don’t make these wrong assumptions about your job interview

Job seekers often go into interviews with a set of assumptions in their heads – for example, that the company is a great place to work, that the interviewer is likely to ask particular questions, that the company is most interested in a certain aspect of their experience, and all kinds of other beliefs that may or may not be correct. Some assumptions, though, can be downright dangerous for job seekers to make. Here are five common ones that you should avoid.

1. You’re highly qualified, so surely you’re a top candidate. The employer is probably talking to multiple well-qualified candidates, so it’s dangerous to assume anything about your standing in the candidate pool. Even if you’re in an in-demand field with a shortage of strong candidates, there’s just no way to know who your competition is or what less-obvious traits the hiring manager might be looking for. After all, hiring is about more than basic qualifications; it’s also aboutyour fit with this particular team, this particular manager, and this particular workplace.

It’s especially important to keep this in mind if you’re a new applying for a new role at your current company. You might be tempted to figure that you’re a known quantity and therefore have a built-in advantage over any possible candidates from the outside. But while it’s true that many companies give priority to internal candidates, it’s still quite possible to lose the job to someone else. That’s even more likely if you approach the process as if it’s a formality, since that may make you less likely to put in enough time preparing, or you may assume that the interviewer knows your strengths and accomplishments and you don’t need to spell them out.

2. The interviewer knows how to interview effectively. It’s easy to assume that your interviewer is skilled at asking relevant questions and giving you both the opportunity to assess your fit for the position. But in reality, many interviewers are inexperienced, unskilled, or otherwise unprepared to conduct effective interviews. Many interviewers get little to no training in interviewing and are simply thrown in and expected to figure it out as they go. That means that if your interviewer is rambling or not probing into your qualifications, you should be prepared to weave examples of your professional achievements into the conversation, ask questions about the job itself and the challenges the team is facing, and then talk about how you’d approach those challenges. If the interviewer is really off-track, you might even say, “Would it be okay to take a minute and lead you through my professional background? I think it will tie in well with what you were just saying about the position.”

3. The interviewer has carefully reviewed your resume and cover letter and remembers the details. It’s not uncommon for an interviewer to be pulled into the interview at the last minute. Or your interviewer might have read through your materials a week ago or more and not have had a chance to review them again before your interview. Even if she has a copy of your materials in front of you, don’t assume the details are fresh in her mind.

4. The interviewer knows that you want the job. Job candidates tend to assume that of course the interviewer knows they want the job; after all, they applied and showed up to interview. But good hiring managers know that interviews are a two-way street and that strong candidates are using the hiring process to assess the employer just as much as the employer is assessing candidates. If you don’t seem enthusiastic or make a point of explaining your interest in the job, the hiring manager may be left uncertain about whether or not you’re seriously interested. That’s one reason why sending a follow-up note after the interview is important; it allows you to show that you’ve gone home, digested the conversation, and decided that you’re still interested in pursuing the position.

(Relatedly, don’t make the mistake of assuming that you know that you want the job until you’ve had a chance to dig into the details of the position and the company during your interview, and to do your own research as well.)

5. You can read the interviewer to figure out what your chances are of getting offered the job. Job candidates often try to read their interviewers’ words and behavior for clues about their chances – speculating, for example, that if the interviewer shows them around the office, it means their chances are strong, or that if the interviewer mentions having other interviews to conduct, it’s an attempt to let them down easily. Trying to read into these actions to figure out your chances of getting a job is understandable, but it’s also fruitless and often misleading.

Even if your interviewer says “You’re just what we’re looking for” or “We’re so excited to have found you,” it’s nothing to count on. Things may change — stronger candidates  may appear, a budget may get cut, an internal candidate may emerge, a different decision-maker may like someone else better, or all sorts of other things may prevent you from getting an offer. The only reliable sign that you’re going to get a job is when an employer calls you up and says, “We’d like to offer you the job.”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Gandalf the Nude

    On the flip side of “don’t assume your interviewer knows how to interview effectively”, don’t assume that interviews with junior employees are are less important or even irrelevant. We had a few come in that seemed to think their interview with us was a matter of culture fit and getting along, so they were thrown off their game when we started probing into their mistakes and management preferences and revealed things that they otherwise probably wouldn’t have.

  2. BRR

    Sort of on the flip side of number one, don’t assume you’re not qualified or your interview went awful and withdraw your application. The only reason to withdraw is if something came up and you would never accept an offer.

    1. Megs

      I will never understand the impulse to withdraw an application. Tons of people have stories of getting a job after what they thought was a terrible interview.

      1. So Very Anonymous

        I’ve withdrawn from a position, and it had nothing to do with how I thought I did — it was about how very badly my interview was handled and my knowing as a result that I would never want to work there. I wouldn’t withdraw if I thought I hadn’t done well, but I did when all indications were that it would have been a terrible situation. (I don’t think they actually ended up hiring anyone, anyway).

