A lot of times we think we know what we’re doing in the job hunt, and then someone surprises us with information we didn’t think of. My latest bunch of surprises came from the book, What Does Somebody Have to Do to Get a Job Around Here? by Cynthia Shapiro, who I have interviewed before, and she is always super smart.

So here’s some advice, based on the surprises I found in the book:

1. There’s one trick to all trick questions.
“All trick questions, even the really scary psychological questions, are crafted so that you will give a negative answer.”

The truth is that positive people are hired more often. And in an interview, people can show that they are that type of person by intentionally presenting their information in the most positive way.

So get all your bitching about your career out of your system before you get to the interview. And each time you are inclined to say something negative, change it or leave it unsaid. Once you get hired, there will be plenty of time to open the spigot of animosity if you need to.

But you work so hard on presenting yourself in your best light in the interview — why not attempt to extend that best you to your whole life instead of those two hours of interviews? People will like you better at work, and your positive outlook will help you to make all your experiences in life better.

2. A thank-you note is too late to express enthusiasm for the job.
“A hiring manager’s mind is made up in the first twenty minutes of an interview, and often nothing can be done to change that.”

During this twenty minutes, most hiring managers are subconsciously screening for enthusiasm. Because people want coworkers who are excited about their job. Ironically, though, most people who are interviewing for a job go into that interview unsure if they want the position, and they tell themselves they’ll make a decision based on the interview.

But if you decide to be enthusiastic about the job at the end of the interview or, worse yet, when you write the thank you note, you are way too late.

To solve this problem, go into the job convinced that you want it. Be enthusiastic about the job and get the job. You may decide later that you don’t want it. That’s fine. But this way you’ll have that decision to make. Note that this means the interview is not the time to ask difficult, probing questions about the company. Save those for after you have a job offer. Ask questions that convey a positive, sunny attitude toward your interviewer and the company. That will get you an offer.

3. No one will tell you that you’ve made a mistake.
“No one will tell you that your resume wasn’t up to par; it will simply land in the trash. No one will tell you that you said something that scared the interviewer during a phone screen; you’ll just never be able to get that person on the phone again.”

Part of the reason is that you never get feedback is it’s too high risk to tell candidates what they do wrong: There is little benefit to the company, since they are not going to hire you anyway, and there is the remote chance that you will bring up a discrimination lawsuit.

The other reason no one will tell you what you did wrong is because it takes extra energy to take time to help someone, and we can’t do that with everyone, so we help the people who look like the strongest performers. It’s like that axiom, “the rich get richer” but in this case, “the best candidates get better.” How to fix this in your own life? Ask for a lot of help from people who are in a position to help you.

35 replies
  1. Holly Hoffman
    Holly Hoffman says:

    Someone gave me a tip for a second interview I was going on that shocked the hell out of me – to tell my interviewer that I needed the job. That sounded way too desperate to me. The recommender explained to me that it wouldn’t sound desperate – it would make me sound like someone who was invested in the position and that it would portray me as a less risky investment for the company to train.

    The interview rolled around and I found an opening toward the end of the session. I looked my interviewer in the eye and cooly informed her that I needed this position. Nothing else. No explanation, no excuses, no tears (thank god!). Just honesty, integrity intact. To be honest, I still can’t tell you exactly how I pulled it off.

    After I was hired, my supervisor let me in on a little secret. She was stuck between me and another candidate and couldn’t decide. My statement swung her in my direction. It was obvious that I would work out because I would make it work out because I needed it.

    I still believe in Thank You notes. I sent an e-mail to a company I met with on Monday regarding some contracting work for my own IT consultancy, to reiterate my interest and where my talents lie, as well as to (quickly) put some of their fears to bed. I ran into one of the owners later that night – he said he got my e-mail and he had a project for me. They still work.

  2. editormum
    editormum says:

    If hiring managers want me to be enthusiastic about the job, then they should tell me as much as possible about the job BEFORE they bring me in for an interview.

    Ads that say things like “experienced secretary needed for busy office” don’t tell me anything. Tell me how many people the position supports, what the five most crucial responsibilities are, and what sort of office you have.

    Ads that say things like “Secretary needed for five realtors in a fast-paced, professional office. Responsible for client relations, website maintenance, marketing packages, and event planning” tell me a WHOLE LOT about the place and the job.

    Yeah, a five-line ad costs a little more than a two-liner, but it will save you from wasting time interviewing candidates who are not interested in or qualified for the things that you need them to do.

    And why not just go on and tell us what the salary range is? And “commensurate with experience” is USELESS. Everyone pays their employees based on their skills and experience. I HATE interviewing for what sounds like a $50K position only to find that it pays $28K. Wasted my time AND yours.

  3. Veronica Sawyer
    Veronica Sawyer says:

    Excellent tips for job seekers!

    As a recruiter/hiring manager these tips ring so true. I pride myself on being unbiased but it is almost impossible to put aside reservations about a candidate who doesn't seem interested in the job or who speaks negatively their current/previous employer. To me it seems simple, but you'd be surprised how many people don't show any enthusiasm even when offered a job. It makes me question the hiring decision.

