12 Bloopers to Avoid in Job Interviews

Brian Taylor

February 25, 2013

In the course of my academic career, I've been interviewed for junior and senior faculty positions as well as for administrative posts like the provostship I now hold. I have also been on more search committees than I care to count. Over time, I've observed (at least) a dozen bloopers to avoid at all costs in job interviews.

1. Good question, but now let me answer the question I wish you had asked. When you receive media training, you learn a technique called "bridging." The idea is that, in an interview with a reporter, you briefly (perhaps super-briefly) answer the question that was asked and then bridge to the point you really want to make. In that way, you appear to have heard and paid attention to the journalist's question but get the opportunity to say what you really want to say.

However useful that technique is in media interviews, it is a dud in job interviews. Chances are the interviewers are asking the same question of every candidate: If you do not answer it properly, the questioner will assume that you either can't answer it or, just as bad, don't want to. The interviewer no doubt thought the question was a good one, and he or she is unlikely to think more of you for not answering it.

2. I have no clue, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let you know that. It's hard to say "I don't know" in a job interview, but search-committees members will think more of you if you admit that you don't know the answer than if you give a poor or irrelevant one. Sometimes they will be impressed that you were willing to admit your ignorance.

While there is nothing wrong with saying you don't know, you should be concerned if you are saying it (or thinking it) too often during the interview. That might mean you should think about other job opportunities. Or you might do a bit more homework next time: You don't want to show an excess of ignorance about the place where you want to work.

3. I'm so glad you asked. I've got an excellent colloquium on just that question. Occasionally you get the question that you have been prepping for and can't wait to respond. So you answer it ... and answer it.

Question periods are usually short, so interviewers are looking for relatively short answers. If you find that you are going on and on, stop yourself before someone else does. Overly long answers suggest a lack of self-control, uncertainty about how to answer, or, sometimes, an outsized ego.

4. I'm going to keep that face smiling and that head nodding. When you are talking with a search committee, there may be one or perhaps two people in the group who consistently smile or nod their heads when you answer. Because they seem to be rewarding you for your answers, your tendency may be to talk directly to them and to say whatever it takes to get them to keep smiling and nodding.

The trouble is they are probably not the people you need to convince. You need to pay attention to the stone faces and the frowners. They are the ones you need to persuade that you are viable for the job.

5. A little embellishment never hurt anybody. It is tempting to embellish your record just a little here and there. After all, you are facing stiff competition for the job, and every little bit helps. But that is risky, for at least two reasons.

First, especially with the availability of the Internet for fact checking, it's just too easy for potential employers to figure out that you're stretching the truth.

Second, once you have shown you are untrustworthy, you can kiss the job goodbye. If the hiring committee catches you exaggerating in one area, its members are likely to assume that you have done the same in other areas. You're better off sticking to the truth.

6. You can count on me to make everybody happy. Colleges look for people who are compatible with institutional values. The problem is that different groups within the institution are likely to have somewhat different values, and sometimes the differences cause conflicts.

One approach some candidates take is to show how they can get along with absolutely everyone. But by doing that, you may give the impression of being wishy-washy or unwilling to stand up for principles, if indeed you are perceived as having any. No one expects you to be best friends with everyone. Show who you are. If the committee members don't like who you are, you don't want to go to their institution, and you should thank them if they reject you.

7. Weaknesses? Me? I once interviewed a candidate and asked what I considered to be a thoroughly standard question: What do you see as your major weaknesses? The candidate replied that no one had ever asked him that, and that he had not really thought about it. I knew I would not hire him. Someone who is unaware of his or her weaknesses—or not savvy enough to have thought about a good answer to such a standard question—is not going to be effective on the job. Know what your weaknesses (and strengths) are, and be prepared to talk about them. You can come out ahead in an interview if you demonstrate that you know how to correct or at least compensate for your weaknesses.

Just make sure that, whatever they are, your weaknesses are not fatal for the job. For example, if you do not particularly enjoy teaching, an interview for a faculty position is probably not the place to mention that. (Of course, if you don't like to teach, you might want to reconsider whether you want to be a faculty member in the first place.) Similarly, if you can never stand to suffer fools with a smile, you may find an administrative position very challenging.

8. I've got this great new technology for my talk. One candidate for an academic position was unable to make her technology work and unwilling to start her job talk until she could. We did not hire her. Another candidate boasted that he was using a new technology that he had never tried out before. He could not get it to work (and he was in engineering!). We didn't hire him, either. Don't use an interview to experiment for the first time with a new technology. If you do use technology in your talk, try to ensure that it will work, but have a backup plan in case it doesn't.

9. We really know how to handle that problem at my university. We want to hear about your experiences and how you have handled various problems. But if you convey to the hiring committee that you think your current institution has the answer to every problem, some people may wonder why you don't just stay there. We had a job candidate who seemed to be in love with his current college. His candidacy received little support from members of the search committee, because no one could figure out why he wanted to leave where he was.

10. Here's a long list of what I need for the job. I made that mistake once. Asked during an interview what I needed to make the position work, I went into great detail. The problem was, I didn't yet have an offer. And I didn't get one.

You have to be careful about specifying conditions of employment too soon in the process. You will be in a bargaining position after you're offered the job, but not really before.

And remember never to accept or turn down a job you have not officially been offered. If you don't have an offer in writing, you really don't have an offer, as I learned painfully many years ago when what I thought was an oral offer evaporated into thin air.

11. I'll teach you never to ask such a stupid question again. It was my first job interview. I was 25 years old and naïve. A scruffy-looking guy in the audience who appeared to be a first-year graduate student asked what I thought was a really dumb question. I gave a response that was too clever by half—sort of a putdown. How was I supposed to know he was the chair of the search committee?

I have never given a snarky answer since, no matter how weak I thought the question was.

12. That will never work. When someone on the search committee offers a solution to a problem the college or university faces, and you don't think it will work, the job interview is not the best time to say that. You are better off saying that you would have to think, or that there might be ways to make it work. Who knows? If you think about the issue more, you just might see the merit in the idea.

By now, you probably would like a comparable dozen pointers of things you should say in a job interview. That's understandable, except that what works varies from place to place, search committee to search committee, and job to job.

Your best bet: Be yourself and speak honestly. If the institution does not hire you, be glad you avoided landing at a place where you would not fit. In the end, jobs are about fit, and your role in the process is to ensure that when you do take a job, it is at a place that is a match for you. Bad romances are painful not only in one's choice of partner but also in one's choice of jobs.

Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president at Oklahoma State University, and a professor of psychology and education there.