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The Ten Worst Interview Mistakes You Can Make…With Real-Life Examples

Whether we realize it or not, all of us make mistakes in interviews. A few years back, I was in the middle of my second interview at a large media company when I was asked a stock journalism question, one I’ve been asked several times before: “What websites do you read for enjoyment?”

I could have chosen from a number of answers that were both accurate and appropriate, but instead offered up a guilty pleasure: a “bro” website. Nothing explicit, but one designed for men in their twenty-somethings. The editor had never heard of it and turned to her computer to bring it up. This is when I firmly realized that I made a mistake.

The key to avoid turning an equal shade of red in an interview is preparation, say recruiters and career coaches. That and learning from the mistakes of others.

Below is a list of interview errors you should avoid, some with real-life examples. Ever made one worse? Own up to it and put it in the comments section.

You Won’t Shut Up:

“Don't over talk or over sell,” said Anne Crowley, managing director at Jay Gaines and Company. “When asked a question, don't run on for 10-15 minutes non-stop.  All the interviewer will want is to get you out of their office.”

Richard Lipstein, managing director at Gilbert Tweed Associates, felt that pain first-hand. One of his candidates was interviewing on Wall Street and went on a 20-minute monologue. The hiring manager eventually put his finger to his mouth, politely said “shhh,” and told the candidate, “I’d like to talk now.”

You Bomb the ‘Weakness’ Question

It’s as common an interview question as you’ll find. “What’s your greatest weakness?” Candidates tend to screw it up on either side of the ledger.

Be honest but choose a weakness that doesn’t seriously affect your ability to be successful on the job.

One job seeker interviewing for a middle-office position was asked about his weaknesses and responded -- to the person he would report to -- that he “loses his temper with management and is known to flip out on his managers,” according to search firm Robert Half.

You Dress Like a Slob

Every recruiter has at least one story. When I was a headhunter earlier in my career, a candidate wore a customized Boston Red Sox jersey to an interview. She actually got the job though. If the interview wasn’t in Massachusetts, it may have been a different story.

One Robert Half candidate wore slippers to an interview, another wore a soccer jersey to a hedge fund interview during the World Cup. You’re probably smart enough to know not to repeat these mistakes, but heed this advice: when in doubt, overdress – even if it’s an informational interview or a networking meeting. And when you’re at work, dress for the job you want, not the one you already have.


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You Didn’t Manage Your Travel Time Correctly

Again, sounds obvious, but it’s not just as simple as avoiding being late. “Know where you are going,” said Crowley. “Many terrific candidates have been thrown off by bad traffic or a bad commute and weren't able to regain their footing through the course of an interview or a day of interviews.”  Rushing to get to an interview on time can be as harmful as actually being late.

On the opposite side, don’t arrive too early for an interview, said Laughter. Arriving 30 minutes to an hour early can actually be just as rude as being late. It can not only screw up the schedule of the hiring manager, but it also shows you can’t follow directions. Be 10 minutes early.

You Ordered Wrong

When at a breakfast or lunch interview, order simple, clean food – preferably something that you can eat with a knife and fork. “Never eat messy food while you’re interviewing,” said Lipstein. A woman he worked with ordered eggs during a breakfast meeting, most of which ended up all over her teeth. The interviewer noticed.

In addition, don’t order booze unless they do first.

You Were Presumptuous

One of the key skills in interviewing is knowing who is sitting across the table from you. If they act like the “Master of the Universe,” don’t pretend to consider yourself their equal, said Roy Cohen, a finance-focused career coach and author of “The Wall Street Professionals’ Survival Guide.”

One of Cohen’s clients was invited to meet with the founder of well-regarded hedge fund, and walked into his office with a cup of coffee for himself and one for individual. “It was viewed by the hedge manager not with disbelief, but with amusement because wouldn’t he have someone doing that for him already?” said Cohen. “The gesture seemed incredibly naive and an intentional attempt to try to score points.” The candidate couldn’t get the person on the phone again.

Editor’s Note:  Does an image of SAC founder Steven Cohen come to mind?

You Burned Your Current Boss

“Don't be negative about your company, your boss, your ex-, etc.,” said Crowley.

Even if your current work situation is intolerable, and not at all a fault of your own, it earns you no points to burn your current employer or boss. The interviewer will identify you as negative and a complainer. Your words can also get back to your current or former boss. Every industry is a smaller world than you’d assume.

And subconsciously, the interviewer may not want to hire you in case you end up saying the same things behind their back.

You Didn’t Ask the Right Questions

The questions you ask in interviews are just as important as the ones you answer – sometimes more so.

“Prepare a few, thoughtful questions in advance of each interview,” said Crowley.  Do your homework, read up on the company and the individual you'll be meeting with and spend some time on the company's web site, she said.

