'll be in a great position to get the offer.
posted by COD at 10:14 AM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

I interview a lot of candidates and the number one thing I am struck by is how so few of them are able to directly answer a question and instead try to skirt around it, sometimes in an attempt to make their answer sound more fancy or to avoid admitting they don't know the answer. It's incredibly aggravating as an interviewer.

Really, take questions at face value and answer them directly. If you don't know the answer to something, say "Actually, I don't know that but I would do xyz to figure it out."
posted by joan_holloway at 10:38 AM on June 11, 2018

I prepare pretty thoroughly. For phone interviews, I print out the job description and highlight the parts that match my best skills. Then I write in notes that hit on those points. If the description stated that they're seeking someone with experience in account management, I might highlight that and then write in '92% sales growth from 2015 to 2016 on x account, using x tactics'. During the interview, I can touch on those when asked about them, or I can find a way to work them into the conversation myself.

Same thing for my own resume: I highlight the parts that are the most relevant to the position at hand and then add notes that may help my ability to speak to them.

If given any additional materials at all from the company, I study those intently and try to prepare some data point or experience where those are relevant.

During the phone interview, if I can do so without appearing vocally/mentally distracted, I take notes that may be useful for my own reference, or for referral when speaking to someone in a (hopefully) second interview. "Oh, yes, x and I spoke about that project in our initial call. It sounded intriguing - I worked on a similar project last year, and... [give some concise details on it - give them a tidbit to work off of, they can ask you more if it's relevant]'

In person, I dress neatly, look people in the eye, and make sure my posture is good. I listen and make sure not to interrupt.
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:49 AM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have found that asking relevant questions at the end of the interview shows that you're actively eager to learn more about the position as though you already have it.

Be conversational but professional. The people interviewing you are also people, and they want to know if they can be comfortable working with you as well. If you go in completely robotic or scripted and uptight, they can't read you...unless that's what they want out of a worker. Be sure to read up on the company culture beforehand to get a sense of what sort of people work there.
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:53 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

On the interview coach part, I'd be skeptical. My last job moved across the country and part of my package was fancy outplacement, which included interview coaching. I found a large part of it to be utterly dreadful. They worked up an "elevator pitch" about me filled with corporate buzzwords and then told me that I should use it wherever possible during interviews. So when they ask "tell me a little about yourself," instead of telling them a little about myself I was supposed to say "well, I'm a motivated self-started with a track record of success in fast-moving organizations" or whatever.

I have interviewed a number of people for jobs. If someone ever said that to me in response to "tell me a little about yourself," I'd gag. I resolved to just be my own self and figured I'd find something when they were looking for a person like me. And then I went on several interviews and didn't get the job and I started questioning every detail of myself and figuring out that I must be defective and feeling depressed and questioning everything. It was great.

What ended up working for me was sitting down with a recruiter and asking them honestly for feedback about my resume and how I presented. Mostly, they told me I was normal and sounded okay and it would come down to interviewing at a place where I clicked with the people and the job. And a couple months later that's exactly what happened.

The TL;DR version is: be yourself and do your best to not take it personally if they choose someone else. (But maybe check with someone you trust to make sure that when you are being yourself you come across okay.)
posted by AgentRocket at 11:43 AM on June 11, 2018

Unfortunately (or fortunately) most people have made up their mind about you within five seconds. I’ve seen it firsthand within my companies and as an interviewer it’s obvious to me what side they’re on. It’s total bias for sure - but this knowledge may equip you to relax and to not take it personally. I would investigate if there’s something in those five seconds - are you confident? Do you dress well / groom? Do you smile with a firm handshake? These are critical things, even at times more than the content or the questions.
posted by treetop89 at 1:43 PM on June 11, 2018

It depends on what you're bad at. You don't say, so it's hard to give a definitive answer. There are a lot of aspects to job interviews besides answering questions about qualifications. But that's a good place to start, so let's start there.

