how important is it to answer every question perfectly during a job interview?

A reader writes:

I have been interviewing for a position in a nonprofit that I would consider my dream job. The interview process was extensive and consisted of two phone interviews, followed by being flown in to meet with 4 members of the staff in the department I would be joining and the HR manager. The interview took place over two days and I spent 5-6 hours in total with them, plus time exploring the organization.

Overall, I think I did very well and connected with the employees. However, I definitely flubbed two questions and it leaves me wondering how perfect do prospective candidates need to be in order to get the job? If all else went great and there was a feeling of cultural fit, how important is it to answer every question perfectly? What do hiring managers think when the candidate does 90% excellently, but 10% poorly?

It’s hugely dependent on what the questions and the answers were. There’s no formula here, because it’s so context-dependent.

Some questions are probing deeply into the substance of what’s needed in the role, and flubbing those would count heavily against you. Some questions don’t matter nearly as much or don’t have “right” answers or might give an interviewer pause without being a deal-breaker. On the other hand, a particularly bad answer to a minor question could trump everything else if it were bad enough.

Keep in mind, too, that there are different definitions of “flubbing” an answer, and they all count differently. Using imperfect wording, getting off to a stumbling start, or not organizing your thoughts perfectly are different things (usually less important) than an answer where the substance of what you’re saying is off-base.

So there’s no formula. And even when an objective observer would say you answered all the questions well, you still might not get the job — because your perfectly good answers might be different than what the hiring manager is looking for, or another candidate is just a better fit. And even when you think you didn’t interview well, you can sometimes end up getting an offer — because your assessment is off or because the hiring manager cares about different things.

It’s very hard to predict this stuff, and so in general you should stay away from trying to estimate how an employer thinks you did. The best thing to focus on is what you learned in the interview about the job and the employer: Is it somewhere you want to work? That’s the part that you’re 100% in charge of assessing, and it’s the primary thing you should be mulling. After all, do you think your interviewer is spending a lot of time second-guessing their own performance? Nope. They’re focusing on whether you’re the right match. And you should be doing the same.

{ 87 comments… read them below }

    1. HP47 - OP

      Haha, this is so true. I didn’t think I was applying for my dream job with this. I actually applied for a completely different position. The position I interviewed for was not posted when I submitted my resume. They liked me for a better, more superior position and interviewed me for that. It was exactly what my career goals have been since I started out in the field. So it felt like a dream come true.

      1. HP47 - OP

        You are sick of hearing that there is no such thing as a dream job or were you replying to me? Just clarifying.

        I also think the term “dream job” is more a turn of phrase than anything. I said this position was what I would consider my dream job. What I meant by that was that it was everything I was looking for and I was extremely excited by the opportunity because I would be doing almost exactly what I wanted to be doing. However, I am not so delusional to not realize that there are issues with all jobs and that there are many jobs that could fit that description.

        1. Ann O'Nemity

          Both actually. I think the term “dream job” is overused and misapplied. But I’m also sick of the backlash against it. It’s become such a broken record. As soon as I saw the phrase in your letter, I just knew that at least one commenter would jump on it. And sure enough, first post….

          Gosh, I must be cranky today. My apologies, y’all.

          1. HP47 - OP

            I didn’t realize there was such an issue with the term “dream job”. I was just using it as a way to express how much I would love to do the job. I had no idea anyone would ever take it so literally.

            1. fposte

              It gets used with enough frequency that it’s been talked about here as a myth, but I also think it’s become a bit of a gotcha.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Yeah, I agree — it’s starting to feel like a gotcha. (Not singling anyone out on that — but generally.) I think it might be nice to cut people some slack on it unless the concept of a dream job is playing a major role in their question and is thus really key.

  1. fposte

    I also think people often treat an interview like a quiz, trying to map their questions answered onto a score. And unless the interviewers are bad or procedurally straitened, it doesn’t work like that–it’s getting a picture of you against the role that they’re seeking to fill and seeing how those go together.

    1. MJH

      The first time I sat in on an interview (instead of being the person being interviewed) I was shocked to realize how few “right” answers there were (it wasn’t like a math test!) and how yes, it was more about speaking well about your skills, your interest in the job, your experience and your personality. The kind of jobs we were interviewing for were entry level designer jobs, so as long as you had a decent portfolio you were fine on that score, but you could really blow your interview by not having anything interesting or thoughtful to say about your goals and your work.

      1. Gene

        Last week I was part of a panel grading supplemental questionnaires (I work for a city and these are required parts of the application for many positions). One in particular was eliminated from the running because he just didn’t answer the asked questions; the header of the questionnaire stated “Answer each question in detail as to how you meet the requirements.” It was evident that he probably did meet the minimum qualifications, but he never came right out and said something like, “I am available to work all shifts”; instead saying (paraphrasing), “I have worked multiple shifts all my working life” when the question was, “Are you available to work all shifts?”

        Of the 8 or so questions, at least 6 were simple yes/no answers with explanation of the answer. Only one of those did he actually answer, the rest were like the example.

