In Washington, D.C., political jobs aren’t hard to come by. But landing one is another story.

I was 25 and in the running for a press secretary position with the Department of Transportation (DOT). These are the people who manage billions in tax dollars and make sure trains, planes, and buses get us from point A to point B in one piece. No biggie.

If you’ve never applied for a job in the realm of politics or the federal government, seven interviews may seem insane, but it actually comes with the territory.

By the final one, I’d already gone through a proverbial ring of fire—each meeting with a higher-level person than the last. But as the stakes rose, I grew more and more relaxed.

I figured for the last one, in which I’d be meeting with the chief of staff, I could finally relax and let my hair down. And although research had been a critical part of my prep up until that point, for the final interview I decided to wing it and didn’t do any. Instead I walked in confident and thought “Ursula, you’ve got this in the bag.”  

Except I didn’t.

As you might imagine, when I received the rejection email, I was floored. I emailed the hiring manager who had guided me through the entire process and asked if he’d be willing to give me feedback on where I went wrong and what I can do better in the future.

Because people are busy and many employers aren’t necessarily at liberty to offer feedback, I didn’t expect a response—yet I got one. I’ll tell you this: The truth can be a hard pill to swallow. But after such a long process, I knew constructive criticism would serve me (and hopefully you) well.

1. Never Stop Hustling

I wish I could tell you after seven rounds you can stop hustling and take a load off. Unfortunately, multiple rounds typically mean you’re meeting with people higher and higher on the ladder. For example, your first meeting would never be with the CEO of the company, but your third one very well could be.

The process can be physically and emotionally exhausting, and by my final one, I was spent. But the person I spoke with never should’ve been able to sense that. Whether it’s your first or last meeting, you must maintain the same hunger and level of enthusiasm.

In fact, with each round, you actually need to be more prepared than the next. The same hustle that got you there will keep you there.

2. Always Be Professional

For most of my interviews, I had been meeting with men. When my last (and most important) round rolled around, I was relieved it was with another woman.

Upon meeting this very powerful person at the very top of the ladder, can you guess how I approached our introduction? Did I smile pleasantly, give her a firm handshake, and say “Thank you for meeting with me?”

Did I hand her a folder containing my resume, published press releases, and letters of recommendation?

Nope. Instead, I gushed about the giant engagement ring she had on her finger. I overlooked her rank, what she had done to get there, and focused on a personal fact that was absolutely none of my business.

Yep. I made small talk with the chief of staff. And in doing so, I’d presented myself as unprofessional. And I’d shown a certain amount of disrespect too. It’s OK to go off topic if it seems appropriate. Follow the lead of the person you’re meeting with. Let him or her drive the conversation.

3. Never Go in Unprepared

Confidence is great. But it can be dangerous when you’re walking the fine line between arrogance and confidence. Thanks to the internet, most of the information you need to know about the organization and who you’re meeting with is at your fingertips, but that’s no reason to get smug and assume you’ve got it all figured out.

I researched like crazy early on, but then, as my confidence grew, I started to slack off. I figured I didn’t need to keep trying so hard. Boy, was I wrong. My overconfident attitude led to me being underprepared and not on my toes.

After seven rounds, I learned the career lesson of a lifetime: The details matter. As you move further along in the hiring process, rather than getting comfortable, raise your level of preparedness, awareness, and professionalism. Because hiring managers typically can’t offer individual feedback on your performance, I don’t advise reaching out to them each time you don’t land the position. Instead, take a lesson from my experience and apply it to your next search. Because when the time came for a new round of interviews at a new company, I prepped for all three (not just the first one) and got the job.

Photo of interview courtesy of andresr/Getty Images.