    Enthusiasm and a positive attitude are truly a job seeker's secret weapons. And unless you showed those in the interview and made a connection, you're never going to get any feedback. If a candidate's personality or attitude was impressive but she wasn't the right fit, I would definitely provide honest feedback and stay in touch. But I don't have time to coach every applicant and that's not my job. People are unpredictable and often don't take constructive feedback well. Have a qualified friend do a mock interview and give you honest feedback. Or hire someone.

  4. Jrandom42
    Jrandom42 says:

    As the CIO of a growing midsize business, let me add a few things here.

    If you are in a technical interview, show and tell me about your expertise. If you don’t know, say so. Answer honestly and truthfully, because the senior technical staff will sniff out any attempts to “wing it” or cover lack of knowledge with buzzwords. If you’ve never done this job before, tell me about how you’ve done something similar. Don’t trash the current setup. Be respectful of the senior staff. Tell me how you can add to and enhance our shared skills and expertise. And above all, show enthusiam for the job at hand, not for mine.

  5. fixedgear
    fixedgear says:

    I think need to write a lengthy blog post about internal interviews. I’m a career civil servant, and I’m not really all that interested in changing jobs. So I’ve been on dozens on internal interviews over the past decade, with no luck. My resume gets me in the door but I obviously have some fatal flaw that shows in the interview. I wear a suit, show up on time, shake hands, look ’em in the eye, thank them for their time, and still can’t get anywhere. The most recent one was a two step process, where candidates were screened in a fifteen minute six question lightning round. I made the cut, but didn’t have a lot more to say in interview number two. I’m not shy, I think I might be too succinct. We always have follow up interviews, where the selecting official (remember, it’s not a HR person, it’s the actual person you will be working for) debriefs you and mumbles some crap about why you didn’t get it.

  6. budgets are sexy
    budgets are sexy says:

    I agree with most of what you mentioned here, but I’d give #2 more credit. While thank you notes aren’t going to change the way you came across in an interview, as you mentioned, it can VERY WELL get you the job in the end.

    In a recent hire at our firm, we narrowed the candidates down to 3 and wore torn between each of them.

    The winner? The one who hand wrote a thank you note.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The first two sentences from your 11/08/06 post (http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2006/11/08/
    how-to-turn-an-interview-into-a-job/) were “Hiring managers don't hire the most qualified person. They hire the person they want to work with the most.” Evidently the reason these hiring managers are asking the trick questions (#1) is to weed out those people giving the most pessimistic answers. I am an optimist and a realist and don’t enjoy working with someone that has a negative bias. I never understood the benefit of negativity and avoid people with that proclivity.

  8. Andres
    Andres says:

    Nice review!

    Regarding #2 (thank you notes) I agree that positive energy during the interview is necessary and that waiting to express energy in a thank you card is too late.

    Strong candidates who follow up an enthusiastic interview with a thank you note, seal the deal in my book! Though not to be overvalued, I have seen that one little gesture of gratitiude make the difference in an otherwise tight race.

  9. Norcross
    Norcross says:

    You’re right on point. I recently had to interview a few candidates for a position that was basically my equal (department expanding), and I went with the person who was more upbeat in general, knowing that her enthusiasm would be needed when she hit the snags that come up.

    Granted, I’m more of a math and logic person (and sarcastic to boot), so our personalities don’t mesh on an individual level. But hey, I hired an employee, not a friend.

  10. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Penelope: This is a good post, but I have to say some trick questions really are that – trick questions.

    Ask any woman in child-bearing years who has faced some ‘trick’ questions aimed at judging how soon she may get pregnant and create costs and other hassles for employers. The creativity in bypassing illegality finds new dimensions in the trick questions used to assess this aspect.

  11. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    True that a thank you note it too late to show enthusiasm…

    but do not mistake Penelope’s advice in point #2 to mean you do not need to write a thank you note. I know many companies who will cut someone who does not send a follow up not after the interview. It shows them how you will follow up with customers, blow off the note (or send a bad one) and you might lose your shot at the job.

  12. Jim Eiden
    Jim Eiden says:

    For #3 – I did get feedback on a job interview, and it did help me land the next job. When I was turned down for an interview, I didn’t hear from the Recruiter as to whether I got the job or not.

    I kept calling the recruiter to find out one way or the other.

    I was finally able to talk to the recruiter who told me I did not get the job. When I asked why, he gave me some very valuable information.

    When interviewing for a job, you are taught not to admit mistakes and always turn it into a positive. So when I was asked a question to give them an example of how something went wrong in the workplace and how I handled it, I turned it into a positive.

    The recruiter flat out told me that nobody is that perfect. And that they were actually looking for someone who could admit their mistakes, resolve it, and move on.

    I had to unlearn that and become more human.

    My next interview for the next job, I landed the position because I wasn’t afraid to admit I wasn’t perfect and to show my humanity. I beat out 40 other candidates.

