Blunder-Proof Interviews

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Re-posting an article from a lifetime ago – twelve years, to be precise! I wrote it for Sulekha, a website for the Asian American community. In retrospect, I should have edited about 150 words and tightened the copy, but I’m sure my 20-something self believed she nailed it with her first draft. (Also, my apologies for the guy bashing – to be fair, I was recovering from years of college lectures on feminism!)

Blunder-Proof Interviews

The career counselor at the university I went to was a firm believer in the concept that job hunting is a full-time occupation. I soon discovered that with it came occupational hazards — traps I unwittingly fell into during my 6-month search for a job, straight out of graduate school.

My mishaps at interviews have led me to compile the following document, The Four Ps that may help you avoid a “blooperful” interview.

The Purpose of an Interview

An interview is meant for you to showcase your talents and achievements. Now, if you belong to the male species of our race, you may not require substantial encouragement in this area. The average guy with average achievements has spent his life perfecting the art of pumping up his accolades in the areas of sports, women, promotions, money, and, on rarer occasions, his academic pursuits.

Women, on the other hand, have been trained to downplay their achievements — when someone gives you a compliment, blush and reject it; when you’ve spent months cramming for exams, tell others you’re unprepared; when you get a promotion, hastily explain that you have an understanding boss… We’re pundits in the school of self-abasement.

It was, therefore, of little wonder that after I’d prepared, planned, practiced and primped for a job I desperately wanted, I played the “undeserving underling” role to perfection. I was an aspiring young journalist, on the 36th floor of a posh Manhattan skyscraper, being interviewed at a popular women’s magazine. The Assistant Editor glanced at my resume and remarked, “Wow, you’ve studied at XYZ,” referring to the communications school I’d graduated from, rated one of the best in the US. My response? “Oh, I did my master’s degree there. It was easy to get in.” The moment the words slipped out of my mouth irrevocable damage had been inflicted. The rest of the interview was simply a formality.

Lesson Learned: When you don’t have anything smart to say, shut up.

Projection is Key

You know that you’re breathing hard, have clammy hands, and a tongue that refuses to dislodge from the roof of your mouth. But deception is key. It’s mandatory to present yourself as a ‘take-charge’ kind of person. In my opinion, good interviewees should be in the running for the Academy Awards. I, however, don’t have that distinction.

The next interview I went to was at a social service organization. Nice people, no pressure. My frazzled nerves gradually started to unwind. Then my interviewer asked me to show him my portfolio. I opened my bulky blue folder and knocked over a glass of water on his desk. Phone wires, pen holders, laptop wires and my folder (the least of my concerns, at the time), were soaked. I stared transfixed from the sidelines, as my interviewer hurried to find something to mop up the water, now dripping onto the floor. It was a surreal moment – my interviewer was on all fours, at my feet, wiping the floor with a non-absorbent rag. “Do something,” my mind screamed and I reached for the phones on his desk.

The interviewer then looked up at me and politely suggested I disentangle myself from the web of phone wires that had wound themselves around my legs.

Lesson Learned: When you’ve got your tongue under control, watch your hands.

Presentation is Crucial

You want to dress to impress. Or perhaps not. Incident three took place in New Jersey, at an interview with a leading financial news service. The day began early for me — ironing my black suit, finding ladder-less stockings, styling my hair, choosing a handbag that doesn’t let on that I’m just out of college. I looked the part — like I could be Bill Gates’ financial adviser. I walked into the imposing building, my black high-heels pinching my stocking-adorned feet, sending waves of pain up my shin. My heels clicked their way across the polished floor, to the security desk, up the elevators, and to the room where my skills would be evaluated. I smiled at my interviewer, quickly sizing up his T-shirt and khakis. My confidence in my designer suit unraveled in seconds. He led me into the main newsroom — all I could see, amid the clutter of computers, were blue jeans, T-shirts, slacks, khakis… I looked like a female FBI agent. My interviewer instinctively answered my unasked question: “Today is ‘Dress-Down Friday’.”

I didn’t make that job either.

Lesson Learned: Wear comfortable shoes. Even if you don’t make the job, you’ll still be able to make it home.

Presence of Mind

I’d applied for a job, which I really didn’t want. I found myself at the interview making excuses for refusing the position. My conscience started to annoy me a little and I quickly made my exit. A little too quickly.

I got home, slipped into a pair of jeans and looked for my cell phone. I had to relate the details of my narrow escape to my kith and kin, indulge in an interview-postmortem. Then it hit me — the cell phone was in my handbag and my bag was still on the chair I’d squirmed in during my interview.

Lesson learned: Look before you leave.

There’s good news for all of us. Things do get better. I learned the hard way. But I did learn.

I recently landed a job as a writer for a travel magazine and love every minute of it.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Roman Kruglov


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