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

This was originally published on April 26, 2012.

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.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    What great advice.

    Re-reading the OP’s letter, I wonder if she/he was trying to memorize answers to potential questions, and if her/his mother was responding to that. It’s good to have an outline of what you’d say to common questions, but it could be off-putting to have an answer memorized word-for-word, like you’re reading from a script.

    1. Ruthan*

      Yeah, I wonder if OP’s mom is really saying “You’re getting too hung up on minutiae/overthinking things.”

    2. JAL*

      My very, very crappy job coach that the state required me to have (I was in vocational rehab because of my learning disorder) told me that I should memorize my questions and keep practicing them in the mirror. The second I stepped away from doing that was when I got my first job.

  2. Alistair*

    I rather dislike “be yourself”, especially if I’m actively trying to improve myself. Isn’t that current self something you’re looking to change? I feel like being yourself locks you into this persona this moment.

    Instead, I like to say “Be genuine.” Meaning, be who you are, flaws, changes, good parts and all. But don’t hide, don’t lie, don’t cheat yourself into a situation where it can all go wrong.

    It’s a bit of a semantic waffle, can’t argue that. But somehow in my head, being genuine has a majorly positive tone versus being yourself.

    1. Annie*

      I like that phrasing better too.

      When I was first starting to interview for jobs in my teens I came across very unlike my real self. I’d been advised to behave in certain ways, to demonstrate enthusiasm in other particular ways, and quite frankly it wasn’t me at all. Obviously behaving professionally is important, but the way that you do that needs to be a genuine representation of your actual self. For example, I’m not a super formal person, and I wouldn’t be a good fit in a super formal environment, so I don’t pretend to be. So I’ll joke and laugh with the interviewer if they’re open to that (but I won’t make crude jokes or curse, obviously).

      I’ve found that since I started being more genuine in interviews I was much more likely to get offers for jobs that I was actually excited about, and I didn’t get called back for things that I wouldn’t be a good fit for. My 18 year old self would have wanted to take any and all jobs, regardless of fit, but now I feel like I understand that I’m interviewing the company just as much as they’re interviewing me.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Another way of putting it (I used this with a student earlier today) is “be your best authentic self.”

  3. Allison*

    Maybe a better way to say it is “be the best version of you!” Put your best foot forward – prepare, dress well, speak intelligently – but make sure the foot you’re still putting forward is yours, not a plastic foot. However you present yourself will be the person they expect to see in the office on a daily basis, if you act like a completely different person, what happens when you can no longer keep up the act? They might feel like they’ve been baited and switched.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      I like this. This helps you find a job you’ll like too, rather than trying to make yourself fit at the job you’re applying to, even if you can tell you’ll hate it.

  4. Tea Pot Maiden*

    Funny this, I just had a pre screening call with a recruiter and given I have usually found recruiters to be allies in my job search I am wondering if I maybe was too much myself… talked a little too much… hopefully whatever it was, it was a good thing! I was a little nervous… hey I’m human :)

    this is some crazy making stuff this job searching!

    1. EE*

      I am always myself with external recruiters. If they think that day-to-day I’ll be a bad fit for their client, they’ll screen me out and it’ll be best for us all. I’m not crude and I’m notsloppy, but I am less polished than in an interview.

  5. Lisa*

    Let your geekiness show. I’m in a fairly technical industry, and I’ve learned that expressing your frustrations with something like a program’s lack of something or giddiness about aspects of your job or industry can shine through as being passionate and liking what you do for work.

  6. Allison Mary*

    Sigh. I know this is totally unrealistic and I understand why, but I really wish it was common practice for interviewers to send you a list of their questions ahead of time, so that you can prepare for exactly what they want to know. I often feel like I prepare, prepare, prepare, only to come up against a random question that doesn’t fit any of my prepared answers. I’m just not one of those people that’s quick on my feet, and I feel like I would do a way better job of showing “my professional self” if I knew ahead of time what particular aspects of my past professional behavior an interviewer wanted to focus on.

    Grumble, grumble.

      1. Kelly L.*

        I go in with a collection of prepared things I’m ready to talk about on the spot. Not memorized wording, or even really trying to predict the questions, just anecdotes about Stuff I Did at Work that can apply to various types of “tell me about a time you…” questions. I kind of go over the memories in my head before the interview so that I can remember what happened, and what I did that makes it a good story about me.

