I used to be really bad at job interviews.
Not only that, I didn’t know that I was really bad at job interviews, and would walk out of them thinking I’d done really well only to get really disappointed when I didn’t get the job.
On the surface, I seemed to be doing everything right: I’d put on a freshly ironed shirt and a snazzy tie, wear my best shoes, get there early, and be really polite the entire time so the interviewers wouldn’t think I was arrogant. I adopted the attitude of an eager, mild-mannered go-getter of a young person, and it was one of the worst mistakes I ever made.
It took me years of navigating the working world to figure out that when people interview you for a job, they’re looking for somebody who’s done that job before and already has all the experience necessary to do it before even they walk in the door. (That’s because training people costs companies money, and sometimes doesn’t work out if the person turns out to be a bum or jumps ship to work for a competitor!)
Of course, job interviewers can’t really tell this just by spending forty minutes in a room with you asking questions about your strengths and weaknesses, but they think that they can, which is why you have to use the interview format to your advantage.
Show Interviewers That You’re Experienced and Can Take Charge
Job interviewers don’t care about people who are promising, eager, go-getting, ready to learn, or excited, because regardless of how talented or capable these people seem, more glaring is the reality that they don’t already know how to do the job. Instead, job interviewers want people who are experienced, capable, trained, problem-solvers, and cool under pressure, plus a whole bunch of other adjectives that describe people who’ve already done a lot of things and can bring that experience to their company for free.
Right now a whole bunch of you are probably saying, “But Ian, if I’m a young person right out of college with barely any experience, there’s a catch-22 when employers only want to hire people with experience, and I don’t have any!”
While this is sadly true for a lot of employers (even though it’s changing in some sectors of the economy), there’s plenty of ways around it! The best way I’ve found is to convey what experience you do have in a way that feels relevant to the job you’re interviewing for.
I talked about this a few weeks ago in my entry on showing people you’re serious about your creative work, but the key to a good job interview is focusing on the things you’ve already done rather than the things you want to do.
I’ve found a lot of success with the 3-Step Storytelling Method, where you talk about a problem you had on the job and how you solved it. Basically, the best way to answer an interviewer’s question is with a story of something you’ve already done. The story you tell should follow these three steps (Remember P-I-E!):
- Problem: Once, we had a problem at the place where I was working
- Idea: Then I had an idea for how to solve it
- Everything Was Good Afterward: The thing I tried worked, and everything was good afterward
It’s amazing how simple this is and how much it makes you sound like a seasoned worker. Just like with movies and books, talking about a problem creates a little bit of tension (“Oh no, Darth Vader’s captured Princess Leia!”), the potential solution builds the tension (“Let’s go with this Han Solo dude and see if we can’t find her!”) and then the solution leaves everyone feeling relieved and satisfied (“Then we blew up the Death Star and afterward we got medals on this cool jungle planet”).
Telling stories that fit the PIE method can take some quick thinking and practice, but it pays off big time. Here’s a real-life example I once used at an interview for a teaching job that went over really well:
Interviewer: What would you do if there was a schedule change and you had to take over another teacher’s class at the last minute?
Me: That’s a good question. [Pauses, stalls, inserts a PIE story:]
- Problem: Well, at my old job working in a school office, sometimes the teachers had to go home for family emergencies, and no one else but me was free to cover the class.
- Idea: When this happened, I’d always ask the teacher for a quick activity we could do, and if I couldn’t catch the teacher beforehand, I’d walk into the class and ask the students what they’d learned that day.
- Everything Was Good Afterward: This worked really well even when the teacher didn’t have a lesson plan because the students saw me as a new person and wanted to tell me what they’d been working on. I remember one time when the third-grade class had just learned number ordering, so on the fly I asked them for random numbers I could write on the whiteboard and then called students up to order them in front of the class, which everybody had a lot of fun doing and took up the last forty minutes before the bell.
This worked really well because I turned a hypothetical (“What would you do if…”), into a real-world example (“Well, this one time I…”) and showed the interviewer that I had useful job skills (in this case, quick thinking and keeping cool under pressure). I ended up getting the job but not actually taking it (my availability didn’t synch with theirs), but the experience taught me a lot about what did and didn’t work during interviews.
Make Your Experience Fit the Position
I can’t stress confidence enough, and not just the eye-contact, firm handshake stuff. Showing confidence means answering questions quickly, not stumbling, and always having a story to tell that meets the PIE method. The content of your answers doesn’t really matter, but the aura of confidence that comes from answering these questions does.
If you act like you can do the job, interviewers will believe you can do the job. I got lucky in the above example where the interviewer asked me a question I’d already had experience with, but you can pull off the same trick by telling different kinds of stories to fit the question. Don’t have much experience in the exact field you’re interviewing for? Try talking about projects you’ve worked on in school, or problems you’ve solved at another job or with a personal project.
Making these experiences feel meaningful and relevant to the job at hand is a good trick, but a powerful one. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker had never blown up a Death Star before, but his runs through Beggars Canyon and practice bulls-eying womp rats gave him the skills to do it—he just had to convince the Rebel commanders that it was enough.
That’s right—I went there.
Bottom line: It takes skill to make your experience fit the position, but if you can, the person asking the questions will respect you for it. Just remember that.