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Sometimes it's not you: Surviving a bad interview

by Tahira Majothi on April 21, 2011

So here’s how it’s supposed to go, you see a job, you apply, you get short listed for an interview, woo hoo right?

All seems tickety-boo so far, until the actual interview, you stumble to get out the words, questions seem confusing, your responses are poorly constructed. You’re sweating or flustered and you just don’t seem to have that ‘rapport’ with the interviewer. Sometimes during the course of an interview you can literally feel it slipping away from you, as if you’re involved in some sort of slow-mo car crash or delivering the most cringe worthy performance of your life on a par with the worst X-Factor or Dragon’s Den contestants.

On the other hand it perfectly feasible that you are the one who came in with your game face on, you’ve anticipated the questions and thought about your responses, and everything seems under control until you meet the interviewer/s that is. Does the aggressive, interrogative, talkative, uninterested, ill-informed or ill-prepared interviewer rings any bells? Have you walked out of the room all confused or bewildered? Well the truth is that unfortunately it’s not that uncommon, do a quick straw poll amongst friends/family or colleagues and the majority will be able to give you anecdotes of their worst interview experiences. So how do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and nail the next interview?

1. Remember you’ve already impressed!

You were short listed, so the time spent perfecting your CV/application has paid off. It’s now a question of convincing the interviewer that you are suitable for the job not just on paper but in person.

2. Prepare! Prepare! Prepare!

Start by re-reading your CV and application as well as the person specification. It can frustrate employers if you can’t remember what you wrote in your initial application. Similarly if it seems that the interviewer has not read your CV, make them aware of your credentials by referring to your key achievements. Research the employer, their website and interview panel members where possible, keep up to date with changes in the sector, if you really want that job, put in the effort. At the actual interview, provide specific examples of your competencies to demonstrate your transferable skills.

3. First impressions are crucial.

This means that you dress to impress, even if it is an internal position or ‘informal’ interview, create that professional look from the get go. This should also translate into your body language, smile, make eye contact, firm handshake, and so on. Have a look at our Guide on preparing for interviews for further tips.

4. Is that a chip on your shoulder or are you just displeased to see me?

As an interviewee or interviewer chances are you may be having an awful or frustrating day on the day the interviews are scheduled. It’s important that you check your emotions at the door, set aside those hang-ups, feelings and annoyances. This is a fresh interview and as such, a fresh opportunity for both parties to be judged impartially and to be given a chance to show themselves in the best light.

5. I’m sorry what did you say?

Listen to what the interviewer is asking you, not what you think they need to know! This distinction is important. It is frustrating if questions are phrased poorly but responses should be concise and on point. If you do not understand the question, ask the interviewer to rephrase it, don’t try to blag your way through, it is actually obvious!

6. Nerves get the better of all of us!

Everyone gets nervous at interviews, including the interviewers! Especially if they are relatively new to the process, so due consideration should be shown by both parties. Use techniques such as taking deep breaths, or a sip of water to calm you. Use pauses to focus your thoughts before attempting an answer. If you need help in terms of dealing with interview stress, book an appointment with a Careers Consultant. If you are new to recruiting and interviewing, contact your HR Department or Staff Training and Development team for staff training details.

7. You lead, I’ll follow

Look at how the employer conducts themselves during the interview, and follow their lead in terms of communication, body language and pitch. Don’t mimic them but equally make sure for instance that you do not use humour inappropriately. If the employer seems chatty, wait until they pause before speaking or if they seem uninterested, ask if they have any questions or need anything to be clarified.

8. Me, pick me, pick me!

Show enthusiasm NOT over eagerness to the point where you ramble or interrupt the interviewer mid-flow. Also avoid the temptation to apologise over and over, if you feel you have made a mistake, move on, you do not want to annoy the interviewer.

9. Well this has been nice, we must do it again sometime

Be wary of the informal or casual interview. This can be especially hard if it is a social setting or an internal job. It is still an interview situation and believe it or not you are still being assessed, do not fall into the trap of being too casual, or vent about previous bad experiences. Stick to the purpose. This is also a way for you to end interviews on a strong note. If you have not been able to cover achievements you want the employer to be aware of, or you want to provide a stronger example to a poor question, then take a minute at the end to briefly summarise why you are the best candidate.

10. C’est La Vie

Sometimes even after you have done all of the above, the interview can still get away from you, you may not have the experience they are looking for, or perhaps didn’t market yourself as effectively as you would have liked, or for other reasons unexplained.

Do not beat yourself up about this, happens to the best of us. First send a thank you note to the interviewers, allude to achievements here to further explain your suitability for the role and why you chose to apply in the first place.

You can also (with your CSI hat on) try to dissect the interview, walk yourself through it, what went well, what could have been improved, what were easy/difficult questions.