There's no way you can anticipate every question someone will ask you, of course. But the vast majority of questions are the same from one interview to the next. "What's your greatest strength/weakness?", "tell me about a time you did ____", etc. Find a list of common questions and answer them. And I mean actually answer them: type them up in Microsoft Word, then print your answers out. Have someone look over your answers and suggest changes. Once they're good to go, make flash cards, then have someone ask you the questions until you can whip out a quality response without thinking. Keep a printout in the portfolio you carry into the interview, along with printouts of the job description and the "About the Company" page from their website, so that you can glance over them while you wait (cramming). For phone interviews, keep them in front of you. After the flash card drilling, you probably won't need to look at the actual printout during the interview, but it's a nice psychological comfort.

Make sure you're paying attention to your presentation. Your clothing and grooming, of course, but also your speech, your punctuality, and anything else that contributes to a first impression. Get your hair professionally cut before your interview, shower and shave/trim (for men), but then also pay attention to details. Cut your fingernails, trim your nose hair, chew gum on your way in to freshen your breath. Get your clothing dry-cleaned and your shoes polished. Carry a portfolio (and take notes on it - I once had a manager tell me he hired me because I was the only candidate who took notes during the interview). Make eye contact. Shake hands firmly. Don't say "ummmm". I know this all sounds like silly stuff from "Queer Eye", but there's a reason that show exists. This, rather than question prep, seems to be the real value of an interview coach. You can prep for questions yourself, or with a friend. But you and your friends will not be able to accurately evaluate the impression you make on a stranger.

Don't just prepare for interview questions; prepare for the company and the position. Make sure you've looked at the company's website so that you know what kind of products and services they offer. Determine where this department fits in the company. Figure out who their competitors are. Read the reviews on Glassdoor, and look up current employees on LinkedIn. It makes a big impression on the interviewer if you can talk about the company and the position intelligently.

Whatever questions you can't answer, ask your interviewer. Every interview ends with the "do you have any questions for me?" segment. You should always have questions for them, the more detailed, the better. On top of what came up during your research, you can google "common questions to ask an interviewer" to find out some more general stuff. After you've interviewed a few times, you'll start to remember the questions and ask them automatically. Again, make sure you write down the interviewers' answers.

One final thing, and this is more psychological than anything else: don't tell yourself you suck at interviews. The way the job market is right now, there are multiple qualified candidates for every open position. At this point, you can do everything perfectly and still not get the job. Not getting a job doesn't automatically reflect on you as a lousy interviewer. It could just mean that the hiring manager's little brother also interviewed. A big part of self-presentation is confidence, so brush off those past experiences and start fresh.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:51 PM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Use a webcam or your phone to record yourself answering some common interview questions.
posted by typify at 3:02 PM on June 11, 2018

I'm surprised I'm the first to recommend Ask A Manager! The blog has been an invaluable resource for me in job searching, and on the sidebar she offers a free interview prep e-book (or audio recording if you prefer that) after you enter your e-mail address. In addition to that book, I suggest browsing the interview tag on her website.
posted by jouir at 6:24 PM on June 11, 2018

What works for me is taking every opportunity to be on the OTHER side of the table. In my current role, I’m asked to sit in on second- or third-round interviews. I’m casually hunting for a new job myself, so I’ve found my interviewer role has really got my head in the right spot to be an interviewee.
posted by ersatzkat at 6:30 PM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I found working with a recruiter SO helpful for my interviewing skills (I actually just started a new job they helped me get!). For one, I could say things to them like “I feel like I often flub on [whatever] question,” and they would tell me “well based on your resume and some of our conversations, I think [whatever] would be a good response or this question.” Additionally, I had prep calls or meetings with my recruiter before all of my interviews, in which they gave me the insider scoop for the people I would be interviewing with, the kinds of things they found particularly important, etc. It helped me frame what parts of my experience I should highlight in my interview, and what sorts of questions I should ask the interviewer. I did a couple practice interviews with them, and they gave me feedback about my answers. They also gave me a general interview prep guide, so I could draft answers to standard questions in advance.
posted by tan_coul at 6:36 PM on June 11, 2018

Oh also! The people I interviewed with gave feedback about me to my recruiter, which my recruiter would then pass on to me. When companies passed on me, my recruiter could tell me if it was something I said (or didn’t say) or just that the company found someone else with more experience. It helped me feel less down on myself to have someone tell me “they really liked you, but decided to go with someone who has done [x].” It made all the rejections feel less personal.
posted by tan_coul at 6:41 PM on June 11, 2018

Just my opinion, from one specific industry, so don't take this as gospel...

