Ten (or so) things you shouldn’t say in an interview

Job interviews can be stressful and uncomfortable for seasoned professionals. For those starting their careers, it can be downright painful. Whether it’s the thought that you’ll never find a job, the lack of confidence, or the professional outfit you rarely wear it’s easy for newly-graduated candidates to get tripped up during an interview. To help you better prepare for an interview, here are ten (or so) things you shouldn’t say when you’re trying to land a job.

1. Tell me a little about yourself and why you want to work here.

When it comes to an interview don’t be surprised if you’re asked why you want to work for the organization. If you’re lucky you’re interviewing for your dream job, the one you’ve been preparing for your whole life. If Lady Luck is not on your side you’re interviewing for a job, and the only reason you applied is because there was one available. Companies don’t like to hear that they’re sloppy seconds, and they certainly don’t like to hire desperate people.

Research and preparation are the keys to handling most interview questions, and the ole “who are you and why do you want to work here” questions are no exception. Besides the collecting a paycheck motive, look at the company as a whole to decide why you want to work there. Look at their work, clients, products, philanthropy, and then pick one or two highlights to discuss with the interviewer.

2. What are your strengths?

This standard interview question is difficult for those entering the workforce to answer primarily because most new graduates feel like being able to communicate strengths is the equivalent to bragging. Some people may make the mistake of trying to downplay their strengths.

Knowing your strengths is important. You can use them to help excel in your career. Knowing your strengths is also important for your potential employer. It helps them gauge where you can contribute to their team. Try to remember that communicating your strengths isn’t bragging if someone asks. Also try to remember that you shouldn’t be embarrassed about your strengths just as long as they are true strengths and not just some bullshit you say in an interview.

3. What are your biggest weaknesses?

It’s the yin to the yang. If you get the strengths question you’re sure to get the weaknesses question, which is equally challenging to answer. You don’t want to say anything that could besmirch your image, so instead many try to discount their weaknesses.

Although some people say it’s a good idea to spin your weakness into a strength, I say be careful with that magic trick. It can come across as fake or seem like you’re dodging the question, which is rarely a good idea in an interview. Instead, try to focus on the weaknesses you face in your career, and remember that weaknesses are good just as long as you can acknowledge them and work to improve.

4. Think about a conflict you had. Tell me about it and how did you handle the situation?

Telling stories in an interview can be awkward for many. Story time during an interview is a chance for you to say a whole lot of nothing, poorly. This is definitely one of those question you have to be prepared for otherwise you could look immature and unprepared.

I think what makes this question so difficult is we often feel the need to tell a story where we are the hero, where we handled ourselves in a mature and professional way and that everything worked out in the end. I got a fortune cookie fortune once that said, “He who never makes mistakes never did anything worthy.” Sure the fortune had sexist language, but the principle is still sound. What’s wrong with telling a story where you didn’t do the right thing, where the result wasn’t perfect? As long as you learned a lesson that you can apply to your work and life now, I see nothing wrong with telling a story about a time when you didn’t do it right.

5. How do you feel about working in teams?

Many people think working in teams suck. If you’re a recent graduate the only experience you’ve had working in teams is during group projects in class, which is precisely why you think working in teams suck. Whatever you do, don’t let your potential employer know you are reluctant to be a team player.

Many jobs require teamwork. Avoid showing your personal feelings about group work by casting aside those personal feelings. Although working in teams has it drawbacks, it can also be a positive and productive experience. You shouldn’t wait until you’re in an interview to accept the inevitable fact that you will have to work in a team of some sort. Find a way to come to terms with it so that in an interview you don’t come across sounding like a rogue splinter cell.

6. How will you contribute to our team?

This is partially a “have you done your research” question. When researching the company you should also research the people who work at the company or you could come across looking like a recent college grad scrambling to find a job.

To help answer this question, think of your strengths. Fall back on a few of your stronger attributes to help you out of this interview jam.

7. Do you have a problem working late hours or on the weekends?

This is a work ethic question. If you get this question don’t be surprised. You’re going to have to work; it’s the reason you’re interviewing for the job, but remember that you’ll be the low person on the totem pole. You should expect to pay your dues or you could come across as being lazy and difficult.

8. Where do you see yourself in five years?

If you don’t have a plan for your future you need one for no other reason than to give you something to say when you get asked this question in an interview.

It’s hard to know where you’re going to be in five days let alone five years. If you haven’t thought about a five-year plan then you need to. Try keeping your goals centered around your career more than around your personal life, and try to keep in mind where you are in your career now and where you hope to be in the future. Chances are you won’t land your dream job right out of the gate, but more than likely you have a dream job in mind. You don’t have to be there in five years, but you should be thinking about the steps you need to take to get there, which will come in handy when answering interview questions that ask you to predict where you will be in the future.

9. Are you a Democrat?

Although these types of interview questions are unethical, even illegal, don’t be surprised if you get them. If you aren’t prepared for these, you can easily say the wrong thing or end up offending the interviewer.

Questions like “do you plan to get married,” “do you want to have children,” “what is your political preference,” and a host of others can creep into the interview process. Some say you should never answer unethical or illegal questions. I say not answering can be just as offensive. As tactfully as you can, I recommend side-stepping the question. It’s one of the few times in an interview that you can get away with avoiding a question.

Side-Stepping Example

10. Do you have any questions for me?

This is typically the last question for most interviews. There are tons of potential answers that can hurt you, but asking no questions can be equally damaging.

If you’ve done your research, answering this question is a breeze. All you have to do is ask a few questions that show your interest in the company, your ability to do research, and demonstrate your work ethic. Questions like, “What kind of person are you looking for to fill this position” and “What are your company’s greatest needs at this time” are solid, end-of-interview questions that can help you stand out from the pack.

Research and Preparation

No matter what questions are thrown at you during an interview it’s important to remember doing research and preparing ahead of time are critical steps to the process. It’s the only way you’ll be able to calmly and rationally present yourself in the best possible way to potential employers.

Special thanks to Dr. Gary Steward, Dean for the College of Liberal Arts at University of Central Oklahoma. Regular thanks goes to Sonya B.

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