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11 Classic Interview Mistakes – and How to Recover

You’ve done your research on the company, rehearsed your elevator pitch, dry-cleaned your best suit and printed a fresh copy of your fine-tuned resume and portfolio. All the elements are in place for you to master every minute of your Big Interview—but then, once you’re in the hot seat, the worst-case scenario comes screeching into reality.

Whether you stumbled on a tough question, shared way too much (or too little) information or slipped too far out of your professional persona, you’re certain that you’ve just blown any chance of landing your dream job.

Before you start doing your best to erase the entire experience from your mind and move on, consider the possibility that you might still be able to salvage your chances. Some of these corrections can be made mid-interview, while others can be applied after the fact.

Mistake #1: Not being able to think of a response.

We’ve all been there: That well-rehearsed answer you delivered so confidently in the shower disappears from your mind when you’re seated across from an intimidating CEO.

If you find yourself facing one of these “brain freezes,” all is not lost. Try this strategy to get your thoughts—and words—rolling again.

  • Ask the interviewer to clarify the question. This will give you some precious time to regroup.
  • Ask for time to think. There’s nothing wrong with requesting a few seconds to consider the question and formulate an answer. In fact, a good employer will respect that you’re taking the interview seriously and thinking before you speak.
  • Say something. Delivering a partial answer is better than nothing. And if you’re still drawing a blank, be honest and ask if you can come back to the question later.

Of course, a bit of extra preparation and practice will go a long way toward reducing your odds of going blank when it really counts.

Mistake #2: Not directly answering a question that was asked.

This is often a result of Mistake #1. When your mind goes blank, you might either evade a question completely or ramble on without providing a specific, relevant response.

If you realize the gaffe mid-interview, try to recover by steering the conversation back to the tricky question (see a strategy for Mistake #1 above).

If you cringe at the memory after you’ve already left, you can send a follow-up email with a more thorough answer.

Mistake #3: Calling the interviewer or company by the wrong name.

If you’re interviewing with multiple firms and people from various departments, this is an understandable flub. While it may seem mortifying at first, all may not be lost. Recover quickly by apologizing for the error, chalking it up to nervousness and excitement about the opportunity, and then moving on.

Mistake #4: Missing an opportunity to talk yourself up or weave in your achievements.

Sometimes the perfect example doesn’t occur to you until after the interview. Fortunately, this is an easy fix. As soon as possible after the interview, while you’re still fresh in the employer’s mind, craft a thank-you email.

After the standard message of appreciation and restatement of interest in the position, circle back to the specific question and follow up with your relevant accomplishments and qualifications.

Mistake #5: Not knowing enough about the company.

I can speak from personal experience on this one. A prospective employer fired off this doozie: Tell me the most important things about my company. Perhaps it was the unexpected bluntness of the question, or maybe I hadn’t done enough research—whatever the reason, I was left sputtering and could only muster a pathetic summary.

Back home, I immediately read as much as I could find about the firm. In my thank-you email, I apologized for the lackluster response to that question and included a quick list of the most impressive things I’d learned.

Mistake #6: Talking negatively about a previous employer.

Even if you have every right to be upset with your nightmare of a former boss, a job interview is not the place to air those grievances.

Complaints will send up red flags in the employer’s mind, making him or her wonder if you might be responsible for the negativity and bring it to the new role. Unless there was a unique situation that’s necessary to explain, leave your venting at the door.

If you must explain a negative situation (layoffs, boss getting fired, budget cuts, etc.), prepare neutral language in advance so you won’t be caught off-guard.

If you happen to let some not-so-nice words fly, take steps to try to put a positive spin on the experience (“I’m eager to tackle new challenges and use what I’ve learned to add value to this position,” etc.).

Mistake #7: Delivering a clichéd response.

If you use a cliché as an interview crutch, you’ll likely realize it as soon as the words tumble out of your mouth.  For example, terms like “team player” and “people person” are used so often that they’ve lost any meaning.

If you feel comfortable doing so, try to make a light joke of it—“I bet you’ve never heard that one before”—and then elaborate with a more creative, personalized response.

Mistake #8: Forgetting to silence your cell phone—and getting a call during the interview.

Silencing your cell phone should rank right up there with showing up on time and thanking the interviewer for his or her time, but with so much on your mind, it’s understandable that you may have forgotten.

If this happens to you, act fast to silence the ringer, and whatever you do, don’t answer it. Immediately apologize for the interruption and pick up right where you left off—and we can bet it will never happen again.

Mistake #9: Not dressing as professionally as the people who interviewed you.

Ideally, you’ve taken our advice about what to wear for a job interview and shown up in polished, professional attire. But according to a survey of more than 100 hiring managers, many millennials make the mistake of wearing “inappropriate attire.” If you realize you’ve made a fashion faux pas after arriving, work extra hard to show your professionalism and seriousness in your answers and body language.  Then, make sure to dress more appropriately if you’re lucky enough to score a second interview.

Mistake #10: Not asking any good questions.

Most employers will see this as a sign that you’re not all that interested in the position, and that you just want to get out of there as quickly as possible. It’s always a good idea to prepare a few insightful questions ahead of time—and if those happen to get answered naturally during the course of the interview, try putting a different spin on them.

You should also jot down impromptu questions that occur to you during the conversation, saving them for the inevitable time when the employer asks you for some. And, if all else fails, use your thank-you note to reinforce your interest in the position and mention some aspects of the company or role that you’d like to learn more about..

Mistake #11: Not having a strong closing.

In most interviews, the candidate has a chance to deliver a “closing statement” of sorts. This is a priceless opportunity to get in the last word and leave the interviewer with a favorable impression of you.

As the conversation wraps up, restate your strong interest in the position, touch on why you think you’re a great fit and ask about the next steps in the hiring process. Don’t forget to ask for the interviewer’s business card so you can follow up with a thank-you email.

The best way to prevent these potential interview disasters is to anticipate them ahead of time and be armed with effective solutions to correct them, either mid-conversation or after the interview.

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