      2. Krobin

        It’s true that many people think they had a horrible interview but ended up doing well- the same thing happened to me for my last job. Even though I went home feeling embarrassed and dejected, I ended up getting a call that I’d received the position. I think it’s very possible that in people’s nervousness they misinterpret the situation and maybe they get flustered and withdraw out of embarrassment. Once you’ve been interviewed there’s no point in withdrawing you application, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose!

  3. AnxiouslyAnon

    #5….

    I probably needed to read number five today. Repeatedly. Had a really, really great interview Thursday, where the interviewer talked at the end about “How great I’ll do [at the company]” followed by a stuttering “If you decide to accept an offer” followed by *another* stutter of “if we decide to move forward.”

    I know I shouldn’t read into it. But the company is fantastic, the work is interesting and novel, and the people were amazing. I really couldn’t have found a better match for myself. Complete with people interviewing me talking about how they wanted to hide my resume from other groups so they wouldn’t try to steal me.

    I’m going to go back and read #5 now….

    1. I'm not a lawyer, but ...

      Yeah. Had a boss once who did that to almost everyone we interviewed. Said he wanted to keep them motivated for their job search. I managed to snag a promotion to another team quickly, thankfully.

      1. Artemesia

        I used to have to clean up after a boss who always promised the sun and the earth when he didn’t have the power to do so and then we had people who would have been happy with what we had to offer who always felt cheated when we couldn’t follow through. Your boss is even worse than this.

      2. Sherry

        That’s terrible! A friendly interviewer is great, but not to the point that they’re making false promises (or strongly hinting at it).

    2. AnxiouslyAnon

      If only to let people have an update….

      Both sides thought the interview went awesome and loved the other, according to the recruiter. They just don’t know if they want me because I dared to ask for time off between my current, anxiety-inducing job and starting their job. Partially because I already had a vacation planned, and partially because I really do need to get unburnt out.

      It’s now making me heavily think of up and quitting my current job even if I don’t get it, because if crap like this is going to happen regularly, I’d rather be unemployed and ready to start at a moment’s notice than be stuck in my current hell hole.

  4. Anonforthis

    Definitely ran into #2 quite a bit, sadly enough.

    I think that when I was job searching, I ran into #4 a lot. I think I may have came off too cool or not enthusiastic enough in interviews because that explains why I got to the last step in the hiring process for many roles but didn’t pull the trigger in receiving an offer. I think I felt overt enthusiasm came off as insincere.

    1. the gold digger

      My boss interviewed a guy for a sales position. The guy was very qualified, but he exhibited almost no interest in the job. And then he didn’t ask for it, which I guess is a cardinal sin for a sales position. (Ie, if you can’t even ask for the job, what will you do when you are trying to sell whatever to the customer?)

      1. Kelly L.

        I’ve always wondered how you’re supposed to “ask for the job.” I mean, do you just go “So, may I have this job please?” and then they hire you on the spot?

        1. Jack the treacle eater

          I’ve never come across the concept of asking for the job. Applying, yes; showing you’re enthusiastic, yes. But actually outright asking for it? Or am I misunderstanding? Be interested to hear some more explanation.

          1. Kelly L.

            I’ve heard a similar thing about voting once in a while. I’ve heard people say they didn’t vote for Candidate X because “she didn’t ask for my vote.” I guess there’s supposed to be a particular sentence in the stump speech where you word it in a particular way? Because I thought all the “Vote for Mulberry” signs would get the point across.

        2. the gold digger

          I wish! No, my boss wanted the guy to say something like, “I think I would do well at this job and would really like to have it.” But it felt like (I was in the interview as well) the guy was waiting for my boss to beg him to take the job.

          I have said things like that in interviews – that I would be really interested in the job or that I would really like to work with the hiring manager (in the few cases where that has been true :) ). It doesn’t hurt to say, “This sounds like a really interesting, challenging position. I would like to have this job.” (Or something a little less clunky.) (Don’t judge me on words written quickly while I should be working.)

        3. the gold digger

          And as far as sales go, you want someone who will ask the customer, at the end of the presentation, if the customer wants to buy the product. You don’t just give a presentation, then cross your fingers. Or you don’t wait for the customer to volunteer, “This is so fabulous that I want two! Or three! Will you please let me buy more than one?” The customer expects (appropriately) to be catered to and treated as if her needs are important. She does not expect to have to ask to buy something – she expects it to be offered to her. (But not in a pushy way.)

          1. Kelly L.

            I guess I’m having trouble envisioning that too, except in a pushy way. Maybe I don’t spend enough time in places with honest-to-goodness salespeople. I just keep thinking of “So what would it take to get you in this shiny new Buick today?”

