5 Ways to Save a Terrible Job Interview

Photograph by David Woolfall—Getty Images

Here’s something to consider before your next job application: A 2018 survey from CareerBuilder found that roughly half (49%) of employers make up their minds about whether you’re a good or bad fit within the first five minutes of a job interview

It’s no wonder, since companies spend an average of three hours interviewing a typical candidate during the whole recruitment process, according to a 2019 report by HR software company Lever. Only about 30 to 40% of candidates who interview onsite receive an offer. So one could argue that despite doing your homework —all of the prep work and practicing with a friend or a coach— the possibilities of failing the actual interview are considerable.

While the CareerBuilder survey detailed some of the most outrageous ways interviewees “blew it”—asking for a sip of the interviewer’s coffee during the interview or showing up with a Darth Vader costume— there are some definite nonstarters. The top five deal-breakers that interviewers said would immediately get a candidate nixed included getting caught lying about something (71%), answering calls or texts during the interview (67%), acting arrogant or entitled (59%), showing a lack of accountability (52%), or swearing (51%).

But sometimes, poor performance is more subjective. Perhaps you became extremely nervous or the interviewer misunderstood something you were saying. Or maybe you were simply not as well-prepared as you thought. What do you do then? 

The question makes Brian Richie, senior advisor with Labtuit.com, a career advising and coaching organization based in Mountain View, California, think back to his collegiate days at the University of Florida, when he showed up for what he thought was an informal informational interview with the athletic department only to find that he had a full-fledged job interview. He wasn’t dressed appropriately and didn’t even have a copy of his resume —when asked for one, he pulled out his laptop.

“He looked at me like I had six heads,” Richie recalls of the interviewer, who scolded him about not being prepared or able to sell himself, cutting the interview short. “It was one of the most humiliating experiences I’d gone through up to that point,” he recalls. But it also taught him about what he needed to do to make a great impression the next time.

Here are five strategies for during and after a less-than-stellar interview. 

1. Don’t overreact

In the moment, it’s easy to panic when you feel like you’re not doing well. But, it’s important to keep the moment in perspective, says Bryan Zawikowski, vice president and general manager of the Military Transition Division of Lucas Group, an Atlanta-based executive recruitment firm. “I jokingly tell people that are nervous about going into interviews that if they really mess this up, they will never have to see that person again in their lives,” he says. 

Keep in mind that you might not be assessing the situation objectively, especially if you’re anxious. If you find yourself overcome by nerves, admit that you’re somewhat nervous —people expect that, he says. 

2. Regain composure

Do your best to regain your composure in the interview, Zawikowski advises. Turning a case of nerves or a mistake in the interview into a more relaxed, positive approach can impress hiring managers and show them that you’re able to perform under pressure. Let’s say you realized that you misstated something, made a mistake, or didn’t answer as strongly as you would have liked. Revisit the question.

“A lot of people are so embarrassed once they step in it that they don’t realize that most interviewers are aware that you’re human and that you’re going to make mistakes,” Zawikowski says. “Do you own it and come back strong?” That can make all the difference in how interviewers see you. 

3. Take your time

If you feel the interview isn’t going well, try to slow the pace. Be thoughtful in answering questions, taking time when you need to do so, says Richie. Sometimes, interviewees feel like they need to answer in rapid-fire fashion. But, slowing down and saying, “That’s a great question. Do you mind if I think about that for a few seconds?” can give you the space you need to formulate the best answer.

4. Pivot

If the interview isn’t going the way you wish or the conversation isn’t showcasing your skills in their best light, you can redirect the discussion, says Bradenton, Florida HR expert and career coach Angelique J. Hamilton. If you aren’t being asked about your strongest points or best skills, simply say, “Something we have not yet discussed is . . .” and delve into what you believe you can bring to the company. 

Another way to change the conversation is to ask questions about the company and get more clarity about what the interviewer values or sees as critical for the role. Then, you can adapt your discussion points accordingly, Hamilton says. “Once you have that information, you can come up with the best stance for that situation,” she says. 

5. Follow up

After you leave the interview, you have another chance to follow up in a thank-you note. But before you approach the contact with a corrective tone, be sure you aren’t misreading the situation, Richie says. Check with your recruiter or any contacts you have to get feedback before you thank the interviewer. That may give you a better sense of how you performed. That’s also good information for the next interview, whether it’s with this company or another one. 

“If you can’t obtain feedback from the bombed interview, brainstorm it yourself. Ask yourself what questions had you squirming the most. Try to pinpoint the areas that threw you off your game and set a plan of action to improve confidence there,” he says. By stepping up your confidence after a setback, you might succesfully —and inadvertently— display important skills that you’ll need in almost any workplace.

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