You are a professional in your field of choice. To get to where you are today, you’ve had to participate in countless interviews with numerous employers. As a result, you know what it takes to be successful during an interview: You know that appearance matters, that you must do your homework, that you must be relaxed and engaged, and that you must prepare for the challenging questions that will no doubt be asked of you.

In short, you’re ready!

At least, you feel like you’re ready. But the fact is that, in the fluid give-and-take of an interview, nothing is certain. Despite all your preparation, you may walk into an interview room and immediately realize you’re in trouble because your choice of interview attire is drastically different from that of your interviewers. You may be asked a totally unexpected question, which leads to an uncomfortably long silence as you frantically wrack your brain for a good response. Meanwhile, the lead interviewer is scribbling notes and quickly glancing at each of the other interviewers as if to ask, “Are you seeing this?”

That’s not to mention the last-minute changes to an interview’s time, location, or list of participants, all of which can leave you scrambling to catch up.

As an interviewee, how do you prepare for all of these unexpected situations?

Confidence Is Key

The key to every interview, no matter what happens, is to have confidence in yourself and your abilities. Yes, your prep work matters, but confidence is the real silver bullet for every interview situation.

With confidence – and the calmness and awareness that result from it – you will be more able to assess how your responses are being received in real time, which means you can tweak and adjust as you go along. You can’t prepare for every possible question, but if you pay attention to subtle hints from the interviewers, you can figure out exactly what they’re looking for in your answers.

Confidence in Action

It took a while for me to recognize the importance of confidence, calmness, and awareness. I had been hired after graduating from college, at a time when jobs were abundant and companies were eager to court new grads. Several years later, I applied to be considered for an appointment to my company’s White House Fellowship program. This was a high-profile program allowing appointees to spend some time in Washington, D.C., with similar individuals representing their companies.

I was called in for an interview. I felt prepared for it, albeit a bit nervous. After all, this was a major opportunity and an honor to even be considered.

SunIn general I felt the interview went well. However, there was one question I had not anticipated: “What would you have done if you were required by the Selective Service draft to deploy to Vietnam?” Note that this interview occurred in the early 1970s, and for years the horrors of the Vietnam War had been in the news. The Selective Service System had previously assigned my priority for the draft by way of a lottery selection based upon my month and day of birth. My lottery number had been very low in priority, so I had not been drafted.

My response to the interview question was that I would have deployed, but that I would have expected not to return. I intended to convey that I felt my chances for survival were not great, but that I would have supported my country by serving honorably. I realized later that my response could have been interpreted in a number of different ways. Did it mean that I would have deserted? Did it mean that I didn’t believe in the U.S. military action? Did it mean that I didn’t have confidence in my own abilities and resourcefulness to survive?

I don’t know how my response was interpreted, but I learned later from my interviewer that my response to that question was the primary reason that I was not selected for the program. The interviewer did not elaborate, but the mistakes that I had made were quite clear to me. Not only did I provide a confusing response, but I also did not recognize that the interviewer was concerned with my response, and I therefore didn’t offer any further clarification during the interview. Had I done so, the trajectory of my career could have been altered significantly.

With confidence and a heightened sense of awareness, you will be able to represent yourself in the most positive light in any interview situation. You’ll be more astute in recognizing any warning flags indicating that your last response caused some consternation, and you’ll be able to offer a clarification to what you said. The interviewer will appreciate your perceptiveness and quickness in addressing a potential concern, and you’ll be able to start planning your acceptance of your new position!

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