      2. MikeP

        When I’m interviewing people, I tell them up front that I don’t necessarily expect them to be able to answer every question; our job descriptions and duties are very broad, and so the questions are too. I do this to try to avoid people feeling like “oh no, I only got half the questions ‘right’, I suck!” – but of course, I’ve gotten feedback, both during the interview and after, from candidates doubting their abilities.

        I wouldn’t have selected them for interviewing in the first place, if I didn’t have some confidence that they’d be able to do the job! (And I tell them this.)

        I *do* think that people who demonstrate a lack of confidence – not by being unsure of themselves, but by making comments like “wow, I’m doing really badly!” even after I’ve warned them that they’re not going to “get” every question – are probably demonstrating that they won’t do very well in *our* particular job, since due to the breadth, nobody’s going to think less of us if we have to say “Sorry, I don’t know, I’ll look into that.” So in that way, our interviews are a demonstration of what working here is like – only answer if you’re sure, if you’re guessing then say so, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. I would hope that those rules hold true for any organisation and manager, but I know better.

        tl;dr – OP, don’t worry about it. Alison is absolutely correct.

  2. Jamie

    In my second interview for this job I was asked 2 questions I couldn’t answer. They were technical “what would you do if” for a process with which I wasn’t very familiar. I did a little tap dance about how as you can see from my resume I only have a passing knowledge of X…but here is how I would go about finding the solution and detailed my steps.

    I also tossed in there how I hate when people profess to know something when they don’t – as I don’t expect everyone to know everything off the top of their head and I’d much rather someone tell me they didn’t know but would get back to me, and then getting back to me in a timely manner…than guessing and later having to correct themselves as that is inefficient and can often create more work. And some stuff about how skill and intelligence doesn’t rely on already knowing everything, but also in being able to get the information you need to get the job done.

    Yep, that’s my biggest selling point. I don’t know stuff! And I’m okay with that! Hire me and you too can pay me so I can not know stuff for you!

    None of that was bs though – I do feel that way. I thought I completely whiffed it, but they liked the answer and hired me anyway.

    1. HP47 - OP

      Great advice, and I have done a little of this in the past now that you mention it.

    2. HigherEd Admin

      Hire me and you too can pay me so I can not know stuff for you!

      Thank you for the lunchtime laugh!

    3. Cruciatus

      It’s kind of funny you say that because I said something similar in my latest interview. I admitted I didn’t know what to do but that I wasn’t afraid to ask how to get it done so that it would be right. They all nodded and seemed enthusiastic when I said that. I don’t know everything and I’ve definitely become more OK with that. I learn who to ask or where to look. Then I’ll know (until the next thing pops up).

      1. Jamie

        A lot of people have been burned by someone who always had an answer ready, whether it was right or not, so they couldn’t take them at face value.

        You want to be the opposite of this person so when you state something as fact they have confidence in your. All you have to do to maintain credibility is to be consistent with following up.

        This and owning your own mistakes are such easy and stress free ways to get to the top of the credibility food chain.

        1. kris

          I’ve also been burned by people who don’t know something and refuse to admit it. Very frustrating!

          What you said was probably part of why they hired you – they probably prefer an honest ” I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”

          1. Windchime

            We had a guy give a flavor of this which was really off-putting, though. We asked him to rate himself at T-SQL and he said, “I’m an 8, but with Google I’m a 10”. I think he was trying to be funny, but then we asked him a very simple question about T-SQL (like how would you find the second-highest number in a list) and he had no clue.

            So what he was really saying was that he knows NOTHING about T-SQL and was intending to Google it all.

    4. The IT Manager

      Think Like a Freak chapter 2 The Three Hardest Words in the English Language. The hardest words are “I don’t know,” but the authors make the case on how faking it hurts businesses. They discuss this in a recent podcast: http://freakonomics.com/2014/06/26/how-to-screen-job-applicants-act-your-age-and-get-your-brain-off-autopilot-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

      Funnily they propose a ridiculous interview questions that we all would make fun of as a way to check if the applicant can admit it if they do not know the answer.

    5. abby

      I don’t have a lot of interview experience as a job seeker because my offer to interview rate is very high. But I do this all the time. No one knows everything and it’s always better to demonstrate that you can figure something out. The other thing I say a lot in interviews is “It depends …” and I discuss factors and possible approaches. I do have a lot of experience on the hiring side of interviews, though, and I can tell you that I would much rather hire someone who can figure something out than someone who professes to know it all.

  3. HP47 - OP

    Hello – I am the OP. Thanks Alison for answering my question. I completely agree with you that I need to focus more on how well I think I did and what I learned from the process rather than what the employer thought.

    I did not get the job. I was told that they hired someone from within. I was at first incredibly disappointed. I felt like I never really had a chance at the position when they told me that, because in my experience internal candidates are almost always the ones hired. I felt like my time was wasted a bit since I flew out for the interview. However, after some thought I am sure that was just disappointment talking. I learned a lot from this interview process and that was worth it on its own.

