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Interview season is in full swing. Recently I’ve been busy helping graduate students prepare for both academic and non-academic interviews. We practice answering questions and evaluating responses for both content and style. We talk about what to expect during the interview and how to negotiate the offer. But most of the time, interviews don’t lead to a job offer, and what happens in those situations is rarely discussed.

Every search committee interviews more than one candidate for every position and many interview more than a handful, so almost everyone faces rejection during a job search. How that rejection is handled can play a major role in how the candidate’s other opportunities will go. It isn’t easy being evaluated by others and then hearing that, in their opinion, you weren’t the best candidate in the pool. Getting rejected can be a huge blow to your ego. So how do you move past the hurt and into a position of confidence for your next interview?

Step one is to acknowledge and work through your emotions. Your support network will tell you “things will be all right” and “this means something better is out there for you” because they want you to feel better quickly. But you have to give yourself time to grieve. That time may be relatively short if you weren’t strongly committed to the position, or it may be longer if it was your dream job. You may need some time to wallow in your disappointment. Ask your support network to let you vent without judging and without trying to make you feel better. You need to release your anger, sadness and any other negative emotions you are feeling so you can be emotionally available for your next interview. If you don’t work through the negative emotions first, they may seep out during future interviews and hurt your performance.

Step two is to understand that it may not be about you. As hard as it is to hear, some hiring decisions make no objective sense because choosing a new colleague is often a subjective decision. If you got the interview it means, based on your application materials, they believed you were a strong candidate for the position. And by all objective measures you may have been an exact match to what they said they wanted. Obviously in your materials you provided a cogent argument for how you fit the job description, and if you prepared well, during the interview you provided more evidence that you were the person they should hire. You should look back at your interview preparation and practice and ask yourself if you did everything you could to give a strong interview.

  • Did you use concrete examples in your responses?
  • Did you demonstrate a strong understanding of the position and employer?
  • Did you present your responses clearly and confidently?
  • Did your nonverbal communication enhance your verbal communication?
  • Did you ask good questions?
  • Did you send thank you notes after the interview?

Think critically about your performance, but not too harshly. Give yourself an honest appraisal so you can identify any factors you can improve before the next interview. However, it’s also important to realize that when you analyze your performance you may come to the conclusion that you gave an excellent interview.

The challenge in trying to decipher what you could have done better is that you can do everything right and still face rejection. First, you don’t know who the other candidates were. Perhaps someone else had that little X factor that gave him or her an edge over you. Second, sometimes what the hiring committee members say they want in the job description and what they hire are two different things. When I talk to students about job descriptions, I remind them they are like a wish list, partially based in reality and partially based in fantasy. They may be based on the skills and qualities of the person vacating the position, or the exact opposite of the previous person. They may ask for a very divergent set of skills and background experience since they are often written by committees.

And since some job descriptions are screened by human resources officials to ensure they comply with hiring laws before they can be advertised, they may have been modified by someone who won’t even be involved in the hiring decision. Further, as the search committee evaluates the applications and begins to screen the candidates, sometimes the priorities listed in the job description change based on the candidate pool. Thus, the job you applied for may not be the job you interview for, and unfortunately there is no way to know that in advance. While this may not represent any best practices in hiring, it’s the reality you need to understand.

Step three is to realize almost no one will explain to you why you didn’t get the position. I’ve heard candidates say they wish they could get feedback from the interviewer about why they weren’t chosen, but there are several reasons why this rarely occurs. First, interviewers might not be able to articulate any specific reason you weren’t selected. And if they did, it might not be something you can do anything about. Second, even if they wanted to give you feedback there can be legal reasons why they will not. Interviewers have to consider the legal and ethical ramifications of sharing too much information with candidates. In trying to explain why they didn’t hire you, they may reveal information about the other candidates that should remain confidential.

Finally, although it may seem helpful, you may find you regret having the conversation. Imagine yourself getting that phone call, “Hi Christine, this is Bob. I wanted to call you and let you know exactly why we’ve chosen another candidate.” At this point your ability to listen carefully and process information may be seriously impaired. Anything Bob says will be lost as you focus on trying to keep your reaction in check while Bob continues to explain why you didn’t get the job. Suddenly the impersonal but cordial note thanking you for your interest and time and wishing you the best of luck in your job search doesn’t look so bad. The interviewer can only tell you why you weren’t the best fit for their specific job. But that doesn’t help you understand how to be a better candidate for a different job competing against a different pool.

The truth is that hiring decisions are highly subjective. Interviews are about finding the right “fit” and that is not quantifiable. And rejection is a natural part of the interview process. Before you launch your job search, think about how you will handle the rejection you almost certainly will face. Think about what you’ve done in the past to help overcome adversity and be ready to put those strategies into play. And before each interview, focus on having a positive outcome, since anything else is counterproductive to your eventual success.

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