In a previous life, I did quite a bit of hiring. I’ve seen all kinds of candidates from all walks of life. I’ve read more resumes than I could possibly remember, and I politely sat in interviews while candidates whistled their way through bullshit answers to questions that I really didn’t care much about anyway.
And here is a little secret: interviews are not only a means to judge your qualifications for a particular job. Interviews are also a means to judge YOU, your personality, how you interact with others and your ability to smile under pressure (more on this later).
The thing to keep in mind is your interviewer will remember his or her impression of you more often than specific answers to questions. Like a nationally televised political debate, interviews can be pretty superficial! Interviewers care about the judgement that you possess, not necessarily your cleverly worded answers to the questions that are asked.
Why talk about how to kick your next interview’s ass on an early retirement blog? Because jobs are very often the means to achieve early retirement. The money acquisition phase comes first, early retirement comes second. No job means no wealth on which to live and support your post-retirement lifestyle. Jobs are often the easiest way to achieve retirement funds.
Most of these rules of interviews are basic, but it is amazing how many job candidates still make silly, elementary mistakes that completely turn off the interviewers. And these mistakes are very often easy to spot, often right off the bat.
For example, it is wise to understand that before the candidate sits down, many interviewers already have an impression of the candidate, and answers given to all subsequent questions will be clouded by that impression – good or bad. The second that you walk into the office building for an interview, you’re on!
How to rock your next interview
Here are five rules that will help you to score that next “job” – or as I like to say, the next pre-retirement life drain. These should be easy, but these rules get violated all the time, often to the candidate’s detriment.
Tailor your resume to the job – Okay, this one isn’t interview-specific, but it is so important that it bears mentioning anyway. I usually threw out resumes longer than about three pages, and any resume over two pages was really, really pushing it. Interviewers don’t care about your life story. They don’t give a shit about your paper route job that you held 10 years ago if you’re applying for a leadership position.
For example, I have erased my very first job out of college off of my resume entirely. It’s not there. I was doing fairly low level programming and support work that no longer applies to positions that I would consider today. That experience will not help me to get my next job, and I do not want the interviewer asking me about those positions, either. And that brings up my next rule:
Anything on your resume is fair game – For example, I mainly hired for IT-related positions. In interviews, I would randomly select a programming language listed on the candidate’s resume and ask a very simple question, “Tell me a little bit about your experience with…[insert language here]”. More times than not, the candidate answered the question by essentially side-stepping it. For example, “Oh, I used that about 4 years ago on a small project I did at home/on the side/for my boss. I’m not an expert”.
In other words, “I included that skill just to impress you, but actually know very little about it”
If you don’t know it, don’t include it. Otherwise, the candidate digs a mighty deep hole for themselves. Many interviewers will assume an equal level of inexperience with other skills and capabilities listed on that resume, and the candidate begins fighting an uphill battle for the remainder of the interview. How many other areas of this resume does the candidate not actually know?
On the flip side, however, the candidates that give detailed and concise answers always stand out from the crowd immediately, and it is not hard to determine which candidates are real and which are feeding us a bunch of crap. If you can talk intelligently about randomly-selected questions about capabilities ON YOUR RESUME, then you’re well on your way to getting the job.
Be prepared to talk about everything that is included on your resume. If you can’t intelligently talk about it, don’t include it.
Dress like first impressions matter – Because, well, they do. For better or worse, the very second that your interviewer lays eyes on you, he or she is developing an impression of you. How you look. How you dress. How you smell. The actual interview begins before the first question is ever asked.
If you’re unsure of the dress code, purposely overdress. Wear that suit or vest and tie. I never thought less of a candidate for dressing too nicely, but I certainly have dinged a candidate for coming into the interview dressed like he was going out to dinner with his family.
Under dressing for interviews demonstrates poor judgement.
I remember giving several interviews where I knew the candidate was a poor fit for the job before I even sat down to begin the questioning. I proceeded to conduct the interview purely as a don’t-be-a-dick favor to the candidate and maybe…maybe my initial impression was wrong, and the interview might tell a different story. 99% of the time, the story was the same. The candidate sucked. And he or she sucked from the very beginning, and it showed. The corduroy pants tipped me off.