    Looking back I can think of a few things I did wrong during the interview. The questions I flubbed were pretty important. With one I completely misunderstood the question and answered it in a way that would seem confusing or that I don’t know what I am talking about. The other was more a lack of experience with the issue at hand and rather than simply saying that I lacked that experience, I tried to make my experience fit, which I definitely shouldn’t have done.

    I am trying to get back into the field after two years off with my first child. I talked a bit too much about my daughter. (First time mom syndrome?) I probably shouldn’t have mentioned her at all and certainly more sparingly.

    I think the biggest issue that I am finding with interviewing right now is that I am in an awkward spot in terms of qualifications. I’m somewhere between a non-manager and a manager role. I have director level experience for a super small organization so my experience doesn’t quite cover the requirements for a similar role at a larger organization. However, when I apply for non-manager positions I am over qualified. I simply don’t get interviews for non-manager positions, while I do get them for manager level positions but don’t get the job. I am just trying to figure out what I need to improve with myself in order to get a position. I have been applying for over a year with no success.

    I appreciate the feedback and am looking forward to seeing what others say. It is certainly a big help and will give me a lot to think about.

    1. Turanga Leela

      Sorry you didn’t get the job! It sounds like you’re learning from it, which is great. Good luck in your job search.

    2. JMegan

      However, when I apply for non-manager positions I am over qualified. I simply don’t get interviews for non-manager positions, while I do get them for manager level positions but don’t get the job.

      I’m in the exact same boat. I’m working on upgrading my skills and so on, but I’m stuck in the “can’t get the managerial job without experience, can’t get managerial experience without getting the job” rut. So I have no advice for you, just lots of sympathy!

      1. HP47 - OP

        I feel for you too. I feel completely stuck right now. And the situation is compounded by the fact that I live in an area where jobs in my field are extremely limited.

        1. LAI

          So I was in a similar position where I had about a year of management experience for a small office. However, I was actually looking for non-management roles. In order to not seem overqualified, I listed my role as a Teapot team member for several years, and under that just listed 1 bullet that said “served as director of Teapots team for 1 year”. So it showed that I was enough of an authority in my role that people trusted me to be in charge, but it made clear that my priority/emphasis was the teapot work I did, not the management work. It’s worked well for me and gotten me two job offers for the non-management roles I wanted.

          1. HP47 - OP

            I have done something similar when applying for admin roles. I have listed my title as an administrative position and emphasized my admin responsibilities, then included the rest so it was clear I could handle more. It has not helped at all for me though.

      2. Jamie

        Do you have experience managing systems or projects?

        This won’t work with everyone, but it did for me and I’ve seen it work for others is explaining how your work managing X required ABC managing skills and how you would apply that to direct reports.

        For example if you’re in IT or accounting and your job is to manage X system or process so you are actively holding people accountable for this, and have the authority to do so, you talk about (and put in your cover letter) how you would use this skill to manage direct reports.

        It will not work with every job for sure and if they want only those with direct report experience you won’t get called – but if you have other stuff it could give them enough to want to talk to you.

        So think about what you have done in terms of managing others in the context of projects or systems and if substantial it’s the starting point for you to make a case that you have the skills to apply to direct management.

        Also – just as a PSA – those of you who work in companies with an internal audit team becoming an auditor is good for this as well. A good auditor is capable of having difficult conversations and holding people accountable, albeit in a limited scope, but it’s an awesome training ground for management and one that will help you stand out, in a good way, to companies that have IA processes and know what it entails.

        And for the companies that don’t have IA processes, it can’t hurt ya.

        1. HP47 - OP

          My experience is primarily in curriculum development for museums. I have also done educational technology and tech integration for a graduate school. On top of that I have held heavy administrative duties in all of my roles.

          My director level experience was running the education department of a very small museum. I have also been the director of a summer camp. I have developed small and large scale educational programs and handled all aspects of coordinating them, from hiring and training staff, managing budgets, advertising, etc.

          Museums are very few and far between where I live, unless I want to commute 2 hours to work every morning and go into the city. I simply can’t do that right now. I would like to transfer my skills into a different role, outside of museums, preferably in the not-for-profit world, but would do profit companies as well. I am not exactly sure how to go about a career change and market myself correctly.

          1. NOLA

            In terms of transferring your skills to a different type of role, another possible career path is training. The financial services company where I work has a whole department of people who develop training resources for our associates. These include everything from FAQ’s, webinars, in person training etc. Topics can range from compliance issues to new system roll-outs to customer facing programs.

            Your experience developing museum programs could easily be sold as transferrable I bet.

            1. Turanga Leela

              I was thinking the same thing. You’d be a great trainer. You could also work for an educational consulting or publishing company if there is one near you–they need people to develop curricula and train teachers to use them.

            2. HP47 - OP

              I have definitely thought of this avenue! However, I have been focused more on an Instructional Design / eLearning career, which requires a lot more technical knowledge than I have. I am very goo with technology though, so I believe I can learn it. Doing it on my own is overwhelming.

