12 Ways to Mess Up a Job Interview—and 12 Ways to Ace It

UPDATED: September 27, 2015
PUBLISHED: January 16, 2015

Congratulations! You've been diligent about finding a new job, and you’ve finally landed an interview. What happens next?

You’ve got to prepare—carefully. Because it’s not OK just to show up. One or two missteps can disqualify you as a candidate, even if you have the right experience and skills. If you really want to be considered for the position, to get hired, know what not to do, and, instead, what you should do, before and during the interview.

1. DON’T: Ask what the company does and how it’s organized. The message: You’re just looking for a paycheck and don’t care where it comes from.

DO: Research the company.

2. DON’T: Assume the interviewers will likely have seen and memorized the résumé you sent. Because you’ll be wrong. And you’ll look like an amateur if you don’t have some freshly printed documents to hand out.

DO: Print extra copies of your résumé. 

3. DON’T: Treat the interview as a chance to express your unique, trendy style. Why should you cover up your magnificent tattoo sleeve for some corporate guy? Because if you decide to go casual to anything other than a startup dot.com interview, don’t expect to be invited back. Take the time needed to look polished and professional. A quick call to the company’s HR department to ask about dress code, or simply wearing your best interview suit (You do have one, right?), will prove you really care.

DO: Dress appropriately to present your best self. 

4. DON’T: Use the time to practice your improv skills. It’s great to be spontaneous, but if you hesitate or stammer during any of the standard talking points, you will seem unprepared and unpolished. All it takes is a quick Google search for a list of common interview questions. Don’t rely on your instincts—study the list and create short answers that cover your unique experiences.

DO: Practice interview questions.            

5. DON’T: Be late. Google Maps says that you only need 15 minutes to get there, so that’s all you give yourself, even though you have no idea where to park. And everyone understands about traffic jams, right? Wrong. Being late shows you aren’t very organized, or that you have no regard for others’ time. Arriving 10-15 minutes early gives you time to use the rest room, check your hair, observe the people in the office and… chat with the receptionist.

DO: Arrive on time. 

6. DON’T: Be rude or dismissive—or anything but nice—to the front desk. Why should you waste your energy on an entry-level person when you’ve got the boss to impress? Don’t be fooled. Many companies include the receptionist’s feedback when considering candidates. How you interact with all levels of the organization says a lot about you as a person. Receptionists are the eyes and ears of the company, and often serve as a gatekeeper. Besides, like all people, they deserve respect and courtesy. Be pleasant, smile, chat about the weather, accept the visitor’s badge, and thank him or her on your way out.

DO: Be courteous to the receptionist. 

7. DON’T: Be tempted to keep the world updated about your day. Online hiring forums are full of stories about candidates who spend more time looking at the screens in their hands than answering questions. There are even tales of job seekers who answer calls… and then wonder why they didn’t get hired.

DO: Keep your phone off. Period.

8. DON’T: Give yes or no responses. When asked if you have any experience that relates to the new position, surely your résumé speaks for itself, right? The worst possible way to respond is with a simple yes or no. Every question is designed to elicit more information from you. If you have an example from your experience (personal or professional) that shows how you might handle a situation, now is your moment to shine. If you don’t, then now is the opportunity to say how you would solve a problem, or that you would be eager to learn. One-word responses show that you’re uncommunicative.

DO: Answer questions with an example. 

9. DON’T: Forget your manners. While you are at the interview to be evaluated for your skills and talents, your ability to follow business practice is also up for review. Nonverbal communication—like a firm handshake and good eye contact—accounts for 55 percent of all interactions.

Following an introduction, do not sit until invited. Even though it’s usually always appropriate, ask if you can take notes. Write the names of all people you meet with, or ask for their business cards. You’ll need those for your follow-up thank-you emails.

Everything is on display during an interview. Don’t slouch, don’t fidget, and don’t forget to look directly at the person or people interviewing you when you speak. Confident body language gives the positive impression that you’re ready to tackle a new job.

DO: Follow business etiquette.

10. DON’T: Keep your questions to yourself. You are supposed to ask questions—but never, ever, questions about how much vacation you’d get or how soon you might get a raise. Your goal is to gather enough information to decide if this job is a good fit for you. Ask about a typical day or training opportunities. Ask where the company expects to be in five years—and how you can help them get there. You can even ask what the worst part of the job is.

DO: Come to the interview with at least three questions that will help you make a good decision.

11. DON’T: Overshare. That means don’t launch into a story about your ex-wife, your credit card debt or what a jerk your last boss was.

DO: Maintain a professional demeanor.  

12. DON’T: Act impartial or too nonchalant. You can’t just ask them to hire you, right? Doesn’t it seem pushy? Quite the opposite! It shows that you are interested and that you are confident enough to let the interviewers know what you want. Too many applicants walk away from the interview without asking. A simple “This is very exciting! I would love to be the successful candidate” is enough. Or, “I’d love to work with you and the team,” spoken sincerely, is one of the best things you can do at the end of the interview.

DO: Ask for the job.  

You can land that job—with good preparation and attention to details. Good luck!

Job interview fail? There are 8 possible reasons why you didn’t get the job.

Rhett Power is the author of The Entrepreneur’s Book of Actions: Essential Daily Exercises and Habits for Becoming Wealthier, Smarter, and More Successful and co-founder of Wild Creations, an award-winning start-up toy company. Learn more at rhettpower.com.