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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

3 Ways to Recover After You Say Something That Makes You Sound Unqualified in an Interview

Here’s an experience that most of us have had at one point or another.

(And for those of you who want to try convincing us you’ve never let this happen, excuse us if we don’t exactly believe you.)

You’re in an interview and things are going really well. You’re charming the you-know-what out of everyone in the room. You’re pretty sure you’re making it clear that you’re the absolute right person for the job. But then, you let something like this slip out of your mouth after the hiring manager tells you how much a previous project impressed him:

You know, it was really surprising how helpful my old co-worker’s template was for that project—without it I would’ve been lost.

Cue the screeching tire sound, am I right?

I, like most other recruiters, would use this “snafu” to dig deeper into a contender’s experience. If the person across from me said something along the lines of “I had a lot of help on that task,” I’d ask for more details about his or her exact role on that project. Naturally, this caught candidates off guard most times. And every time it happened, it brought me back to those times when I found myself in the exact same circumstances as an interviewee.

I often wished I could stop interviews and reassure people that they hadn’t completely blown it (yet). Now that I’m no longer involved in hiring, here’s my opportunity to do just that. So, here are three ways to recover after you’ve accidentally pointed out a huge lack of experience during an interview.

1. Do Your Best to Answer All the Follow-up Questions

Here’s a little secret about hiring managers: Only the bad ones say to themselves, “Aha! Gotcha! Now I have all the proof I need to not hire you,” when you accidentally point out a lack of experience. The good ones? They’ll ask follow-up questions to give you the opportunity to further explain what you just said.

Let’s go back to the template example we discussed earlier (which, I should mention, is based on something I said when I was interviewing for a job). Here’s an example of how that exchange could actually end up making you look like an even stronger fit for a job.

Interviewer: Tell me more about those templates. What was your role in utilizing them?

You: When I first started, I used templates that previous team members had created. But, once I got my feet wet, I saw a flaw in how they were being used, so I redesigned the templates for that project, which are still being used today.

When you’re in the middle of an interview, it’s easy to lose your cool when you’ve said something that could possibly disqualify you from your dream job. And of course, there will be times when you can’t explain your way out of it like we did above. But, no matter what, don’t dodge any of the follow-up questions. Even on those instances when a candidate I interviewed was clearly not a fit for the job he or she was meeting us for, I was way more inclined to consider the honest and transparent ones for future positions.

2. Don’t Embellish Your Qualifications to Save Face

You’re smart enough to know this, but it’s still worth repeating: Lying is never a good idea. What’s more? When someone embellishes his or her qualifications during an interview, recruiters know exactly what’s going on. It usually sounds something like this:

Well, I think there was a lot of teamwork on that, you know? And I played a really big part in the concept and design and implementation and basically drove the bus on the entire project in a really unique way. And yeah, I’m still really proud of that.

That kind of answer is obviously all over the place, and it makes two things clear: One, you’re not qualified for this job. Two: You’re trying to skirt the question. If there are specific things you just didn’t communicate well—and in a way that made you seem unqualified—then go ahead and talk a hiring manager through those details. However, if you just haven’t had experience in something, that’s perfectly fine.

In fact, most recruiters would rather hear a simple “I haven’t done that thing too many times on my own” than listen to candidates talk in circles about how qualified they really are for the job.

The moral of this story? When in doubt, answer the follow-ups as well as you can, even if that means confirming a lack of experience you’ve accidentally pointed out.

3. Confirm That the Job Is What You Think it Is

Of course, you want to do everything you can to impress a hiring manager. But even though The Person In Charge is the gatekeeper between you and a job, he or she has flaws, too. And sometimes those flaws show up in places you’d least expect them to— like job descriptions.

Sure, it’s hard not to feel the full wrath of foot-in-mouth syndrome when you’ve pointed out something about yourself that makes you seem less qualified. But if a job requirement wasn’t exactly clear about what you’d be asked to do in the role, it might not be as big of a gaffe as you’re probably thinking.

If this is the case, give yourself a second to say to yourself, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I said that. My mother will never forgive me for blowing this interview.” Then, once you’ve taken that second, feel free to ask the interviewer for more clarity about the knowledge gap you’ve inadvertently pointed out. Here’s a diplomatic way of doing just that (yes, it’s perfectly fine to ask questions in the middle of an interview).

I’m sorry if I missed this, but could you tell me more about how I’d be tasked with that responsibility in this role?

Once you get your clarity, really digest the answer you’re given. Maybe you’ll find out that the role is a bit more advanced than you’re currently qualified for (and that’s OK). Or maybe you’ll find out you’d actually be better off waiting for a different job (which is also OK).

You’re really great—so even if you’ve accidentally pointed out something about your background that might take you out of the running for a job, don’t worry. As cliché of a cliché as this is, something way better is going to come around sooner than you realize.

Photo of woman covering mouth courtesy of Shutterstock.