Ask the employer for feedback, this may not always be possible, but where it is given, compare it with your impressions of the day. Why not book in for a mock interview with a Careers Consultant, practice makes perfect.

Once the emotion of the moment has subsided, think about the interview in general, not only your performance but that of the interviewer, as interviews are two-way processes, a chance for you to see if this is the employer/company/Institution you want to work for. If it seems the interviewer could have done better or was off putting, ask yourself, would you really want to work for them?

Use your time to reflect and learn; your next interview will be better as a result, remember sometimes it is really a case of “their loss is your gain”.

N.B. If you are an interviewer please provide feedback where possible, it really does help students and graduates see what they did well and highlight areas of development, from the people in the know!

Also if you inform a candidate that you will let them know the outcome by a certain time and date, then as best practice, aim to do so! It’s the lack of communication, the not knowing that seems to most upset the interviewees.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cristina Costa May 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Thanks for this post Tahira.
I think you provide really insightful and useful thoughts.
Interviews can knock you down, especially when you get a ‘No’.
But what is important is to move to the next application and the next interview. Sometimes we think we are suitable for a job, but interviewers think the opposite. Sometimes, it turns out that the environment we would be putting ourselves in wouldn’t meet our personality or ways of working, A positive side of a ‘no’ after a job interview…? who knows?!
And then, there will always be a time when you find the perfect job and the perfect environment in one. That’s when you ideally get that job :-) . As a friend of mine often says, “what is for you, won’t go by you….!’ Although I can’t explain it, I see some truth in this!

As far as interviewer’s experience goes: I have interviewed a couple of times. It’s a job I honestly don’t like. People are often so nervous…. that it makes me nervous! One of crucial aspect of interviewing is feedback as well as a rapid response. I can’t believe that some people take weeks to give a response. I think that’s disrespectful! On the other hand, giving feedback is a hard task, but a necessary one. I think that’s part of the exercise and the minimum an employer can do after interviewing their candidates. I think they owe this to the people they interview and should not skip this step of the selection process.


Tahira Majothi May 7, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Hi Cris,

Thank you for your comment. I like your friend’s quote “What is for you…won’t go by you”. I agree, not getting that job does not mean you won’t get the right job for you further down the line.

Sometimes if all the elements are not there, you have to ask, was that job really the answer you were hoping it would be or would you would be better off putting it down to experience?

Believe it or not we Careers Advisers experience bad interviews too and looking back at my disappointments, I can recall which ones I was ill-prepared for and which ones were not the right ones for me.

The jobs I have since successfully secured, have led me to work with so many inspiring people. I’ve developed skills and attributes on both a professional and personal level. I’ve had some challenging, rewarding, wonderful experiences, that I actually feel past disappointments have done me a favour! In particular I have learnt how to be resilient and can do a better job of advising students and graduates as a result.

My final thoughts? As an interviewee it is important to reflect on what went well, what you would change and then put that interview experience to bed. Do not carry those nerves or frustrations in with you to your next interview.

Finally I couldn’t agree with you more about the responsibilities of the interviewers. It is equally important to provide feedback, both positive and constructive and in good time. This as you say, is still part of the overall recruitment process and should not been seen as an after thought. :-)


Jon Wade May 9, 2011 at 7:27 am

When I graduating the most depressing experience by far was the application form. You spend years (5 in my case) studying at University, and then take time preparing a lovely CV with the help from the careers guys. After all that, have to fill out a massive application form for each graduate job. Most of these forms took hours to file and went unanswered. Soul destroying.

Government exams were a joke took. The examinations are on a massive scale for just a handful of jobs.

It took me a long time to find a permanent job after Uni (I spent about 15 months temping) but did eventually find a job that I stuck with for 11 years. You do get better at interviews, it becomes a mind game, you just need learn how to manipulate the interviewer so that they think you are a genius!

Doing mock interviews is a really good idea. I wish I did more before leaving Uni.


Tahira Majothi May 10, 2011 at 9:15 am

Hi Jon,

Thank you for your comments. I understand your sentiments regarding the laborious task of completing applications for what may seem little return. However this does help recruiters to learn so much about the candidate, their motivation, self awareness of skills and awareness of the job role they have applied for. The larger Graduate schemes receive volumes of applications and so it can be frustrating when they do not get back in touch or offer feedback unless specifically asked.

I would advise people to always ask for feedback when they have not heard back. It may not always be given but it can help you find out what impressed and what didn’t. You may be able to ask for tips in terms of what they are looking for, or a contact you may be able to speak to or work experience opportunities, so perseverance is the key!

I also think that researching an employer and reflecting on past interview experiences does help people learn from past mistakes, this along with mock interviews can help to minimise errors and help the interviewee come across as more confident. In most cases people can tell where they went wrong, learning form this means that manipulation does not need to take place ;-) as an employer should be blooming well impressed by all the effort (the interviewee) put into securing the job.

Best wishes



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