can I make getting to the final round of interviews – and not getting the job – count for something?

A reader writes:

How can I make getting to the final round of interviews – and not getting the job – count for something?

Yesterday I received the news that I did not get the job at a great charity. It was a role that I have not come across before, and it would have been an exciting career change into a new sector. I was told I was a “fantastic” candidate and I had gotten to the final two out of 200 candidates. The successful candidate “had more experience.” I completed two phone interviews and one face-to-face with two interviewers. I sent the requisite follow-ups and gracious thank-you email.

I joked to a friend that I wish you could make getting this far in an interview process count for something, and say in your next application “I got to the third round with this employer so let’s skip all the stages and cut to the chase.” Of course, that is madness, but is there any way you can make getting so far in an interview process count for something? What would your next steps be?

I have a very low success rate in terms of the volume of CVs sent out to the number of interviews I get. My work history can appear hard to grasp to some, but then I have had companies and recruitment agencies praise my CV and think it sounds interesting. I also seem to do relatively well once I am in an interview room, prep hard, and can control my nerves. I think my downfall in the recent job I lost out on was that I was too comfortable and didn’t push some of my work history that I would have had if the interviewers had been less friendly/harder to convince. I also got to the final round of a job at Christmas but I think I failed in a written test. I was interviewed for the exact same type of role at another company and knew by the end of the first interview I had not been successful. I never even heard from them again.

My current job is awful, pretty soul-destroying, and is not good for mental health (I have a history of depression). My career is stagnant. My job search is now reaching 18 months! I either seem to not get off the starting blocks, or I am runner-up. My CV and cover letter either crashes and burns, or I’m told “it sings.”

Having got so close to securing a new job, but losing out, what would you do next? I am back at square one after an interview process that lasted three months from first application to rejection, and the thought of time slipping away while I pursue that elusive job horrifies me.

Yeah, you definitely can’t use “got to third interview round with another employer” as a selling point for other jobs.

You can learn what you can from the experience, though. Sometimes that’s nothing — sometimes you did everything right and someone else was just a better fit. And other times, there are lessons that you can take away for next time. In this case, it sounds like you did draw some useful lessons about how to better frame some of your work history, and about the need to do that even if the interviewers are friendly — that you shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that you don’t need to.

The other thing you can do is to not let your focus get too taken up by a single job prospect. The fact that you’re left feeling like you’re back at square one after this rejection and that time has slipped away tells me that you might not have been searching for other positions too actively while you were in talks for this job. You don’t want to fall into that trap — no matter how interesting a job opening or how promising your chances seem, you should always keep searching as actively as you would if that opening didn’t exist. In fact, the smartest thing to do is to assume that you’re not getting any job you apply or interview for — proceed as if you’ve already been rejected, because otherwise hope has a way of convincing you that you don’t really need to keep putting effort into other prospects.

A few other things that could be worth doing —

* Check up on your references. It’s possible that something’s happening with a reference post-interview that’s keeping you from getting offers. Even if you think your references are glowing, it could be worth having a professional-sounding friend call your references to make sure that nothing is being said that could hold you back.

* Look at who was ultimately hired for the jobs you interviewed for. (You can often find out on the company’s website or LinkedIn.) If they have significantly more or different experience than you, that’s useful to know. If they don’t, that’s useful too, since it might signal that you need to work on your interviewing skills and/or that you’re not communicating your achievements well.

* If you had particular rapport with an interviewer, try reaching out and asking if they’d be willing to give you feedback on how you can make yourself a stronger candidate. Say something like this: “I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about the X job last month. I want to ask you a favor: I’m extremely interested in moving into a position like X, and I would be grateful for your feedback about how I can better position myself to do that. Is there anything in the way that I interview that you think might be holding me back? Are there weaknesses that I can tackle, or anything else that you think might help me pursue a similar position in the future? If you can spare five minutes for a call or even just an email, I’d really appreciate any advice you can share with me (and I have a thick skin, so I can take it!).” Some employers won’t give feedback no matter how politely you ask for it, but  framing it like this increases your chances of getting it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Pwyll*

    You can absolutely use getting so far in the process with a great charity in at least one important way: as reassurance that you have marketable skills. Most employers don’t tell candidates they’re “fantastic” candidates if they’re not. So, definitely reflect as Alison advises, but instead of framing it as “being so close and not getting it,” instead use this as a confidence booster (you were the 2nd best candidate for a job in a field you don’t even work in, that’s great!)

    A big part of the torture that is job hunting is state of mind. Look for the bright side, and you’ll land a job soon enough..

    1. Ama*

      Yes. My boyfriend was trying to move into a slightly different area of his field where he had lots of unpaid experience but very little paid experience, and he made it to the final interview at three different companies without getting an offer. Though frustrating, he took it as validation that he was at least making a strong case for himself to be considered alongside candidates with actual job experience in the area he was trying to move into.

