I’m anxious, underdressed, and criminally unprepared going into this job interview. I find ways to make up for it in the beginning: My eye contact game is strong and I try to project self-assurance with my posture. With an unseasoned interviewer, perhaps I could skirt by on false confidence and improvisation for 10 or 15 minutes. But the woman I'm meeting with is a professional; it’s her job to sniff out the weaknesses hiding beneath the surface.
Pamela Skillings is the co-founder and chief interview coach at Big Interview in New York City. Clients come to her in order to practice their interview skills in a space where it’s safe to mess up. They might want to improve their answers to certain questions, tackle their poor body language habits, or simply get more comfortable selling themselves to strangers. “A lot of the people that come in for coaching are a little more on the introverted or modest side,” Skillings says during our meeting. “People who are good at what they do but maybe not so much talking about it.”
Depending on the field you’re in, mock interviews can last for up to an hour and go as in depth as you like. Fortunately, I’m not preparing for an actual career change, so my coach gives me the condensed version.
BREAKING THE ICE
The job I'm mock interviewing for is director of the food and lifestyle section at a publishing house. I've chosen a position far enough outside my career path to make things challenging (I'm a few years shy of the experience requirement), but not so foreign to me that talking about it will be impossible. After exchanging what I hope is a firm handshake, Skillings asks me a common interview ice-breaker: “Tell me about yourself.” As was the case with every time I’ve been asked this in the past, my mind responds by seizing up. It’s a predictable question, one interviewers love to ask because it requires little effort on their part, so why does it catch me off guard each time?
“Almost everybody that comes in here could use help with that question,” Skillings says. “It’s almost always the first question [and it] is so important because it really is the first impression of substance that the [interviewer] is getting from you. And it really is an opportunity, because it does allow you, if you’ve planned a little in advance, to position yourself the way you want to position yourself.”
I scramble for a place to start my personal summary and eventually land on college. It's not a total misfire for a 24-year-old, but probably too far back to catch my potential employer’s interest. From there, I work my way up to present-day.
“Like a lot of people, I think you gave a perfectly serviceable answer there,” Skillings tells me later. But she says I missed the chance to weave in my book publishing and managerial experience—two things I don’t do in my current role that are major components of the job I’m applying for.
For my answer, I went the professional route, but I wonder if taking a more personal approach to the “tell me about yourself” question is an effective way to make yourself stand out. “If you’re an executive with 15 years experience, [interviewers] don’t care if you were on the college rowing team,” Skillings says. But she does recommend showcasing personality traits if you're someone looking for post-college jobs or internships. “Because at that point, it’s a lot more about potential than what you’ve done. It’s about asking, 'Who is this person? Are they motivated? Are they a go-getter?'”
WHAT ARE YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES?
Skillings moves on to asking me about past job duties before hitting me with another classic stumper. “What would you say are your greatest strengths?” she asks. Leaning into the managerial aspects of the job, I give a stock response about being a “people person." Later, Skillings asks me to explain why I think I’d be a good fit for this position. This time I get more detailed, citing specific skills and accomplishments and relating them to the job.
These two questions represent different ways of getting you to reveal the same information—namely, examples of your past successes. “I’ve noticed sometimes that people will give a more general surface answer for strengths, but then if I really press and say 'why you?' sometimes that will bring out a little bit more of the passion and the detail level." For a homework assignment, Skillings tells her clients to come up with a least five strengths and, most importantly, proof points to go with each of them. That means instead of just rattling off strengths like “great attention to detail,” interviewees are armed with stories from their professional lives to back them up.
“It makes it more convincing and it also helps the interviewer connect with the candidate,” Skillings says. “A lot of people fall back on the general interview speak that they got out of a book and it ends up feeling like there’s not a real connection there. I’m a big believer in preparing but not sounding so scripted you come off as a robot.”
Having a handful of stories ready to go is essential in any interview (especially when answering “Tell me about a time when…” questions, as Skillings calls them), but interviewees should be wary of only reflecting on their high points. They should have at least one response prepared to tackle subjects like conflict, weakness, and professional failure.
When answering these questions, Skillings recommends going one of two ways: addressing the “elephant in the room” (resume gaps, lack of experience, etc.) or picking a weakness that doesn’t necessarily interfere with the job you’re interviewing for. In terms of the latter, she says “fear of public speaking” is one solid choice. “Assuming this isn’t a job as a public speaker, people will say, ‘I tend to get a little nervous when talking in front of a large group and it’s not something I’ve been comfortable with in the past.'" To really nail this answer, though, Skillings says you should end by sharing steps you've taken to improve your stated weakness, like taking a public speaking class or volunteering to present at a team meeting. "That shows that you’re working on it.”
And whatever you do, when asked to give a weakness don’t answer with “perfectionist.” “Maybe it worked 10 years ago when people weren’t doing it as much,” Skillings says. “But now the interviewer’s like, ‘Oh please, come on.’”
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
In between questions, I call my attention back to my body language. I notice my eyes wandering and quickly reconnect with Skillings’s gaze. This ends up backfiring. “You were doing pretty well, but I just got this sense of you being like, ‘I need to do this,’” she tells me afterward. “That and other body language issues are part of the reason why I think practice is so important.”
Job-seekers may not like to hear this, but Skillings says practicing in front of a mirror, with another person, or even (shudder) in front of a camera are the only ways to catch the body language habits and filler words you may not be conscious of. Practice is also a smart way to deal with nerves, which may be causing you to lean on those crutches in the first place.
Even if you wait until the car ride there to practice, Skillings says that warm-up could make or break the tone of the entire interview. “When people are nervous and they haven’t found their flow yet, the first question or two is really awkward. And then they warm up a little bit and things get better. But sometimes you can’t afford to have those first couple questions be rough.” It’s also important to keep in mind that the occasional “ums,” “uhs,” and less-than-constant eye contact are to be expected. The interviewer (hopefully) won’t fault you for being human.
DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS FOR ME?
As my interview winds to a close, Skillings asks me a question that I’ve always considered easy: “Do you have any questions for me?” No matter where I’m interviewing, I usually counter with something along the lines of “What qualities are you looking for in an ideal candidate?” Skillings says this is a safe bet. “I think that [question] tends to be a decent one, as long as it doesn’t come across as ‘I didn’t read the job description at all and I have no idea’ but more like ‘What do you think is the most important thing that you’re looking for in this role?’”
But questions that loop back to specifics mentioned in the interview are almost always best, Skillings says. Ideally, the interviewer brought up something interesting during the course of your conversation that you can ask them to elaborate on in the end. But if that wasn’t the case, or you were too nervous to remember what they said, it’s good to have some backup questions prepared. Good standbys include: “What do you think will be the biggest priorities for this role in the first month?” and “What are the biggest opportunities for the company this year?”
“Stuff like that shows you’ve put yourself in the mindset of ‘What can I do for the company and how can I make it more successful?’” she says.
The interview ends with my interviewer going over all the things I did wrong (which, incidentally, is also a personal nightmare of mine). Though I handled some hardballs admirably, we come to the conclusion that my performance probably wouldn’t be enough to snag me a job I’m unqualified for to begin with. “I wasn’t quite buying that this was what you really wanted to do, and probably because it isn’t,” she says. A solid résumé and the right experience might score you a meeting, but it's your passion that will set you apart.