Everybody gets nervous before an interview. If your anxiety makes you doubt your own qualifications, you may have impostor syndrome.
It’s normal to feel some anxiety before a job interview. Given the stakes and the nature of interviews, it’s probably inevitable.
Strangers with the power to bestow or withhold a position will be comparing your achievements with those of candidates whose experience and education may surpass yours. It would take nerves of steel and the self-confidence of a superhero not to feel at least a little nervous.
Some people feel more than everyday levels of anxiety. They convince themselves that there has been a mistake. They’ve secured the job interview under false pretenses. Their skills, talents, and accomplishments are not commensurate with the job they’ve applied for. In the days leading up to the interview, they grow increasingly certain the interview will be a humiliating experience where they are exposed as frauds.
This is impostor syndrome: the irrational belief that you have unwittingly tricked people and you don’t deserve the success you have achieved – or the job you are applying for.
Life on the Spectrum
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. According to a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, at least 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives.
The condition crosses all demographic and economic lines, and it is present in all kinds of careers.
In 2012, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg told an interviewer from the Atlantic, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”
In 2007, Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster was the guest of honor at a Women in Entertainment Power 100 event. “I always feel like something of an impostor,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I am not a writer,” says a 1938 diary entry penned by novelist John Steinbeck. “I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” His act proved successful – in 1962 he received the Nobel Prize in literature.
Maya Angelou won a Nobel Prize too, but the award was not sufficient to protect her from impostor syndrome’s harsh judgment. “I have written 11 books,” she said, “but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Fear of fraudulence can strike anyone – particularly during a job search.
It’s common to worry that you’ve overstated your qualifications for a job. Does your competence with particular software deserve to be described as expertise? Is it fair to characterize your role as “team leader” even though your job title didn’t reflect a formal leadership position? Does your university degree imply a level of expertise in subjects you don’t remember anything about?
Concerns like these aren’t confined to people whose anxiety rises to the level of impostor syndrome. Given the prevalence of the impostor experience and the stress of job interviews, it’s fair to say that most people, even if they don’t technically suffer from impostor syndrome, occupy a place on the impostor spectrum, if only for a few nail-biting minutes waiting for their names to be called in the personnel office.
Early researchers into the impostor phenomenon expected to find the condition more prevalent among women, and since that’s where they looked for it, that’s where they found it. Modern studies show that both men and women experience impostor syndrome in roughly equal numbers.
Impostor Syndrome and the Job Seeker
Job seekers can feel the effects of impostor syndrome from the moment they start their job search. People who believe their accomplishments to be undeserved are likely to rule out jobs that they are qualified for, gravitating toward less demanding positions with lower levels of authority and smaller paychecks.
Candidates with impostor syndrome maintain an exaggerated sense of their own shortcomings. Given a long list of job requirements and preferred skills, they can focus on a single missing requirement from a long list, concluding that they are not qualified. They assume they’ll never get the job and therefore don’t apply – making the dire prediction self-fulfilling.
Others express their misgivings in the way they present themselves in cover letters and CVs. They’re likely to downplay their accomplishments, saying “contributed to” instead of “managed,” “worked on” instead of “launched.”
If ever there was a form of communication in which a little apple-polishing was not just acceptable, but expected, it is the job application. Given the scant time HR professionals can afford to expend on the resumes that flood their inboxes, it is understandable that they don’t read between the lines. If insecurity leads you to understate your accomplishments, you’re likely to lose the interview to a candidate who is more candid and confident in presentation.
Coping With Impostor Syndrome in the Interview
Everyone knows that a successful job interview doesn’t come from pretending to have the expertise you don’t have. It’s about recognizing the value of the experience, knowledge, and accomplishments that you do have.
With a little preparation and a positive mindset, you can prevent impostor syndrome from derailing your job interview. Here are 10 ways to get the job you want even when part of you is whispering in your ear that you don’t deserve it.
1. Let HR decide
When you feel like a fraud, it’s natural to sink any chance you might have of getting a good job. People with impostor syndrome tend to look at interviews as opportunities to confirm their suspicion that they don’t deserve the job.
That’s a self-defeating attitude. To combat it, remember: It’s not your job to decide you’re not qualified. That’s what the interviewer is there to determine.
