“Before we start, what exactly do you do here?”
An interview doesn’t start when you walk into the building – you really need to have done some research long before you walk through that door. You should definitely know what the company does.
“My last company? Oh, they were just awful..."
It’s simply unprofessional to bad-mouth your previous employer: a better idea is to strike a balance between the truth and not sounding like you’re simply whining. Focus on the positives you took away from your last role, even if the only good thing you came away with was increased patience.
“No, I didn’t get along that well with my last boss – or anyone there, really..."
Again – try not to focus on the negative. Your last boss might have been a complete nightmare, but your interviewer can’t know that and is bound to wonder, even if just for a second, whether it’s you that’s the nightmare.
“I’m…sorry... I’m just... so nervous!”
Everyone gets a little nervous in interviews, but the trick is not to show it. Successful people get just as nervous as the rest of us, but they’ve learnt how to hide it, or better yet, to use it. Nervousness can make you feel like your head’s full of cotton-wool, but it can also sharpen you up, and make you feel like your brain’s working a mile a minute. Take a deep breath and focus that nervousness into energy – but make sure you don’t overdo it and come across as frantic. After all, companies want to hire confident people, not lunatics.
“I know I’m a bit lacking in the experience side of things, but..."
You might not have much experience, but that’s no reason to draw attention to it! Focus on your strengths as strengths, rather than as excuses for your weaknesses.
“It’s there, on my CV.”
This sort of answer is likely to have hiring managers dropping their heads into their hands, mumbling “yes, I know it’s on your CV – I want you to tell me more!” A question which references something already on your CV is usually an opportunity the interviewer is giving you to bring that portion of your CV off of the page. They want to hear you speak, and it’s something you should have a decent amount of knowledge on and be able to speak about articulately – it’s a test, don’t mess it up by being a smart-alec.
“I’m multi-talented – I can do any role you’ve got.”
You might well be multi-talented, but all this says to an interviewer is “I don’t really have any specialities – I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of none”. Highlight your versatility, yes, but make sure you convey how much you want this particular role: hiring managers are usually looking for someone who can be passionate about the role, not someone who’ll just turn up each day.
“I have a Business degree, 12 years of fantastic experience, I volunteer with the elderly, oh, and I once took a night class in Japanese for a month.”
This one’s quite interesting. According to an article from the Harvard Business Review, an answer like this is the result of falling prey to the ‘Presenter’s Paradox’. Basically, we think that when we describe our achievements to someone, they perceive them as an additive offering: eg if your degree, experience and (hopefully relevant) volunteering hours are worth ten points each, and your month of Japanese classes is worth two, your total is 32, right? Wrong. Apparently, people don’t see it that way: they see it as a whole package, rather than the constituent parts, and they average it – making your score a far less impressive 8 ((10+10+10+2)/4=8). If you hadn’t included the Japanese, your score would be 10 – not quite the 32 you originally had in mind, but people’s brains just don’t work that way, and 10 is better than 8!
So, when you think you’re adding extra value, you could in fact be selling yourself short – or even underselling yourself! – by including those lesser quality snippets of information.
“I, um, created an entirely new, like, system for, uh, that.”
Words like ‘um’, ‘like’ and ‘uh’ undermine whatever you’re saying by making you sound as though you’re not entirely sure what you’re talking about, and having to make it up as you go along, even if the words between the filler actually show you're a bit of an expert. They convey a lack of confidence and possibly a deficiency in communication skills which, depending on the job, could be a dealbreaker.
“Oh, rats, um, I had something for this..."
While preparing for an interview is important, it’s also wise not to over-prepare. If you script out answers to every possible question you could be asked, you’ll end up coming across as stilted and awkward, or worse, you’ll forget what you were going to say, but because you just know you had the perfect answer, you’ll flounder about rather than just coming out with an honest answer, which would probably have done the job just fine. Interviews are, essentially, conversations – not plays. Do your research, but keep it – relatively! – casual.
“Being a perfectionist – that’s my greatest weakness.”
Just, no. Please don’t. Come up with something that’s actually a weakness, or risk sounding like an arrogant toad.
That said, avoid too much honesty, unlike the candidate who said ‘I get angry easily and I went to jail for domestic violence. But I won’t get mad at you,” (Pechstein, via CNN) or the ‘stagnant worker’ who said ‘I’m really not a big learner. You know.. some people just love learning and are always picking up new things, but that’s just not me. I’d much rather work at a place where the job is pretty stagnant and doesn’t change a lot.” (Michaele Charles, Voice Comms, via CNN) Neither of those candidates got the job.
“I’m a great ‘outside-the-box’ thinker/real people-person with a can-do attitude/looking for a new challenge.”
Recruiters and hiring managers look at hundreds of CVs for a single job. Buzzwords and clichés are not going to help you here – they’re more likely to cause the eyes of the person reading your CV to glaze over. These kinds of phrases are useless in interviews too – many of them sound down-right silly, once you say them out loud.
“So, when I was 18, I went to Thailand..."
Use stories to illustrate your points, absolutely. Don’t however, tell your interviewer every interesting thing that’s ever happened to you, ever. Tailor your stories to be applicable: tell stories that illustrate particular strengths or successes, but keep them relevant.
It’s also important to keep stories appropriate: the ingenious way you corralled your mates onto the night bus one night when you were all utterly blasted might showcase your leadership skills, but does it show them in the right way?
