There are few experiences more anxiety inducing than the dreaded interview, save final exams or your SO calling to say the two of you “need to talk.” Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get a job, an internship or even admittance into grad school until you can convince an interviewer that you’re qualified.
It’s a high-pressure situation, and no matter how much we prepare for it, something problematic could happen. Because we’re already on edge, we may slip up and flub a question or forget something important. Fortunately, it’s possible to get back on track. HC talked to expert interview coach Barry Drexler to find out how to recover from common interview mistakes.
1. You arrive late.
Maybe there was an accident on the expressway or you rolled out of bed much later than you had planned—either way, you finally make it to your interview. Fifteen minutes late.
“The best thing to do is to be as honest as possible and just own it,” Drexler says. Acknowledge your mistake and apologize for it. Explain your reasoning where applicable. If you were late due to circumstances out of your control (such as traffic or a major accident), then let the interviewer know.
If you’re running late and you know the interviewer’s phone number, it’s a good idea to give him or her a call ahead of time. If you don’t have his or her contact information, you’ll have to deal with the situation after you arrive.
You’re going to want to take a moment before entering the interview space to gather yourself. “You’re going to lose your composure, because you’ll be really uptight about being late,” Drexler says. “You have to, as much as possible, put it behind you.” Dip into the ladies’ room to fix yourself up, or take a few deep breaths just outside the door to get yourself under control.
What to do: Say, “I’m very sorry I was late; there was an accident on the expressway and it slowed me down. It’s not typical of me.” Then move on.
2. You forget the interviewer’s name or call him or her by the wrong one.
A slip of the tongue, a momentary lapse in memory — hey, it happens.
According to Drexler, this happens a lot, so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Be apologetic, but don’t keep saying you’re sorry over and over again. “In other words, don’t give it life,” he says. “You want to get the interviewer off that topic. If you keep talking about it, you’re giving it life when you don’t need to.”
What to do: Say, “Oops, sorry about that!” and steer the conversation away from the incident.
3. Your phone rings.
It’s your worst nightmare: You could have sworn you put your phone on silent, but for some reason Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is now blaring from your purse.
While you may want to ignore it until it goes away, that’s not the best thing to do. “You want to be honest; you just made a mistake,” Drexler says. “You want to show respect.” Don’t let it continue to ring while the interviewer is talking.
If your phone goes off in the middle of the interview, apologize and turn it off. Don’t put it on silent, but power it down; it’s your safest bet against any more accidental interruptions.
What to do: Say, “I’m so sorry, I thought I put my phone on silent.” Then turn it off, put it in your bag and leave it there.
4. You say something negative.
Frazzled nerves can mess with our filters, and sometimes we say things we never would have voiced aloud otherwise.
Maybe you catch yourself telling a questionable joke, or a dig at your ex-boss slips out when talking about your previous work experiences. As always, you need to address your mistake and make amends.
If you catch yourself being less than positive, Drexler offers a way to turn it into a good thing. “If you look at their expression and you’re getting a sense that you just said something wrong, then it’s a good opportunity to demonstrate self-awareness,” he says. It’s always better to catch yourself than to have your interviewer tell you that you’re being rude. If you’re unsure, Drexler suggests reading the interviewer for signals (narrowed eyes, sudden body tension) that you may have said something off-color.
Once you’ve caught yourself, turn the negative into a positive. For example, if you find yourself speaking badly about your former employer, halt in your tracks and begin elaborating on some of the skills that you learned at that job.
What to do: Say, “I just realized I made a rude joke/spoke negatively about my prior employer. To be honest, I really learned a lot from him/her, such as...”
5. You miss a question because you weren’t paying attention.
Maybe you’re mortified about that rude joke you just made or you still can’t get over the fact that you were late. Whatever the case may be, you suddenly notice the interviewer is staring at you expectantly, and you have no idea what he or she just said.
