Interviews are an awkward but necessary part of the job application process that most people hate. I get it. You’re in a high-stakes situation, sitting across the table from a panel of people who have the power to give you your next opportunity, asking you to describe yourself in a way that highlights your talents and skills without sounding boastful. It’s stressful.
As a recruiter, I’ve been on that panel hundreds of times. I’ve trained hundreds of managers on how to give a good interview. Which basically means, how can you pull the best information from a candidate so that you can make an informed decision about whether they’re a good fit? Plus, I’ve collected a handful of interview horror stories. Based on my experience as a recruiter, here’s what not to do during an interview.
1. Don’t give a long-winded answer when asked, “Tell me about yourself.”
The best advice I’ve ever received and will continue to give to anyone who will listen: Prepare an elevator pitch. You should be able to describe your work history, career aspirations, and the value you bring to an organization in under a minute. Think about it this way: If you ran into the CEO in the elevator and she asked you to tell her about yourself, what would you say?
Be concise. Don’t talk about every single job you’ve ever had. If you’re 10 years out of school, it’s probably irrelevant to talk about your degrees. Recruiters and hiring managers have limited time to conduct the interview. Don’t monopolize time you could use to respond to the actual evaluation portion of the interview by telling me about your first job as a babysitter.
2. Don’t give too many details about your personal life.
Biases are real and prevalent. Every recruiter and hiring manager have implicit biases that color their evaluations of candidates. From the school you attended to whether or not you have kids to your political leanings, there are so many details that can color someone’s evaluation of you.
These personal details may come up later on the job, but the fewer personal details you provide from the start, the less likely you are to experience bias in hiring. Keep the information you present relevant to the job, and don’t make it personal.
3. Don’t talk about what “we did” instead of what you did.
In my experience, candidates often talk about what the team did in a job role instead of talking about their personal contributions or achievements.
They might believe this communicates their ability to work on a team. But if teamwork is being evaluated in the interview, there will be specific questions around teamwork. So while there’s nothing wrong with describing your experience on a team — “I was working as part of a cross-functional team with members from both sales and marketing” — be sure to describe the actions you took and the results you generated. After all, you’re the only one around to advocate for yourself during a job interview.
4. Don’t use examples from volunteering, school, or your personal life.
If you’re interviewing for a job as an accountant, recruiters want you to describe how you exercised attention to detail in your accounting experience, not in your personal life. Stay away from drawing from experience in your non-professional life, including volunteering, school, and personal details, as much as possible. For example, don’t talk about your ability to plan a ski trip for your children’s school — talk about how you managed the compilation of a year-end report. Not only do personal examples bring in potential biases, but it also fails to showcase how you’ve demonstrated behavior required to perform a job in the past.
The only time I recommend drawing on examples from outside of your professional life is if you are a new graduate or have very little professional experience. When interviewing university students for internships, recruiters are comfortable hearing about how, as part of your consumer marketing class, you had to perform a customer analysis to present to a panel of judges or how you organized a team of volunteers to execute a leadership conference. But recruiters don’t want to hear about how you planned your family’s potluck Christmas dinner.
5. Don’t forget to ask informed questions about the role.
When a recruiter asks you to talk about why you want to work for the organization or why you’re interested in the role, they want to know you’ve put thought and effort into preparing for the interview. Ask informed questions about the organization. For example, “I see that you have offices across the country, how collaborative would you say teams are across the regions?” or “Given the client-facing nature of the job, how often would you say I can expect to meet with clients on their site versus at our office?” As the candidate, this allows you to ask pressing questions to help you decide if the organization or role fits your lifestyle, too. I can’t tell you the number of candidates who went through a lengthy interview process only to decline a job offer once they realized something specific, like shift work, was involved. This is a piece of information that could have easily been addressed with the question, “Do you have any questions about the role?”
6. Don’t disrespect the receptionist, HR admin, or other candidates.
I once greeted a candidate to bring them into the interview, and they asked me, “What high school do you go to, young lady?” I was in my mid-20s at the time. Needless to say, the candidate was surprised that I was the one conducting the interview.
Hiring managers and recruiters are also known to ask the receptionist if candidates were rude or treated them with respect when entering the worksite. I’ve received countless rude emails demanding a higher salary, a change in interview time, and to receive a list of questions ahead of the interview. You never know who is evaluating you or contributing to the hiring decision.
Not to mention, it’s best practice to be kind and respectful, anyway — a good rule of thumb for interviewing and beyond.
Kelsea is a reality TV junkie and recovering overachiever from Canada with an affinity for knitting. You can follow her plight to save struggling plant parents on Instagram by following @kelseaknits.
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