You crafted a beautiful resumé. You attended Career Connectors and got some great advice. You networked with professionals in your industry.
And then you get that call—a company that you have targeted for career potential wants you to come in for a face-to-face interview! Your next question…what do I do to win the interview?
The operable term here is simple—prepare—but the challenge becomes how to prepare. Most people meeting managers for a job interview know the basics—have copies of paperwork for each interview board member, get a haircut, shine your shoes, dress for success, etc. In other words, you are thinking about the same things that pretty much every other person going to an interview does. What you need to win the day is to make yourself special … you know, just like everyone else.
With this in mind, you must go beyond the traditional and the expected in order to have a successful interview; to do this, you have to quit focusing all of your time on things and shift some of that focus to people. This is where psychology comes in. How can we use psychology to make us unique to the interviewer and make a favorable impression? It is all about being human.
How Psychology Works
Humans are genetically predisposed to respond to visuals differently than other stimuli; from early childhood development, children master skills based on visual cues before they develop verbal language and well before the advent of reading and writing skills. The psychologist Jerome Bruner presented data that shows how visual communication has a significant impact on learning. Beyond the basic findings of Bruner’s studies, the effect of visuals on information retention showed that images may improve information retention and much as 6x over words alone—spoken or written.
Because of this phenomenon of the human condition, it is important to engage non-verbal, visual cues to help get your message across and make your interview memorable. Whether purely visual or visual, verbal, and tactile, you leave an impression with interviewers—starting with the first time you greet them and shake hands. Warm, dry hands inspire confidence. Cold, clammy hands are a turn-off. Go to a bathroom and wash your hands under hot water and then dry thoroughly. In cold weather, holding a hot beverage help warm your hands as well.
Be cognizant of what you wear to the interview—not just the type of clothing, but their colors. For example, a red tie is a clear symbol of power that could distance you from the interviewers. They may consider you arrogant, forward, or even hunting for their jobs—or that of their supervisors. A nice yellow tie sends a message of being approachable, while a pastel blue shirt conveys trustworthiness. For women, pastel blue tops and some sort of pastel yellow trim, pin, or other accessory send the same message.
What is most important, however, is putting it all together; in other words, it is about how you present yourself. Even though you make a first impression when you walk through the door, how you act and respond during the interview is paramount. The following behaviors can send the right message to interviewers, drawing them into a feeling of teamwork and comradeship, making them decide that you are a good fit for their organization.
Never lean back in your chair. Conversely, don’t lean forward or sit like you are made of stone. You need to portray a professional and alert—yet relaxed and comfortable—image to the interviewers. But remember that employers like candidates who exhibit characteristics of being calm under pressure! Hmmm … how do you portray a professional and alert, but not stiff or over-anxious, image to the interviewer? One of the best techniques for this is to apply counting and breathing to control enthusiasm and show a calm demeanor. Listen to questions in their entirety, count 1-2-3 before answering to give yourself time to collect your thoughts into a cogent response, and breathe deeply and slowly during the interview process.
Where are your arms and legs? One of the most easily transmitted non-verbal cues is whether you are closed to discussion or open to new ideas. These cues are most often sent by how you position your arms and legs. Crossing your arms across your chest sends a message that you are closed to discussion or acting in an authoritative, aggressive, or condescending manner—this can end your chances before you answer any questions. Having your arms comfortably in your lap or, perhaps, holding a note pad and taking notes during the interview sends a message of openness to discussion. When you sit, the relaxed position of having one leg up with the ankle sitting on the opposite knee presents an overly-casual, unprofessional message. Sitting with your legs uncrossed (but relaxed) or crossed at the knees sends a more professional message. As for hands and feet, don’t tap or swivel your feet during the interview—again, it shows nervousness and can send a message that you do not do well under stress. The same applies when fidgeting with your hands—a good way to avoid this is to have a note pad and pen in your hands to take notes.
Mirror the interviewer. In other words, mirror some of the movements that interviewers make when they communicate with you. But … only do this if you are comfortable and the motions are natural to you! If an interviewer picks up that you are purposely mirroring their actions throughout the interview, you will be perceived as being disingenuous and manipulative—hurting your chances at being hired (Baron, 1986).
Just how good are you at what you do? Many times you will know more than the interviewer(s) about the job and its associated tasks. This makes the process even more stressful because you may be compelled to dive deeply into a higher level of material than the interviewer(s) are able to understand—this is typically going to result in losing the interview. I inadvertently lost a potential job this way when an interviewer asked a question to which I knew information about their own company about which the interviewer had no clue (and the lead interviewer validated my information to her during the interview). One sure sign of this eagerness to show just how much you know is the urge to interrupt the interviewer and either predict what they were going to say next or, if you are really too bold, correct them. One simple rule on this one—don’t interrupt the interviewer!
Now that I have covered some of the “don’ts,” let’s focus on some of the “dos.” From the time you arrive for your interview, you must understand that there are more interviewers than the one(s) at the table with you. The receptionist will be asked their opinion of you—you have only one shot at making a good first impression! Courtesy and a friendly demeanor go a very long way because one of the unwritten metrics people will use to assess you is, simply, do I want to work with this candidate?
Every person with whom you come in contact has one thing in common—they are human beings with emotions, opinions, and skills. Take time to fit in ways to subtly compliment the interviewer(s). If you are in an office, perhaps there is a family picture, an award plaque, an article of sports memorabilia, or some other things that may provide common ground and start to move toward a relationship instead of purely an interview. If the interview is in a common area, such as a conference room, you can comment on pictures of their products, corporate recognition items, and so forth to start the relationship. BUT … in order to do these things effectively, you must be diligent in researching the company beforehand, including their website and social media platform sites. If you start the conversation without really knowing the material, again, plan on likely losing the interview.