2. Remember that learning is a strength
Impostors sometimes sabotage interviews by confessing their lack of complete mastery of parts of the job. But acknowledging that there is more to learn is actually a strength, and a commitment to learning more is an asset during any interview.
The trick is in the presentation. Remember to match weak spots in your expertise with your ongoing efforts to broaden your skills.
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3. Present yourself as a colleague
In addition to asking about the experience and accomplishments that you feel shaky about, interviewers focus on how you will fit in as a member of the team. They’re interested in your work habits, your personal characteristics, and the way you function as a member of a group.
Are you a team player? How do you respond to stress? Do you prefer a lot of guidance or more freedom? Questions like these give you an opportunity to present yourself accurately without triggering your feelings of being a fraud.
4. Stick to the facts
The interviewer may ask about a problem you solved or a project you headed. Instead of offering an evaluation of your contributions, simply say what you did and what the results were for your employer. If sales rose 20%, that’s a solid fact, and it’s worth mentioning. There’s no need for you to explain that you suspect they would have risen even more with someone else in charge. If you’re having a brush with impostor syndrome, your evaluation may not be reliable. It’s best to stick with solid facts.
5. Manage anxiety proactively
Impostor syndrome and anxiety go hand-in-hand. You’ll have a better chance of squelching self-sabotaging statements if you reduce your anxiety.
If you’re interviewing in person, arrive at the site early and go for a walk to calm your nerves. If you’re online, prepare by ensuring that your camera and microphone are set up and working properly. Set up your space with a glass of water, a notepad, and a pen.
6. Focus on others
When impostor syndrome is at its most intense, all you can think about is your own shortcomings and the fear that they will be exposed. That’s a terrible mindset for making a good impression.
Counter it by turning your focus outward to the interviewer or interview team. Examine their expressions. Think about what they do at the company. Write down their names and titles, and greet them by asking what kind of day they’re having.
These steps can help you get out of your head and leave your fear of exposure behind.
7. Tell the whole story
Interviewers sometimes ask about times you failed to meet a goal or make a project successful. This is a danger zone for applicants with impostor syndrome.
Remember that there is a recipe for answering such questions. Start by characterizing the failure as a thing of the past. Be candid about how something you didn’t know at the time contributed to the problem. Identify something that you learned from the failure. And conclude your response with an example of how what you learned later contributed to success.
Part of you will be whispering in your ear that this question about failure is where you will be exposed as a fraud. So prepare for it. Failure – learning – success. That’s the full story. Practice it before the interview so you can answer the question despite the whispered self-talk.
8. Remember to interview the company
The interview is an opportunity to assess the match between you as an employee and the company as the employer. For a successful match, both sides must be satisfied that the prospects are good.
While it is understandable that you will want to sell yourself a bit, the interview will likely be more successful at exploring the prospective match if you are simply yourself. And don’t forget, just as the interviewer is assessing you, you are assessing the company and the job.
9. Don’t expect the worst
Candidates with impostor syndrome tend to show up at interviews primed for defeat. They’ve already concluded they aren’t qualified, and the only real question is how humiliating it will be when the interviewer realizes the meeting is a waste of time.
Before the interview, visualize yourself in the job. Read over the description and the requirements, and see how they match your strengths and experience. Focus on how great it would feel to land the job, not on how awful it would feel to be exposed as a fraud.
10. Accept the fact of impostor syndrome
Everyone gets nervous before job interviews. Researchers say almost everyone responds by doubting their own worthiness, at least sometimes.
Let this knowledge sustain you. When you feel anxious or exposed, remind yourself that those feelings may come from your condition and the stressful situation you are in. Focus on the skills and accomplishments listed in your work history. Those are objective facts you can rely on when impostor syndrome takes hold.
A Silver Lining
If it’s any consolation, research shows that people who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to be high achievers at work. It turns out that self-described impostors work extra hard and acquire new skills to compensate for their self-doubt. Ironically, the very factors that make it more difficult for them to land a position tend to make them more successful on the job.
Do you suffer from impostor syndrome? There is no official diagnosis protocol. Impostor syndrome is not listed in the diagnostic manuals used by mental health professionals. But there are a number of informative self-assessments online, including a short survey from PsychTests AIM Inc. The results aren’t definitive, but they could be useful food for thought.
Practice sessions with Big Interview can minimize the jitters and anxiety associated with meeting potential employers. Wherever you fall on the anxiety spectrum, practice can help.