While the situation may appear awkward in the worst way, Drexler offers a pretty simple fix. “This is where you would simply say, ‘Well, I was just thinking about the prior question.’ That’s a good reply to something like that,” he says. However, remember to stay in the moment from here forward. During your interview, you shouldn’t be thinking about anything else!
What to do: Say, “Oh, I was just thinking about something you said,” and ask him or her to repeat the question.
6. You forget to bring a list of references.
Like slipping up on someone’s name, forgetting to bring your reference list happens quite often as well. Don’t dwell on this one, either; admit that you forgot and take action to correct the mistake.
“Be very matter-of-fact,” Drexler says. “You have to demonstrate an attitude that shows you’re not beating yourself up in front of them.” Tell the interviewer that you will send your references by the end of the day.
What to do: Say, “Oh! My apologies. I will absolutely send them to you by the end of today.”
7. You’re asked to explain an unfamiliar part of your resume.
Drexler works with clients specifically to train them so they don’t make this mistake. “It happens because people do their resumes, and they don’t even bother to look at them,” he says.
This is why you should never have anyone else do your resume for you. Anything on your resume is fair game, so you need to know it like the back of your hand. Still, maybe the point in question was an internship from high school, or a section near the bottom you didn’t think to look over.
“Don’t dwell on what you don’t know,” Drexler suggests. Don’t say that you don’t know or aren’t sure. Do your best to remember what you can about the item and expand on it as much as possible.
What to do: Say, “Well, that was quite a while ago, but what I do know about that situation is…”
8. You’re asked a question you weren’t prepared for.
“What do you think about our company’s recent adoption of open office spaces?” You didn’t check the headlines; you were too busy practicing for this interview!
Unfortunately, you’re not going to be prepared for every question you get. Drexler says, “This is where you have to think on your feet. What is it the person wants to hear when they’re asking me this question?”
He continues, “If you don’t have any clue, you still need to say something.” You may be nervous, but don’t just blurt out any answer. It’s totally okay to take a second to consider the question before you respond. Think about the overall premise of the question, and try to figure out what’s behind it. Say something like, “that’s a great question” to give yourself a bit more time if you need to.
What to do: Say, “That’s a great question. I think open office spaces are a great way to cultivate teamwork and a friendly environment…”
9. You give a less-than-ideal answer.
In an effort to give the right answer, you may accidentally give the wrong one.
Rachael David, a junior at Penn State, had this happen when she was interviewing for her current internship. “She simply asked me on a scale of 1-10 how much I wanted the job, and in fear of appearing too eager, I responded with an eight,” she says.
If you’re still in the interview, don’t be afraid to amend points you think you didn’t answer as well as you could have. If the interview is over, you may still have the chance to fix this mistake. “If you think there were one or two questions you didn’t answer very well, then you want to address that in a thank-you note, briefly,” Drexler says. “You want your note to be constructive and positive.”
Rachael found this solution worked for her. “Immediately when I left the interview, I knew I had made a horrible mistake and was sure to email her as soon as I could, both thanking her for the interview and explaining my mistake,” she says. “I told her that my desire for the job was a solid 10 and apologized for any confusion. She responded back saying how glad she was that I had changed my mind, and I was notified that I got the job a few weeks later.”
It is possible to recover and still get the job. As stated, address the mistake (and correct it!) in a follow-up thank-you email. Keep it brief — no need to overly elaborate.
What to do: Say, “I know you asked me about X, and I want you to know these are my thoughts about that point…”
Interviews can be a stressful ordeal, but Drexler encourages us to remember what they’re for. An interview is all about selling yourself: showing the interviewer that you have the knowledge, skills and experience that he or she wants. In order to do this, Drexler insists that you stay focused. “You have to drop everything else from your mind and stay present, and that ‘everything’ includes the mistake you just made,” he says.
If you make a mistake, own up to it and then give it a positive spin! Giving a silver lining to your mistakes can help demonstrate your accountability, your self-awareness and your ability to not sweat the small stuff. Use those unfortunate mishaps to convince your interviewer you’re qualified for the position!