“Using a holistic approach, I leveraged my core competencies and strategic connections to build a synergistic network with a truly functional philosophy...”
Sounds like nonsense? Exactly. When you cram too many buzz words and phrases into one sentence you lose all sense. Ditch the idioms and talk like a human - it'll help, 'cause your interviewer's likely to be human too.
“I improved the API to optimise B2C relations and CRM”
What does this mean? Who knows!
Beware of acronyms and sector-specific terms – generalist recruiters almost certainly won’t understand them and even those with vast knowledge of your area might not know that particular short-hand or acronym. Bear in mind also that different sectors may use the same acronym for different things, and different markets might use different acronyms for the same things. Make sure your CV makes sense to those who might not know quite as much about what you do as you do.
“Um… I don’t know.”
Admitting to not knowing the answer to a question is better than simply winging it, but stopping at ‘I don’t know’ suggests that you can’t think on your feet, or are unwilling to learn and consider new ideas. Admit that you don’t know the answer, and then apply whatever knowledge you do have on the subject and try. As long as your answer doesn’t completely miss the point, your interviewer is likely to appreciate the honesty and the effort.
“How much vacation time do I get?” “What’s your maternity/paternity policy?” “Do you have a bonus or benefits system?”
Too many “what’s in it for me?” questions show the interviewer that you’re only really interested in what the company can do for you, rather than what you can do for the company. Of course, employment is a two-way street and both parties should (hopefully!) come out better off. It’s perfectly reasonable to inquire as to what the benefits will be for you if you land the job, but a whole slew of these questions can make you come across as arrogant and entitled, which is usually unappealing.
“How soon can I expect a promotion?”
Similarly, a question like this oozes arrogance: you’re asking when you might be promoted before you’ve even gotten the job! Wanting to know whether the job has career progression is normal and advisable: demanding a time frame on your first promotion, not so much.
“Nope, I don’t have any questions.”
Not having a single question prepared suggests you don’t care much about the role or the company recruiting for it. Most of the time, pre-interview research will turn up at least one question you want answered, whether that’s about personal development provided by the company or the frequency of social or team-building events.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that your question was already answered earlier in the interview, and once you’re asked if you have any questions your brain goes into utter meltdown grasping for another. Instead, relax, and tell them so! “Actually, I was intending to ask you about [this], but we’ve already covered that! Could you perhaps explain [this finer point] to me?”
“I’m more of a ‘people person’ than a ‘numbers person…’”
If you’re applying for an accountancy position, or the opposite if you’re after a customer service role, or anything which basically says you’re not right for the job: Careerbuilder tells of a woman who actually said the above while applying for an accounting position.
Make sure you understand the job you’re applying for and the sort of comments that will mark you as eminently unsuitable.
“I’m hoping to start my own business, as soon as possible really…”
This will do nothing but show your interviewer that you have very little interest in being a part of their firm: at best, they’ll think you’re just killing time, at worst, they might think you’re only trying to get the role in order to poach their customers or pinch their practices.
“Holy sh*t, seriously?”
Swearing in an interview is generally a bad idea, even if your interviewer is as laid-back as they come: and yes, even if they swear themselves. Try to keep your language professional, at least until you’ve signed the contract. After that, just try to match your language use to the company culture: you don’t want to become known as the office potty-mouth, even if swearing isn’t particularly frowned upon.
“And, well, yeah…”
The greatest story or anecdote can be ruined by tailing off at the end as though you’re not even sure you’re finished.
The Muse quotes career counsellor Lily Zhang: “Even with the most prepared interview candidates, I’ve found that a lot of people still make one critical mistake. They’ll deliver absolutely fantastic and relevant stories, and I’ll be completely hooked—all the way up until they end with, ‘and... yeah’ or just an awkward pause.”
“Do you know how long this is going to take?”
Hopefully, it’s obvious why this is a stupid thing to say at interview: it conveys your lack of interest in the job, as you’re already thinking about being finished with the interview before it’s even started!
“Things are tough for me right now…”
Most people will be sympathetic to whatever problems you might be having, but an interviewer can’t help but wonder what impact your personal issues could cause to your performance on the job. Be honest with the interviewer: if you are going to shortly need a year off to care for an elderly relative, it’s probably best not to hide that, but you might want to keep your imminent divorce private, at least for now.
“I’m so sorry I’m so late!”
Don’t be late, and then you won’t have to say this. Simple, really.
“Sorry I’m so early!”
While punctuality is important, turning up any more than about 10 minutes early for your interview could put pressure on your interviewer to drop what they’re doing and dash down to meet you. It could set your interview off in the wrong tone before you’ve even shaken hands.
“Would you like to see my references?”
Pushing references early on can seem a little desperate, and it also runs the risk of your having nothing to follow up with – keep a few eggs in your basket until you need them.
“I just wanted to follow up... again...”
Hassling is not a good idea. Send an email to convey thanks for the interview, and leave it there. If you haven’t heard, chances are they’re not interested, and endlessly chasing them won’t change that – it’s more likely to cement the decision. A good employer will let you know if you’re not successful, and a company who just ignores you is probably not a company you particularly want to work for anyway.
- “So… are you single?”
Questions like this are inappropriate, no matter what. You might have really clicked with your interviewer – so much so that you think they could be more than a boss – but just keep it to yourself!