If you’re anything like me, a huge smile creeps onto your face when you’re asked in a job interview to describe a project you’re proud of. You know there will be some tough follow-up questions about parts you wish had gone differently, and elements you’d like to improve upon, but this is your time to shine. After all, it’s a question about how awesome you are at what you do!
However, there are plenty of pitfalls you can fall into if you’re not thoughtful about how you answer it. To help you avoid messing the answer up, here are some common mistakes contenders tend to make when they describe previous accomplishments—and how to make sure they don’t happen to you.
1. You Haven’t Prepared an Example to Discuss
This is a huge problem for two reasons. For starters, this is an opportunity for you to set the tone for the rest of the interview, to make it clear you’re an accomplished person who can bring something to the table. More importantly, you should know that this question is coming. And as obvious as it might sound, a lot of candidates go into interviews without a relevant example of something awesome they did, and that’s borderline inexcusable.
What to Do Instead
The solution to this is relatively straightforward: Think about this before you step foot in any interview, even if you’re not too far into your career. Trust me that hiring managers understand that you (probably) haven’t come up with silver bullet solutions to all of their business challenges. They’re not looking for a miracle worker, but rather, a problem-solver. So don’t think in terms of “What amazing feat did I pull off?” but rather, “What problem did I solve?”
If you’re still having trouble coming up with an example of something you’re proud of, sit yourself down with your current (or most recent) job description. Then, think about the things you did outside of your official day-to-day duties. Almost anytime you went above and beyond successfully counts here.
2. You Get Into Too Much Detail
It’s natural to feel like you need to explain every single piece of something that went right. After all, you’re proud of how things went down, so why wouldn’t a potential employer want to know about how awesome you were at getting those 2000 extra pairs of socks sold in the previous quarter.
However, it’s easy to forget that unless the interviewer has already made a decision about you, he or she will probably have some follow-up questions about that awesome thing you did. And if you ramble on and on about it for too long, you’ll make it difficult for the conversation to progress. Not to mention, you’ll go from sounding proud to cocky really quickly.
What to Do Instead
Give the hiring manager a high-level view of the project or accomplishment you’re trying to describe, then leave plenty of room for follow-up questions. Let’s say you’re explaining how you exceeded your sales goal by 1000% last quarter. To get this across to the interviewer, try this:
“Last quarter, my team was behind our quota by about 1900 pairs of socks. We just couldn’t seem to convert any new customers despite our best efforts. But, then I realized that many of our current customers had probably worn through last year’s socks by now due to the long winter. So I targeted those customers again through paid social media campaigns and was able to sell an additional 2000 pairs. I could probably go on forever about this project, but don’t want to talk your ear off too much about it.”
This example answers the question (very) thoroughly, and also makes it clear that you’re aware of your surroundings and understand it’s an interview. You also make it obvious that while you’re proud of your accomplishments, you’re not going to be the co-worker who goes on (and on) about how awesome he is.
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3. You Sell Yourself Short
Hey, I get it. It’s easy to look at the smart people you work with and compare your work to theirs. And when you do that, it’s even more natural to think, “Wow, that thing I did recently really wasn’t that awesome. Nobody would ever want to hear the details behind that project.” But, if you bring this attitude into an interview, you’ll only give the hiring manager reasons not to hire you. After all, nobody wants to work with a Debbie Downer.
What to Do Instead
When you describe an accomplishment, it’s perfectly OK to acknowledge that you had help, as long as you also give yourself an appropriate amount of credit. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to highlight your teamwork skills. If you’re still having trouble bragging about yourself, try this template on for size:
Last year, my team [a goal your team hit]. It required me to [your part in the project]. While this wasn’t a game changer for the company, I’m proud of it because it taught me a valuable lesson about [what you learned from it that relates to the job you’re interviewing for]. Next time I come up against this challenge, I’ll [how you would improve next time].
This makes it clear that you’re not trying to take all the credit for something you know you didn’t do on your own, but also that you’re acknowledging the hard work you put in to get the job done. In addition, it leaves a lot of room for the hiring manager to ask any follow-up questions.
Talking about something you did well is a lot of fun. Or, at least it should be. So, make sure that this “easy” interview question helps you shine during the process, rather than make you look like a bad candidate for a great position.
Photo of interview courtesy of Shutterstock.
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.More from this Author