5 Fatal Interview Mistakes To Avoid

Little things can make the biggest difference. Just like a typo in your resume can send your application right to the trashcan, these small interview mistakes can make an employer think twice about hiring you. Even if you’ve rehearsed your answers and you know the company’s mission statement like the back of your hand, an interviewer might not notice your knowledge if she’s distracted by something little you do. Going into your next interview, here are a few common mistakes you should avoid.

1. Wearing an inappropriate outfit

When in doubt, overdress! No matter what position you’re interviewing for, make sure that you wear a professional outfit. “My friend didn't get a job at the campus rec center because she was wearing a tank top, even though it was really hot,” says Stacy, a student at Illinois State University. Her friend, who worked at the rec center, spoke with the interviewer after the fact and he said he was not impressed with her outfit choice. Even in the summer, you should wear a blazer over your cute tank, and always opt for pants or a skirt with tights or pantyhose.

Think about your accessories, too. Two years ago, Erika Owen, a recent grad of Drake University, didn’t land an internship after wearing her nose ring to the interview. The next year, she applied for the same internship, skipped the nose ring, and got the job.

Moral of the story: If you have a nose ring, lip ring, or even a lot of ear piercings, consider skipping the bling for the day. Similarly, if you have a tattoo, wear an outfit that will hide it, or cover it with makeup. Use your judgment—if you’re applying for a more creative job where they might not mind piercings or tattoos, it may be okay to show them, but your best bet is to play it safe and hide them!

2. Showing your nerves

It’s understandable that you’re nervous for an interview, but be sure not let your nerves show too much. “In high school, I interviewed for a job at Walgreens. When they didn’t offer me the job, I called to ask what I could do better in future interviews,” says Cara, a collegiette at Illinois Institute of Technology. “They said I was too nervous, but didn’t explain how. I think I was stumbling over my words and fidgeting with my hands.”

Little nervous habits like these—or bouncing your leg, biting your lip, or being too tense—make the interviewer think you're not confident. Ted Schreck, HR associate at Iowa Orthopedic Clinic, agrees that hand movements and the steadiness of your voice can show your nerves.

To counter these bad interview habits, give yourself a pep talk before the interview to amp up your confidence. Rehearse answers to common questions so you don't stumble over your words. Fold your hands in your lap so you're not tempted to play with your jewelry or your hair. Try practicing this in class—sit up straight, focus on not fidgeting, and try to speak clearly in class discussions. If you get in the habit of acting confident, it will translate in an interview. After all, practice makes perfect! And remember: The interviewer is just a person, and they’ve been through the interview process before, too.

Nerves aren’t always a bad thing. “It’s natural to be nervous with a potential job on the line,” Schreck says. It can show the interviewer how important the opportunity is to you. “But don’t let the nerves become a distraction. Take deep breaths, be hydrated, and eat a healthy meal beforehand,” he suggests. “Be confident, humble, and—most importantly—yourself.”

3. Checking your watch or phone

It’s a fast-paced world, and busy collegiettes always seem to be short on time. Even if you are pressed for time, avoid the urge to peek at a clock during an interview. “It’s a natural reaction for me to check the time,” says Sidney Madden, a Campus Correspondent at Hofstra University. “But when you do it while at an interview, it can be perceived as if you’re in a rush or not really invested in the job.”

“It would be a huge red flag for me,” says Schreck. “I would question their work ethic and focus as an individual.” It shows that the interviewee isn’t serious about the potential job opportunity, he says. 

To play it safe and avoid this habit, eliminate everything that might allow you to check the time. Turn your phone off and keep it in your bag—or better yet, leave it in your car or at home. Skip wearing a watch and wear a bracelet instead. Don't look around the room for a clock. After all, the more time you spend with the interviewer, the more likely they are to remember you!

Still worried about the time? “To give it a time frame, about 45 minutes to an hour would be average,” Schreck says. “This is if the applicant asks good questions and has a good conversation with the interviewer to get to know each other.” So as a general rule, schedule at least an hour for the interview.

4. Speaking unprofessionally

You want to be comfortable around your interviewer, but remember to maintain a professional persona. “I got turned down for a position at a major fashion magazine because I was ‘too giggly’ in the initial phone interview,” says Kelly*, a 2012 graduate of Emory University. Kelly later got a different job at the same magazine, and found out why she didn’t get the job initially after befriending the interviewer. It’s not necessarily bad to make a joke to lighten to mood (as long as it’s appropriate!) or laugh at a funny comment. But remember, this is a professional interview—not a comedy club.

Similarly, avoid saying “um,” “uh,” and “like,” as much as possible. One here or there won’t kill you, but if you say “like” in every sentence, the interviewer will notice. These habits may translate to poor public speaking or communication skills, which won’t impress an employer. But Schreck says it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker: “I can differentiate whether they’re saying ‘um’ because of nerves or if it’s just how they actually talk. I typically don’t make it too big of a deal unless it’s clear that it’s a core aspect of their speech in general.”

In fact, completely taking out these natural pauses might make you sound too formal—almost robotic. Be conscious of what you say when you pause, but don’t stress about completely cutting out these simple phrases from your speech. In many cases, your interviewer might even say them, too, so don’t worry too much!

5. Having poor body language

Nonverbal communication can be more important than verbal communication in many cases—including an interview. “No matter what, you want your body language to show that you’re confident, focused, and engaged in the conversation,” says Schreck. You know what that means: sit up straight, maintain eye contact, and don’t fidget!

“You want to have good eye contact, but you also don't want to stare them down. I’d say you should have eye contact with the interviewer about 60 to 70 percent of the time. Make it natural,” says Schreck. Eye contact exudes confidence, but too much could make your interviewer uncomfortable. Try to find a balance!

Be conscious of what you’re doing with your hands, too. “Make sure the interviewer can see your hands,” suggests Schreck. “If I can't see your hands and they’re moving under the table, I’m going to be distracted.”

As a general rule, move as little as possible. If you’re constantly shifting the way you’re sitting or tapping your fingers, the interviewer will only focus on that—not what you’re saying. Again, just act naturally. If you usually talk with your hands, you don’t have to force yourself to stop. “Simple hand gestures are fine, as long as they’re not over-the-top,” Schreck says.

In the end, interviewers should hire you based on your skills and characteristics, but don’t underestimate the little things! Employers want to hire someone who presents herself well. Be conscious of (but don’t obsess over) how you speak and act so that what you say shines through.

*Name has been changed