Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Psychology Can Help You Land Your Dream Job

Five psychologically-grounded tips for acing your next job interview.

Key points

  • Job applicants can benefit from doing extensive research on the person who plans to interview them.
  • Candidates should also spend time researching the mission of the organization and the outcomes the company would be expecting.
  • Interviewees should avoid rebutting the interviewer, lying, using reverse psychology, and speaking ill of past bosses.

At unprecedented rates, people globally are quitting their jobs. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with a search for meaning, becoming fed up with colleagues after weathering a stressful pandemic, or a new taste for remote and flexible work.

But this post is not about explaining the reasons for the Great Resignation. Instead, I’m assuming you are having some thoughts about your career and you might be exploring making a change and you may even have begun interviewing. The purpose of this piece is to share with you how psychology can be your superpower to landing your dream job.

Here are 5 tips for using psychology to land your dream job:

1. Who is hiring me?

A company is not hiring you. A person is hiring you. Who are they? Don’t show up to an interview without having read everything you can about the person interviewing you. Yesterday, I was giving career advice to a room full of MBA students. One student asked, “How much preparation is needed about the people you are interviewing with?” The consensus answer in the room was “As much time is needed to deeply understand the person’s career history, their likely wishes and dreams, concerns and fears.” We call this having “empathic imagination” for the person with whom you are about to meet. Like a clinical psychologist conducts an “intake interview,” you can put your creative cap on and spend a few minutes empathizing with the person who is about to interview you and anticipate the psychological factors that might be most relevant to them.

2. What’s the scorecard for this job?

Every job has an explicit or implicit mission, outcomes, and competencies. If you guess right, it’s like having the answer key to the test. Spend a half hour doing research and making your best guess about what tangible outcomes are expected by the employer, and what organizational culture their firm is known to have. Glassdoor is a great resource for learning anonymous reviews of what it’s actually like to work for an employer.

3. What are my 10 most relevant career experiences and stories?

In light of the scorecard for the job, identify the 10 most important data points from your past that you absolutely, positively, must communicate during this interview, in order to link your past performance to your future employer’s objectives. Humans who are attempting to get to know other humans use pattern recognition and “buzzword matching” to draw conclusions about the probability that someone will demonstrate certain desirable behaviors on the job. Make it easy for your interviewer to listen to and recognize many, many examples of you demonstrating the behaviors (which lead to useful results) across your previous employers.

4. Be easy to work with.

Nobody likes working with a jerk. Ninety-eight percent of corporate “values” can be summarized with the sentence “Don’t act like a jerk.” So be careful to not come off as one, even a little bit, in your interviews. Here are some ways people unintentionally present as “jerky” during interviews:

  • Don’t rebut your future boss by starting sentences with “No,” “But,” or “However.” See Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful for more advice on this.
  • Don’t lie. Even a little bit. Some job-hunting guides encourage you to embellish information. Don’t.
  • Don’t use reverse psychology. Telling your future boss you are so important, and in such high demand, that you don’t really want this job makes you look like a narcissistic jerk.
  • Don’t make a big deal about what you want to “learn” in this job. Who cares? Your future boss doesn’t really care. Because to them, it’s not about you. Your future boss wants you to deliver results. And if you are talking a bunch about learning this and learning that, it makes you sound like you should go back to grad school and really marinate in intellectual exploration. If you want your dream job, your boss will expect you to perform. Don’t confuse the two concepts.
  • Don’t speak ill of your past bosses. That’s a huge red flag. It makes you look like a jerk. Be empathetic and respectful of your past bosses for employing you. Those past bosses helped to make you who you are today. So don’t demean yourself by demeaning your past bosses.
  • Don’t use power gestures. You’ll look silly.
  • Don’t say that you are “keeping your options open” when asked about your career goals. That’s what low performing employees say. Smart employees think about what they want, how to get it, and they have a very specific, focused, prioritized plan they are executing.
  • Don’t say your interviewer’s name every sentence. Sorry Dale Carnegie, you have polluted the minds of a generation of job-seekers who falsely equate remembering a name with likeability.
  • Don’t resist your future boss, when they want to move to another topic. Never say, “Wait, I wasn’t finished with that story.” Be psychologically agile, be flexible, and be smart enough to take the cue when your future boss is finished hearing about that story and is trying to make the most of your time together. Move on.

5. Describe your ideal career path.

“But this is the hardest thing. What if I don’t know?”

If you don’t know, you have not done the hard work to figure it out, and you won’t be happy in your career.

Do the hard work. Figure out your ideal career path. And then be prepared to tell somebody about how this job sits front and center on the path to experiencing your ideal career.

For example: “My long-term career goals? I appreciate your asking. So I’m 35 years old right now. By the time I’m 50, I’d love to be viewed as a thought leader and world expert on the topic of predictive analytics in marketing. It’s my calling. I just love the idea of getting people the products and services they want, without wasting their time with noise. I’d like to retire in my mid ’50s, serve on boards, and give speeches and maybe do some consulting with top brands.”

You go on, “That gives me about 20 years to really make my mark. What I’ve accomplished so far in my career that I feel good about is performing at the highest levels academically in the fields of marketing, psychology, computer science, and statistics. And my first two jobs worked out great—the first one being in the nitty-gritty of coding and analysis at the Department of Defense. The second job allowed me to manage several successful marketing campaigns globally, for a handful of top clients at a top consulting firm. That felt good. I’d say my big to-do for this job, and the next stage, is to go big on the people management part in building a global brand. I want to find a mentor who is considered to be an outstanding leader of people. That is why I reached out to interview with you.” (Smile)

Well, there you have it. As the world considers “is there a better job for me out there?" you are equipped with five psychologically-grounded tips for landing your dream position. Gallup estimates that only 13-15 percent of people are ever hired for the role they want most. If we in the psychology profession can help more people secure the job they want, we will be directly elevating the quality of life of people everywhere.

More from Geoff Smart, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today