what does it mean to “be yourself” in an interview?

A reader writes:

I am an 18-year-old college student looking for an entry-level part-time job. I have been trying to prepare my answers ahead of time to some of the common questions, and I have examples my previous work experience with things like “dealing with an angry customer” and all that. I am trying to improve my interviewing skills because I am frustrated that I haven’t been hired anywhere, but my mother told me not to over-prepare and I should “be myself” and “say what I really think” instead of trying to tell them exactly what they want to hear. I try not to look phony but I don’t think this is the best advice. What do you think?

Well, it’s certainly true that you should be yourself rather than telling them what you think they want to hear, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare. Thoroughly preparing and practicing for an interview is one of the best ways to do well in them.  Let’s break this down a bit.

“Being yourself” is important so that you’ll end up in a job and culture that’s a good fit for you, rather than one where you’re miserable or don’t do well. So that means that you shouldn’t hide your personality or put on a very stiff and formal interview persona. You need them to get an idea of what you’re going to be like to work with day-to-day, because if it’s not a good fit, you both need to know that now. Otherwise you risk ending up in a job where you’re both uncomfortable with each other (or worse). For instance, if you’re naturally bubbly and they hate bubbly, it’s important that they see that in the interview so that you don’t end up in a job where they’re constantly nagging you to be less bubbly, when you can’t.  (You might be thinking that you just want the job anyway, but trust me, you don’t want to work somewhere that wants you to be something you’re not.)

Now, obviously, your professional self is probably a bit different from your social self. So “be yourself” really means “be your professional self.”  You’re not going to slouch halfway down in your chair during the interview, or tell a dirty joke, or refer to a customer as a d-bag, even if you do those things outside of work. We’re talking about your professional self here. You probably still have some personality at work, but you put a professional sheen on it, right? That’s the self you need to be in the interview. (And if you haven’t had a job before and you’re totally baffled by what I’m talking about, then just be warm, friendly, and polite. And really, at 18, just being really polite and eager to work — not eager to make money, but eager to work — counts for a lot.)

But none of that has anything to do with whether or not you work on your answers ahead of time and practice your interviewing. You should absolutely should do those things, because they’re key to doing well in an interview. That’s especially true of the sorts of questions you referred to, like “tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer” or any other “tell me about a time when…” question. Practicing answers ahead of time means that when you’re sitting in the interview and get asked one of these questions, you actually have a good answer ready, rather than trying to wing it and maybe not being able to come up with a good response right away. If you practice, those answers will be easily retrievable in your brain and you’ll be less likely to stumble over your answers.

Preparing and practicing makes a huge difference. (In fact, I have a whole guide that talks about how to prepare for an interview, and it is awesome.)

That said, there is such a thing as over-preparing, where you’re doing so much that you’re stressing yourself out. The litmus test:  Is your preparing making you feel more confident? If you’ve passed the more-confident stage and gone into the agonizing-and-freaking-out stage, then you might want to pull back a bit. But in general, preparing is incredibly helpful and a good thing to do.

Overall, it sounds to me like your instincts are right on how to approach this stuff. Follow them.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Sophie*

    This reminds me of another post by AAM which included advice about answering the ever-popular “What is one of your weaknesses?” question. That is a type of question you want to have prepared for, but you don’t need to overly-rehearse it and say something that isn’t reflective of you and come off sounding fake. For example, lots of people will say “I’m a perfectionist, I just can’t quit working so hard…” yeah that’s lame. Good interviewers/managers will appreciate honesty. I’ve been in lots of interviews recently (on the hiring side) where I gravitate towards the candidates who, although obviously nervous, are more honest about themselves and their skills than those that are perfectly rehearsed. Not to say the nervous ones didn’t prepare – they did, and I could see that as well – but they gave me honest answers and not a bunch of buzzword, cliched garbage.

  2. fposte*

    It’s also worth remembering that (unless the interviewer is horrible) it’s perfectly fine to pause to think for a moment. You can even say “Hmm, let me think about that for a moment.”

    1. The Right Side*

      Very good point. With my current position – it was an out of state job for me at that point, which started with a teleconference/phone interview with multiple parties on the other end. They were really throwing them at me – and I did not even hesitate to stop and say “Hold on, I know I’ve dealt with this and want to find the right way to explain it.” They were usually quick to tell me “Not a problem, take your time.” Really great upper-management here!

    2. Camellia*

      Yeah, I got the ‘horrible’ interviewer who yelled, “IT’S NOT A TRICK QUESTION!’ and then verbally trampled over the answer I attempted to give. I called my recruiter and politely explained why I wanted him to withdraw me from consideration and he said I wasn’t the first to do so.

  3. Nyxalinth*

    I recently was turned down for a job due to lack of fit. It was very disappointing t me, but really, I do not want to be on the phones answering calls forever, and they wanted someone with no desire to advance.

    1. Anonymous*

      They might say ‘lack of fit’ as their reason but you do need to check if the attitude in the second half of the post is coming across.

      Most employers don’t want someone who isn’t interested in advancing at all but they do want to know that the person isn’t just using the role as a stepping stone and is going to be bugging them in a few months for something different.

      I’ve been turned down for that before – they honestly couldn’t believe I wouldn’t be using it as a temporary solution and immediately looking to be moved up or for opportunities with other employers.

  4. Jennifer*

    Great post (as usual).

    I’ll second the notion that Alison’s “How to prepare for an interview” guide really is awesome. (It’s not just self-aggrandisement on her part to say so.)

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I have to remind myself to remember this. I think a lot of interviewers are nonplussed at me asking so many questions and I get some that really don’t know what to say to them. It also helps me not to be nervous.

  5. AAM Fan*

    When AAM writes, ” And really, at 18, just being really polite and eager to work — not eager to make money, but eager to work — counts for a lot.)”, I have to disagree. When I was in college, many of my peers had part time work for the sole purpose of earning money. Almost none of them were eager about serving food in the dining hall or working in the bookstore, they just needed to make money.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Right, that’s why it counts for a lot. It’s unusual to see someone eager to do the work itself at that age (or with that type of work), so if you come across as having a great work ethic for work ethic’s sake, it makes a big impression.

    2. KayDay*

      IMO it’s about having more motivation in addition to needing money, not instead of needing money. People who work 100% *solely* for a paycheck and not because they want work experience tend (gross generalization alert) to do the minimum necessary to earn their paycheck. People who are hard-workers for the sake of being hard-workers will do more (cleaning the bathroom, finding something productive during downtime instead of taking a break, etc), even if it doesn’t mean they will get paid more. Of course the employer knows that you are looking for a job because you want money and not because you are passionate about hamburgers….they just also want to know that there is MORE to your motivations than that. It’s a question of “and” not “or,” i.e. applying to the job because you need to earn money AND you want experience working with customers.

      1. Elizabeth*

        I’m reminded of the person Alison responded to a few weeks ago who was asking how to respond to the “Why do you want this job?” question in interviews for unskilled (or low-skills) jobs. She said something like, no, you don’t have to pretend that selling scented soaps and hand lotions is your dream, your passion, your One True Calling – the way Picasso felt about painting or Marie Curie felt about radium. They get that your main motivation is a paycheck. Instead, think of it as, “Why do you want this job instead of some other unskilled job?” Maybe you enjoy helping people out so you’d like to help them find the right soap, or you’re very organized so you get a certain satisfaction in filing things, or etc.

  6. fposte*

    Oh, and OP, a lot of people at every stage of the job market are going through a lot of interviews without getting the job–the market is just pretty rough right now. While I think you’re very wise to take the opportunity to self-assess and improve, your lack of success may not be a reflection on your interviewing skills.

    1. Lauren M*

      I am the OP, I hope this is true because I’ve been on 8 interviews…I know the market is tough right now but that does seem like a lot for a low paying job!

      1. Elizabeth*

        I think that it might be even rougher for some of the low-paying jobs, because people who normally would apply for (and get) more skilled jobs are turning to less-skilled jobs to pay the bills. I have friends who worked at Starbucks while trying to find work as a newspaper reporter, Patagonia while trying to get a job with a publishing company, Borders while hunting for teaching jobs…

        Also, when I went through that myself, I found that some places kept my application on hold for a *really* long time before contacting me. I interviewed with Panera, for example, and they seemed really positive about me – and offered me a job six whole weeks later, when I had already found a nannying job. Starbucks didn’t even call me for an interview for two months. I know that “candidate time” and “hiring company time” are different, but that still seems like kind of a ridiculous turnaround time for such basic-level jobs.

  7. Lindsay H.*

    During an interview you have to be an “Ambassador of You”: Confident, engaging, yet self-aware enough to know there is always opportunity to learn and grow.

  8. EngineerGirl*

    Preparing ahead of time lets you be less nervous. That will allow more of your “true self” to come out.

  9. J*

    When I talk to younger people about “being themselves” in interviews, it’s usually to avoid situations like this:

    Interviewer: How would you handle an angry customer?
    Candidate: If…um…a customer presented…himself with anger…I would leverage existing protocol…to um…defuse the situation via the manual…and in accordance with the organization…as I had done in my prior areas of expertise.

    I see quite a few entry-level and intern candidates who try so hard to be “professional” that they come across as stilted and awkward. This doesn’t apply to all of them, but I see it more than I see the flippant/precious little snowflake/”I’m the greatest” stereotype. In this case, the “perfect response” isn’t genuine. The nervousness and awkwardness come from a lack of confidence. Trying too hard to cover up lack of experience and naivety keeps candidates from focusing on their strengths (eagerness and willingness to take on anything.) And big words and business jargon aren’t as impressive as they sound, especially when used in a wrong way.

    You certainly want to be polite and appropriate, but trying too hard to be something you aren’t can hurt you as a candidate.

    1. Sophie*

      Yes, exactly. Be as concrete with your answers as you can. If I come out of the interview and can’t remember anything the person said, they usually haven’t been concrete and gave really empty answers full of jargon.

  10. SCW*

    We just interviewed almost 20 people for two entry level positions, and the people who applied had a huge range of qualifications and experience. While many had previous or current work experience they weren’t always able to show how that experience translated into the answers to our questions, which were pretty basic. So I totally suggest to at least think of examples for typical types of questions.

    We ask almost all “tell us about a time” and regardless of past work experience we expect people to be able to talk about times they have multi-tasked, worked with a team, dealt with people they disagreed with, and so on. The two questions people really stumbled on were the “why do you want to work here?” and “tell us about a time you had to deal with an upset or emotional person in school or work?” Even if it is an entry level position, find something out about the place–we’re moving our location to a fabulous new building with many new and exciting things in store, but not one person mentioned that, and half of them mentioned they applied for the job specifically to get benefits (one even wanted to find out about transferring to another division more suited to his skills). Another tip specific to entry level jobs: never say you want a job where you don’t have to think, where someone will just tell you what to do. No matter how entry level you should bring some judgement to the table–or at least some ability to grasp tasks without being told every second what to do./end rant

  11. Anonymous*

    AAM, that was indeed a very useful advice(even if it doest quite apply to me)…very patient response (altho not sure how a written response is patient :))
    You’d have been a great boss.

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