      2. Joey*

        Prepared answers aren’t inherently bad (in fact they’re frequently good). As long as you aren’t preparing a detailed script that you plan on reciting.

    1. Joey*

      Have you thought that maybe that’s part of what some people are screening for- being quick on your feet. In many jobs you don’t have the luxury of getting most questions people will ask you in advance.

      1. fposte*

        Yup. Several of our “what would you do in this hypothetical scenario that actually happened to us” questions are about short-notice situations, so creativity on the spot is one of the things we’re looking for.

    2. Xay*

      You might find it easier to go into interviews with talking points instead of prepared answers. Then you have some flexibility and don’t feel caught off guard when you get an uncommon question.

    3. Allison Mary*

      I suppose I should clarify that I’m not talking about having memorized scripts or anything like that. You could easily call them “talking points” too – they’re not that rigid. My original wish still stands. I just like it better when I can prepare in a more… targeted way, perhaps? Targeted to what the interviewer would like to discuss.

      I remember way back when there was a post where someone who was preparing to interview a candidate had written in and asked Alison whether it would be weird or inappropriate for her to send the candidate a list of questions ahead of time, so that the candidate could come in thoroughly prepared to discuss these particular questions with the interviewer. As I recall, Alison had responded by saying that that was totally appropriate, if that was what the interviewer wanted. I remember thinking, “I wish EVERYONE would do that!”

    4. shellbell*

      As someone who interviews people, I can tell you. I don’t have a list of questions ahead of time. I have an idea about what to ask base on their resume, but I ask more questions based on what I hear and see in the interview.

      1. Allison Mary*

        That style of interviewing does tend to feel easier and more natural to me. More like an actual conversation. I guess I’m talking more about the interviewers who have a list of scripted questions that they have to ask each candidate.

  7. AndersonDarling*

    The OP may be thinking of an interview as more like a “test.”
    I remember going by the copier one day and seeing an HR print out with the interview notes, “His responses seemed memorized and scripted.” That really made me think about how I perceived interviews. It’s not about getting the correct answer to questions, its about showing your thought process and connecting with your interviewer.
    You don’t need to be BFFs with the interviewer, but some casual conversation will show that you have personality.

    1. jmkenrick*

      Agreed. It’s also possible that OP is focused too much on trying to anticipate what the interview “wants” to hear, and is trying to cater their answers to that, not cater them to OP’s own experiences and interests. There’s definitely a balance to strike there.

  8. NutellaNutterson*

    The other error that I see often (and usually new grads) is not elaborating where it would be appropriate or helpful to do so. Sometimes people don’t realize how unique or valuable their skills/experience are, and just “answer the question.” Unless they say otherwise, even in a question/answer interview, answers ideally sound like a conversation. This can mean sharing a relevant work story, or tying their experience in with what they think the job might require.

    Especially if you have excellent skills at AB, and this job asks for BC, talk about how well you do at B, how you managed to learn A, and how you’ll apply that to learning C. If the interviewer asks “what is your experience with C” don’t lie, but also don’t answer with “none” and no further comment!

    1. the_scientist*

      This is a really good point- you should be as specific as possible when sharing your experiences! I had a job interview that I thought went really poorly. I didn’t get the job (not surprising), but the interviewer offered to do a “debrief” with me, which is certainly unusual so I jumped at the chance. I’m so, so glad I did. This was a government interview, so highly rigid and standardized- each interview question was worth a certain number of “marks”; the interviewer broke down my score on each question and how I could have earned additional marks. For example, I explained my general experience with statistical analyses, but didn’t offer details of specific, complex methodologies I was familiar with. This came up with several questions- I described various situations but wasn’t detailed enough on what databases I used; what literature sources I used; what methods I used, etc.

      It’s so obvious now that I’m kicking myself for not doing it in previous interviews, but suffice it to say that I learned some very valuable lessons from this interview debrief! So my take home message would be- be specific! If you know a particular software program well, describe exactly what you can do in it. Don’t lie, obviously, but be very clear about your skills.

      1. Tea Pot Maiden*

        Interesting, I always feel broad strokes are best, like ‘they already know that stuff’… thanks, while I do not do government work, I’ll keep this in mind, when it may be important to drive the point home that I know exactly what I’m talking about and perhaps being vague could be viewed negatively.

