Seven Lessons You Can Learn from Real College Students Who Failed Interviews

Failure is painful, but also educational!

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During my Junior year of college, I was drinking frozen margaritas with my classmates on the patio of the local taco shop when Catherine* blurted out a personal story about a terrible interview she had last week.

“I applied for a bunch of internships through the Career Center’s online job portal. For this recent interview, I was so busy with school, I didn’t even research what this company does. The interviewer asked all these questions about what draws me to a career in the oil industry and if I have any kind of background with it. Let’s just say there was a looong awkward silence …”

Other students around the table proceeded to try and top one another with their cringe-worthy interview stories. A strange sense of relief rushed over me because it was the first time I felt like I wasn’t the only one who had screwed up an interview. The thing is, everyone makes mistakes and experiences rejection (if you don’t, tell us your secrets) and looking for a job is no exception to this.

After my margarita outing, I realized that sharing our rejection stories can teach all of us important lessons about interviewing. Although it can be challenging to do, it’s important to start seeing failure as an opportunity for growth.

Below, I’ll share these student’s real stories and the lessons they learned from bombing an interview (plus a couple of my stories, too).

* All names and company names have been changed for their privacy! 

1. Be Choosy About What You Apply To & Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Catherine’s story above is all too familiar. Our real or made-up deadline to get a job/internship is ticking, so we get desperate and apply to everything that is available. In the end, we end up neglecting to do our research which results in mediocre interviews.

Instead, it’s better to select a few jobs you’re interested and qualified for and use your extra time to learn everything you can about these companies. You’ll have a much better shot at getting the job if you have adequately prepared for the interview, and you can only do that if you have enough time to do so.

2. You Have to Sell Yourself

At my school, we’re lucky to have ample opportunities to speak with job recruiters at career fairs, student organization meetings, and info-sessions. As an overly-eager Sophomore, I used to approach recruiters asking, “What internships do you offer? I want an internship to gain experience and to learn new skills!”.

That’s great and all but … everyone has this desire and it doesn’t offer much for a company seeking to hire interns. 

Later on, I learned about using the problem/solution method to sell yourself as a candidate. Every company that is looking to fill a job or internship is really saying, “We have a problem that needs to be addressed!”. When applying and interviewing for a position, you should sell yourself as the solution to that problem. You’ll have so much more success when you approach it this way.

3. Understand That Sometimes There Will Be a Culture Clash

Tyler was a business management major who was bummed about not getting an entry-level management position with Car Rental Authority. During his second interview, he was asked to answer a series of personality questions while the interviewer jotted down notes on a clipboard. 

Several weeks after this interview, Tyler relayed his results to our table of friends, while we scarfed overly salted chips to go with our margaritas.

“At least they were nice enough to call back and let me know I didn’t get the job!”, said Tyler in an overly optimistic fashion.  

I nudged Tyler for some more insight on his interview, “Why do you think they didn’t hire you? Tyler replied, “I don’t think I was a match for their culture. They were looking for someone highly competitive, individualistic, and sales-oriented.” 

Anyone knowing Tyler would agree that this was accurate. Tyler is the kind of guy with a supportive mentality, who’s all about building relationships and encouraging teamwork. There’s nothing wrong with either personality, but from Tyler’s interview, it seemed that he didn’t fit the Car Rental Authority mold. 

4. On a Related Note, Sometimes It’s Not the Right Job for You

After going on my student organization’s Industry Tour (an event where students tour all the local businesses that are hiring), I knew Municipal Technologies was the company I wanted to work at. It had the best building with beautiful offices and a cafeteria that was always stocked with coffee and snacks. (All the perks!) Instead of leaving a paper resume like all my peers, I emailed the HR tour lady personally, thanking her for the tour. I slipped in a few sentences about how I would be thrilled to intern there over the summer.

A day later, I was beyond excited to get an email from the HR Lady asking to schedule an in-person interview for a project management internship. 

Said interview was not a total disaster… but it was pretty terrible.

Since I never asked about what a project management intern position entailed and couldn’t find written details about the position online, I walked into the interview blind. In hindsight, I should have just emailed the HR lady for a description of the internship. (Look back to tip #1 – always be prepared!)

I had all these misconceptions about how I was going to learn new software and get experience working on technical projects, but it ended up just being a position for administrative work. Once that realization hit, I was at a loss for words. Let’s just say we all understood that I wasn’t right for this position.

5. You Need to Be Honest

My colleague, Mike, approached an insurance company at our business career fair and spoke to a peppy recruiter. Since Mike was majoring in Information Systems, the recruiter asked him, “What kinds of programming languages do you know?”. Mike quickly listed off several languages. Afterward, the recruiter asks a basic question about one of the programming languages… and Mike proceeded to answer this question completely incorrectly.

“So you don’t know that language?”, asked the recruiter. Rather than waiting for an answer, he then continued on, “You shouldn’t be advertising you know how to program in that language.”

This recruiter was harsh, but he hit upon something we’ve all done at some point in our history of interviews. (I have done it too, but my story isn’t as good as this one.) Interviewers are normally adept at knowing what they’re looking for in a candidate and will use many tactics to find out if your skills are legit.

If you do manage to get past the interview, the truth will come out fast and hurt more. So it’s a situation you don’t want to get yourself into.

6. Be Ready to Answer Some Behavior Questions

Abby was interviewing for a Brand Ambassador internship with Mad Max Energy Drinks. During her interview, the recruiter asked her “Describe a time where you have purposely broken a rule and have gotten away with it.”

Abby paused. Did the recruiter want her to admit to wrongdoing? What was the recruiter aiming for by asking this question? Abby quickly replied, “I’ve never tried to break a rule on purpose!”

The interviewer looked at her suspiciously. After a moment, Abby backtracked by saying “Well, there was a time where my basketball teammates and I stayed out past curfew the night before an away game.”

The recruiter’s spirit seemed to lift, “that’s good to know because there will be times we ask you to give out energy drink samples in places where it may not be allowed.”

The recruiter’s question is an example of a behavior question. These questions are a tactic used to test the competencies of the interviewee by learning how they’ve handled past situations. The idea is that by learning about an interviewee’s past interactions the interviewer can predict how the interviewee will act in the future.  

Abby was too concerned with giving what she believed was the right answer to the behavior question when she should have been thinking from the perspective of the interviewer. If you keep the interviewer’s perspective in mind, you’ll do better on these types of questions.

7. Don’t Take Rejections Personally 

Seeing a rejection email pop up in your notifications is painful. There’s no way around that feeling. However, you can either let that rejection break you or you can use it as an opportunity to succeed in your next interview. I know which one I’d choose.

In summation: Learn from the experience.

By talking with my peers about our stories of failure, we learned from each other’s mistakes and helped each other analyze how to improve their interview strategies. Next time you fail an interview, try finding a trusted third party to help analyze the scenario. By learning from your previous mistakes, you are one step closer to success!   

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