Ten Most Common Interview Blunders and How to Avoid Them

In a perfect world, the most qualified candidate always gets the job. Needless to say, this isn’t always the case. Gain the competitive edge by avoiding these simple mistakes.

Failure to Practice Typical Interview Questions

Tell me about yourself. Why do you want to work here?  What are your strengths and weaknesses? 

What do these questions have in common? The answer is that they’re open-ended, designed to get you to reveal as much of yourself as possible. A good interviewer knows that the interviewee should be doing most of the talking. Let’s examine each of these questions.

Tell me about yourself. You are correct in assuming that, for the most part, the interviewer does not want to hear about your scuba diving adventure in the Bahamas or your first-place spelling bee finish in the seventh grade. What the interviewer does want to hear is how you tailor your background and experiences to reflect the requirements of the position for which you’re interviewing. Consider the fictional scenario below:

Henrietta Helmsforth is a third-year patent attorney specializing in patent prosecution of a wide range of matters. She has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Maxamillion LLP is looking for a patent attorney (3-5 years’ experience) to work with the firm’s blue-chip clients in the fields of electronics, semiconductors, hardware and software development.

Interviewer: So, Henrietta, tell me about yourself.

Henrietta: Certainly. For the past three years I’ve leveraged my expertise in electrical engineering by preparing and prosecuting a wide range of patent applications for some of my firm’s largest clients, some of which are leaders in the IT industry. One client, in particular, has a strong software development team, and I have collaborated with upper management in assessing the patentability of many projects in R&D.

Now that’s a “tell me” story that will get the interviewer’s attention. In this scenario, Henrietta has worked into her introduction a summary of her college background, the nature of her patent practice (prosecution), a general description of the firm’s client base and a specific description of her interaction with a client whose technological focus falls within one of Maxamillion’s practice specialties.

Why do you want to work here?  Make no mistake about it; the proper answer should have nothing to do with benefits or cushy billable hour requirements. The primary purpose of this question is to determine whether you have learned anything about the company’s culture and, depending on your response, whether you will be a good fit.     

Interviewer: Why do you want to work here?

Henrietta: After [reviewing your website, seeing your brochures, reading the article in the Daily News, informational interviewing with your colleagues], I see what a great fit there is between how your IP group goes about meeting the needs of your technology clients and my own methods for addressing clients’ issues in emerging technologies. I am aware of how important a collaborative environment is to your firm and I can contribute to that objective by __________________.

In this scenario, our candidate Henrietta has done her homework on the firm. She’s reviewed their website or any other internet references she can find, read their brochures or any other marketing collateral available or spoken with individuals having knowledge of the firm. The objective is to make the interviewer aware that Henrietta has researched her prospective employer thoroughly, that she understands the mission and culture of the firm and that she is a good fit for the organization based on the description she gives of her means for contributing to the firm’s objectives.

What are your strengths? Here’s another “fit” question in the sense that your declared competencies will help the interviewer assess whether your skill sets are appropriate for the position.

Interviewer: What would you say are your greatest strengths?

Henrietta: My clients have always appreciated the long view that I take regarding their initiatives. For instance, patent applications can languish for several years. I always make it a point to discuss the client’s long-term objectives with respect to the technology under patent consideration so that economic considerations in pursuing the patent are balanced against the client’s prospective use for the technology going forward. I believe that practicality is an important aspect of good lawyering.

Henrietta has discussed a specific positive attribute—the ability to draw out a client’s business objectives and to balance those needs with the appropriate legal steps to arrive at a result that will foster the client’s best interests. This is the kind of detail that an interviewer expects in a response. Avoid using general terms in your response such as “detail oriented,” “quick thinker,” “conscientious,” or “perfectionist.”

What are your weaknesses? This is one of the trickiest questions in an interviewer’s arsenal. The key to answering this question effectively is to position a declared “shortcoming” in a positive light.

Interviewer: What is your weakness?

Henrietta: Well, I suppose to the extent you can call it a weakness, I have a need to try and anticipate every conceivable objection that a patent examiner could deliver so that my patent application is as air-tight as possible in the first instance. It’s worked very well so far—I’ve reduced the number of examiner objections by half and greatly accelerated my clients’ applications, which frees me up to take on additional work.

So what is Henrietta’s shortcoming? Attention to detail?  Efficiency? Obviously, she has minimized any perceived shortcoming and turned it into a major gain for her client.

Failure to View the Job from the Employer’s Perspective

A basic rule in marketing is that to market a product effectively, you need to sell benefits rather than features. In the context of employment, this means that you need to focus not on what skills you bring to the position but rather on how those skills benefit the prospective employer. Take the scenarios presented above, for instance. In each case, Henrietta took her own attributes and emphasized how they relate most directly to the employer’s goals or, where appropriate, to the needs of her clients. Think of it this way: you’re seeking to join with an employer. What you can accomplish together is much more important to the employer than merely the credentials you bring to the position. This is why those with the best sales or marketing skills (but not necessarily the best credentials) may get hired over those with better qualifications. They understand that it’s all about what their skills and experiences mean to the employer, not what those attributes say about the candidate.

Failure to Ask the Right Questions

Do you have any questions for me? Your answer to this seemingly innocuous question has the potential to spoil the goodwill you may have built up during an hour or so of interviewing. The question is designed to determine how knowledgeable you are about the firm’s business—its objectives, goals, development trends and so on. It is not an open invitation to discuss salary, merit increases, bonuses, vacation policy and other benefits (more on that below). Another bad answer to this question is that you have no further questions. Prepare a list of end-of-interview questions in advance. Consider such issues as any planned expansion or development in your practice area, how the marketing department works with individuals on goal setting and business development, the firm’s policy on pro bono work, etc. Needless to say, there are always questions to ask. Sometimes, an interviewer may start out with this question rather than finish with it. Your goal in that instance is the same—ask intelligent questions and display, wherever possible, how the question dovetails with your own experience or your proposed contributions to the firm.

