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Monday, April 18, 2016

Sell Yourself: What To Do and Not To Do at the Job Interview

Some pro-tips on showing others how valuable you are

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been assisting in the hunt for a new employee. It’s for a technical position, so there are some minimum skill-level qualifications for the job. We advertised on LinkedIn, mainly, but also other places. I even posted the job on my social feed.

We ended up with some 200 applications. Most we rejected immediately because the applicant did not meet the minimum qualifications. I guess I can’t blame people for trying, but it doesn’t really make sense to apply for a job if your resume misses the mark completely.

We ended up with about 30 people to call back for 10 minute interviews conducted via Skype. At each interview, I reviewed the resume quickly before it began. So I already understood the minimum that you get from the resume: experience, education, where the person lives, age, and so on. (If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, it’s already clear that you are not serious about job hunting.)

What is the interview attempting to discover? I’m looking for personality, attitude, erudition, more detail on skills, a general sense of collegiality, and a deeper understanding of the person in question. In the course of doing this, I saw the same mistakes over and over. Also, some people took the extra step to be memorable and compelling.

As a result of these conversations, here are some pro-tips. Consider this as a follow up to my advice for young unemployed workers.

Don’t try to fake your skill level. Many people would try to exaggerate their knowledge of a software platform. They quickly find themselves in the weeds as they attempt to fill in details. This is the moment in which the person’s word becomes non-credible. This is a devastating thing to happen at a job interview. You are far better off saying what’s true: “I don’t know that software, but I’ve used similar systems. I’m also a very quick study on software. If I get this position, I’ll study up and be prepared before I begin.” And if you do not understand the question, there is nothing wrong with asking for more detail.

Don’t be ambiguous on crucial details. The purpose of the interview is to discern a greater degree of truth about you and your suitability for the position. Ambiguity sets off alarm bells. If you won’t move to do the job, just say so and then explain why hiring you as a remote worker would be good. If you are unemployed currently, it’s best to just say so and perhaps offer a reason why. If you won’t consider the position for less than a certain amount of money, and you are asked this question, be upfront about it.

Don’t flatter the interviewer pointlessly. It’s fine to say nice things about the institution and the individuals. It’s a plus that the person being interviewed knows about where he or she is applying. But laying it on too thick, going on about the glories of the interviewer as a person, is odd. It signals that the person being interviewed might imagine that a job is really about connections and favors rather than productivity and skills. A job is not a favor, much less a sinecure; it is an exchange of value for value. It doesn’t speak well of any employer that he or she would be swayed by flattery.  

Do be a warm human being. I get that people are nervous for an interview. But if you look on camera like a deer in headlights, that’s a problem. Try to relax and be a normal human being. Smile, for example. Laugh and be charming, if you can. In one interview I conducted, the person was walking around her apartment with smartphone in hand and earbuds. I found it charming and enlivening. I was left with the impression of someone who is active and scrappy and that’s good.

Do ask questions. It should be obvious that any prospective employee has questions about the job. Ask them! It’s surprising how few people actually do this. Maybe they fear that asking questions would signal some doubts about the whether you want the job. Actually, the opposite it true. It suggests that you are a careful shopper of employers. You are looking for a good fit. It’s irresponsible to accept a job that is not right for you. You want to make sure. That’s a good thing. It impresses any prospective employer that you are asking for more detail on the work environment, the expectations, the lines of communication, the office hours, and so on.

Do sell yourself. It’s right to think of the employer as a prospective buyer. The seller is yourself. You are selling your labor services. Ideally, the buyer (the employer) wants to believe that he or she will obtain more in service than will be paid in wages. The employer also wants to believe that the employee will benefit from the exchange too. Your job is to make the sell. That means selling yourself. Maybe this sounds odd but think of yourself as a piece of talking furniture in a furniture store, and the employer is a customer that walks by. It’s up to you to get their attention and make the case, effectively saying, “pick me, I’m wonderful, you will be happy with your decision.”

Do tell a story. Part of selling yourself means presenting yourself as more than just a resume. One way to do this is to tell a story of how you created value at your current job. You can tell about a challenge you faced, a method you found to solve the problem, how you worked to transition from an old system to a new one, or whatever comes to mind. It needs to show that you are earnest, creative, hard working, and interested in making progress happen. Resumes can’t do this. The job interview is the right time to make your skill set come to life. One approach that is popular is the STAR method for organizing your stories. To present the situation, task, action, and results might seem overly formal but the structure is a good exercise to practice before the interview.

Do say that you would love to have a job offer. This might seem strange but only one person out of the 30 or so people I interviewed actually said something like: “This job sounds perfect for me. I’m excited about it. I hope you choose me. I think we’ll both be happy about this.” I was trying to figure out why people don’t say such an obvious thing. It might be that they are waiting to look at the salary, that they have some doubts, that they have several other applications out there. All that is fine. But you still need to get the offer. It’s your human right to decline it, of course, but in order to say no, you first need the opportunity to do so. At the very least, then, you should openly say that you will like an offer. People who say this stand out from the pack.


People apply for jobs too infrequently. Once they have what seems to be a secure position and good pay, they take themselves off the market. Then something goes wrong, and they scramble and get desperate.

This is not the way to go about it. Digital tools like LinkedIn mean that you can always stay on the market. There might be something better out there. You don’t know until you try. It is not somehow a betrayal of your current employer to be on the market. You can always say no. But, face it, if the offer is good enough, you might take it. Staying on the job market also means that you can refine your talent in doing interviews.

Fear not that you will be turned away. It’s not an absolute rejection. Employment decisions are made on the margin. You might have been the second choice of hundreds of possible candidates. That’s a good thing. It’s a highly competitive market out there right now, and you will improve with each interview. Remember, the one person ultimately responsible for your ongoing employment and earning power is you.