      He did eventually find a position, so hang in there!

    2. BRR*

      Definitely see it as a positive. My husband has been job hunting for basically three years and only got interviews for two full-time positions (one was after he started as a temp which was the other full-time interview) and three part-time retail interviews. It’s been a real blow to his confidence.

      In the LW’s situation of 200 applicants, 199 are not going to get the job.

  2. Loremipsum*

    Sorry to hear this. I went through a similar situation. After three rounds if interviews over three months, a presentation, a day long on-site series of meetings, I was the final candidate. After agonizing for two weeks, they finally said they decided not to fill the job at all, and that it wasn’t me, but them. I know how you feel about investing all that time and energy for months. You just have to keep applying, because nothing is certain until your feet are under the desk on day 1. Each interview you refine and improve.

  3. gmg*

    I second the advice to (thoughtfully and open-mindedly) ask for feedback after being runner-up for a job, not only because you might learn something but also simply because it keeps the door open, and you never know where that will lead. I have actually only done this once; I had gotten to the final round for about three jobs in a row and been runner-up each time, and I was so frustrated I figured what do I have to lose, maybe I’ll hear something more real. I got some useful thoughts from the hiring manager — but on a more practical level I also got an offer from him to do some freelance work (at the time I was splitting my schedule 50-50 between a part-time editorial staff gig and freelancing). It turned out the work in itself was interesting enough, but that it was in service of a not terribly exciting or well-thought-out product. So in the end, I earned a little extra dough and found out it was probably for the best I didn’t get the full-time job. All good stuff.

  4. INFJ*

    I’m glad that Alison suggested #2 in her list because I’ve done that before and at the time it made me feel a bit… stalkerish. Thanks for making me feel less stalker-y! But, seriously, once I saw that the people hired in the position *did* have more experience than me, it made me reevaluate what types of positions I should be applying for (i.e., matched to certain skills and experience).

    1. Oryx*

      I haven’t necessarily tried to find out the people hired over me but found out naturally because it’s a small field. It always makes me feel better because I’d look at their credentials and think, “Oh, I’d have hired them, too.”

    2. BRR*

      I don’t consider it stalkerish in the least bit. You’re just doing some research to figure out how to improve.

    3. Stephanie*

      Yeah, I did this once for a job I really wanted and ended up not getting. It was helpful, actually, because I saw the person they ultimately did hire had direct industry experience.

      1. BRR*

        I found this really useful for me and especially my husband who has been job searching for a LONG time. He could do the jobs he’s applying for but the people who are getting them are really qualified. Every time I go, “yeah I would have hired them too. They’re a really good fit.” I knew which jobs were a stretch that I applied to and the people who got them had the exact type of experience I expected them to.

    4. Ell like L*

      Seconded. I got a bunch of rejections in a row last year and every person who got the jobs had more specific experience than me, and used that to inform what I was applying to AND how I was applying to stuff.

    5. ScarletInTheLibrary*

      I also check LinkedIn before I apply for an open position. That has allowed me to get a sense of what kind of experience a company tends to like and what skills they like in people they have hired. I try to highlight parts of my experience that they seem to like in my cover letter and during the interview.

  5. Mmmmk*

    OP – In the nonprofit world, really talented people (especially fundraisers) can be hard to find. I got to the final round of interviews three times before finally landing in a role that paid more and was at a healthier organization than the other three. I got the job because the hiring manager in my last set of interviews was extremely impressed and referred me to a colleague who was hiring for a very similar position. So, while it would be pretty presumptuous to ask directly for this kind of referral, you might see if you can keep in touch with the hiring managers who were excited about you as a candidate. They might be willing to help connect you with colleagues who are hiring because it builds their network and ultimately helps them get great candidates in the future through similar referrals.

  6. Stephanie*

    I’ve been there. It sucks. I used to say that my track record with final interviews was like Leonardo DiCaprio’s track record with Oscar nominations. Although Leo did finally get his Oscar…

  7. BRR*

    If you’ve been on the other side of hiring there are often times when a second choice would have excelled at a position but still loses out on an offer. As an overthinker, you’re overthinking things with your interviews. Job searching can really mess with people’s way of thinking.

    I might be reading too much into things but what stuck out to me was you mentioning a low response rate to your number of applications (and that rate is different for different people/industries) and that your “work history can appear hard to grasp to some.” I don’t know what that means exactly and there are situations where you won’t be able to change things but the way you talk about your own CV stuck out. It sounds polarizing and I am not sure if that’s your background and the types of jobs you’re applying for or the format or something else. Or maybe this is just part of the overthinking things aspect.

