You’ve prepared. You’re ready. You either go to an office or hop on a video interview. And then, disaster. Or at least you think disaster.
There’s nothing worse than preparing for an interview and then blowing it. I’ll never forget the time I was meeting with three people, each with a role open. It was going perfectly until one of them asked, “How do you use your role to drive business?” At the time, I was transitioning careers from lawyer to HR business partner, and my job was to mitigate risk. I had never even thought about how my role was used to “drive business.” Worse, I had no idea what that even meant. I tried to tell a good story but could see by the interviewers’ body language (and the fact that one of them asked the question again after I answered) that my answer wasn’t resonating. I knew in that moment that I blew it.
It’s natural to feel helpless after flubbing a question — or an entire interview — but you don’t just have to stand by for bad news. Here are five ways to turn a bad interview into success.
Reflect on the entire interview
After every interview, debrief yourself immediately. Write down as many questions as you can remember and your answers. Then review the job description and the information the interviewer provided about the role, team, and company and highlight when you were able to answer a question succinctly and relate your experience to the job description or when you stumbled. For those that tripped you up, talk to friends in the industry or job you want to move into to understand how they would have answered the question.
After that HR business partner interview, I called a business-minded friend in my then-current industry, and he had no idea how to answer the drive-the-business question either. Then I called an HR business partner friend, and she explained how HR is meant to strategically help leaders grow the company and not just be a support function. She gave me examples, which allowed me to relate my experience to driving business in my next interview.
Use thank-you notes to show self-awareness
Thank-you notes are a great opportunity to re-answer a question where you weren’t as clear as you could have been. Don’t apologize, but do be authentic. You can say why you were caught off guard or weren’t as succinct as you wanted to be when answering a particular question. Then answer it. For example, after thanking the interviewer for their time: “When you asked me about my experience in driving the business, it was clear my answer didn’t resonate. After taking some time to reflect on the question, I thought of this example, which may clarify.” (Then describe example in two sentences).
Even if you think there’s no way to recover from what felt like a horrible interview, express your continued interest at the end of the note. You have nothing to lose.
Avoid false narratives
Don’t let the six inches between your ears get the best of you. Your brain will immediately start to tell you stories about whether you interviewed well or not so well. Even if you’re confident the interviewer noticed your stumble, you can’t know whether they dismissed it because all of your other answers were on the mark. And silence from the recruiter doesn’t mean that you ruined your chance of securing the job — it could mean people are on vacation, other candidates are behind you in the interview process, the team is going through a restructure, the position was put on hold, or the business needs changed after the interview. It could also mean you’re the number-two choice, so keep in mind that sometimes number two wins the role when the first choice has other offers and turns it down.
All you can do is consider any feedback and coaching you get from the recruiter after each round of interviews, focusing on facts only — not emotions — wait patiently, and reflect on areas you can improve.
Continue your job search
Since you never know if an interview truly went poorly, never stop job searching until you accept a job offer. Applying for other jobs that seem exciting will prevent you from dwelling on the perceived “perfect job” you may have lost. Further, interviewing with other companies gives you an opportunity to practice and hone your answers to all possible questions. Finally, continuing the search will allow you to feel like you’re actively moving forward in your quest to find a new job, so if the rejection comes, it won’t feel as painful because you’ll have other options.
Focus on the next interview
Every imperfect interview allows you to get ready for the next job opening or round of interviews. Use your reflections to prepare not only for the questions you couldn’t answer the first time, but also for new questions you may not know how to answer. While it’s always best to answer a question directly, if you truly can’t answer it, it’s okay to say you don’t know, but follow that up by talking about how you’ve succeeded in jobs where you had to figure out something you had never done before. Authenticity and passion will always trump exact experience, especially if you can demonstrate a skill set that will allow you to bring even more value or fit into the culture easily.
When the next company’s interviewer asked me how I would approach an org design for a scaling business unit, I wasn’t sure how to answer since I was trying to transition careers into HR and had never actually done an org design by myself. But I was able to feel confident in my answer nonetheless. I explained that I don’t bring in a “playbook” from previous jobs into a new role, but that I enter being curious, listening, and understanding the business needs to come up with a solution to any business problem. When I don’t know how to do something, I use my skills as a former investigative reporter to help me find not one answer but many possibilities, which makes me nimbler than most because I’m open to considering all options before moving forward.
It wasn’t a direct answer to the question, but I did land the offer, accepted the job, and helped leaders with so many org designs that I later realized that my answer was directly applicable, even though it wasn’t perfect.