One candidate came into an interview dripping of clove oil. It could be smelled from the other side of our office building. In fact, I could re-trace his exact track through the building even several minutes after the interview was over. Needless to say, this candidate did not get the job. Regarding colognes and perfumes, they are okay in moderation, but there is no need to bathe in them, please.
Don’t be late, ever, for any reason – Believe it or not, I’ve run across a couple candidates who made this mistake. I understand things happen, but interviewers tend to be busy people. When candidates are late, they interpret the tardiness as disrespectful. After all, the candidate wants to get a job at Company X. Company X is willing to take the time to interview that candidate for the position, but the candidate fails to show up on time, making Company X wait.
Not good. Being late means you’re fighting an uphill battle, and you’ve already made your first impression before you even get there.
I always plan to arrive 20 minutes early to interviews. I don’t sit in my car and wait, either – I walk into the office and see the receptionist as early as I can. Even if I’m still waiting the 20 minutes, I am doing so from inside the office. It allows me to get into that “zen” state and completely focus on the interview and getting the job. It also allows me to observe the people who work there. How do they dress? How stressed do they look? Do they generally seem to enjoy their job?
In other words, I’m mentally interviewing them to determine if this place is a good fit for me.
Check your arrogance at the door and admit weaknesses – One of the questions that I’ve always asked is one about strengths and weaknesses. Candidates are always eager to answer the strengths question, but also seem to struggle when I ask them about their weaknesses. It’s almost as if the question took them by surprise. It shouldn’t have – questioning a candidate’s weaknesses are common in most interviews, and for a very good reason.
I ask all candidates what they view their biggest weakness to be. One candidate’s answer that I can remember, which promptly turned me off, was arrogant and stupid: “I think that I’m equally strong in all areas”.
Bullshit. It is also bullshit if you think that your biggest weakness is “caring too much”. Interviewers know the right answer to this question, and the point of asking is to determine if the candidate will give it. It’s not a trick question – we all have weaknesses. Admitting to your weakness does not reduce your chances of getting the job. Refusing to admit your weaknesses, however, generally will.
What’s my weakness? I spend way too much time trying to solve problems when I should be asking for help earlier on in the process. I like to be able to solve problems myself and I’m naturally resistant to asking others for help. I need to be more okay with asking for help when I cannot figure out how to solve a problem.
The more honest the answer, the better your chances of making a good impression with your interviewer.
Interviews are about more than your capabilities
Your task during an interview is not only to prove your qualifications against the specific job requirements, but also to prove your fitness within the organization. How your presence in the office plays within the company culture is arguably more important than knowing X technology or Y process. Those things can be taught and learned.
But your personality is your personality. It does not tend to change. If you come into an interview and pretend that you’re the best thing since sliced bread, your interviewer may interpret that arrogance to be a potential detriment to the company. The interviewer knows that nobody is perfect, and candidates who argue to the contrary are not doing themselves any favors.
I remember one candidate who dressed all in black and never smiled during an interview. His technical chops were fairly strong, but his personality presented potential challenges to the office. He wasn’t a good fit, and we therefore did not offer him the job.
I recall another candidate who talked way too fast during the interview. This candidate exuded an extreme level of confidence and superiority, but his answers were also incredibly shallow in substance and demonstrated very little real world experience. He attempted to cover up inexperience with perceived confidence. Sometimes, this works. But, don’t count on fooling all interviewers with this technique.
Pro tip: If you’ve already been through a few telephone interviews and the company invites you into the office for an in-person interview, this is probably a personality interview. They’ve already judged your technical qualifications to be sound, and now they want to make sure you aren’t some devil-worshiping goth with full body tattoos and huge pieces of metal hanging from your ears.
If the company actually flies you out to their office (because you live far enough away), take this as a sign that you are at least one of the finalists for the position. Companies don’t tend to take the time or incur the expense of flying candidates out for interviews unless those candidates have a good shot at the job. Continue to dress to impress and let your true personality shine through.
Another pro tip: Follow up “thank you” notes to the interviewer(s) are a nice touch, though not strictly required. I once sent a hand-written note through the post office to my interviewer. Needless to say, I was offered the job (though I ultimately chose to take a different opportunity). If you only have an email address, it is fine to send an email. However, only send a single email. DO NOT hound your interviewer for any reason as this will almost always decrease your chances of getting that job.
What say you? Do you have any other tips to rock your next job interview?
Steve is a 37-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.