  13. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    I’ll tell you why I think I got my current job. I did all the usual prep–researched the company (with the internet, there is no reason not to be able to), bought a new outfit, remained positive during the interview (blows my mind that people would trash talk but I guess it happens if there’s a tip), and, yes, sent a thank you note (I always send handwritten thank you notes and not just for jobs; it’s why grandmas like me).

    What got me the job was volunteering to shadow the person I might be replacing. Toward the end of the interview, I just said, “Would it be ok if I came in one day for an hour to see what work this person does?” They immediately seemed thrilled and surprised that I offered and said yes. I bascially bought myself a second interview without waiting to be asked for one. This showed I had initiative, was highly interested, and I even got some job training prior to hiring. They interviewed other people but I am almost sure I was the only one who offered to shadow. When I shadowed, I sat in on an editorial meeting, which gave them a sense of knowing me better. I also learned a huge part of my job from the person I replaced.

    Offer to shadow. I read about it in Knock Em Dead, I think. It seemed weird and risky to me when I read it but I did it anyway. Try it. The worst anyone can say is no.

  14. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    I think you hit it on the head when you said that “most hiring managers are subconsciously screening for enthusiasm. Because people want coworkers who are excited about their job.”

    I really need to start showing more enthusiasm at the interview instead of being nervous. It might help if I have a reason to be enthusiastic as well….like actually wanting the job because it helps to fulfill one of my deeper needs.

  15. Marsha
    Marsha says:

    Just got an email from an interested prospect who said he wanted me to look at his resume – then didn’t attach it. Straight into the bin after sending him an encouraging note that passed.

  16. Diana Freedman
    Diana Freedman says:

    Tip #1 is so true. I’ve been applying to entry-level positions, as I’m graduating from college next month. I’ve already been asked questions such as:

    – “What’s your biggest weakness?”
    – “What didn’t you like about your supervisor at your last job?”
    – “Which of your past jobs was your least favorite?”

    Being aware that these questions are meant to be traps is so helpful because I know to spin these questions in a positive way. And if there really isn’t a positive way to spin it, don’t really answer it (such as the supervisor question; I just said that my supervisor and I were really on the same page, she valued my opinions like a coworker even though I was still in college, and that working for her was a great experience).

    Thanks for the great tips! Your blog has been very helpful.

  17. William Mitchell, CPRW
    William Mitchell, CPRW says:

    Here are a couple more job search tips for you guys:

    >> If your interview is scheduled on a dreary day, wear some brighter accessories.
    >> If interviewing in a location where the interview can see you drive up, wash your car. If your car is a wreck, see about borrowing a friend or family member’s car.
    >> If interviewing in an unfamiliar area, drive past the day before … identify parking issues in advance (you should be arriving at least 15 minutes early anyway)
    >> if you are a “ring twirler”, remove rings before going on your interview.
    >>”Small talk” at the start of the interview is meant to catch you off guard … sometimes to get information out of you that it is illegal to ask you (may ask about your weekend to get family information). Your interview starts from the moment the first person in the office can see you, and lasts until the last person can’t.

    Keep up the good work, Penelope!!!

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    @Shefaly – last night on ABC nightly news there was a segment on maternal profiling here in the United States which can be found at http://abcnews.go.com/
    Business/CareerManagement/story?id=4725660&page=1
    There’s no trick here – the employer just asks the questions and makes the bottom line decision.

  19. Sam Harold
    Sam Harold says:

    Good article! I’ve experienced every type of negative question on the interview. My favorite to date is, “What was the worst decision you ever made?” My response should have been, “I didn’t realize being a perfect human was a requirement for the job?” To be honest, only a really stupid interviewer would ask those type of questions. No one is ever going to honestly admit to their flaws during an interview. And the person who does should hired just for being honest!

  20. sumayya
    sumayya says:

    I simply don’t understand the point of trick questions and other such games in the interview process. You know whether you like a potential employee or not and you don’t need to spin them in circles to find that out.

    The interview process should be a dialogue revolving around “What do you need?” and “What can I offer?” (going both ways) to see if the employee-employer are a good fit. Trying to trip people up in various ways is immature and wastes everybody’s time. Asking more thoughtful questions will tell you more about the person’s character and attitude–all the stuff you really want to know.

    There’s a lack of integrity in the whole process. I agree with editormum (second post)–employers need to be more up front, with detailed job descriptions, detailed directions for applying, and the like.

  21. Barbara Saunders
    Barbara Saunders says:

    Six months into hiring for a relatively esoteric position, I realized that all successful hires had spontaneously offered the exact same phrase during the interview. When I heard that phrase, that sealed the deal unless there was some really glaring fault.

    • Kate Viagem
      Kate Viagem says:

      Well you can go a long way with confidence alone, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have expertise to back it up, you are dead in the water. But at least confidence will buy you the opportunity to prove your expertise. On the other hand, with expertise comes confidence… So which is first? :)

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