  8. J.B.*

    I am in an odd very specialized corner of my field, and I keep getting interviews where they are intrigued by my application, but I don’t have as much specifically applicable experience as the person who gets selected. For now I have given up as no one is willing to pay what I want to make for what would be a learning curve. One that I would get up quickly but there. Sorry I know this is not helpful to you but you’re not alone.

    I would reach out to the interviewer in particular of the things Alison recommended. Maybe they can give you ideas to strengthen your candidacy or to better target your search.

  9. Adam*

    I totally sympathize, OP. I interviewed both on the phone and in person for a job I would have LOVED over a month ago (close to two months) and while it was a truly positive experience, it’s ended up being one of those ones where everything seemingly goes great but you never hear from them again. And as someone who’s been telling people I need a new job for close to three years now it’s really frustrating.

    I think one of the things about job hunting as an achievable goal that really trips people like myself up is that just about any other goal I might pursue has steady measurable progress.
    – Want to get more physically fit? You can measure your weight, appearance, athletic performance in your sport of choice and watch things steadily climb as you workout.
    – Want to learn a new language or skill? You can take classes/read books/do all sorts of projects that go step-by-step and have a clear point where you’ve “leveled up” from where you started.
    – Want to clean your garage? Set aside a little time every weekend and steadily clear out the junk until you’re done.

    Your success in any of these pursuits (barring unique circumstances) is completely dependent on you and your ability to follow-through. You have all the control. But with job hunting there are a great many things you don’t control, and your success is at least partly determined by people other than you.

    I also find that I routinely get to the job hunting step of this process and feel myself caught in a loop where no forward progress is made. I may have spent loads of time researching and preparing applications, but it feels like going to the gym and doing a set of reps with the same weight over and over again. After a while, your body adjusts and you aren’t getting the same benefit you did before. But where in a gym that would be the time to add more weight or switch up your routine, with a job hunt what do you do? If you’re doing everything as well as you can eventually at some point lightning is just going to have to strike. So until then it feels like the only muscle you can exercise is your patience muscle.

    Good luck, OP! I hope your great new job comes soon (mine too!)

  10. Megs*

    I had a job interview earlier today, so people have been asking me how it went. My response is that the only way to know how it really went is if they offer you a job on the spot (which never happens in my part of the legal profession) or if something catastrophic happens. But it’s so hard! I relate so much to the “final round but not quite” feeling (and the career stagnating feeling and the crushingly disappointing job feeling): over the last two years I’ve made it to the second round of a number of jobs I’d love. I interviewed for a job in DC where I was told that over 1000 people applied! But after months of not getting anywhere, I started getting really depressed, started doing contract document review just to get out of the house, and more or less stopped sending applications regularly. I lost most of a year that way, but I’m really trying to get back on the application horse and today’s interview was my second in about a month, so I’m still viable as a candidate! Hang in there and try not to get discouraged.

  11. Megs*

    So I know this thread is pretty much dead with the Friday afternoon holiday weekend doldrums, but I have had a question about the reference check advice for a while and maybe someone will see it one day. I absolutely trust Alison’s experience, but the idea of having a friend lie to my references just sits terribly wrong with me. Admittedly, I’m both risk-adverse and an attorney (that might be redundant), but I really do worry doing that would come around to haunt me.

      1. Megs*

        I don’t think I would have felt so bad about this when I was first applying to jobs out of college and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but now that my job search is sooooo much more targeted and specialized, I’m much more wary. Even in a midsize legal market it feels like no one is more than 2 people away from everyone else on the Bacon scale.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, there are legitimate companies that do this for people. The only difference here is that you’re not paying someone to do it for you.

      It doesn’t have to be an elaborate scheme — you just say “Jane Smith gave me your name as a reference and I’m hoping you can tell me about your experience working with her.”

      1. Coco*

        What if they ask for details like what job Jane’s applying for and at what organization?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          In my experience, 95% of people won’t ask where you’re calling from (I’ve done loads of reference-checking calls and have hardly ever been asked). If they do: “We’re a small organization and she applied for a job with us doing X.” 99% of people won’t say, “But what’s the name of your company?” If they do, they yes, you’d need to make one up (which is the same thing that professional reference-checking firms do).

          To be clear, I don’t recommend doing this just for the hell of it. But if you have particular reason to be concerned about a reference and don’t feel that they’d give you a candid answer if you talked to them about, this can make sense.

  12. MissChirp*

    I actually had an interview after I’d been job hunting for quite a while once where something sort of like this came up (although I would not pitch the other interviews I’d had in the past as resume points or bring it up on my own). However, my interviewer delicately asked what other types of places I’d interviewed with, and I used it to show I was actively looking and searching and trying to stay relevant in the job world. Not sure how common this is, but I thought it was a weird subject in an interview and breathed a sigh of relief when it worked out as a plus.