              I could more easily make a transfer into training the way you described. I have written technical training courses before, but not in an eLearning environment.

              I am not sure what sort of jobs to look for. What area would these positions be listed under? What would some of the job titles be?

              Thanks for the suggestion!

              1. NOLA

                Job titles — we keep it simple “Training Manager” or “Training Associate”. I’ve also seen “Learning Operations Specialist” or “Learning Associate”. Some of these roles fall under the Communications or HR umbrella as well.

                I bet you’d find similar roles in any largish company in a highly regulated industry. I’m thinking of healthcare, banking, insurance, etc. You’d need either to look for a company who just develops training as a consultant for a number of clients like Turanga Leela suggested or a company large enough to need to keep that function in-house

                1. HP47 - OP

                  That’s very helpful. Thanks!

                  What sort of degree us usually required for this work? Are there any organizations geared towards this field that I can look into and get some tips about the kind of skills I should focus on?

                2. Turanga Leela

                  I don’t know about organizations, but a few years ago I had a friend who was recruited to do educational consulting, and he had a Bachelor’s degree plus a few years of work experience.

    3. Jamie

      I am sorry it didn’t work out, but I have to say that your ability to analyze the situation and learn from it is something that will be so helpful to you. So many people fall into the trap of just blaming the company, or politics, or conversely beating themselves up needlessly…looking at it objectively as you are doing is awesome.

      I’ve been in your spot where I felt like I was either under or over qualified for everything. The last time I was looking it was so frustrating and this was the worst of it for me. And it was before I discovered AAM and not as well versed in hiring stuff so I made a huge error – I only applied to jobs where I was over qualified.

      I sent out about 200 resumes and got exactly zero responses.

      My logic was that for my first job I got in near entry level and moved up super fast so why not do that again. I didn’t realize I couldn’t get in entry level again.

      So one day at one of the crappiest temp jobs ever* I was on the internet** looking at job listings as defeated as I had been in a very long time and I had this weird, almost hostile moment, where I decided if people were going to reject and ignore me I wanted to be rejected and ignored from better jobs I actually wanted.

      So in a fit of resolute anger I applied for 5 jobs for which my old boss (who thought a lot of me and whose opinion I respected more than any professionally) would hire me. Maybe not cold but jobs that someone who knew my work would take me seriously. I was 100% positive they would laugh at my resume and pass it around talking about how ridiculous it was that I had the nerve to apply, but I truly was so broken I needed to lose out on better jobs.

      Of the 5 resumes I sent out I got 4 responses. One said the job was already filled, and 3 for interviews. I went to 2 interviews and cancelled the 3rd since I’d found my new home with the second company.

      That is, to this day, something that reminds me I can’t always trust my instincts because my instincts were screaming to go lower level and move up and this was against everything that made sense to me.

      Turns out I have a weird skill set so while I only hit about 60-70% of their requirements the stuff I did have was uncommon enough they were willing to let me learn otj the other stuff.

      This was in 2008 when the market was just starting to tank and I was feeling the pressure. Previously I had temped over 2 years with only 3 days where I didn’t have work…so I quit a good paying job without something else lined up because I assumed I could just go back to temping. The jobs just weren’t there and you couldn’t temp full time anymore…absolute panic.

      So when you’re in between levels – so to speak – my advice is to skew upwards. And now that I’ve been on the other side of hiring I see people FAR more willing to bring someone on where they need to train in XY (as long as it’s not a total mismatch) rather than someone who is clearly scrambling for anything and if they don’t move up will move on at the first opportunity.

      *filthy office, needed me to just answer the phones which rang about 3x per day, type up a couple of envelopes on an old IBM Selectric typewriter, and water the plants. For which I had no instructions and was the only negative feedback I ever got as a temp that I over watered because apparently people are supposed to know that some plants aren’t watered every day. Also, the son of the owner would comment every time I went to the bathroom with my purse that “I know what time of the month it is, that’s why you ladies take your purses in there!”

      ** As I had about 10 minutes worth of work in an 8 hour day I was told I could be on the internet to entertain myself “as long as you stay off the porn sites.” Not joking and no irony. I was a 30 something mother of 3 who couldn’t look more suburban junior league if you built me out of a kit. Exactly what kind of porn do you think I would be watching at work in public?

      1. HP47 - OP

        You are absolutely right. I get much more interest from positions that I am just slightly under qualified for. I have had a handful of interviews over the past year or so for assistant director or director level positions and missed out on every single one of them. They were nation wide and I was willing to relocate. Ironically, all the ones that required relocation I lost out to someone internal, yet the one local position that I interviewed for I lost out to someone who relocated for the job.

        I am just not sure that I am coming off as confident and as knowledgeable as I need to be. I am coming out of a long break and back into a field that is constantly changing (museum education). I am not feeling employable and I think I may be showing that in interviews, despite my ability to answer questions. Until this round of job searching every job I had ever had was one interview and done. I literally did not need to apply for multiple jobs. I got everything I applied for. I was lucky to a certain degree, but I was also confident and had been told repeatedly that I interview well and always present myself in a superior manor to other candidates.

