Imagine walking into a room with six pairs of eyes immediately fixed on you. Each of those six people are chomping at the bit to ask you the most difficult questions they can come up with—politics, controversial issues, your personal life, you name it. They’re testing you, challenging you, and trying to prove that you aren’t good enough.
And they’re judging you. Literally. After grilling you for a painstaking 20 minutes, each person will put a score next your name. You have one shot to make the best impression possible, because as you leave the room, someone else will brush past you and smile. She’s one of the other 52 people hoping to land the same job you’re interviewing for—the job of Miss America.
The stereotype of pageant contestants as ditzy beauty queens couldn’t be further from the truth—most of them are incredibly sharp, intelligent, confident, and poised. They’re also unbelievably good at interviewing. Standing in front of that panel of judges prepares you for the stress, the questions, and the curveballs in an interview better than almost any other experience.
I’ve competed in pageants for years—and after experiencing a Miss America preliminary, job interviews have been a cakewalk. Here’s what I’ve learned about acing the interview, all from trying to land that crown.
Look the Part
Unfortunately, no matter how loud or smart the words you speak, people’s first impressions of you will be always influenced by your appearance. So don’t disregard it—spend ample time and effort planning your clothing, hair, and makeup so that it’s appropriate for the job you’re interviewing for.
A pageant director once told me that because I had long blonde hair, I would never be taken seriously in a Miss America interview. So, in competitions (and in job interviews), I pull my hair back, dress conservatively, and use makeup to look more mature.
Also, don’t forget the little things—chipped nail polish and scuffed up shoes might not seem like a big deal, but they can be distracting when someone is looking at you for 20 minutes straight.
Mind Your Body Language
As a pageant contestant, I was often required to stand during interviews (see how easy you have it?), which quickly taught me to pay attention to my posture and body language. To show your interviewers you’re engaged, lean slightly forward rather than leaning back, which may look too casual. Think about your hand gestures, and use them appropriately. You don’t want to look too stiff—or on the flip side, all-over-the-place. In a group interview, maintain eye contact with the interviewer as he or she asks a question, then look around and acknowledge everyone as you answer.
A great pageant secret: Record yourself doing a practice interview, then watch the video in fast forward. Your repeated motions (for example, I tend to look up before answering a question) will quickly become apparent, and you can work on trying to avoid them.
When you look relaxed walking into an interview, you show that you’re confident and professional. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Being prepared and having a few interview experiences under your belt will help steel your nerves, but you should also figure out what relaxes you and use those activities to suppress your butterflies.
You’ll often see pageant contestants reading books or listening to music before the interview competition. Steal a page from that book and bring yourself something to do if you have to wait. The absolute worst thing you can do in the 15 minutes before the interview is sit and worry about what questions you’ll be asked—you’ll stress yourself out, and your panic will come across to your interviewer.
Don’t be a Deer in Headlights
When the questions start coming, don’t let anything faze you—even if you get a subject you haven’t prepared for. Sometimes, these questions are actually the strongest part of your interview, because you can show your ability to think on your feet.
In Miss America interviews, it’s common to be asked about controversial topics, so you learn to smile calmly and to answer with confidence. A great example of expecting the unexpected: I was once asked my opinion on zombies (no joke). Instead of panicking, I used the opportunity to tell a story about my little sister and her love of Zombieland, which gave everyone a good laugh and an opportunity to see into my personal life. I was able to state my opinion and my reasons (however ridiculous they were), which showed the interviewers I could stay calm under pressure.
Be Prepared—But Don’t Sound That Way
One of the worst things about pageant interviews are the contestants who are too rehearsed. (You know what I’m talking about: “World Peace.”) People can immediately see when you’re not being authentic or when you’re giving them a canned answer. Yes, you should practice answering common interview questions ahead of time, but it’s better to have a general idea of what you want to say than to memorize something to spit out word-for-word. You’ll be more believable, and your personality will have a chance to shine through.
Keep it Short
At the same time, not having your answers memorized isn’t an excuse to talk for five minutes straight. Pageant interviews have a time limit, and there are several judges fighting to get questions in, so the best contestants are able to articulate their answers clearly and concisely. Think about it this way: You have a limited amount of time to sell yourself to the interviewer, so know what your most important points are and how to get them across right off the bat.
Next time you’re getting ready for a big interview, don’t panic—just channel your inner pageant contestant. You’ll show the interviewers you’ve got all the poise, confidence, and intelligence of the next Miss America. You might not get a crown, but you’ll be well on your way to getting the job.