  13. JM*

    I did exactly what Alison recommends in her third point after a particularly long interview process that I felt so sure I was nailing until the very last moment when they went with someone else. After I asked for feedback and was told “you would have been equally great, we just went with someone else” (which doesn’t feel helpful in the moment at all), I asked if she would be up for a short informational interview to talk about the field and suggestions for how to prepare myself for jobs in general, not just this specific one I didn’t get. She ended up talking to me on the phone for about 15 minutes and at the end offered to add me to a closed job list that she regularly circulated. That job list has been incredibly helpful, and I also felt my post-interview phone call with her cemented myself in her head more, so if another job opens up at that company, I would feel comfortable reaching out directly in a “remember me? i’m applying!” kind of way.

    1. stevenz*

      You point up one of the weaknesses in the standard recruitment/interview model. Your phone conversation allowed her to get to know you in a way that formal interviews do not. The interview is always structured, generalised, high stress, time-limited, and fairly superficial. An informal phone conversation is none of that and can allow a person’s personality or character to come out. Perhaps there is a way of working that into an interview process but without making it as stressful and crucial to the outcome.

      I have had interviews for fairly high level jobs that included a dinner out with the hiring manager. They always say “now, this isn’t part of the hiring process” to which I say (to myself) “yeah, right.” So I’m not sure if there really is a way of working in a casual chat. Now I have identified a problem without suggesting a solution. Sorry.

  14. Kate the Little Teapot*

    So, this happened to me this week with an internal interview for a more senior position. I didn’t realize until after the post-interview debriefing when I asked for specific feedback on how I can improve and she had none and just wanted to have a friendly chat (and ignored my “would you like to head off so you can prepare for your next meeting?” polite cue), and then a little bird told me that the reason it went down like that was that I was in a dead heat with the candidate who got the role and so I couldn’t “improve”. Is there anything that I should be doing differently? Or just keep kicking it at work? Should I be having certain kinds of conversations with the manager or just make an effort to keep in touch?

    1. Kate the Little Teapot*

      “I couldn’t improve” -> badly written. “she couldn’t give me any specific feedback.”

  15. Elizabeth West*

    I don’t have any specific advice, just want to offer a *hug* and a good luck vibe, OP. :)


  16. Ruth*

    OP: In a round of job hunting a few years back, I made it to the final 2 or 3 (depended) in 3 interviews (2 Ivy) but didn’t get the positions. One of them really hurt, like it sounds like this one will do for you for a while (while the advice is right that you will need to get past it, it can definitely be the kind of thing that hurts), because I was similarly a great match but the other person had a few more years of XP.

    This would depend a lot on your field, but what I did take away from the 2 Ivy interviews (3rd was a very small place and this just didn’t apply there) was the people I’d met during the process. I connected with them later at professional functions once I’d found a new job and thus could present myself as “Oh I’m doing this now” vs. job hunting. Several of them have been strong professional connections since then. One was helpful in my most recent job hunt. It’s important, though, that you wait until there are no hard or really sad feelings left, to do this kind of thing. So while it may not be helpful on your current job hunt, you may be able to salvage something from the process down the road. Good luck!

  17. LJ*

    I’ve been looking for a new job for over 3 years now. I resigned from my last position to stay at home with my infant son. I tried to remain full time, but the guilt I felt for rarely seeing my son except for an hour in the am and then an hour or so at night before bath and bed was just not enough for me. I had no idea how hard it would be to find another similar position.
    I’ve had probably 20+ interviews in the last 3 years and have reached the final stages in about 5 of them. I’ve asked for feedback and received some genuinely helpful insight which I have used since.
    This last time I missed my grandmother’s funeral which was in another state, 800 miles away, so that I could be at the final interview. I thought things went well, but two weeks later, I received the same type of response, ” thanks, but we’ve gone with someone who has more direct experience.”
    As the OP mentioned, I felt as though I was having to start all over. Now I know to keep applying regardless of how promising anything seems.
    My son is now 4 years old and about to start preschool, but I’m still at home constantly stressing about finances and watching more time go by. One response I received was, “they wanted someone who has recently been in the corporate environment.”
    Forgot to mention, a few months into staying home I decided to start freelancing. I have this on my resume as well as a part time job doing something completely out of my field. I’m unsure if I should have this on my resume or leave it off. The gap of 3 years seems to be viewed quite negatively even though I’ve done everything I can to stay cognizant of the changes in my field.
    I am starting to feel desperate more as each day passes. I’ve applied to so many jobs and even jobs that require much less experience than what I have and even those companies show no interest in me. What gives? Are some people destined to remain unemployed forever? I’ve done a background check on myself and nothing shows up there. I’ve spoken to my references, I’ve asked for feedback post interview. Is there anything else that I should be doing? I know this post is very dated, but hopeful someone might see it and be kind enough to offer some advice.

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