        Lately, I seem not to be making the same impression. My references are old and I am out of touch to a certain degree with the field. I am in a rut and not sure where or how to get going again. I need to do something now to change this. It’s not the employers. It’s me, it’s the job market, it’s the extremely competitive field I am in. Honestly, I am feeling really hopeless about my job search. I can’t quite figure out how to get my foot back in the door.

        1. Jamie

          I totally relate to this. Projecting confidence is definitely one of those fake it till you make it deals – I have been there.

          I wish it didn’t matter so much, but when I’m nervous I don’t come off well…I tend give out an aloof and arrogant vibe when I’m most unsure of myself…it’s actually just my being reserved and it takes me longer than most to get comfortable enough to read the room and relax.

          I know it sounds phoney but it works – I practiced smiling where the smile was in my eyes, I practiced conveying warmth and feigning interest in the inane. Temping helped me so much in overcoming a lot of my initial shyness because it forced it right out of me…but if I had to interview again it would be back in full force and I’d have to practice all over again.

          two tips:

          1. Concentrate before going in on someone who has a lot of professional respect for you and force yourself to believe the interviewer sees you the same way. So you’re tone is that of someone who is already sure you’re being taken seriously as a fellow professional.

          2. To the extent humanly possible try not to even wonder whether or not they like you during the interview. Focus on it being a conversation between two professionals where you’re both determining whether this would be a beneficial fit on both sides. Don’t forget throughout the interview to evaluate whether or not you like them, want what they bring to the table…it’s not about being accepted or rejected. You are also judging and will accept or reject based on your feelings.

          It’s not easy but I’m telling you when I did that I could feel the difference.

          I also used to try to not want the job because 100% of the time I’d be offered every job I have already mentally decided I wouldn’t take for a million a year and a pink parking spot. Apparently I’m a lot more desirable when I want nothing to do with you.

          A lot like dating.

          1. HP47 - OP

            LOL. It IS like dating. Great analogy and great tips. I will certainly try them.

            I have found that doing a lot of prep helps me. I typically try to think of questions I may be asked and try to answer them, or create bullet points of my skills and experience that match the job and the mission of the organization, including my own personal interests and desires. I try not to memorize or form specific answers, just remind myself of my experience, so that I sound natural and not rehearsed.

            Typically I come out of this exercise feeling a lot more confident because I remember “Oh yeah! I know this stuff. I can do this! I HAVE done this!”

        2. Zahra

          Could you volunteer to a museum (or a museum professionals organisation) and try to get more up to date? More easily said than done, I know, but it could help you make you more current.

          1. HP47 - OP

            Yes, I have thought about this. There are not a lot of museums in our area. I also have a child and live in a very high cost of living area so paying for daycare to work for free is particularly difficult right now. That said, it may just have to be something I have to do.

    4. JW NP

      I’m with you on the weird in-between roles thing. I am a consultant for non-profit fundraising, so even though I am advising client’s how to raise money, I have never really raised money. Now, trying to move into a NP, I find myself stuck between feeling over and under qualified. Very frustrating!

    5. Lindrine

      As an interviewee, practicing with a friend who had been a hiring manager was a big help.

      As someone who has now been an interviewer, I can tell you that it helps to reflect if you can on what typical things the role you are interviewing for does. As a Senior Teapot Creative, I was not expecting a Teapot intern to have the same skills a me, but was looking at what I knew they should reasonably know how to do based on schooling and asked questions to feel out behavior and cultural fit. I am interested in how they take feedback, do they have a sense of humor, can they let me into some of their creative process and how they solve problems. I was not looking for someone perfect.

      1. HP47 - OP

        Right, of course. I wasn’t necessarily worried about being perfect. I definitely think being real is better than being perfect. I think this interview got the best of me. I wanted this job so badly that I tried too hard and did things that were not normal for me and an interviewee. I was also out of practice. I learned a lot but I wish I had learned it on a job I didn’t want so much so I could have nailed the interview for the one I did want. LOL

  4. Lamington

    i remembered in a job interview i completely blanked out. I knew how to do it, but i couldn’t remember the command so i just said yes….

  5. Turanga Leela

    I once worked for a government agency that would pose moral dilemmas to people interviewing for jobs. I was asked how I would feel if we pressed charges against a very sympathetic defendant, and I remember feeling like I flubbed that part of the interview. My answer turned out to be okay, though, because they weren’t looking for a single right answer. They wanted to know how candidates would handle discomfort and work through difficult situations.

    1. sunny-dee

      Back in college, I was applying for a retail job, and the manager asked how I felt about taking clothes from the store and paying for it later. I burst out laughing and said, “yeah, that’s a good one… I totally support shoplifting.” I didn’t realize it was a serious question, and apparently people are totally cool with stealing from their employer. (I was innocent back then.)

