In my line of work, I hear plenty of interview nightmare stories. It comes with the career-coaching territory. Sometimes a real doozy will surface out of nowhere. Other times, I seek out these stories during workshops and one-on-ones. It’s not about churning up embarrassment or dwelling on failure. It’s about dissecting these defining moments—and learning from them. That’s why I’m sharing these stories—with permission—here.
Jessica, a junior at a distinguished university, was applying for paid summer internships at technology companies. She’d been on many interviews and been called back by several companies for follow-ups. Her favorite company flew her in for a final day of interviews. She was very excited because this company was her number one choice for the internship and someday, she hoped, full-time employment.
Jessica was prepared and hit her technical interviews out of the park. She was feeling great with only one more interview—her seventh!—before heading home. She was asked to wait in a small office until the interviewer came in. When he arrived, he introduced himself as the lead engineer and developer of a software product, which he proceeded to name. Jessica immediately responded, “I love that product.”
“Really? What do you love about it?” he asked.
The silence was deafening. Jessica had never even heard of this product before. She left the interview feeling sad, embarrassed and demoralized. Her response cost her the internship. She knew in her heart that if she’d just admitted she wasn’t familiar with the product and asked him to tell her about it, she would have been a frontrunner for the position.
By the time I spoke with Jessica last summer she had already gotten past it, and had accepted a position at a startup. She was even able to laugh at herself when she told me the story.
I asked her what she learned from the experience. She told me that she knew as soon as the words came out of her mouth that she was not being authentic. She wanted the lead engineer to like her and reacted with the gut notion, “If I like his product, he will like me.” Looking back, she realized she felt intimidated by him, his senior position and his confident presence. She also recognized that by that point in the day she was tired physically and emotionally.
By design or by chance, the events of the day conspired against Jessica. By the seventh interview, she was spent and more susceptible to react automatically and not intentionally. This leads us to takeway #1 (or how not to follow in Jessica’s footsteps): Go into the interview process with strategies in place for keeping on track to be the best reflection of yourself.
If I’d been sitting on Jessica’s shoulder during this long interview day, I would have reminded her to take a few minutes between meetings to center herself with deep breathing or other meditative practices. Some of my clients carry a small stone in their pocket. When they touch it, they are reminded of who they are in their essence; in other words, the best version of themselves. Others keep a meaningful saying, word or image as their cell phone screensaver, like an e-touchstone.
Practicing mindfulness techniques prior to an important interview can keep you grounded during the interview, which means you’ll have a better chance of responding authentically no matter how stressed or fatigued you feel.
Jessica went on to have a great summer internship at the start-up and then applied to her number one choice again for a job upon graduation. I am happy to say that she was hired and will begin next month.
Which leads to takeaway #2 (or your mom was right): Don’t let a misstep—even a very awkward one—keep you down. Remember, mistakes are necessary for growth, and often make pretty good stories. Do you have an interview fiasco we can learn from?