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How to Save a Terrible Job Interview


You’ve done all the prep work for your job interview: rehearsed, brainstormed questions and prepared your answers, planned your itinerary in order to be on time, and gathered your portfolio in case the interviewer asks to see it. By your own high standards, you think you are ready to ace it, but there are still times when you end up with a catastrophic interview, anyway. What can you do to salvage the situation before it becomes a lost cause?

job interview

(Photo Credit: tedmurphy/Flickr)

1. When the problem is your interviewer.

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If he is underprepared, hassled, preoccupied, or glances at his watch all the time, you know that the interviewer is not invested in the interview. Depending on the situation, career coach Joanne Meehl suggests you could:

  • Pause and give the interviewer time to collect his/her thoughts.
  • If possible, politely offer the interviewer a chance to reschedule.
  • Ask questions about the company and the job to get the ball rolling.

Some other tactics are:

  • Get them to talk about their role and their experience in the company. That way, they would become more engaged in the interview (most people like talking about themselves)
  • Connect on something that’s common to both of you. This would require some homework on the interviewer – going through their LinkedIn profile or Googling them to know a bit more about their public profiles. Do you have common interests, common majors?

2. When it’s you.

a. You have the date/time/location mixed up.

If you are interviewing when you are already swamped in your current job, this is definitely a possibility. If such a situation presents itself, don’t panic. Call your recruiter and explain the situation. Try using humor to salvage the situation and let him know that you are indeed very keen on meeting with the interviewers and apologize for the goof. It is possible that the recruiter sent you information about a change in schedule just a few hours before the interview and you did not have the chance to check your mail. In such a case, you will not be held responsible for showing up at the wrong time. While it may annoy you, stay calm and resist the urge to express your feelings to the recruiter if you still want a job at the organization. The corporate world is a very small place, so don’t burn your bridges.

b. You are very nervous and it shows.

You have a lot riding on this interview and you want to make it work. Sometimes, the pressure just adds up and it shows in your behavior. If you are aware that you are very nervous, here’s what you can do:

  • Try to compose yourself before the interview. Take a few deep breaths, go to the bathroom, and imagine yourself in a comfortable place of your choice for a few minutes. (Then get back to the interview room!)
  • Karen Chopra, career counselor suggests taking a “few seconds at the beginning of the interview to focus on your posture and relax on your chair with hands on the armrest and spine lined up with the back of the chair.” In general, a confident posture subconsciously makes you feel confident.
  • Ask for water, and use the time to compose yourself.
  • Know that this is not your only shot and you will have many other opportunities.
  • If this is your “dream role” or “dream company,” try to focus on the reasons this is so, and lead your interview towards those reasons, without sounding too desperate. This tactic not only lets the interview know that you are interested and updated about the company, but also gives you a chance to steer the interview toward your area of strength. “I am very impressed with the way [company name] has handled the PR for its X project. It was very engaging and I think it has successfully reached out to its target audience in Nigeria by tapping into cultural aspects of that country.”

c. When you realize you’re just rambling or are giving a wrong answer.

  • Pause and ask the interviewer for a minute to collect your thoughts.
  • Ask if you could get a chance to rephrase your answer.
  • If you are distracted because of an external reason – death or illness in the family, for example – let your interviewer know. If you know you cannot do justice to the interview, you can also offer an honest explanation: “I am thrilled at the prospect of interviewing with your company, and have been looking forward to meeting with you; however, I have just received some disturbing personal news that’s causing me a lot of distress. I want to be able to give the best to the interview and unfortunately, I am not in that state of mind. I know this could be inconvenient, but if it is possible, I would really appreciate if the interview could be rescheduled.” Follow up with a thank-you note to the interviewer whether or not your request is accommodated. You don’t want to completely ruin the experience for both of you by giving a terrible interview.

d. You address the interviewer by a wrong name.

  • If you realize this during the interview, stop, apologize, and ask your interviewer to clarify his/her name. Especially if it is a foreign name, you are likely to pronounce it wrong.
  • If you realize after the interview, add an apology to the thank-you note. Talking to Forbes, author Katherine Brooks says, “Mention that you were mortified after the interview when you realized that you called them by the wrong name; you can use an excuse, like ‘my best friend is named Mary’ (if you called them Mary instead of Marie) or you can just say, ‘sorry, I’m usually much better with details than that.'”

e. You just feel you’ve messed up the interview.

  • Brooks recommends to go over the interview and to think of the whole experience in terms of what really went well and what didn’t. Chances are you are overanalyzing a tiny goof.
  • Acknowledge your blunders, if you did in fact make them. While there is no guarantee you’ll hear back, you could still try for a second chance if you have a good excuse for your behavior. For example, if you did not clarify during the interview that you are distracted because of a serious personal issue, you could follow that up in the thank-you note and seek another opportunity. If you goofed up only because you were underprepared or confused, then it’s not worth following up.

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Padmaja Ganeshan Singh
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Noelle Gross
Noelle Gross

Another great way to turn a tanking interview around, is by having smart questions prepared for the end of the interview. Employers understand that interviews can be intense and nerves are completely normal. However, if you can turn it around by demonstrating you have done your homework and have some well thought-through questions, you will begin to engage the interviewer in a more positive way, resulting in a strong last impression.

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