            1. the gold digger

              Yeah, that’s not the kind of sales I am talking about. :) I sold employee benefits, like the health insurance Americans get through work. Even back then, you are talking about million-dollar deals. Pushy does not work in that case. Instead, you show your customer how you can solve their problem.

              The HR people were not my audience – I am not the touchy-feely type like my boss, who could sell ice to Eskimos. I clicked with the finance people because I would show the numbers, tell them the advantages and the disadvantages of our product, and then talk about potential problems that might arise and how we would address them.

              I didn’t badmouth the competition – I didn’t need to – we did have the best (and most expensive) product on the market. But if asked directly why our premiums were X% higher than Blue Cross’ (pah! I spit on you Blue Cross who pays a doctor visit as a hospital visit if the doc’s office is in the hospital, as are all the specialists around here because they are part of the medical school), I would explain that BC paid their claims at 50% of reasonable and customary and we paid ours at 80%. I would also point out that our plan covered organ transplants and BC did not. It’s easy to be cheap when you don’t pay out much in claims.

              Anyhow. In the end, at some point, after I had answered all their questions, I would have to ask something like, “When will you be making a decision?” or “What other information do you need to make a decision?” or “Do you think this is the option you will choose for your employees?” You have to give them a chance to say yes or no.

            2. hbc

              Most of the sales people we’ve interviewed have had some sort of “closer.” “Well, I really like what I’ve seen here today, and I’d enjoy the chance to work with your team and sell X. I really believe my background in Y positions me to hit the ground running while getting up to speed on specifics W and Z of this industry.” Or something. It shouldn’t sound like you could have written it beforehand–they kind of treat it like a sales cold call. Do research first, then listen to the customer’s needs, then pitch how they have the solution.

              It’s probably what we should all be doing in interviews, but the bar is a little higher for salespeople since it’s their job to sell things.

  5. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.

    Also, don’t assume that them speaking in the affirmative means you have the job. Saying stuff like “This will be your desk. Jane will be your manager. Here’s the refrigerator to store your lunch, or you get a 45 minute break and there’s plenty of options nearby.” Do not mean the job is yours.

    My father-in-law made this mistake, told us he’d gotten the job, we thought he had been offered it, though he said he wasn’t sure about pay or his start date, said he had to call about that. He was quite upset when he didn’t actually have the job.

    1. fposte

      Yeah, my colleagues and I really try to avoid that phraseology when we’re hiring, but we can’t manage to keep it out completely. It’s one of those frustrating situations where both sides are understandable, so it’s really good for jobseekers to realize that it doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means.

      1. Kelly L.

        Yep. I’m in a situation where I don’t deal with job applicants a lot, but I do deal with academic applicants, and I try to make myself say “would” instead of “will,” whenever I can, along with “”if accepted.” Like “if you are accepted, you would be taking 12 credit hours…” It takes an extra moment of brain-to-mouth filter, because it just doesn’t feel as natural!

      2. Artemesia

        I always did it in a sort of passive voice as in ‘this is the office the person holding this job will have.’

    2. Paige Turner

      Aww man, it’s true that you shouldn’t assume, but I feel bad for your FIL anyway, since it sounds like the interviewer should have chosen their words more carefully.

      1. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.

        Part of the problem is my FIL. He didn’t work for about 10 years and his view of how the working world works is skewed. For instance, he doesn’t drive b/c he has epilepsy, so he walks and takes a bus to his job a few miles away. The manager of the grocery store literally next door to his apartment offered him a job for a bit more money, and he declined it because he feels loyalty to the other job. My mind was blown. Our bus service here is terrible, going even a few miles can be a burden and take an hour or more. I would have taken the grocery store job in a heartbeat in his position.

        1. TootsNYC

          not to mention that once he doesn’t have to pay for the bus, it’s almost like a pay raise.

    3. Elle

      When I coach my managers on interviewing, I always stress as much as I can not to use the word “you.” It is hard though. The example of your father-in-law, unfortunately, is a good one.

  6. Jack the treacle eater

    I had a really odd interview recently in which the interviewer kept asking what seemed to me totally irrelevant questions. For example, the role was permanent and advertised as such; yet the first thing the interviewer asked was whether I was applying for a short term contract. Not sure I expect to have to set an interviewer straight on their own vacancy.

    1. JM in England

      I’ve been in a similar situation. However, the interview was arranged by a recruiter who told me the job was permanent. At the interview, they told me it was a 9 month contract for maternity cover. That recruiter got a HUGE flea in his ear from me afterwards!

  7. Honeybee

    With #1, when I was in academia we used to have this saying that being a known quantity is nothing compared to the allure of “potential.” Lots of candidates feared the internal candidate, but many professors explained that while the internal candidate was a known quantity that could actually work against them – the extent of their research and teaching prowess was already known, and probably just average to above-average. The external candidate always brought with them the glimmer of being the mythical Superstar, who would come in and do excellent research but also get great teaching evaluations and bring fame and fortune to the school.

