Selling it: Making interviews work for you

Using psychology to ace the interview

Posted Jan 04, 2011

I'll start with a secret that might surprise you: Most interviewers want to give you the position. They've already selected you out of potentially hundreds of applicants. They want to find the very best person and they've already gone through a lot of work to identify you as a suitable candidate.  Before you even walk into the room, they know a lot about you and so far, have liked what they know. The onus is now on you to make sure they still like you. Approaching the interview with the confidence that they've asked you there for a reason will help you relax, a crucial factor in interview success.

Now that you're feeling a bit more relaxed about the process, let's get to some interview basics. Everyone knows that it's important to dress for success. This is a truism that is, well, true. But within this piece of advice is a great deal of ambiguity. A successful interview outfit for one position may completely bomb in another. You need to determine the context of "success" for this particular position. For example, I advise college students applying to graduate school not to go overboard. Neither men nor women should look like they're about to walk into a board room. Men shouldn't wear suits but if they feel compelled to do so, they should at least stick to a two-piece, not a three-piece. Most women go to these interviews wearing the standard black suit-conservative blouse uniform. I think this is fine. The corporate world has a different set of standards, as does the fashion world (think Devil Wears Prada). The bottom line is that your clothes shouldn't be noticeable. You don't want to be remembered as the only person who ever showed up for an interview wearing sweatpants when everyone else was wearing business casual. In terms of personal grooming, men should be either clean-shaven or bearded (but not in between) and women shouldn't overdo the dramatic makeup or hair but they should make efforts to look polished and professional. Don't wear perfume or cologne.

Suggested attire for college student-professional interview

Prepare for the interview by reading up on the company or school. Be knowledgeable about the people who work there and be ready to show that you are interested in them and their work. The way to do this is through online research. I've had a number of interview "fails" of potential graduate students who started the interview by asking me what my research is about. I was puzzled to think that someone who is dying to work in my program would not have made the effort to secure this basic info ahead of time. It's not like it's a mystery waiting to be uncovered. A few simple Google searches would have done the trick. In contrast, interviews always go well with applicants who do their homework. The same scenario is true in the corporate world. Do your prep work ahead of time.

You can add even more pep to your personal profile by keeping up with the news in general. Show that you have a natural curiosity about areas outside of your own particular field of training. Some interview situations involve small talk. Even a brief glance through a few online news services (or better yet, newspapers) will allow you to keep up your end of the conversation. It sure beats filling the time with observations about how cold/nice/rainy/snowy/hot, etc. the weather is.  Having a few sports facts relevant to the day can also be helpful, as long as you don't make your biases explicit!

Behaving in an appropriate fashion means that you use body language to your advantage. You probably already know about the importance of eye contact, and I agree that this is key to interview success. But there is eye contact and eye contact. You can creep someone out by staring too long and too hard. Use your gaze judiciously. If you're being interviewed by more than one person, make sure you look at everyone in the room.

Another important body control management strategy involves your hands and feet. Keep them still!  Fold your hands in your lap or on the table and keep them there. Sit calmly in the chair and hold your back straight. When you shake hands, keep a moderately firm grasp. You want to look confident (but not arrogant) and controlled. If you're not sure that you can pull this off, then ask a friend to conduct a "mock" interview in which you focus a video camera directly on you.  Then watch the video without the sound on to check out your nonverbal cues.

As long as we're talking about appropriate behavior, let's get to your cell phone. Before the interview begins, you need to make sure it's off and put away.  Not on vibrate. Not on silent alert. Off. Nothing can be more important than the interview you're about to have so there is no need to have your cell phone (or laptop, etc.) within reach. If you're having a phone or Skype interview, make sure you give the interview as much concentration as you would if it were in person. Try to avoid a speaker phone if at all possible.  

Let's explore now what it means to be the kind of person who they want to have around the place. Obviously, the critical reason for your being hired is your experience, your ideas, and your knowledge. Since they've invited you to the interview, you've probably cleared those particular hurdles. Now the question is what you're like as a person, in person. There's an easy way to handle this: Just be nice. Sometimes an interviewer will try to get you comfortable so that you'll let down your guard and show your "true" self. You might be asked to reveal something about your former employer or professor with questions such as "what is such-and-such really like?" Don't fall for it! Only say nice things about other people. By the same token, don't complain about a prior school or work situation. Be nice when you talk about yourself, too. Don't talk too much about your weaknesses, even if encouraged to do so. Don't make jokes at other people's expense. Just be nice (and interesting, per above). You can't control the questions, but you can control your answers.

Three other simple guidelines follow from the "just be nice" principle. One is to be nice to everyone you meet, from receptionists to cleaning people to security guards. You'd be amazed to find out who knows who in a workplace or school. Any rudeness on your part to anyone may very well get back to your interviewers. The second guideline is to seem to be low maintenance. Don't seem overly concerned about the practical aspects of working or going to school there (apart from fundamentals such as salary or stipends). In general, don't seem fussy at all. Don't fret if the coffee you're being offered isn't brewed quite right. Don't complain about how long you had to wait for the elevator. If you have to stay overnight for an out of town trip, don't complain about the accommodations or the transportation. You want to seem like the kind of person who is easy to get along with, and complaining will convey the opposite impression. Third, being nice means being considerate. Be on time. Give yourself plenty of extra time to allow for potential delays. So what if you get there an hour early? At least you'll be there and ready. Get plenty of sleep the night before. You'll look better and think more clearly.

After the interview, it's a good idea to thank your interviewer(s). No need to shower them with cards, flowers, or presents. Just an email (or perhaps a short written note) will do it. You want to clinch the impression of how nice you are, and a thank-you is the perfect deal closer. Just keep it brief and friendly. Following along these lines, don't pester the interviewer afterwards to ask when the decision is going to be made. You'll just have to wait.

It's also important not to beat yourself up too much if something should happen to go wrong. What if you misjudged the context and are over- or under-dressed? There's nothing you can do about it so just relax and pretend that everything's fine. What about if you say something you immediately regret? Again, it was said and can't be un-said. You have to acknowledge your error, but do so swiftly and then move on.

Finally, consider the interview as a learning opportunity. You may not get the position you hoped for, but if you take stock of what happened- both the positive and the negative- you'll be better prepared for the next one.

Here is the short and sweet on how to ace the interview:

1. Be professional, be interesting, and be nice. Your dress, your small talk, your answers to questions should all be consistent in giving the impression that you're a great person to work with and have around the office or the school.

2. Use nonverbal cues to your benefit. Present yourself in the best light and learn to read the signals of the people interviewing you to guide your responses.

3. Be encouraged by the fact that you've made it this far. Being chosen for an interview is definitely a good sign. Let that fact allow you to relax so that you present yourself in the best light.

4. Use common sense. Leave the cell phone off, get there early, and don't be a pest after the interview is over.

5. Get feedback from others. A friend, a professor, or a colleague can help you prep by giving you a mock interview. If you video the interview, you can review it alone or with your mock interviewer to go over the high and low points.

For more career advice, check out these related posts:

Writing the perfect CV or resume: A 5-step guide

Writing a compelling life story in 500 words or less

How to make recommendations work for you

Want to boost your job prospects? Try a beauty makeover

In this highly competitive job and education market, every interview counts.  Whether it's your first, your fifth, or your fiftieth, these tips can help you get the winning edge.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011