        1. Joline*

          It’s something that’s apparently also really common in union interviewing – at least from what I’ve heard in Canada. That they really do have a rubric that they apply against your answers. So even if they really liked you, you were who they felt would be the best fit, and they knew from a previous conversation or something else that you were capable…they can’t take that into consideration for your interview. They have to mark based off of specific things you’ve said in your interview. Though admittedly if they really like you they sometimes try to prompt you to get you to say the “right” thing.

        2. NutellaNutterson*

          ” I always feel broad strokes are best, like ‘they already know that stuff’”

          I was just talking about this with a co-worker. We agreed that a mindset shift can be helpful: perhaps think of it as giving the interviewer enough information to turn around to their manager and say “this is the one.”

  9. Kai*

    I was brought in to interview recently, and what helped me during the prep stage as far as the “be yourself” concept was: most interviewers and potential employers are not trying to trick you out or spring any gotcha! moments on you. They genuinely just want to find out what kind of person you are and whether you’re what they need for the position. (And anyone who does try to spring an unnecessarily difficult or unexpected question on you during the interview may not be someone you want to work for, anyway.)

    1. aebhel*

      I remember seeing something similar from an actress–I think it was Natalie Dormer–about auditions. She basically said that the reason you are auditioning is that they have a problem. They don’t know who is going to play that role. They’re hoping you will be the solution to that problem. You’re hoping you’ll be the solution to that problem. Most interviewers don’t go into an interview hoping that the applicant screws up–and if they do, that’s a clear sign that you don’t want to work there.

    2. Tea Pot Maiden*

      Yes I had to learn this lesson as well. I did have a few rough interviews early on in my career and I was too green to understand this was just a sign of things to come and perhaps I should continue looking.

    3. College Career Counselor*

      Your last sentence is very true! I had that happen to me a couple of years ago (with a side order of gotcha/attitude on the questioner’s part) that did catch me by surprise. While I recovered quickly and handled it appropriately, that experience did not endear the interviewer (president of the university) to me or increase my interest in working there.

    4. Anx*

      I think this is what has made me so bad with interviews. It took me a long time to get any interviews after college graduation. And the first few I did have had a few of these stress interview componenents, gotcha moments, and quick a few condescending interviewers. I think it totally skewed things for me because I went into even the good ones bracing myself to be defensive or grilled on minutiae and I never felt confident.

  10. De-Lurker*

    I’m totally a lurker, but this post now has Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” running through my head.

    So I thought I’d share…cause I’m a giver

  11. C Average*

    This whole topic reminds me of a scene from “My So-Called Life” that’s stayed with me through the years. Angela is ruminating on the whole idea of being yourself, and says “People always say you should be yourself, like ‘yourself’ is this definite thing, like a toaster or something.” I remember loving the idea that I wasn’t the only person in the universe for whom “yourself” was a relative fluid concept, and that I wasn’t being untrue to myself by being variable.

    I have a work self and a family-of-origin self and a for-company self an AAM self and a when-no-one-is-looking self. None of them are fake. They’re just all different and appropriate to the situation.

  12. WorkerBee*

    Preparing for an interview takes skill, just like anything else. You often get better with practice. It took me years of interviewing with various jobs to be able to handle an interview well, and now I kind of enjoy them. Having mock interviews (as long as your critic can be honest) is a very good idea.

  13. Cheesecake*

    I remember we were once interviewing a fresh-out-of-uni guy, who made a great first impression. He was very well dressed, did his home work on the company and had interesting background. And all that great first impression disappeared when:
    His answers were staged and full of buzz-words. I guess he read somewhere that being too present on social media is not a good thing. So when asked “what do you do in your free time”, he was lecturing us about facebook ruining lives and that he personally read business books and financial times (it was a finance job) instead of wasting time on the internetz. We were curious and found him of FB. He had over a thousand friends.
    He was negative. He lived in a foreign country for some time and when asked about his experience, he said “people there were rude”. Now, my colleague was actually from that country, he didn’t know.

    So yes, be a better version of yourself and key is to train – ask a working friend to do mock interview with you, it helps. But do not learn by heart book answers, it seems very stage on 1st sentence. Honestly, i prefer a little mumble and time to think to this obvious “lies”. And don’t badmouth, complain and be in any way negative. You don’t have to lie if the answer is indeed about something “bad”, but keep it short and turn it into “but i have learn X”. It is astonishing how many people love to complain at interviews and esp.badmouth previous employers. Just don’t.

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