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6 Keys to Nailing a Job Interview

Exude confidence and warmth. And mind people's time.

styles66 / pixabay
Source: styles66 / pixabay

The alarm goes off at 7 am sharp. This is the day of the big interview. It’s the company that you have always wanted to work for. The position matches your background, skills, and interests like a glove. You have convinced yourself that you must get this job!

You shower, put on your sharpest suit, grab a cup of coffee, kiss your honey goodbye, pluck those strands of dog fur off your pants, and head out the door.

On your way to the car, the anxious thoughts start to ramp up.

  • Am I really good enough for this job?
  • Who are the other candidates?
  • How many other candidates are they bringing in?
  • Who will be on the committee?
  • Should I have a glass of wine with dinner?
  • What if they don’t like me?
  • What if I say something stupid?

The apprehension that occurs when we are evaluated by others is, in fact, perfectly normal (see Thomas et al., 1979). This said, the interview process amplifies such apprehension quite a bit. But that need not be the case.

Below are six empirically supported tips for nailing that interview, along with some guidance for dealing with rejection which, at some point or another, rears its head in all our lives.

1. Be Warm. As silly as it might seem, people automatically favor those whom we see as “warm” as opposed to those whom we see as “cold” (see Zhang & Wong, 2018). A warm person smiles, agrees with others, compliments others, and puts others at ease. These are all desirable characteristics and they all lead to positive evaluations from others (even, often, at an unconscious level). Sure, some people may naturally be warmer than others and you certainly don’t want to fake anything. But if you’ve got a splash of warmth in your character, I’d say to amplify it during the interview.

2. Do Your Research and Demonstrate Conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is nearly always one of the most sought-after qualities in employees (see Roberts et al., 2009). People who are conscientious nail down the details, beat deadlines, and get the job done. While there are various ways to demonstrate conscientiousness in your interview, it’s the prep work that really can display this trait. Find out who all you will be meeting with and print webpages with information about each of them. Find out as much information about the department you’ll be interviewing for, including any mission or vision statement and information about departmental leadership/personnel. Find out about how the department fits in with the broader goals of the institution. Become an expert in all of these things and bring your printed materials in an organized and well-presented manner so that they know you mean business.

3. Own the Job by Oozing Confidence. Sure, arrogance can be pretty off-putting. But good-old-fashioned self-confidence is usually very attractive, particularly in the workplace (see Mowday, 1979). A confident employee gives the impression that he or she has got this. If I give a task to one of the more confident members of my research team, I literally consider it done at that point. There is no understating the importance of confidence. During that interview, make it clear that you can handle anything and everything that might follow from your taking the job.

4. Be Ready to Describe Your Faults. Here are some common questions in an interview:

  • Describe your biggest failure.
  • What would your current co-workers describe as your worst work-related attribute?
  • Describe an area in which you need work.
  • Have you ever been fired? If so, explain the circumstances.

And so on. Often, a set of interview questions will have a zinger along these lines. And it often catches folks off guard.

To address this fact, I’d say to be proactive. Think of some negative work-related outcomes that you have experienced, process them, and develop narratives for them, including what you have learned from them. Nobody’s perfect. And perfection should never be an expectation. So don’t worry about the possibility of having to drop some negative information about your past. Focus on how the experience helped you become better at what you do.

5. Have Specific Examples in Your Pocket. In my eight years as psychology department chair at SUNY New Paltz, I interviewed dozens of people for all kinds of positions. Generally, I like people and found this part of the job quite rewarding. I will say, however, that I do have something of a pet peeve when it comes to interviewing others. I am not a fan of generic answers to questions. As I see it, the more specific the content of a response is, the better.

For instance, suppose that you are interviewing to teach in a special science program and you are asked about your teaching philosophy.

Sure, you can say that you care about advancing knowledge, supporting the students, and getting them excited about the material. That’s all fine. But come on, everyone who is interviewing must be saying the same thing! You need to set your answers and yourself apart. And, for my money, the best way to do this is to give vivid specific examples from your experiences. Perhaps there was a student who was struggling at first whom you worked tirelessly with to help bring about great test scores near the year’s end. Maybe you took your entire class on a special hike into the mountains to interpret the flora and fauna and the students reported some very positive outcomes. Maybe you mentored a specific student who came from a troubled background and helped get him or her onto a good path.

Whatever the details, I’d say to bring them to the table. When it comes to telling the story of your work, the more specific you can be, the more it seems that you actually got this.

6. Mind the Time and Schedules of Others. Let’s face it: Everyone is busy. So many people seem overworked and underpaid. And that characterization includes members of the search process. For this reason, you should follow the following points of guidance:

  • Get to each and every meeting early. Not on time; early.
  • Mind the clock. If you know that there will be six questions during a one-hour timeslot and you just took 20 minutes to answer the first question, you’re behind. Do the math, make a note, and don’t be afraid to just cut yourself off in the interest of time.
  • Assume that everyone who is interviewing you has a hundred other tasks. Not only is this assumption probably true, but holding this assumption will help make sure that you treat others with the kind of respect that is warranted and that may well help you stand apart from the pack.

What If You Get Rejected?

Hey, no matter how great you are, you’re not always going to run into success. If you get rejected after a job interview, it’s not the end of the world. And it may well not be a reflection of you. Truth is, there are a near-infinite number of reasons that one might be rejected. And based on the confidential process that always surrounds a job search, you’ll probably never know what’s what.

Here are some reasons that you might not get the job:

  • There were a ton of applicants and interviewees
  • There was an inside candidate who was going to get the job no matter what
  • One member of the committee didn’t like a word you’d used, or your hairstyle, or your pants, or something...

Don’t be afraid of failure. It happens to the best of them. The more you try, the more you will succeed. And the more you will, simply by the math of it, fail as well. Here is a post of mine on this point titled Failure as the Single Best Marker of Human Success from a few years back.

Bottom Line: If you got an interview, you must have done something right. Always remember that you’re not guaranteed a job offer. And there are always extenuating circumstances lingering behind the scenes.

But if you follow the steps outlined here by being warm, conscientious, confident, and mindful of others’ schedules, and you are a hard-working, caring person who is good at his or her craft, you should have a good fighting chance at this one.

And if you don’t get the job, don’t worry too much about the why of it. As I always suggest in the light of failure: Smile at the rain, learn something from the experience, and move forward.

This post is dedicated to all those among us who are willing to take chances in an effort to aspire to do something great and to make the world a better place. Thanks for your service. And stay the course. The world needs people like you.

LinkedIn and Facebook Image: Shift Drive/Shutterstock


Mowday, R. T. (1979). Leader characteristics, self-confidence, and methods of upward influence in organizational decision situations. Academy of Management Journal, 22.

Roberts, B.W.; Jackson, J.J.; Fayard, J.V.; Edmonds, G.; Meints, J (2009). "Chapter 25. Conscientiousness". In Mark R. Leary, & Rick H. Hoyle (ed.). Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior. New York/London: The Guildford Press. pp. 257–273. ISBN 978-1-59385-647-2.

Thomas, C.; Hall, J.; Miller, F.; Dewhirst, J.; Fine, G.; Taylor, M.; Rosnow, R. (1979). "Evaluation Apprehension, Social Desirability, and the Interpretation of Test Correlations". Social Behavior and Personality: 193–197.

Zhang, Q., & Wang, M. (2018). The Primacy-of-Warmth Effect on Spontaneous Trait Inferences and the Moderating Role of Trait Valence: Evidence From Chinese Undergraduates. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2148. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02148

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