Best Way to Make the Interview More Effective – 10 Rules for the Interviewee

Be yourself; relax. Too many interviewees try to be the person they think the interviewer wants to hire. Usually, that fails. You’ve been playing yourself for so long it’s hard to switch.

Playing another role may not be such a good idea, in any case. You may be wrong about what you think the interviewer wants. But even if you correctly assessed who the interviewer wanted, and even if you were successful in playing that role, it would still be a bad idea. Once you got on the job, you would be unhappy because you cannot play a role forever.

Interview Best Way to Make the Interview More Effective   10 Rules for the Interviewee

Of course, you do need to do more in an interview than simply be yourself. I am reminded of a wonderful New Yorker cartoon in which a person sitting across the desk from an interviewee asks, “Any qualifications other than being very comfortable with yourself?”

Being yourself will help you to relax; playing a role makes you tense. As suggested in “Preparing for the Interview: Interviewee,” being well prepared and keeping the interview process in perspective—recognizing that not receiving an offer is not the worst thing in the world, that some rejection is inevitable and that the interview process is an imperfect science—should also help you to relax.

Don’t feel you have to agree with everything the interviewer says, or be a sycophant, bowing and scraping in homage. Though interviewers, being human, may appreciate a little flattery, some interviewees carry this to excess. Just as outstanding interviewees are wary of interviewers who fawn over them, interviewers believe that candidates who think their company is perfect may not be so darn good themselves.

Most interviewers recognize that they need somebody who has the ability to stand up for himself, to disagree when appropriate, to show some self-confidence. A sycophantic interviewee will be thought not to possess those important characteristics. Indeed, some interviewers may even say things they don’t agree with to test your assertiveness and self-confidence.

When you do disagree with an interviewer, though, do so respectfully. Instead of laughing and saying, “That’s the most idiotic thing I ever heard in my life,” try saying “that’s a good point, but . . .” or “that’s one way of looking at it, but I tend to see it this way …” On the other hand, if it really is the most idiotic thing you ever heard in your life, maybe you shouldn’t resist saying so. After all, there are other jobs, and do you want to work for that idiot, anyway?

Make a bad interviewer into a good interviewer. Don’t assume that the interviewer is an expert at what he’s doing. Typically, he doesn’t know much about interviewing at all. His “real work” is something else. (That is the way many interviewers, pretending to be joking, distinguish between what they get paid for and their interviewing responsibilities.) A good interviewee, though, can make an interviewer look good, no matter how poor an interview the interviewer is conducting. You can make the interview go well for the interviewer—and thus for yourself—even with someone who’s not a very good interviewer.

Acknowledge your mistakes. If you have said something incorrect during the interview and later realize it, don’t be afraid to correct yourself. If a question by an interviewer calls for discussing a situation in which you made a mistake in a job, or in school, admit it. In a sense, your willingness to acknowledge mistakes is a strength because it demonstrates both humility and self-confidence.

You may even be able to show your sense of humor in admitting a mistake, as this candidate did in his preinterview letter to a prominent San Francisco law firm:

Dear Ms.

I recently wrote to you expressing an interest in permanent employment at_________.  I would like to inform

you that I will be in the San Francisco area in November and would appreciate the opportunity to set up an interview.

In my cover letter, I indicated to you that I was a first-year law student. After further review I have discovered that I am a third-year law student. I apologize for the confusion.

Once again, thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.


Recognize and respect the fine, but important, line between self-confidence and arrogance. If you cross over that line, you are going to turn what may be one of your strongest selling points into a fatal flaw.

Often, the difference is not so much in what is said, but in how it is said. Compare, for example, the following two answers to the question, “Do you think you could handle making a presentation to a senior corporate officer?”

Interview 1 Best Way to Make the Interview More Effective   10 Rules for the Interviewee

“Yes, I’m quite confident I could handle that. In my prior position with X corporation, I presented a proposal to the chief executive officer of the company, Mr. Nesbit, that we reorganize the way we were handling our business travel. We spent about an hour and a half together discussing my proposal and eventually he accepted it, with a few small modifications.”

“Oh sure, that would be absolutely no problem for me. I used to do that all the time over at X corporation. I remember the time old Bob Nesbit, the CEO, asked me to noodle over what we were doing with business travel. Bob just flipped over the solution I came up with.”

An interviewer is sometimes more interested in how you answer a question than in the substance of your answer

Do not drop names. By that I mean both dropping the last name, that is referring to important people by their first name, as in the second example above; and using the name of a well-known person you know, just for effect. Name dropping signals to an interviewer a certain arrogance and need to impress. Of course, you may mention the names of important people with whom you have worked in a context that fits appropriately into the interview discussion.

Beware of the perfect company. It doesn’t exist. If you are getting the impression that the company you are talking to has no flaws, either you’re not digging deep enough, or the people with whom you are speaking are not being candid. Use the questioning techniques suggested earlier for interviewers to get at the information you want.

Talk to people at the level at which you will be working in the company. These employees’ experiences will most likely mirror what you will find at the company, and they are more likely to be candid with you than will more senior employees who may have swallowed, or even invented, the company line. It’s not necessarily that senior people will lie to you. They may simply not know what it is like to work at your level.

Be sensible about how you dress and groom yourself Many interview books spend pages and pages advising interviewees on what to wear, purporting to give absolute rules, including one that advises “Never wear a brown suit.” Hog-wash. If you have a brown suit you like, wear it.

Some people advise interviewees always to carry a briefcase. If you feel comfortable with a briefcase—or need it for physical or emotional balance—carry it. If not, don’t.

The real rule for how to dress and what to carry is to use common sense. Look neat and clean. Don’t smell, either from body odor or excessive commercial odor. Dress appropriately for the position for which you are applying. Don’t wear jewelry that is going to jangle or distract. Don’t smoke or chew gum. Don’t carry two briefcases. Comb your hair, if you have any (don’t be like the balding candidate who reportedly excused himself from an interview and returned to the office a few minutes later wearing a hairpiece). Polish your shoes. Do not slouch in the chair. (One friend reported to me that in an interview with a senior officer he had a kind of out-of-body experience in which it seemed that the interviewer was getting taller and taller. Finally, my friend realized that he’d slipped down in his chair, practically sliding off. Turned out he had the flu.) You’ll be able to add to this list, if you just think about how you would react to somebody, if you were the interviewer. Dressing inappropriately is a form of showing disrespect for the interviewer.

Don’t try to trick people with your dress. The story goes that a first-year law student at Stanford showed up for an interview in tennis attire. He apologized profusely for his attire and explained that the recruiting office had screwed up and just moments before the interview notified him of the interview. He did not receive an offer. He interviewed in tennis attire with the same person at the same firm the next year and told the same story. He did not receive an offer, again.

Your failure to use common sense in the area of dress is likely to have two effects, neither of which will help you get a job. First, it may make the interviewer uncomfortable. Second, and more important, it will mark you as lacking in good judgment, a trait that most every employer seeks in most every employee.

On the other hand, don’t dress in a way that makes you uncomfortable. If you always wear a bow tie, wear a bow tie. If you never wear high heels, don’t wear high heels. I can’t assure you that those decisions will not mean that some employer will decide not to make you an offer. But do you really want to work for that employer, anyway?

Do not go out of your way to criticize other employers with whom you have worked or are interviewing. Most interviewers regard this as showing poor taste, and poor judgment. Even worse than bad-mouthing your prior employer is revealing confidential information learned in the course of your employment. That will brand you as untrustworthy and doom your candidacy.

If you are asked a question and an honest answer requires some criticism of another employer, do so in a measured, specific, and respectful manner. Thus, for example, if you are asked what you thought of the training you received from another employer, you might say, “I think the feedback on projects could have been more prompt and complete,” rather than, “It was awful, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.”

Don’t be afraid to show your enthusiasm for anything, even a job you may regard as rather menial. Similarly, no matter how many times you may have been asked a particular question, avoid sounding bored or appearing to give a pat answer. Though you may have given the answer twenty-five times, this is the first and only time this interviewer will have heard it.

Interview 21 Best Way to Make the Interview More Effective   10 Rules for the Interviewee

Finally, do not take advice given by interview books as gospel. Nobody has a corner on wisdom m the interview.  I’ve scattered a few examples of advice given by other so-called experts that I did not consider wise. Interviewees should exercise some judgment about which expert advice to follow. And you should exercise the same degree of discretion in determining whether to follow the advice you receive from placement directors, friends, and relatives.

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