Assuming you're already well qualified and ace the technical session of the interview... I would want to know about your influencing skills, your negotiation skills, how you compromise and how you lead others to compromise, your ability to follow through, your strategy and business acumen. Many behavioral questions are asked specifically to tick boxes related to these things, but many candidates keep on circling back to talk about the work they did, the technical aspects of it - because that's what they're comfortable with, they don't have the emotional intelligence to understand and articulate the soft skills they have. I've lost count of the number of times we've had to go "The question was about X. You have just described something that is about Y. Would you like another chance at this question?". Yes I want you to succeed, because my job is to get the actual best candidates into the company regardless of how well they interview, but there's only so much I can help you! I know many interviewers will just put a big cross on that and go "candidate did not understand question" which is a lot worse than if they just went "I am unable to talk to this question, can we move to the next."

The STAR format is great. Everyone gets the Task and Action part of it - that's simple, that's the work they did. The part where people fail is the S and R part - not many have the big picture / strategic view of the organization to understand how to talk intelligently about they got into that Situation to begin with, and not everyone has the business acumen / drive for results that creates the kind of follow through that enables them to talk intelligently about Results. So many people have said, I did something that optimized something... and then are unable to talk about the "real world" impact of their actions on the profitability or bottom line of their organization.

Even the technical portion isn't 100% about the technical skills: it's also about soft skills like, how do you perform under pressure, how do you react when given a task that has unclear direction, how do you approach asking for help, even how you mentally organize yourself to complete a task, attention to detail... so succeeding or failing at the technical portion may not necessarily be indicative of how the interviewers' impression.
posted by xdvesper at 9:07 PM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

I hate interviews. The only thing that helped was working with a coach (three different ones actually, took some trial and error to find one that I gelled with ), practising the STAR technique and learning how to read the job description to anticipate the questions. I improved and after fifteen interviews finally did get a job(two years ago), I’m now looking at swapping again and absolutely dreading going through the whole thing again, will probably go back to a coach.
posted by coffee_monster at 11:17 PM on June 11, 2018

Here's what helped me:
I came up with a list of interview questions (basics like "Tell me about a mistake you made at work" and industry-specific stuff like "Describe detailed thing about widget type X." I sent it to friends and asked them to call me, without warning, and ask questions from the list - or other questions of their choosing.

I wanted to get better at thinking on my feet and more comfortable answering interview questions, and that helped. It also helped that some of my friends who did this for me were older and experienced interviewers themselves, and they gave me additional tips.

I also joined Toastmasters to help build my confidence - it worked.
posted by bunderful at 5:19 AM on June 12, 2018

I coordinate the recruiting and participate in some interviewing (primarily engineers of varying stripes, including but not limited to software engineers) at my company and have done so in past companies, and here are the things I've seen totally torpedo an interview:

- Arrogance
- Badmouthing former colleagues (you'll hear a lot that you shouldn't badmouth a former boss, but in our close-knit industry we know most of the other bosses and some of them are actually worth badmouthing. But if you blame your fellow engineers for your failures, or you have a history in consulting talking about how only you could save the day because the engineers were so stupid, then you are not a fit for our team)
- Showing a lack of understanding of the role they're interviewing for, or, if the role is not clear to them, failing to try to understand what the role is like here (even worse: when told that the role we have in mind is a bit different from their expectations based on the title, doubling down to tell us we're wrong about how we perceive that role fitting in here)
- Answering questions in a way that suggests they're exaggerating their own experiences in hopes of impressing us or flat out not telling the truth - like one candidate that had over a decade in industry who insisted he had never experienced conflict on any team he'd worked on
- Being unwilling to admit when they don't (or didn't) know something
- When asked about the type of company they want to work for, enthusiastically espousing types of work environments or cultural values that are antithetical to us (I once had one talk about how much he wanted a company of young people and a bro culture, while interviewing at a startup staffed primarily by middle-aged people with kids and an unusually high percentage of women)

Note that none of the above is a technical failure - it's a failure to show they'd be a good team member for us.

