I carried it with me for years. Even now, more than two decades later, the memory of that interview can still hurt. On the wrong day, I’m that person again.
I was in my early 20s, looking to make the all-important second move. The first job had been fresh from uni; a great start as a secretary in a large publishing company. The dream actually! But two years on I wanted to turn my lucky break into a career.
It had all gone so well till then. Three interviews with a literary agency. Now they wanted me to come in one more time to “meet a couple of people”. Everyone thought it was in the bag, as did I. That was the first mistake.
The second mistake was thinking I could fit this interview into my lunch hour without taking more time off. So, I was stressed already. It was also the hottest day of the year and the tubes were delayed. Of course they were.
While the first three interviews had been in cool, high-ceilinged rooms in the agency’s Georgian terrace, this one was in the glass-walled penthouse extension, with no air con. The lift was broken. I ran up four flights of stairs and burst straight into a blindingly bright room to be met by four people I’d never seen before, sat in a row like a scene from the Last Supper – waiting for me. Put it this way, I never recovered my breath, sweat ran into my shoes, I couldn’t think straight leave alone talk. And I didn’t get the job.
In my case, a lot of what went wrong was my “fault”. I should have allowed more time and I shouldn’t have assumed it was a tick-boxing exercise. However, the heat, the lift, the flirtatious man on the interview panel who enjoyed unsettling me, these were beyond my control.
Years later, I’ve been on the other side of the interview table. I know full well there are a lot of moving parts to any recruitment. There are many things the interviewee can’t possibly know. Like:
Of course, you can’t go into interviews with a negative attitude about the process, but it’s liberating too to know what’s worth worrying about—and what’s beyond your control.
The good news is, several things are within your control. You can learn from the bad interviews of your past to improve your chances for other jobs down the line.
In other words, give yourself the best chance—then however well or badly it goes, it will have been good practice and you can learn from the experience. You may not be right this time, but if you’ve left a good impression you might hear back later if another job comes up, or if the interviewer recommends you elsewhere.
However, if it does all go wrong don’t let it knock your confidence long-term. Remember, they don’t really know you. You may have messed up this time, but it’s not “you” – it’s just the way you’ve come over on that day. Develop the resilience to learn from any mistakes and move on.
My bad interview haunted me for years. I know now that I’m not actually a breathless, sweaty and inarticulate person who can’t string a sentence together— but I know too that’s how I must have appeared. I can laugh about it now.
And that’s the thing about interviews. There are things about them you can control—and many things you can’t. Don’t let a bad interview define you. Take what you can from the experience then move on—there may well be a better job just around the corner with your name on it. Successful careers are defined by resilience far more than a catalogue of successes.