Failure to Dress the Part

Okay, so you know that tank tops and flip-flops are out of the question (for most employers), but even subtle gaffes can cost you, like excessive perfume, distracting jewelry or bad make-up for women and unkempt facial hair for men. Unless the dress code is clearly spelled out for you in advance, dress in conservative business attire. For women, that means a suit or pants suit (preferably in gray, black or navy), hose and close-toed shoes with a moderate heel. For men, that means a dark business suit, collared shirt, simple tie and appropriately colored socks and polished shoes. In every case, hair and nails should be neatly groomed as well. Don’t let something as simple as grooming torpedo a job opportunity.

Failure to Communicate Effectively

Most interviewers will expect some nervousness on the part of the interviewee. Some may even pounce on it like a heat-sinking missile. Your goal is to look professional, confident and in control whatever the circumstance. You do this by: (1) looking the interviewer in the eye while speaking or making eye contact with each person in the room in a group interview setting; (2) sitting and standing erect; (3) giving a firm handshake; (4) controlling nervous gestures such as foot tapping or hair twirling; (5) using good grammar and avoiding fillers such as “um,” “ah,” “like” and “you know”; (6) never interrupting the interviewer; and (7) projecting your voice clearly in an easy conversational style. If your verbal communication skills are lacking, then you must practice the interview scenario beforehand to address problem areas. One communication problem that is especially vexing is the inability to answer a question without delay. Generally speaking, you should not pause more than five seconds before answering a question. If you’re feeling stumped, at least begin with a prefatory response such as I’m glad you asked that question or That’s a very good question, let me think on it for a moment and then take just a few moments to compose your response. Another tactic is to ask a follow-up question, particularly if it will illuminate or clarify the interviewer’s question in some way. Be careful not to overuse this strategy, however.

Failure to Behave Enthusiastically

Believe it or not, you can have all the right credentials, the right answers and the right look and still not get the job. Why? Because you just didn’t ask for it. Any sales professional will tell you that the key to closing the sale is to ask for the business. Be enthusiastic and eager to be an asset to the firm. Reiterate at least once during the interview that you welcome the opportunity to be a part of the team. You’ve pitched your skills, experiences and proposed contributions to the interviewer; now close the deal!

Failure to Follow Up

Not everyone agrees whether a thank-you letter will score extra points in securing the job, but it’s better to display gratitude for the interview as a matter of common courtesy. A follow-up letter will probably count in your favor if you’re tied with one or more individuals for a position, particularly if that letter effectively reiterates your skills and interest in working with the organization. A follow-up letter is especially useful to mention any other skills you forgot to highlight during the interview and to provide any supporting documentation that may have been discussed, such as reference letters, copies of published articles or transcripts.

Generally, a separate letter should be sent to each interviewer that you met. Ideally, you should mention in your letter at least one memorable point that you discussed. For instance, perhaps you share a favorite hobby or outlook. That’s a nice feature to distinguish you from other applicants. Of course, in addition to reiterating your interest in the position, be sure to offer to provide the interviewer with any other information that may assist in making a decision on your candidacy. Finally, unless the context clearly dictates otherwise, avoid emailing your thank-you letter. Although the digital age may have clearly taken over most of our lives, the jury is still out on the propriety of emailed follow-up letters.  Show that you’re willing to put in a little extra effort—just like you’ll do when you’re hired.

Failure to Be Gracious

A cardinal rule for interviewing is this: never make disparaging or unkind remarks about people, such as former bosses, employers, colleagues and staff. Sometimes, an interviewer may ask explicitly about your thoughts regarding a former employer—perhaps out of curiosity or as a means to test you. Even if the circumstances of the interview force you to disclose a less than stellar working relationship, speak of it in terms of what you learned from the experience rather than discussing the character or personality of those involved. Also avoid speaking negatively about things or places. Remarking about that bad paint job in the lobby is just as much a no-no as a lousy pet joke. And don’t let the friendliness or enthusiasm of an interviewer throw you off your game. You must be gracious and maintain the utmost professionalism at all times.

Failure to Stay Mum on Benefits

You’ve heard it said dozens of times: don’t ever ask about benefits, salary, raises or time off. Until you’re asked the dreaded question, What are your salary requirements? (or until you’re presented with a proposal for your consideration), your focus should be entirely on demonstrating how your skills benefit the employer’s needs. Of course, you should have researched the salary level attributable to the position before accepting the invitation to interview in any event. Once an offer is extended, then you can investigate the full range of benefits being offered to arrive at a total compensation package that’s (hopefully) acceptable to you.

Failure to Organize

Good organizational skills are expected of any candidate regardless whether the job summary explicitly calls for those skills. Showing up on schedule with work product sufficient to back up your claims of expertise demonstrates your organizational ability. Always be prepared to provide additional copies of your résumé, sample work product (that has been proofread for errors) and a list of references. Also ensure that your additional résumé copies match the one that you provided in response to the advertisement for the position. Minor typographical fixes notwithstanding, a resume that differs substantially from the one you offered in the first place will raise a series of red flags and likely take you out of the race. Bring along writing instruments that work, along with paper and a briefcase or a professional looking organizer. Don’t be afraid to take notes during the meeting, but ask your interviewer for permission.

Making this top 10 list a part of your preparation for every interview just might give you that competitive edge. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start selling your #1 asset: you!

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