Smile during the interview, but sparingly. Studies have shown that candidates are judged to be more suitable for a position—especially those requiring a serious demeanor—if they smile less (Ruben, Hall, & Schmid Mast, 2015). These studies also found that smiling at the start and end of the interview, but having a more serious presentation in the middle of an interview, resulted in a higher desirability score from interviewers.
Be clear in your answers and questions. Remember the part about counting and breathing I mentioned previously? That works in your favor. Do not try to impress interviewers with fancy jargon or answers loaded with acronyms—even if they are relative to the position. You may be interviewing for an IT position, for example, but have interviewers from HR for your initial interview who do not understand those terms. A simple, affirmative presentation of what you have to offer is your best bet. Research has shown that candidates who speak clearly, intelligently, and logically are far more favored than those who immerse the conversation in technical jargon and seem to bounce randomly around an issue (Clark, 2008).
Enthusiasm counts! Do not be a monotone drone during the interview. Use inflections in your voice to indicate excitement and confidence. Research shows that these expressions significantly increase the candidate’s score, leading to a higher probability of call-backs and a favorable hiring decision (Young & Kacmar, 1998). Candidates with higher affect, energy level, and vocal inflections garnered more second interviews than those with lower affect, lack of energy, and less vocal character (Degroot & Motowidlo, 1999). Candidates who lack enthusiasm are often judged to be more anxious or nervous (Levine & Feldman, 2002), translating to a perception of lacking confidence and being less effective communicators (McCarthy & Goffin, 2004)—these are likely death blows to your hiring chances.
Always ask about company culture. A standard ending to interviews includes being asked if you have any questions for interviewers. The absolute wrong answer is “No.” Be sure to have two to three questions thought out (and written down) before the interview. One question must always be about the company’s culture; you are exploring whether the company is a good fit for you now, rather than the other way around. Other questions should have their foundations in your study of the company’s website and other resources, delving into areas relative to the position for which you are interviewing. Have a note pad out to write down answers—this shows that you are interested in what interviewers tell you in their answers.
Finally, make sure to thank the interviewer(s) and do so more than once. It is appropriate to thank them at the beginning of the interview for the opportunity, at the conclusion of the interview, and to send a follow-up email thanking the interviewer (or lead interviewer of a panel) within 24 hours after the interview is completed. Again, courtesy counts—the email shows that you are competent by doing follow-up to an event … and it shows a touch of business class.
The following list is a compilation of tips as listed on the American Psychological Association (APA) website (APA, 2016):
What to Do in an Interview
- Present an air of confidence during your interview and understand what is expected of you.
- Do your homework and find out as much as possible about the institution, department, and the faculty. Know the institution’s Web information.
- Tailor your job talk to the attendees and make arrangements for any A/V support in advance.
Keep your job talk general and short. Don’t talk about all of the details, but show that you are aware of them.
- Address questions about your job and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have an answer.
- Show interest in your interviewer’s work. Read at least one paper written by each person in your area.
- Show respect to committee and department staff. Be flexible and polite.
- Dress appropriately.
What Not to Do in an Interview
- Don’t forget the goal of the interview is to see if there is a match between you and the department.
- Don’t forget you are always being interviewed, even at meals, parties, in casual conversations, and graduate student meetings.
- Don’t forget to check your time and not go over the time allocated for your job talk.
- Don’t forget to ask people about their work.
- Don’t forget to send any materials you promised to individuals as soon as possible.
No interview is ever a non-stress environment. No interview is an automatic win or loss. In most cases—but not all—interviewers have set questions and processes that they follow and typically have experience doing interviews. In other words, YOU are the variable that they cannot control if you prepare effectively. Be yourself—not what you think they want you to be. Use a mirror to see how you look before going to the interview. Practice answers to questions you think might be asked—even have a close friend do a mock interview with you. Pay attention to how interviewers act—their non-verbal cues are as important to you as your cues are to them.
In short, prepare, be attentive, relax, and gather thoughts before answering, respect interviewers, and be ready to show how you are the company are good for each other. YOU CAN DO THIS!
APA. (2016). Interview and Job Talk Tips. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/careers/resources/academic/interview.aspx
Baron, R. A. (1986). Self-presentation in job interviews: When there can be “too much of a good thing.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 16, 16 –28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1986.tb02275.x
Clark, C. (2008). The impact of entrepreneurs’ oral ‘pitch’ presentation skills on business angels’ initial screening investment decisions. Venture Capital, 10, 257–279.
DeGroot, T., & Motowidlo, S. J. (1999). Why visual and vocal interview cues can affect interviewers’ judgments and predict performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 986 –993. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ 0021-9010.84.6.986
McCarthy, J. M., & Goffin, R. D. (2004). Measuring job interview anxiety: Beyond weak knees and sweaty palms. Personnel Psychology, 57, 607– 637. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2004.00002.x
Ruben, M. A., Hall, J. A., & Schmid Mast, M. (2015). Smiling in a job interview: When less is more. The Journal of Social Psychology, 155(2), 107-126.
Young, A., & Kacmar, M. (1998). ABCs of the interview: The role of affective, behavioral, and cognitive responses by applicants in the employment interview. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 6, 211–221. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1468-2389.00092