    As to #4, when I interviewed for my current job my second-to-last interviewer asked me why I wanted to leave my prior field – a health-related one – pointing out that my new field wouldn’t be saving any lives. I was prepared for this question and had an answer queued up. Later, after I got hired, I asked him why they hadn’t asked me that question until the very end of the interviews. He told me that at that point they had started to decide that they wanted to hire me but they weren’t sure I would actually leave my field to come to the new one, since they assumed it was a sort of “passion” field that people don’t leave easily.

    1. fposte

      I’ve never heard somebody describe the allure of potential like that, and it’s so true!

      1. Artemesia

        And boy is that spot on in academia where people are often hired in a sort of fantasy of what they ‘could do’ rather than what they obviously do.

    2. TootsNYC

      I have that, a bit. I like the idea of bringing outside perspectives in. I’ve worked at places where people rise all the way to the top without ever leaving the company, and I see weaknesses in their skills and decision making because they’ve only had guidance from the same exact people.

  8. LiveAndLetDie

    I feel like I see a lot of people make the “I felt great about that interview, therefore the job is totally mine” mistake. Your interview can go phenomenally, but so can other candidates’ interviews, and on top of that you still have to have the right credentials and ‘fit’ to get the job in the end. Don’t let yourself think “I nailed that interview” is anything more than “I feel like I put my best face forward.”

    1. babblemouth

      Back when I recruited interns, having 2 interns acing their interview was one of my biggest issues. It’s a luxury problem, for sure, but having to pick between two extremely good candidates isn’t easy… it all comes down to nuances of great, so often the rejected candidate doesn’t understand what they did wrong. The fact is, they didn’t do anything wrong, but we had to pick between two good people.

  9. Adam

    #5 I was pretty bad at this when I first started out. One of the first interviews I ever had I was convinced it wasn’t going well the whole time. The interviewer met me wearing her sweats (top and bottom, although it’s more a funny anecdote than anything) and it felt like I was stumbling through all of my answers to the point where she was actually coaching me a bit on how to respond. Even after we were done and she took me a little tour of the office and introduced me to a few people once I left the building I thought “Well I’m never hearing from them again.”

    I seriously thought she was just being nice. When I got the call from the recruiter later telling me they really liked me it was all I could do to not go “Wait. What?”

    1. lowercase holly

      yeah, i just had one last week where one of the interviewers just sounded so uninterested the entire time, but they are currently contacting my references soo… fingers crossed?

      1. Adam

        Maybe? I think there are some interviewers out there who think they need to be strictly businesslike rather than show any signs preference. Hope you get it if you want it!

    2. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.

      I literally have never left an interview thinking “Wow that went really well!” And then was offered the job. Never. Not once. It’s always jobs where I thought they hated me or there’s no way they’d hire someone that doesn’t have whatever experience I don’t have, or jobs where I thought “Eh, maybe they’d be OK with me?” So I never rule anything out. Except the ones that go great, that’s a kiss of death for me. ;)

      1. Adam

        Wow. That is really strange. But now I have a humorous image of someone having a completely horrible interview and then standing up with a grimace and saying “Very good. I’ll expect your call next week.”

  10. Jimbo

    I remember one interview for a department head where I was on a panel of about 12 (panel interviews are the worst). One candidate started telling us repeatedly how he would “fix” things. Nobody said anything but it turned out we were all thinking “who ever said the department is broken?” A couple of the other candidates said similar things too but not quite as direct. Unless you specifically were told you were following an incompetent manager and would need to do major cleanup (and that was not our case), why would you sell yourself as a savior? Everyone was pretty offended and the guy was quickly eliminated.

    1. Mephyle

      It sounds like they had bought into the ‘pain letter’ thing and made unwarranted assumptions about your department’s ‘pain point’.

  11. Mephyle

    So, after reading the next post: 6. The fact that you went through a lengthy interview process means that there is a job vacancy to be filled.

  12. babblemouth

    ” The interviewer has carefully reviewed your resume and cover letter and remembers the details.”

    SO true! I’ve had an interview with a really large panel, and was surprised when one of the topics was “please read walk us through your CV”, and instead of detailed questions about it, they were pretty superficial (like: stuff that I explained in bullet points). I did get the job (yay!), and realised later on that the people in that interview most likely hadn’t read my CV expect for 2 of them, as they are all quite high-ranking, busy people.

  13. Gabriela

    Thank you so much for this- just had an interview on Monday that did not go as expected. The owner of the company wasn’t trained in conducting interviews so I was a taken aback and my nervous streak took over which made me bomb the interview. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll get the job but I learned a great lesson- always be prepared for different interview styles!

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