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How Not to Blow an Interview

Written by: Robert Sternberg
Published on: Oct 21, 2013

I‘ve watched many a job candidate blow the interview in the roughly 20 seconds it took to answer a typical question. Sometimes I’ve even been that candidate.

As academics, we spend many years preparing to get the job we want. And it’s all too easy to lose the opportunity with a weak, arrogant, or ill-thought-out response. Whether you are a candidate for a faculty or an administrative position, here are 10 tips to avoid placing yourself in that predicament.

1. Ask in advance if they have any particular concerns about you. Almost anywhere you apply, the department, school, or university will have at least some doubts about you or your credentials. It is useful to know ahead of time what they are. Especially when you give a talk, people will process what they hear through the filter of their expectations.

For example, if you have spent much or all of your career at elite institutions and are a candidate at a nonelite college, you can expect people on the hiring committee to wonder about your ability—and your desire—to make the transition. You will have to make an extra effort to dispel the notion that you are not only from an elite institution but also an elitist.

Don’t wait for someone to ask a question to dispel a potential misconception. When people at the hiring institution have concerns about you, they may not explicitly tell you what they are. You have to get inside information—from a headhunter or from someone you know on the campus—or else figure out their possible concerns on your own.

2. Don’t assure people that your great idea will work for them because it worked elsewhere. We all underestimate how hard it is to sell people on new ideas. And we often believe that, if we have a great idea, other people, except for total fools, will see how great it is. In reality, the more creative an idea, the less others will immediately grasp its value.

You may want to assure members of the hiring committee that your big idea will work for their institution because it worked back home. Resist that urge. The likely response, whether overt or covert, may be a skeptical “Well, we are not your home institution.” If you do say how well something worked elsewhere, emphasize that there is no guarantee it will work at the hiring university, at least without serious adaptation. Show that you understand the difference in institutional contexts.

3. Find out the hot-button issues on the campus in advance. Most campuses have one or more such issues. Often they are ones that have been decided but whose solution, or process of reaching that solution, left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. You need to know about those issues and how they were resolved.

Why? Because someone on the campus is likely to ask you a question about such an issue, and a wrong answer will get your name crossed off the shortlist for the job.

For example, if the institution has decided that all raises will be based on merit only, you don’t want to go on the record as saying you would favor across-the-board cost-of-living raises (or vice versa). If the university has decided that professors in the hard sciences will be evaluated on grant proposals only if the proposals succeed in getting money, you don’t want to go on the record as saying you think that it’s effort that should count.

If you don’t like the decision that was reached on a particular issue, and believe it is inconsistent with your values, consider withdrawing from the search.

4. Don’t try to solve the institution’s problems in the interview. Some people at the hiring institution will ask you to try. But it’s unreasonable to expect you to offer an intelligent solution without contextual knowledge.

If you are presented with a problem to solve, stress first that you would need to considervarious options and consult with others before drawing any conclusions. Then offer several alternative solutions, based on your past experience, and suggest that coming up with the ideal one would require a team effort and greater knowledge of the immediate context than you could offer, coming from a distance. Suggest paths to a solution, but don’t try to fix a problem that you are not yet in a position to resolve.

5. Assume that anything you say to anyone in the interview could end up in the local news or somewhere on the Web. During the job interview, you will be under stress. You may find yourself wanting to confide in someone, especially regarding concerns about the interview or the institution. You may even meet someone who invites you to confide in him or her.

Don’t. Not even if it is someone you know. For one thing, that person’s first loyalty is likely to be to the institution, not to you. For another thing, you have little way of knowing whether he or she can keep a confidence. Academe is a small world where secrets are rarely kept. But they are almost impossible to keep during a job interview. Don’t lose out on the position because you mistakenly believe they will be.

6. Never lie about anything, no matter how small. If there is one kind of headline that makes the higher-education news with unrelenting frequency, it is about people who have lied on their CVs and résumés, or in their comments during an interview. A lie may help you get the job, but when you are found out, it will very likely lead to your dismissal.

If you have something unpleasant in your record, bring it up yourself during the interview and be prepared to discuss it. Go ahead and put it in the best possible light, but don’t lie. People almost always get into more trouble for their attempt at a coverup than for their initial mistakes.

7. Try to understand how you might fit in to the institution’s vision of its future. You need to find out where the hiring department, school, college, or university wants to go. And if you don’t want to go there, then you don’t want to go to that campus.

If you do, then try to show in the interview how you might fit into that vision. Don’t waste time offering alternative visions.

8. Know the hiring institution’s story of its past. What are its points of pride? Its points of shame?

If, for example, the institution takes pride in how research at the university has been applied to benefit the state’s citizens, you probably don’t want to stress the importance of basic research. If the department takes special pride in the quality of its teaching, you don’t want to keep bringing up your research.

9. Don’t assume you know who holds the real power. The power structure of a hiring institution is, at best, opaque and, at worst, invisible to a job candidate.

You may assume that the chair of a search committee has a major say in who is hired. But the chair may or may not be an important voice in the final hiring decision. Even the person who picks you up at the airport may be a decision maker.

How, then, should you proceed? Just assume that everyone you speak with is important.

10. Be enthusiastic. Playing hard to get may or may not work in romantic relationships. But it’s a bad strategy in job interviews. And candidates can give that impression all too easily in an off-the-cuff comment (like breezily mentioning that you have another offer before you’ve even been offered this job).

Hiring institutions want to hire someone who wants the job, likes the place, and is going to stick around—and willingly so. If you really want the job, make sure your responses convey your interest. And if you don’t, consider withdrawing.

Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University and a former provost at Oklahoma State University.