  6. MMouse

    I went to one interview where I was quizzed on different terms. Even when I said that I was not familiar with a term, the interviewer had me take a guess. It was quite disconcerting because I felt like I was BSing the interview. I’m still not sure what the point of guessing was.

    1. Turanga Leela

      Ha, I had an interview like that.
      “Are you familiar with the XYZ system?”
      “No, I’m not.”
      “Well, tell me how you think you might apply the principles of XYZ to this job.”

      I got the job. I think they were desperate.

      1. Laura

        “Well, first I’d read up on them in whatever document we had or I could Google up, and then I’d think about how they corresponded to the job and try to do that….”

        Sheesh. :P

  7. Kelly O

    I think after the interview is almost worse than before.

    Before the interview you can prepare, you can research the company, the position, the manager… you are in the driver’s seat as far as how much preparation you do. Even choosing what to wear, which route to take to get there, all your decisions.

    During the interview you can make all that preparation come to life. You can provide thoughtful, thorough answers, engage your interviewer, do all the “right” things.

    After the interview? Aside from thank you notes and attempting to follow up reasonably, there is nothing you can do but wait. That gives you time to second-guess every answer, every expression change, every tiny bit of body language that you now are clinging to for clues about how it really went.

    I am the worst at this. Usually when I think something went well, I don’t hear another word. If I think I blew it, who knows? I’ve gotten more jobs from interviews I was certain I blew than those I thought I did well in.

    I had an interview this morning. I have no idea how I did. I could probably tell you what the interviewer’s concerns were, but if those are deal breakers, I don’t know. But I can tell you I’m trying to NOT mentally go over the conversation a hundred times, because I know I will drive myself nuts. I am just trying to remain positive and work toward my ultimate goal, whether that’s with this company in this role, or something that has not crossed my path yet.

    Either way, Tom Petty was absolutely, 100% correct when he wrote “the waiting is the hardest part.” Because I would rather sit in a room full of preschool girls singing “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs than wait.

    1. MSWIntern

      +1 on this. I stroll into an interview, cool as a cucumber. 2 hours after the interview, I’m cringing thinking about how I should have could have would have answered differently. Monday Morning Quarterbacking is the worst.

    2. Phyllis

      I just read this answer to my daughter (who has a 3-year-old daughter who loves this song) and she said “I would rather stick pencils in my ears. Sharp Ones!!”

  8. Militant Intelligent

    In one interview, a woman asked me “So where else are you interviewing right now?” Not inherently out of bounds, but she was rude and pushy throughout and I just didn’t like her. After all my experience, I feel comfortable deflecting/responding to those types of questions without necessarily answering them.

  9. anon123

    When I was doing on-campus MBA recruiting, I got offers for three jobs, and in all three I did something in the interview that could be considered “screwing up”. In one, they asked me all these highly technical questions that you’d have to be a CPA to know the answer to, and I flat out said I was not an expert in that area, but if I needed to learn it for the job, I would. In another, I over-explained something and the interviewer actually paused the interview to tell me never to do that in an interview again. And in the third, when I was asked how to approach a problem in a case-type interview, I forgot the biggest piece. But I didn’t let these things trip me up and ruin the rest of the interview, and I did very well in the rest. So while you can certainly screw up an interview – and you should always prepare your best – interviewers are human and aren’t necessarily looking for perfection.

  10. Militant Intelligent

    Just a niggling, nagging turn-off regarding interview questioning.

    When an interviewer tries to trip me up, says something passive aggressive or resentful about my professional experience (I returned a phone call regarding scheduling a phone interview a few hours after the initial call, and the recruiter says ‘Oh yes. I know you are probably just so busy seeing you aren’t employed at the moment’) or suggest I hold ulterior motivations (because I apply to jobs and interview for the hell of it?!).

    Also, in a phone interview, the HR rep made a point of mentioning *throughout the conversation* that I have been unemployed. For a few weeks. “So, you’re not employed at the moment? Any reason for that? For how long? In what capacity? What have you done in the interim? ” Because I just moved across the world and took a goddamn holiday, that’s why.

    Instead of focusing on my skills and experience, inquiring further regarding why I would be a match, presenting the merits of the company and why I should accept an offer from them should they extend it. I find this so infuriating and insulting. What’s wrong with some of these people? Am I the only one? Am I being a diva ?

  11. MandyBabs

    Best timing for an article ever! I just finished a 3hr interview for a position I would feel best fits my skill set to date. But having made it to the final stages numerous times before, I am trying to keep an even head. You do the best you can and the rest is in someone else’s hands. That being said I feel much more relaxed than I have in the past post interview. I’m even rewarding myself for getting the interview – took the day off of work, had a nice lunch out (very early interview), do some shopping and then a facial. Interviewing is tough and the market tougher, so rather than beat myself up over having to earn rewards for getting a new job – I’m just going to treat myself now because I’m doing the best I can.

    1. Militant Intelligent

      Sounds like you have the right idea, and a positive attitude. I hope you get the job.

