No Correct Answers

The best tool you bring into a job interview is comfort with yourself, not a set of practiced responses, writes Stephanie K. Eberle.

March 21, 2016

Experienced interviewers can tell within a few minutes of knowing you if you are delivering, verbatim, pre-prepared answers to their questions. It’s not just that memorization often results in a monotone, rushed answer. It’s that thinking about your fit ahead of time, instead of rehearsing answers, allows a more genuine, passionate answer in the moment.

The equation for getting your career of choice is simple: your interests, skills and values, plus the alignment of an employer’s desired skill set and cultural values and interests, equals fit. Communicating this fit begins early in the cover letter and CV/résumé portion of the job search process. Early on, employers want to know if you can do the job -- that is, are your skills and experiences close enough to those they seek. The interview, then, may delve more deeply into your skills, but it primarily assesses whether or not they want you to use said skills at their organization. In short, do they want to work with you?

The best way to get to know your future supervisor and colleagues is to have an honest conversation with them to assess fit on both sides. Yes, you are assessing fit, too. Most people do not approach interviews with such openness. As interviewees, we are constantly trying to guess which questions will be asked, aiming to come up with the “correct” answer. But, as with any new connection, there is no correct answer, only fit.

If we relate this to dating, it makes sense. If, on a first date, for example, the person sitting across from me asks if I want children someday, what do I say? If I like the person, and I sense that she wants children, I could lie and say yes, but our entire relationship from there on would be based on a lie and she will definitely find out eventually. So, the correct answer actually is the truth: “No, I don’t want my own children, but I adore my three-month-old niece.” The same applies to interviews. Being honest about where you see alignment gets you the job when the employer agrees with this alignment. If they don’t see the same fit as you, then -- as with dating -- it was never meant to be.

Of course, relaxing into a fit approach means you must accept that you may not get the job. But the difference between finding a job and your career of choice is huge. I propose that focusing on the latter throughout your job search yields better results. For example, applying to every job conceivably possible is likely to land you moderate fit interviews and, thus, a job. Applying to jobs you are mostly to very excited about from the start, however, increases likelihood of high-fit interviews and, in turn, your career of choice. In other words, you can spend your time searching for and applying for jobs or you can maximize your time and effectiveness by assessing your skills, interests and values; researching those of various organizations; and applying only to those places where you genuinely want to work.

The old adages still apply: if you aren’t sure, apply; if you are only about 50 percent qualified but passionate, apply. Who knows what could happen? Excitement about the position really can push you to the top, and interviewing does confirm if you want the job or not. But when you know you are not qualified or you don’t want the job, you do not put as much energy into preparation (so it is not even good practice). Excitement is hard to fake, and even if you successfully do fake it, neither you nor your employer will be happy for very long after you start.

I do not espouse letting it all hang out in interviews, per se. Rather, set a goal of being your best self. You do not need to tell your interviewer of your habit of wiping cheese dust on your pants after your Cheetos lunch. But you do need to consider who your best self is, what part of the self is relevant to your future employer and how to appropriately express it.

Take the example of the weakness question. Many employers stopped asking, “What is your weakness,” because they kept getting fake answers. Suddenly, everyone was a perfectionist with a compulsory need to walk the elderly across the street on their lunch break! The myth surrounding this question is that you have to give a fake fault. That’s not fair. As your future supervisor, I want to know what you are working on and, more important, that you are working on something. By the way, as my future employee, you want to know if I will be able to help you grow in that respect, as well. As an aside, being a perfectionist is not necessarily bad if it’s true. But please be honest about how it affects your work, and let me know how you are managing it. The latter part -- the managing it part is key.

People try to rehearse answers to possible interview questions for myriad reasons. One significant reason is a fear of being caught off guard and not knowing what to say. Naturally, that could also happen if you have not rehearsed the same questions they asked. Those situations can cause more anxiety, in fact, because interviewees have come in with a false belief that they have thought of everything. Further, it leads to not answering the question well because interviewees try to cram a rehearsed answer into a similar but different question. Somehow rehearsing answers keeps us from actually listening, and thus connecting, to our future employer.

When practicing interviewing with trainees, I recommend the following techniques:

  • Listen for the metaquestion. Interview questions have two parts: what is actually asked and why. The weakness question is not about your weakness. Interviewers want to know how you define weakness, how self-aware you are and if/how you actually manage failure. Keep this in mind, and after each question, take a moment to consider what the interviewer is really asking.
  • Consider themes. While you cannot predict which questions will be asked, you can assume that your future employer will ask an introductory question (e.g., “Tell me about yourself”) and a closing question (e.g., “Is there anything else we should know?”). He or she will also ask questions that address the themes of: teamwork, work ethic, supervisor style preference, field-specific skills application, personal/professional goals and work preferences. It pays to know trends in your field well, because these themes change by sector. Instead of memorizing answers to specific questions, clarify your ideas along these themes and practice articulating them to various audiences (your career counselor or coach, your parents, your dog, etc.)
  • Remember stories. One of the best techniques for getting out of a tangential rant is to give an example. Instead of memorizing answers, try coming up with several stories to illustrate your ideas and expertise along the themes above. These are easier to remember and allow you to be flexible when and in the way you tell them.
  • Practice getting stuck. Ask your practice partners to come up with crazy, sometimes irrelevant questions. This hones your ability to improvise and to be comfortable with yourself in the moment. This will also prevent the monotonous tone and rushed speech that memorized answers give. Instead of practicing specific anticipated questions, you are practicing answering questions in general -- an important distinction.

In fact, above all else, comfort with yourself is the best tool you bring into an interview. Bringing in shame from failure or defensiveness because of it builds walls between you and your future employer, and most people can tell when you are trying to fake your way through. Knowing what the interviewer across the table wants to know is very simple: they want to know you. To maximize your chances of landing your career of choice job, try spending time getting to know yourself first.


Stephanie K. Eberle is director of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs and M.D.s in the medical and biosciences. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco.


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