You're about to have a job interview. Perhaps it's not your dream job, but it's still an opportunity you're excited about. Determined to win this competition, you prepare relentlessly. Or so you think. The truth is that you can prepare for days and still commit one of several deadly blunders that sink inexperienced interviewees. Here are six prime interview sins you'll want to avoid:
1. The spiel.
In almost every interview you are given the opportunity to tell the interviewer about your previous work experience or academic research. You should always be prepared to give a relevant spiel—yet this is often where people mess up. Many candidates expect their interviewers to be as knowledgeable about their niche of work as they themselves are. And because you assume the interviewer knows what you're talking about, you may use too much jargon or too many abstract terms to explain your work. You shouldn't talk down to a potential employer, but don't assume they know your area as well as you do. Avoid jargon, abstract thoughts, and quick summaries of difficult points. Make your skills comprehensible by giving concrete examples and references that show how your skills can be applied in everyday situations.
2. Questions about your weaknesses.
It's almost inevitable that your potential employer will ask you about your weaknesses. The question may be explicit or wrapped in glossy paper. Here are a few examples: "What are your greatest weaknesses?" "Are there any blind spots or developmental needs that we should be aware of?" "If we talked with your boss, what potential deficiencies would she be likely to cite?" "What hardship or frustrations have you discovered in you recent job?"
No one wants to appear weak in a job interview. The standard approach is a cop-out: "I am a perfectionist." "I stay up all night completing tasks as soon as they are assigned." "When the stakes are high, I can be a very determined leader who insists on excellence." These are common answers to this difficult question. They are meant to turn your weaknesses into positive features. But your employers are not dumb—they can see right through this. So an honest answer is preferable to a rehearsed I-have-no-real-weaknesses reply.
You don't want to say: "I drink half a bottle of whiskey every night." "I am persistently late for work." Or, "I have anger issues." One solution is to reveal an inconsequential but real weakness: "I occasionally struggle with stressful deadlines but I believe I have learned how to cope." Another good way to handle this question is to be honest and admit that you don't have every single skill mentioned in the job ad while explaining why this is not a problem: "You mentioned in the ad that you prefer an employee with multiple years of job experience. I don't have that. But I believe my other qualifications make up for that." Or, "I read that you prefer someone who is fluent in Spanish. I am not yet fluent, but I can carry on a conversation, and I am taking a course to improve my conversational skills."
3. The surprise skill question.
This is your dream job, and it appears that you are their dream candidate: You can check off every box your potential employer listed in the job description. And the interview is going smoothly—until they throw you off track. They bring up a task they need completed, but it's one you have no experience with. In this situation, the worst thing to do is to wing it. The second worst thing you can do is throw in the towel and confess that you cannot complete the task. A better way to approach this is to admit that you have no experience with this particular task, but at the same time you are enthusiastic about it and eager to learn. Turn the ugly moment into an opportunity to explain how you quickly learned a new skill in a previous position.
4. Questions about the workplace.
Almost every interview will give you the opportunity to show that you have studied everything publicly available about a potential workplace or, at the very least, you've examined its website. You may be tested on this in a variety of ways. Interviewers may ask why you would like to work at the company. The wrong answer is to simply reply, "I would be excited about being your colleague." The right answer will refer to something specific about their company that they haven't mentioned yet, which shows that you have thought about what sort of workplace it is and what it has to offer. If an opportunity to show off your knowledge doesn't arise, you can almost always fit it in at the end. In nearly every interview you should be asked whether you have any questions for the interviewer. This gives you a green light to refer to projects or opportunities only someone familiar with the company could know about. Use this opportunity to give interviewers the impression that you really want the job and are prepared to make use of the opportunities it has to offer.
5. The fine line between professionalism and invisibility.
You should always appear professional in a job interview. In most situations, this means dressing formally, assuming that's appropriate for the workplace. But while you want to come across as professional and serious, you don't want to be so serious that the interviewers cannot "see" the real you behind the suit and tie. Let the best of your personality shine through. Be enthusiastic without overdoing it. If the interview is being done by phone or Skype, use your voice to show your enthusiasm. Emphasize key words, speak at a comfortable pace, and pause when making an important point.
6. Outward behavior.
Many people going into an interview are nervous. It's natural. Unfortunately, nervous behavior may lead you to behave in exceedingly annoying ways. You may tap your foot, click your pen, shake your leg, or fail to maintain eye contact. These microbehaviors can be one reason you don't get a job. Your interviewer may not even be consciously aware of your nervous behaviors but on a subconscious level, these behaviors may still cause him or her to dislike you. The best you can do to avoid this is to practice with friends or colleagues ahead of time. A mock interview will reveal what you are doing right or wrong. (But unless your friends are in the same line of work as you, they are not specialists, so take everything they say with a grain of salt.)
None of this is written in stone: You may find yourself up against competitors who commit the same mistakes as you, and land a job in spite of making every mistake listed here. Or perhaps you are so qualified on paper that your fidgeting doesn't matter—the company's search is firmly set on you. There are also differences in personal style among employers and workplaces. But in most cases, it is wisest to avoid these blunders as much as you can.
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind.