Few experiences—save for a trip to the DMV or dentist’s office—elicit the same level of anxiety that a job interview does (and that’s only once you’ve made it through the dreaded application process). Unfortunately, like those other stressful tasks, there’s no getting around it. Rather than crack under pressure, why not learn from the mistakes other candidates make?
To get the inside scoop, we asked a handful of professional recruiters and career coaches to tell us about the slip-ups they’ve witnessed over and over again. You’ll notice we left out some obvious flubs—from failing to proofread for typos (an offense that 61 percent of hiring managers in a national survey considered grounds for automatic rejection) to posting questionable content on social media (for which 51 percent said they had passed on a candidate)—to focus on somewhat lesser-discussed errors.
1. Not Modifying Your Resume and Cover Letter
Not one recruiter gets excited to read, “Here’s my resume. I’d love to be considered for the job at your company.” Hiring managers and employers need to feel like you’re actually interested in working for their company and have tailored both documents to reflect that, says Alan Cutter, CEO and founder of digital media recruiting agency AC Lion. Take advantage of the freedom to make adjustments, highlighting completely different parts of your experience and targeting examples to a particular organization’s needs, says career coach Maggie Mistal.
2. Relying Too Heavily on the Online Application Process
“Just sending your resume through a portal can be a dead end,” says Mary Gallic, an executive recruiter at New York-based firm O’Hare + Associates. Instead of clicking “apply” and crossing your fingers that flawed recruiting software will match up keywords, dig deeper to determine the best approach—and to make sure you actually want the job.
Attempt to find out who the hiring manager is and contact him/her directly, Cutter suggests. If you don’t have that information (or a friend at the company who could refer you), start looking through your second and third connections on LinkedIn, Mistal adds. And don’t worry if it’s not the perfect connection. Someone from accounting can still tell you about their experience working for the company before recommending a more direct contact in creative. “It just takes a little bit of patience,” Mistal says, “But people are afraid to wait. Give yourself time to get to the right person, even if it takes a little longer.”
3. Using Meaningless Buzzwords to Describe Yourself
Referring to yourself as “team player,” “innovator,” or someone who “thinks outside the box” doesn’t set you apart from the average candidate—quite the opposite, says Andrea Kay, author of This Is How to Get Your Next Job: An Inside Look at What Employers Really Want. Instead, demonstrate how hiring you will benefit the company. “If you’re a ‘people person,’ does that mean you’re good at working with all kinds of people? Is it that you’re very empathetic? Are you good at bringing calm to a situation? Clarify and give concrete examples,’” she says.
4. Not Taking the Time to Research the Person Interviewing You
It should go without saying (though we’re happy to remind you) that studying up on a company is a crucial part of the preparation process. Beyond that, though, focus on finding out more about your interviewer, Gallic says. Maybe you went to the same college or root for the same sports team. Knowing those details not only makes the conversation more enjoyable, it also establishes a human connection. “It’s the difference between not losing points and actually gaining points,” Cutter adds.
5. Not Knowing Your Market Value
While it’s ideal to push back the compensation conversation until later in the application process, it’s not always possible. In this case, Cutter recommends being truthful about what you currently make and writing that you’re flexible when it comes to what you’re looking for. Mistal suggests researching your market value—whatever the company would have to pay anybody coming into this role, taking into account their geographic area and level of experience—on sites like salary.com and payscale.com. “You want to give an educated response,” she says. “When you say ‘market value,’ that keeps some of the negotiating power on your side.”
6. Not Thinking Like the Employer
Be smart about explaining exactly what you’re going to contribute to the company, Kay advises. Saying “I just want to learn,” for instance, is a terrible way to convince someone to hire you. “Even if you are right out of school, draw upon your internships and earlier experiences,” Kay says. “Think about why those skills will make a difference and how you’re going to help an employer deliver their service or product.”
7. Getting Way Too Comfortable
As companies continue to redefine office culture (is that a foosball table in the corner?!), it’s easy for candidates to forget they need to maintain a certain level of professionalism, says Prather Claghorn, a senior account executive at Beacon Hill Staffing Group. We’re not saying you should wear a suit and tie to a start-up office (please don’t), but walking into an interview with a Starbucks coffee in hand and answering and responding to texts and calls (even to say “I have to call you back”) is never appropriate behavior. According to Claghorn, some junior candidates also rub employers the wrong way by rushing in to questions about perks, vacation policy, and flexible work arrangements that have no place in the early rounds of an interview.
8. Saying “Yes” to Everything Just Because You Want the Job
“To compete with other candidates, people feel the need to say ‘yes’ to anything that’s required in the job description—even if they’re not interested in or talented at those things,” Mistal says. Ultimately, when they land that job, they wind up unhappy and unmotivated. (We imagine the company isn’t thrilled either.) What candidates should be doing is asking the interviewer questions about the needs, challenges, and goals associated with the role, then tailoring it to how they can best do the job, she says. There’s a chance you end up creating a position that’s even better than the one that was posted.
9. Bad-Mouthing Your Current or Previous Employer
Everyone knows not to bash their boss or company, but they often do it anyway—especially when they get comfortable, says Cutter. When candidates are asked why they’re looking to leave their job, it can be a natural reaction. But remarking that your boss yells or screams or that he or she is a micromanager who’s always looking over your shoulder isn’t the way to go. Companies are concerned about their brand reputation, so it’s that kind of statement that will prevent you from moving on in the process.
10. Responding to Emails Via Phone
Sure, it’s how everyone communicates these days, but that doesn’t mean you should be thoughtlessly firing off responses to a potential employer. “It shows the company that you’re not taking it seriously because you’re on the go,’” Cutter says. At the very least, he suggests removing “Sent from my iPhone” or adding “Please excuse any errors” to short, single-question replies. In general, though, it’s best to wait until you have time to review and spell check a longer response rather than risk sloppy typos.
11. Failing to Follow Up Within 24 Hours
“That follow-up [or lack thereof] is seen as a direct indicator of how you’re going to manage a client relationship,” Gallic says. After all, why should a company trust you to represent them if you can’t be bothered to thank them for meeting with you? Even if you’re no longer interested in the position (say, you’ve received a raise at your current job or you simply feel like it’s not a good fit), follow-up is key. “Don’t forget to close that loop,” she says. “Those HR circles are small and that interviewer will likely work at another company you might be interested in in a few years—and they’ll remember.”
12. Not Practicing Thoughtful Aggressiveness
After sending that initial thank you, be smart about how and when you check back in. Before you even leave the interview, Kay recommends finding out what the next step is. “Ask something like, ‘If I haven’t heard back from you by [this date], is it alright if I check in?’” That simple question sets up a timeline and gives you a better sense of the process.
When you do follow up, repeatedly asking “What’s going on?” will make it seem like you’re putting them on the spot or micromanaging, Mistal says. Instead, she suggests acting as a resource—finding an article, book, or conference that might be of service to the employer based on what they said during the interview. Sending that information shows you’re a good listener and that you understand what they’re trying to do.