Interviews: How to Put Your Best Foot Forward (and Not in Your Mouth)

Reflecting upon my recent interviews, I realized, I am either getting better at this, or interviews are getting easier. To be honest, I think they are getting easier. The last few I’ve had I just had to smile and listen. I barely even spoke, which might be why they went so well. I’m sure I am also getting better at them, but that isn’t saying much. I am so epically terrible at interviews, I had nowhere to go but up. Let’s take a brief tour through my Interview Hall of Shame as I share some of the tips I’ve learned over the years.

One of my very first interviews ever was my admissions interview with a Duke alum:

“So, you have been working at the FDA. Are you interested in science?”

“No, not really.” I apparently felt no need to elaborate.

Tip #1: Interview questions are very rarely meant as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.

“…so why do you work there?”

“You know, a job is a job.” Gotta get them dolla dolla bills, ya feel me?

Tip #2: You don’t have to lie, but you don’t have to be brutally honest either. You win no points for being frank and indifferent.

Though she had probably already written me off, the interview went on.

“I see you write for the school paper. What are some articles you have written?”

“Well, I just wrote this one about ideas for Valentine’s gifts as an alternative to flowers and chocolates. Like, if your girlfriend really likes cheese, you could get her a block of cheese. And other stuff… I don’t remember.”


“Yeah, it was funnier in the article. You had to be there.”

I could tell, she was not impressed.

Tip #3: Don’t talk about cheese in an interview. No matter what your favorite movies tell you, cheese is not a good ice breaker.

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Years later I had a similarly unpleasant interview for an HR analyst job. I think. I am not sure now what it was for, nor was I ever, which was a big part of why the interview failed. I got on the phone and really just had no idea what this lady was talking about. I very haphazardly bs-ed my way through her questions and most of my answers sounded a lot like this:

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I wasn’t even prepared for the most obvious question of all: “What interested you about this job?” Woah, didn’t see that one coming! I don’t remember what lie I eventually came up with as my answer, but nothing is convincing after a long pause and an “uhhhhhhh.”

Tip #4: Always be prepared to answer obvious said question. Also, know what job you are being interviewed for.

Around that time, to pay the bills while I was job hunting, I got a part-time job at Pottery Barn Kids. Luckily, I had learned my lesson and knew to anticipate that sneaky “Why do you want this job?” question. When asked, I answered, “It’s close to my house….yeah, that’s pretty much it.” Nailed it!

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I had learned from Tip #3, but had already forgotten Tip #1: nobody needs to know what you really think. I still got the job, but my manager later told me that she didn’t want to hire me. Sounds about right.

Shortly after that, I finally got my head on straight and managed to make it through an interview without making a total ass of myself. Until the last question.

“What are you passionate about?”

Um, I’m sorry, what? I’m not one of those people who is ‘passionate’ about things. I’m passionate about not leaving the toilet paper roll empty. I’m passionate about not wearing leggings as pants and other inappropriate wardrobe choices. I’m passionate about dogs and people respecting my personal space. But if you expect me to come up with a real answer here where I talk about my ambitions or hobbies…

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I got nothin. Now at this point, a lot of time has passed. A lot more than is necessary to answer a very simple question about my interests. She was tossing me a softball here. This was not supposed to be the ‘stump her’ question. The interviewer had a look on her face like, “Did I say something wrong? Did I break her?” because I’m looking at her like she has just uncovered my darkest secret.

So it’s time to spring into action. I start thinking of an answer. Can I say TV? I love my TV shows? No that is extremely pathetic and lame. Should I say world peace? No, God, this isn’t Miss America. What does she want to hear, volunteering? Training for marathons? Finally I just blurted something out to put us all out of our misery.

Tip #5: It is great to think about your answer, but at a certain point, you need to just say something, anything. Because the longer you spend thinking, the better the end result should be, and after a certain period of extended silence, you hit a point of diminishing returns. You just aren’t going to be able to live up to the expectations you’ve created, so it’s best to just cut your losses and give the best answer you have at the time. And as long as the answer isn’t “nah” or “cheese,” you should be okay.

What are some of your interview lessons learned, worst interview questions and answers, or other interview horror stories? Please do share, and make me feel like less of an idiot:)