Early in my career, my boss made the terrible mistake of telling me that I was the best interviewee he’d ever met. “It was evident from the beginning that we should hire you,” he said, “and the only thing I’d tell you to do differently next time is to ask me for a one billion dollar salary.”
OK, the last part of that quote isn’t entirely accurate, but the damage was all the same. Not only was I convinced that I was the best candidate on the planet, but I also thought it would be crazy for anyone to pass on me ever again. After all, if things were going this well with such a lack of experience, imagine how they’d go when I had real skills under my belt.
As you probably could’ve guessed, that overinflated impression of my abilities took a huge hit when I began the job search again and walked into an interview 99.9% sure that I already had the position locked down. With my first boss’ words echoing in my ear and my internal connection pulling strings, I felt like a shoo-in.
That is, until I got a rejection email that said, “We didn’t think your communication style would be a fit for us.” I was totally floored. But, after whining about it to anyone who would listen, I took the time to actually learn a few things from the experience.
1. Personal Anecdotes Aren’t Good Substitutes for Interview Answers
Often, interviewers will ask for specific examples of accomplishments or challenges you’ve tackled. Your first thought might be to tell a story about a personal experience—and in both of those cases, that’s warranted.
However, when I went back and thought about the interview I bombed, I realized that whenever I didn’t have a real answer to one of the hiring manager’s questions, I tried too hard to tell a joke or steer the conversation toward something entirely unrelated.
While I’d be the first person to tell you not to hide your personality during an interview, I learned the hard way that not even the Coolest Person on The Face of The Earth will get hired if he or she tries to avoid answering the questions at hand.
2. It’s Easier to Sell Yourself Short Than You Think
In an effort to avoid coming off as cocky as I felt (and intimidating the interviewing with all my amazingness right off the bat), I ended up over-correcting and being entirely too self-deprecating.
“Oh, that thing I told you about earlier? That wasn’t that big of a deal and was so easy that a teenager could’ve done it,” I’d say. While I thought that was the way to go at the time, I realized later that this is a pretty fast way to turn a hiring manager off. You may hate the idea of “selling yourself,” but that doesn’t mean you want to turn around and do the opposite.
Of course, you don’t want to be the person who says that everything’s broken and you’re the only person on the planet who can fix it. However, if you’re quick to identify all of your shortcomings before you’re even asked about your weakness, you’ll set a negative tone for the rest of the meeting. (Yes, even if you’re being sarcastic and that’s your “thing.”)
3. There’s More to Being Qualified for a Job Than You Realize
This is basic, but probably the most important. Before I got that cringe-worthy rejection email, I’d assumed that since I checked off everything on the job description list, I had no competition. Therefore, this was all a formality.
The hard truth I learned though was twofold. Not only will you get declined for positions you’re going after that you may be very qualified for after interviewing, but there will be plenty of times you find gigs that you’d be a home run hire for, only to get radio silence from the employer. I’m on the record multiple times about the fact that I’ve seen plenty of great contenders get declined for reasons well beyond their control.
However, the biggest lesson I learned from bombing an interview is that you can’t always point the finger at other people. Sometimes, you need to figure out if there’s anything you can do differently the next time when it comes to things outside of your skill set (like adjusting your body language). If I hadn’t gotten that specific rejection letter after the aforementioned interview, I don’t know how else I would have learned this.
Learning lessons the hard way sucks, and so does getting negative feedback. However, even though it’s difficult to hear less-than-stellar things about yourself, they’ll ultimately help you become better at interviewing. So when you’re lucky enough to hear back from the hiring manager with a specific reason for rejecting you, take the time to think about how you’ll improve next time.