Common Interview Mistakes

Interviewing is a skill

Our administrative team interviews about fifty people each year.  While we do find several polished applicants, we find even more who make common interview mistakes.  Unfortunately, it only takes about 90 seconds to identify people in the latter group. 

Making the most out of an interview means delivering a clear message about yourself while avoiding key pitfalls.  We’ve isolated common interview mistakes, and a few advanced mistakes.  

Common interview mistakes:

1. Show up late.

A professional can manage their own affairs and schedule.  They anticipate problems like traffic or crowded parking garages.  Professionals watch the weather to look for snow or rain.  They scout out the venue ahead of time.  A late applicant forces the interviewer to ask, “If they can’t be on time to a crucial interview that’s been scheduled for weeks, how can they survive the daily rigors here?”  While this seems basic, it’s all too common.

2. Don’t do you your homework. 

We had to search through dozens of CVs before we telephoned you to extend the interview offer.  We’ve read everything you’ve had to say on paper, called references, probably even checked your social media page.

This means you, the applicant, should be doing at least that much homework!  You should know the rough history of the organization, any public information about the administrative team, core missions or successes of the team you’re joining (if discoverable).

As a corollary, whenever anyone asks, “Do you have any questions?”, the answer is always, “Yes.”  Doing the right amount of homework means always have good questions to ask.

An applicant should avoid the trap of thinking the interview is all about them.  The interview is also for the organization; the applicant must be the right fit for the right role.

3. Check your phone. Ever.

During your interview, you have no phone.  You have no friends or social media apps.  You have only your overwhelming interest in the people and experience of the opportunity before you. 

4. Be rude to support/ancillary staff or non-senior team members. 

Very few things show me an applicant has a humility problem as quickly as treating support staff like you’re better than them.  Never be too good to take out the proverbial or literal trash, and respect the ones who do it for a living.  An extremely wise practice is to make sure you’ve been friendly enough to remember the proverbial secretary’s name, and that they remember yours. 

5. Provide insincere ‘yearbook’ answers to interview questions.

People can smell inauthenticity from a mile away.  Interviewers do it for a living.  If I can’t trust what I’m hearing to be true, then I have no idea who the person across the table really is.  And I’m certainly not going to let an unknown enter my culture

Some people find more subtle ways to hurt their success.  Let’s review some advanced ways to blow an interview:

1. Be ‘edgy’.  

More aptly put, display any counter-culture tendencies.  In our organization, cultural fit, humility and egalitarianism are highly valued.  Applicants who demonstrate ‘alpha’ and cut-throat tendencies make a fast path towards having their CV tossed in the waste bin.  But know that in another environment, perhaps a fast paced sales-driven environment, well-pruned edge may be closer to what is needed.  Know your audience.

2. Display disinterested body language.

The majority of communication is non-verbal.  In other words, you could craft the world’s best answer to a question and still fail if your tone and body language are off.  Blading your body away from the interviewer, slouching, leaning back, crossing your arms: all of these send messages like, “Stay away!” or, “I’m not into this.” 

Eye contact is another common error.  While too much can make you look like a serial killer, too little is one of the most commonly cited non-verbal mistakes by interviewers.   

Smiling, too, can be a hurdle.  Having a goofy, insincere grin plastered on your face is never wise, but looking like you’re at a funeral is not the correct alternative.  Discover genuine excitement and joy of getting to meet new people and explore opportunities.  Let that be your authentic emotion.

Remember, your body language would show engagement, interest, and excitement. 

3. Throw your old employer under the bus.

Your old employer may have been a nightmare straight out of Dilbert or Office Space, but describing their ineptitude is a sure-path to suggesting that you’re a perpetual victim who thinks they’re a special snowflake.  These sorts of stories should be told only by omission/implication, as a corollary to describing your work and talents.  If a talented behavioral interviewer tries to push you into a corner and admit that a previous manager was a terrible boss, the wise move is to describe how you gave them the benefit of the doubt. (“It’s possible the scope of the problem at hand was wider than I knew.” or, “My contributions may have been just one linchpin for a larger solution.”)  These sorts of considerations demonstrate that you are able to see yourself as a single member of a larger team, as a spoke on the communal wheel.  

4. Spend your time reviewing why everyone else sucks instead of why you’re talented.

We’re back to the special snowflake issue.  No manager wants to deal with someone who thinks they’re better than the next person on the team.  They likely already have a list of those people who comprise their biggest headaches.  Good team players are humble and know their efforts are just a piece of the puzzle.  They don’t ask for special treatment, only for opportunities to put forth their best work.  Team players also don’t spend their time derisively tearing down their teammates; they focus on the value they can add, instead.

5. Describing yourself with monochromatic buzzwords instead of showing yourself through recounted actions.

If I’m reading a book, I don’t want the author to tell me, “Our hero was the perfect man: as strong as an ox, witty and brave.”  I want them to show me those things. Show me his wit through conversation with other characters.  Convince me of his bravery and strength by describing how he slayed a dragon.  The first route is unsubstantiated hearsay; the second is admissible evidence.  The same is true of your answers in an interview.  Don’t tell me how smart and engaged you are, walk me through a tough challenge you were able to meet, or a time when you displayed grit by slogging through a grueling case.  A barrage of positive-sounding buzzwords makes me feel as though I’m being sold a bill of goods. And I hate being sold things.  

Practice makes perfect

There are, of course, dozens of ways to blow an interview.  Luckily, focusing on a few positive traits can lead to success.  Be authentic.  Be humble.  Display enthusiasm.  Have a deep catalog of your successes to draw from when conveying your brand.  And above all, practice. 

An experienced interviewer will know whether you’ve practiced within the first few minutes.  Interviewing is a skill, and you can’t count on winging it.  Remember, we don’t rise to the occasion, we default to our level of training.  Dress up in your planned interview attire (which, incidentally, should be one level of formality above the daily dress of the team), search for an interview question bank and have a friend play the interviewer. 

Interviews don’t have to be miserable and intimidating.  Put in the work ahead of time and free yourself up to enjoy the process.  Prime yourself for success.

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