Ask about recent deals the bank has been involved in and overall trends in the industry to show you’re following the firm and the market. When in doubt, ask questions about them. “Bankers love to hear themselves speak,” said Adam Zoia, CEO of Glocap, a New York-based executive search firm.

Don’t ask about salary, benefits and bonus plans, at least not during the initial interview, said Laughter.

You Showed Interest in Something Other than the Job in Question

When you’re in an interview, you’re there for one purpose: to offer your skills and services for a specific role. As a recruiter, several hiring managers that I worked with dismissed candidates because they showed interest in a different department within the company or different career paths altogether.

If you’re interviewing for a position on the sell-side, don’t tell them you are interested in something on the buy-side, said Lipstein. “Minimize interest in positions other than the one you are interviewing for.”

You Didn’t Recognize the Flaws in Your Future Boss

If the interview process involves violating boundaries, recognize that that may be the case on the job, Cohen said.

One of his clients was forced by a hiring manager to interview over the phone while on vacation, on the way to the airport with his children. “She had no respect for boundaries,” Cohen said of the hiring manager. He eventually got the offer and accepted it. “What happened is that’s the way she treated him at work,” Cohen said. “He didn’t pay attention to a very important piece of information being communicated to him during the interview.”

AUTHORBeecher Tuttle US Editor
  • Bi
    28 September 2017

    Good stuff. I like the "know where you're going" tip. True story, I interviewed for an engineering job on a military base 20 years ago. I had to talk my way on base (luckily this was before 9/11). I'd been active duty military before college, so I knew how to talk to the guards. I showed them my expired military ID and promised to go to Pass & ID for new credentials. When we talked on the phone, the boss gave me a building number that was one digit different than where I was supposed to be going. The building number that he gave me was a utility shack behind his huge 800,000 square-foot industrial building.

    Luckily, I thought ahead. I knew that getting on base was going to require some sweet-talking and finding my way to a numbered building would be difficult on a base that is 6 miles by 8 miles. I expected to show up 3 hours early, take about an hour to get on base, find the building, and kill the rest of the time at an on-base cafe drinking coffee and reading a book. Nope. By the time I got on base and found the utility shack, half of my 3 hours was gone. I found somebody and asked them where the engineering officers are. Directions were vague. As I got closer, I kept asking people until I got to the right area. At the reception desk, I asked for my interviewer's office by name and luckily was in the right area. I made it with 15 minutes to spare and spent that time drinking water and catching my breath.

    When I was called in, the boss seemed genuinely surprised to see me. Great, they probably have somebody already picked out. Since it's the government, they have to give me a chance to interview but if they throw up enough roadblocks and I don't make the interview, too bad! I sit down when motioned to, the boss gives a quick look at my resume and engineering school transcripts, tells me what the job basically entails, and asks me if that's something I'd like to do. I said yes and hopefully didn't appear too desperate. The job market at the time wasn't very good for entry-level engineers, I would've taken a job as a camel hoof-shiner if it had "engineer" in the title and got me in the door of an actual engineering office. Then he looks at my resume and says, "So, you were active-duty Navy. What did you do?" I told him that I was a nuclear power technician on an aircraft carrier. Then he tells me that his son is just going into the Navy to do that very same thing, so he spent the next half-hour asking me about Navy nuclear power. Two days later, I was notified that I got the job.

    To this day, I swear that the whole wild goose chase that I was put through was a test and I had maneuvered all of the wickets to pass it. When I found the boss's office, nobody was interviewing ahead of me. When I left, nobody was behind me to interview. I really think having to talk my way on base, find out that the building number he gave me was to a utility shack, talk to people to find his office in a 5-story building that was literally several hundred yards long by about 200 yards wide, and make it in on time was all a big test. The interview really wasn't an interview at all, he only seemed to care that I'd gone to school and got an actual engineering degree, not a tech degree dressed up with "engineer" somewhere in the title. And having the same military job that his son was just going into was the luckiest break imaginable. I swear somebody was looking out for me that day.

  • Ha
    23 February 2016

    When I conduct interviews, I ask "if you could domesticate one wild animal, what would that be?"
    I immediately then ask "Why do you want this job?"

  • Da
    19 November 2013

    @Funny Girl - This is a classic example of throwing a candidate an abstract question, to gauge reaction or even simply test verbal reasoning skills. I am struggling to understand how "As a female" you would be more or less shocked by the question.

  • Ma
    15 August 2013

    Many excellent tips both here and in the comments thus far, a quality article worthy of our attention if we genuinely wish to score that job.

  • Fu
    Funny Girl
    8 August 2013

    During my third interview for an private client analyst position, I was asked by the interviewer - the man I would be reproting to, "Do you know the alphabet and can you recite it backwards?" I was surprised by the question, and responded, "yes, but I am sure that is not why you called me back to meet with you today." As a female, I was so shocked by the question and the fact the he was serious when asking, that I did not accept the offer for the position. I could just envision what the furture would bring working with him.

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