On the technical side, we do have people fail there - like they claim to be C++ geeks but when pressed can't back that up with any code examples or whiteboard exercises, or they profess to be an expert in a certain field but when pressed to explain their research, can't communicate in any depth about their supposed area of expertise.

But most of the above can be solved by doing a lot of research about the companies you're interviewing with, and going in understanding what will and won't fly in terms of culture and role. If you're getting interviews, it means you must look good on paper - where do you feel you're failing in the interviews? On the technical side, in which case maybe you're misrepresenting or exaggerating a little too much on paper and you're not able to back up the things you're claiming? Or is it on the culture fit side, in which case you should do more research on the companies, understand the types of people who work there, what kind of a work environment they have, what kind of collaboration they expect, etc.. and then during the interview, ask a lot of questions to understand how they work together, what expectations are of everyone on the team, what's the work/life balance like, what will the role entail (even if it's something common like "DevOps" there are probably unique things about it *at that specific company* that you should learn about and evaluate for yourself just as they're evaluating you). It can also help to have a trusted friend check you on the arrogance front; that's not something you'll ever get as feedback from interviewers, but a friend - or a good recruiter, if you work exclusively with a well-qualified one - can give you that feedback.

It'd also help to know at which stage of the process you have the most trouble. Early stages - like phone screens or short in-person preliminary interviews - are generally to assess technical dealbreakers ("Oh, they think the role is about X, it's actually about Y because we don't do X here, they're not a good fit" or "Hm, they said they had a lot of experience with Z but we asked them some questions about Z and they were totally unable to answer") but can also include some culture/logistical dealbreakers ("They let us know up front that they make $250k/year at Amazon and want something similar, and we can't come anywhere near that" or "Told us they wanted a bro culture. We're done here.") The later interviews, the ones that take all day and involve you meeting a lot of the team, are more technically in depth but also heavy on culture fit assessment, so if that's where you're failing I'd maybe evaluate your own non-technical presentation a little harder.
posted by olinerd at 5:50 AM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

kevinbelt: Don't just prepare for interview questions; prepare for the company and the position.

So much this - I prepped for an interview with questions from the internet, and I had solid answers for those 20 questions ... but they weren't asked. It was all very specific about the job. So next time I focused on what the job entails, and what I think I could bring to the job.

And then in the follow-up questions to this later interview, an interviewer noted that the questions were focused on what they wanted in the person for this position.

To reiterate: focus on the job, as a position, and within the company/ agency/ field. The stock internet questions are good for getting your footing, but every industry is different, and every market is different. Are you competing against a lot of strong candidates? Are people coming in from out of the area to apply? Or is it a limited pool and they're more likely to hire from within? For the former, you really have to promote yourself over everyone else; for the latter, if you're not already within the agency or company, how does that put you ahead of others? What do you know about the agency, its practices and priorities?

Also the position matters: are you part of a team, or the team leader? If you're a team member, do what is needed in the current team? You could check in with other people at the company and quietly ask what it's like to work there. For a team leader, what was the former leader like, and what is needed now?

My limited anecdotes about what worked for me: my first job came about from what I expected to be perseverance - due to a hiring freeze, the agency took almost a year from submitting my application to sitting at a desk and starting work, with two rounds of interviews in that period. Then I applied for a position in a field that was less competitive due to the location of the job and the type of job. From there, having my foot in the door, and having adjacent experience worked greatly in my favor.

From my family members who don't work in government, jobs are more commonly acquired by word of mouth, or asking the right questions. My dad landed his current job by asking someone if they knew anyone else who needed a certain type of support, and the person said "actually, I could use that help." If this is more like your field, more networking and getting to know people is key. Are there non-profits adjacent to your field where you can volunteer for a while, to get more local recognition? Or professional groups to support people the field?
posted by filthy light thief at 9:34 AM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots of great information here, folks. Thank you!
posted by boghead at 1:42 PM on June 13, 2018

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