As a job applicant, you tend to think a lot about your role in an interview. Much of your prep is you-focused: coming up with stories about your experience, considering unique contributions you could make, and preparing answers for why you’re personally interested in the company mission.
But as you know, interviewers figure likability into the equation when deciding who to offer a position to. That’s why sometimes the person with the perfect qualifications on paper is passed over for someone who seems like a better “fit.”
In other words, no matter how “good” a response is, it’ll resonate with some people more than others. So, along with practicing some go-to answers, give a bit of consideration to how you’ll adjust your strategy based on the person you end up meeting with.
Here are some common types of tough interviewers—and how you can win them over:
1. The Hard-to-Impress Interviewer
Confession: Whenever I interviewed an unbelievably impressive candidate, I’d ask the toughest questions and underplay my enthusiasm. The more a person achieved, the more I’d be sure to ask him or her to discuss a time he failed. For example: One time a person told me a medical research breakthrough story that usually wowed people (as it should), and I responded how you would to any run-of-the-mill work story.
Here’s why: Lots of the times when you apply for a job after being the star of your team, you’re looking to move up to the next level—either a particularly competitive role or prestigious company. At your new organization, or in your new position, you won’t be the only person with impressive accomplishments: Your teammates will know at least as much as (or more than) you do. So hiring managers want to make sure it won’t be a shock for you if someone isn’t floored by your ideas. If you always excel in standard situations, they want to put you in a slightly unfamiliar situation to get a sense of how you’d handle it.
What to Do
The biggest trick here is not to get in your own way. You might feel deflated that your slam-dunk answer only received a tepid response. You might wonder if the interviewer actually understands what a big deal you are. Don’t fall prey to either of these feelings and sink into your shell or look annoyed that someone doesn’t understand your achievements.
Instead think of ways to highlight soft skills in your answers. Give credit to your team members and talk about a time when a boss gave you tough feedback, but it helped you do better. Show that along with an all-star resume, you also play well with others. This is a way for you to keep talking up your accomplishments (after all, it’s competitive) without coming of as “me, me, me.” That balance is exactly what this sort of interviewer is looking for.
2. The Friendly Interviewer
On the other side of the spectrum is the interviewer who just wants to be friends—who’s laid-back and low-key and wants to “have a conversation.” She cracks jokes, says something reassuring after every answer, and seems like someone you’d love to hang out with.
Hiring managers have different motivations for taking this approach. Some people hate the formal Q & A format and would rather talk like two humans. Other people (me) are particularly warm to candidates who are super green, so as to not make them any more nervous. And then there’s a third group who works at the company with the cool culture, and they’re being part interviewer, part ambassador.
What to Do
In situations like these, I like to follow the same rule for dressing for an interview: Be one step more formal than everyone else. In other words, you wouldn’t wear a suit to a jeans and t-shirt company, but you would wear dark jeans and a nice blouse or button-down shirt.
Similarly, if you give a really official interview to someone who’s trying to be your buddy, it’ll seem awkward. But if you let your guard down too far, you may come off like you’re not taking the opportunity seriously. So, be a bit more smiley and colloquial than your standard interview self. Toss out some memorable, relatable details in some of your answers, just keep your topics and language office-appropriate (no swearing—even if the interviewer does!).
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3. The Interviewer Who’d Rather Be Somewhere Else
Your upcoming interview is all you’ve been able to think about for the past several days. The person on the other side of the table—not so much. He’s brusque or speeding through questions like it’s a race, or on his phone, or gives you the feeling he’s not really listening.
Maybe he was pulled in at the last minute. Maybe interviewing is a rare—and undoubtedly least favorite—part of his job. This really is a case of “it’s not you, it’s him,” however, you still have to impress him.
What to Do
This is one time when I’d advise that you don’t put too much effort into connecting with your interviewer. I know it sounds crazy, but you only have a short amount of time in this room. So it’s better to focus on getting hired than spending the entire time seeing if you can’t get the other person to crack a smile or laugh at a joke.
Skip over the “I know, interviews are the worst, right?” attempts at bonding. (She knows.) Instead, see it as a chance to showcase how you can keep moving a project forward even if someone in the room looks bored. Don’t overdo it and put on a musical number to catch her attention. Instead, be proactive: If she’s not asking any follow up questions, transition the conversation to being about her. Try asking questions like, “What do you love about this position?” and “What’s a recent success you’ve been particularly proud of?” While a person might not like talking to you—she probably enjoys talking about her own wins. This could be the closest you get to seeing her engaged.
This is also a time when you can employ more aggressive closing questions like “Is there anything else I can share to convince you I’m the best person for the role?” Pick up the slack and connect the dots as to why hiring you is a smart decision (that will save her from conducting more interviews).
Adjusting your answers to your interviewer may seem like a strategy at best, or like games at worst. But effectively communicating with others is part of most (if not all) jobs. So, see this as another opportunity to demonstrate your skills. Start with the gatekeeper and show you can think on your feet and adjust your approach in any situation.
Photo of bad interview courtesy of Shutterstock.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author