  12. Kelly L.

    I’ve given up trying to guess whether I’ll get the job based on how I think I performed during the interview.

    I had an interview that lasted several hours, during which I felt brilliant and pretty much got a crash training on the software I’d be using, and met everybody in the department, and didn’t get the job.

    I had another interview where I went blank and umm uhh’d for a bit before I answered a question, couldn’t hear well because of a weird background noise that was constant during the interview, and accidentally cracked a joke about alcohol, and got the job.

    Interviewing is weird.

    1. kris

      I think part of the reason it’s impossible to predict is that you don’t have all of the information, including what they really want and who else is applying.

  13. MaryMary

    Let me tell you about two people I interviewed and their “right” and “wrong” answers to my interview questions.

    I asked Candidate One to tell me about a time she had to deal with a difficult customer. She told me that when she worked in human resources at a previous employer, she had an employee ask her if he could update his pension beneficiary to be his mistress instead of his wife. Candidate One looked me straight in the eye and said, “I wanted to whoop his @ss, but I didn’t!” and went on to describe how she calmly explained the beneficiary designation rules to this gentleman, and why the plan would not allow him to replace his wife with his mistress. Candidate One had a great example, but phrased it badly.

    I asked Candidate Two to tell me about a time she had to resolve a conflict with a coworker. Candidate Two was a recent college grad, and she had trouble coming up with an example from the workplace. Finally, she looked at me and said, “I live in a house with five other girls, can I tell you about resolving a conflict with one of my roommates?” and went on to not only explain how she kept the peace with her roommates, but also related it to resolving conflicts with peers, without going to a boss or manager. So Candidate Two took an example that wasn’t strong on paper and did a nice job of explaining how it was relevant.

    We made an offer to Candidate Two, but not Candidate One. Neither one was entirely right or wrong in their answer, and I’m sure other people could disagree with me regarding who responded better or how strong either response was. This is all subjective, and unless you REALLY blow a question (give a factually incorrect response, are incoherent, start to cry), it’s hard to say if your response was incorrect and how much it impacts the overall interview.

  14. Pia

    Oh, I relate to this question so well. I had an interview a few weeks ago where I -definitely- flubbed some of the answers. I’m not too upset about not getting the job (mostly based on location, I probably shouldn’t have applied for it based on that alone.

    I find what really gets me into the nervous “this is an exam” mode versus “this is a discussion where I’ll discuss my qualifications” is when I see their prepared questions. The org. I had the interview at asked me about 10 or so pre-written questions, I saw their forms with their space to write my answers, and that’s it. Whenever I saw them jotting down my answers into those boxes I just felt so worried that everything I was saying was wrong. I don’t know why that type of interview just wrecks me.

  15. HP47 - OP

    Slightly off topic, but I figure now is a chance to get help with getting through an interview process.

    Lately I have noticed a different format to resumes on linkedin. Rather than the bulleted list of responsibilities, I see many people with a paragraph description of their work. Is this the new norm? Is it worth trying this format with my resume?

    1. Kelly O

      My LinkedIn and resume are two separate documents in my eyes.

      On LinkedIn, I’m telling you my story. My resume is bullet-pointed and more concise.

      Don’t look at them as the same thing – you don’t want to direct someone to your LinkedIn profile and just see your resume regurgitated on the internet. Besides, the resume would probably be tailored for each position. LinkedIn tells the same story.

      If that makes sense.

      1. HP47 - OP

        Ah, ok. My Linkedin profile is my resume regurgitated on the internet. I guess that is something I need to change. I did see some profiles with resumes attached that were in a similar format so that is what prompted the question.

  16. MR

    As soon as I read a letter from an OP that mentions ‘dream job,’ I immediately tune out and move on to something else. Sorry.

    1. HP47 - OP

      My apologies for using a turn of phrase. Should have read the earlier comments because this was already discussed.

      1. Kelly O

        Don’t worry about it. Comments have been just a touch, well, touchy lately.

        You’re fine. I may have actually thought the interview I had today would, if not a “dream job” be for the perfect company in the perfect role to set me off on the course I’ve been trying to work toward for years.

        Totally get what you mean.

    2. Pontoon Pirate

      This seems like a rather unnecessary comment. Not everyone who writes AAM has been on the boards long enough to learn the tropes.

      1. A.

        Don’t feel bad or apologize, HP47-OP. I’ve been reading AAM for several months now and didn’t know “dream job” was so touchy for some.

      2. HP47 - OP

        I thought it was unnecessary as well. It feels designed to make me feel bad, but perhaps I am being overly sensitive. Though, I don’t feel that bad, just surprised.

        I am very new to AAM. I started reading only a couple of days before I sent this question in.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      This is a plea from me to be kind to our letter-writers. We will not have any letters to read if people are so harsh with them.

      The comment section has gotten much better about this lately — please don’t let us backslide.

  17. AnotherAlison

    My worst answer to date is pretty recent. I was wondering why the hell I said this for a couple weeks, but since the outcome was positive, I guess I was kind of glad I said it. I often shoot my mouth off, so perhaps it’s best to just get that out of the way early in a hiring process.

