The job interview process can feel like a real minefield, with opportunity to get eliminated at every turn. In reality, you should think about it more like a courting period -- a chance to get to know the people you might work with while they’re getting to know you. How do you minimize your chances of getting rejected? Start by avoiding basic mistakes like the ones below.
Not following instructions.
Were you supposed to answer a prompt instead of writing a cover letter? Send your portfolio alongside your resume? Not following directions means you’ll likely be rejected before your resume even gets read.
Turning in a resume with typos.
Good editing is a basic smell test for your attention to detail and how seriously you take your application. Have someone proofread your work.
Not paying attention to formatting.
Your resume should be clean and easy to read, and it should convey a basic understanding of using Microsoft Word to format. It should also be two pages maximum, and that’s only if you’ve worked for more than a decade.
Not highlighting keywords that align with the responsibilities of the job.
Read the job description carefully, and adjust your resume to mimic the language. You’ll also want to call out skills listed in the description, and anywhere you can quantify your contribution to your past positions -- in terms of growth, cost-savings, or additional revenue -- you should.
Not tailoring your cover letter to the position.
Sure, most cover letters follow a basic format. But this is your chance to string your career story together in a way that emphasizes the qualities a particular company is seeking. How do you know what they’re seeking? Read the job description, and the About Us section of the website. Turning in a generic cover letter means you’ve given up this chance.
In the Phone Screen
A phone screen is a short interview meant to confirm you have the skills to do the role, and to clear up any potential practical problems with you doing the job (you not living in the same city as a job for which you have to be in the office, for instance). So you should be ready to answer some basic questions: what you’ve done in your career to date, what your goals are, why you were drawn to this position, and why you’re interested in this company. You should also prepare three questions about the role or the company -- and realize you’ll likely be judged on the quality and type of questions you ask.
Saying, “I’m hoping to use this position to move into a different function.”
You might think it behooves you to show your flexibility by mentioning your coding prowess and engineering aspirations when applying to a sales role. But more likely, you’re raising a red flag. While most companies like employees who are nimble in their skillsets, they want to know that you can knock it out of the park in the role for which you’re interviewing. So keep your answers focused on how you’ll be an asset in this particular job.
Bringing up religion or politics.
Unless you’re interviewing for a position in a religious or political organization, or these organizations factor into your work history, you should practice the old dinner table rule of avoiding these topics.
Flattering your interviewer around deep details of someone’s resume.
It’s okay to show your awareness of your interviewer’s professional history, especially as it pertains to the organization to which you’re applying. But gushing about deep details of their resume -- especially if it relates to prior companies -- probably isn’t helping your cause, and it certainly doesn’t show why you’re interested in this particular place of work.
In the In-Person Interview
Not dressing professionally.
Different companies have different dress codes -- there’s a good chance that if you’re working for a start-up, for instance, your uniform is going to be jeans and a tee-shirt. But that shouldn’t stop you from dressing professionally for the interview. If you know for certain the work environment is on the casual side, it’s appropriate to show up in slacks and a button-down for men, or slacks or a dress for women. When in doubt, though, don’t hesitate to pull out the suit -- few companies will ding you for being overdressed.
Not taking interviews with potential subordinates seriously.
Let’s say you’re interviewing for a management position. One or two of the interviews are with employees who’d potentially report to you. If you’re not taking that situation as seriously as the interview with your hiring manager, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot. And since this is your opportunity to make a good first impression on who are probably high-performing members of your future team, make sure you ask for -- and listen to -- their input on their roles, too.
Not making eye contact.
Failing to look people in the eye while you’re talking to them suggests you’re either not confident in your answer or dishonest. Neither is good.
While in-person interviews tend to range more than phone screens, you should still be able to answer the basics -- where you’ve been and where you’re hoping to go -- clearly and succinctly. You should also anticipate being thrown scenarios you’d likely encounter in the job, and if someone sends you information to learn promising to quiz you on it during the interview, you should learn it inside and out. And as with the phone screen, make sure you prepare a few questions.
Getting thrown off by a tough question and not recovering.
Maybe one of your answers doesn’t come off so well. Maybe you’re totally caught off guard by a question and fumble the response. Keep your cool and don’t let it stop you from nailing the rest of the interview. Consider that the interviewer might be trying to trip you up on purpose to determine how agile you are, or how you respond to pressure.
After the Interviews
Not following up with a thank you note.
It takes two minutes to bang out an email response to the people who met with you, and this is far more than an empty gesture. Best case scenario, it makes you stand out for your thoughtfulness. Worst case, you’re checking a requisite box for advancing to the next round.
Following up incessantly.
It’s okay to follow up on a slow process once -- see our guide to the art of the follow-up for gauging timing there -- but contacting a hiring manager multiple times is usually unwanted. And if you’re rejected, best to let it lie, rather than follow up multiple times asking for feedback.