The interview is arguably the oldest and most persistent institution in the job search process. Even as other customs and admonitions–wear business attire, send a handwritten thank-you note afterward–fall by the wayside, the interview itself shows few signs of disappearing.
So it’s no wonder that there’s no shortage of popular advice about how to behave and what to do during job interviews–or that much of it is outdated or baseless. Here are three of the most common recommendations for candidates in a job interview that need to be retired, based on insights from modern psychology.
While we live in an age that worships “authenticity,” job interviews are a high-stakes situation, so you should adjust your behavior to the context. Most people know this intuitively but don’t always know how far to go. Which is why being told to just “be yourself” can backfire: It encourages us to do not as we “should” (that is, to act strategic), but as we feel (to act impulsively). To borrow a Freudianism, it means giving our superegos a break and being informal, spontaneous, and careless.
Sure, interviewers may tell you that they’re interested in your authentic you–and it isn’t wise to completely deceive them–but what they really mean is that they want you to come across as genuine and trustworthy. The challenge for candidates is to convey those traits tactfully, which (cynical though it may sound) means selectively.
What interviewers really want to see during an interview is your bright side–not an artificial one, just who you are when you’re at your best. Inevitably, that involves at least a little bit of staging. Think of a job interview like a first date: Don’t show all your flaws up front as you try to give an (otherwise) honest account of who you are.
We often mistake confidence for competence, but that doesn’t mean showing off. Walking the line between sounding self-assured and arrogant can be tricky. But if you really do believe deeply in your skills and talents, fake modesty. And when you’re a little uncertain of them, try sounding a bit more competent than you may actually believe yourself to be.
Most job interviews allow for a fair amount of bluffing, not least because an interviewer is necessarily an imperfect judge of your potential. What goes for resumes usually goes for interviews: Some exaggeration is expected, so if you don’t do that a little bit, the interviewer may assume you’re exaggerating anyway and mentally discount 20% or 30% from your claims. Still, that’s a limited license to boast.
So the advice to show off your accomplishments isn’t so much misguided as in need of a major caveat: Only overclaim if you’re able to back it up later. Maybe you don’t exactly know that programming language inside and out, but you’re learning it, and in a month or two, you’ll have it down. Just don’t come across as arrogant, deluded, or overconfident, particularly when you actually know yourself to be competent.
Too many people go into a job interview well-prepared but wind up underperforming because they focus too much on themselves. It’s hard to find fault with that; most people are interested mainly in themselves. As the great Dale Carnegie noted, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Of course, job interviews tend to put the interviewee in the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean you have to monopolize the conversation, or that you can afford to stop paying attention to your audience. We’re usually counseled to frame our skills in a cover letter in terms of how they’ll benefit the company, but it’s more difficult to translate that into one-on-one conversation.
Not only is paying close attention to others a mark of good social skills, if you focus more on your interviewer and less on yourself, you’ll be better able to monitor your own performance. It’s through their reactions and gestures that you’ll get a feel for how much more you should say–and when to shut up.