    In an interview for an internal position (which I got), the dept. manager had mentioned needing administrative, assistant dept. manager-type of help. I was applying for a project manager position. Even though his comment was off-hand (like, “I’m so busy, I really need some help keeping things going”), I felt I needed to make it clear that I didn’t want to get saddled with administrative work. I also worded it poorly and I went on to say something to the effect that female engineers often *do* get saddled with that type of work, blah, blah, and that I certainly didn’t think that was what he was trying to do, but I just wanted to *make sure* that my role would be project management.

    You know how it is. You say something you wish you hadn’t said and keep on digging deeper. Lol. I can’t imagine if I had said that in an external interview or with internal people I didn’t already know somewhat. I’ve just been on a bit of a feminist tear lately and could not stop myself.

    1. Lynn Whitehat

      I, uh, don’t understand what’s wrong with what you said? Of course as a project manager, you don’t want to spend your days on admin tasks.

      1. anotheralison

        No that part was fine, it was the getting up in my soapbox about women in engineering getting stuck with those tasks that I regretted. (Unless that’s what you want to do, of course.)

  18. chewbecca

    Oof, I totally understand.

    I was in a second interview for a job I really wanted. They told me there was also an opportunity for a receptionist position, so they kind of interviewed me for both. I made it clear that my primary interest was the position I applied for and initially interviewed for.

    They asked me something along the lines of if I ever felt like answering the phones was an interruption. Not wanting to lie I said yes, but in my nervous haze, I failed to qualify my answer (EVERYBODY feels like answering a phone is an interruption at some point. Just ask the numerous people at my office who don’t ever answer theirs.) I also failed to explain that while, yes I do get annoyed, I never take it out on the caller.

    I’m pretty sure that cost me the either job. I’m trying desperately to get away from reception work, so unless they paid REALLY well, I probably wouldn’t have taken it.

    1. AnotherAlison

      Sorry you didn’t get the position(s).

      I’ve been similarly burned by the phone. I had an on-campus interview for a job with a pump company where they asked me about my previous work experience as an outbound telemarketer. Of course, I said I didn’t like telemarketing, because I was looking for engineering jobs, not telemarketing jobs. Turned out it was a phone customer service position for the pump manufacturer. I don’t remember if the job description said that or nor not (like they advertised entry-level engineer rather than customer support engineer), but they did not give me a second interview. Which, like you, was probably fine because I truly don’t like phone work.

  19. Elizabeth the Ginger

    I think that it the importance of getting a question “right” depends on whether the question was about something that could be taught or not. For example, I’ve been on hiring committees at my school. In one interview, we asked a teacher about her experience incorporating technology into the classroom. She admitted that she didn’t have that much experience with that because her previous school hadn’t had a big tech budget. Not the ideal answer (it would have been a plus to hire someone who did have lots of tech experience), but an honest one, and she could learn at our school.

    In another interview, for an administrative position, we asked the applicant for an example of a time that she had implemented a change at her current school. She proudly described how she had eliminated the PE program to make more time for math and reading. My school very much believes that physical activity is not only healthy for kids’ bodies, but helps them learn better – we have daily PE plus 45 minutes of recess a day. That was a “wrong answer” that pretty much immediately killed her chances at getting the job, because it revealed a fundamental philosophical mismatch.

    1. Trixie

      So how does one gracefully and tactfully move from I don’t’ have experience in Y but given the opportunity I believe I could learn it quickly and hit the ground running. I’d need to feel pretty confident they thought enough of my otherwise to think it worth their while to invest and train me in that missing skill.

      1. fposte

        Tell me about your learning curve with something similar, then. “I’m a fast learner” is up there with “I work well independently and in groups”–nobody says “But I probably couldn’t pick it up, because I’m a really slow learner.” Give me something concrete to illustrate your pace.

  20. Mia E

    I’ve been sitting in on interviews and I would say one technique is to TALK. I can’t tell you how many candidates answer a question with “yes” or “no” or just find a way to rephrase the question as something that sounds answer-ish. Even if it’s not exactly the answer we’re looking for, from my perspective you’re better off saying something that shows me you have some kind of way to connect your experience to the question. I want to end the interview feeling like I know you better than I did when I read your resume and be able to truly assess how you might fit in the position (part of that is personality). I think people get too nervous about giving the “right” answer that it can make them a flat candidate.

  21. HP47 - OP

    So it seems the general consensus is that one does not need to be perfect or get every question right during an interview. It’s more about which questions you answer “wrong” (for lack of a better word) and how you answer them.

    I’m wondering, as someone who wants to transition into a different field where my current skills and experience is applicable, but I don’t have the specific experience requested in a job posting, what is the best way to catch an employers attention with my cover letter? How do I spin myself as worth while to interview when they are looking for someone with 2-3 or more years of specific industry experience that I don’t technically have?

    Would it be weird to mention that I am enrolled in certification programs in the near future or should that wait until they are complete?

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