I am totally unqualified to give you advice on being the best candidate for any given job.
I don’t have years of experience as a hiring manager, I don’t know the top three traits that will make anyone a star employee. But, what I do know is how to get the job — how to be picked above current employees, local candidates and probably more qualified people. I know because I’ve done it.
Before I tell you how, I want to assure you just how unspectacular I really am.
I went to public school, where I participated in sports, joined a club for one year, and took a few advanced placement classes. I didn’t have after-school jobs; I didn’t volunteer. On the spectrum of American kids who intend to apply for college, I was about as average as you could get.
Average, in terms of American universities, is the worst place to be, by the way.
I tried in school, but I didn’t do any work or activity that I didn’t want to do. When I started applying to colleges, I quickly figured out that my only option for standing out against other applicants was to charm the admissions officers in person.
If you’re keeping track, very few universities conduct interviews for undergraduate degrees. My plan for the future was average at best.
I did, however, interview with the University of Denver (UD) during my senior year of high school. It was the first high-stakes interview in my life, and it started out as a disaster.
I was clueless about what they were going to ask me. I probably could have done more research, but again, I was average. I didn’t want to put too much effort into the interview. I wasn’t even sure this was the school I wanted to attend.
As a high-school senior who knew everything, I decided there was no way they could stump me with questions about myself. I’d be fine.
My plan was to basically wing it.
The disaster interview first started when I drove to the wrong location. The information I received gave me the name of the hotel where the university was conducting the interviews, and instead of double-checking, I read the information once and decided I knew where I was going.
Turns out, San Diego, one of the busiest tourist towns on the West Coast, has more than one Hyatt, and you should definitely figure out which one you’re supposed to be at if you’re trying to make a good impression.
I drove forty-five minutes in the wrong direction, arrived at the wrong hotel, and had to ask my mom to call the right hotel so that the hotel staff could tell the representatives from UD that I’d be about an hour late.
They were gracious enough to not let this obvious oversight cloud their judgment of me and gave me a later interview slot. Most of what we talked about once I arrived is now a blur, but there is a particular moment that I’ll remember forever.
They asked me to explain a hardship I’d gone through in my life and how I had handled it. It seems like an obvious question now, but at the time, it knocked me completely off guard. It wasn’t a particularly hard question, but it was one that I didn’t know exactly how to answer.
I wanted to do well, but how personal do you get with someone you’ve only just met, who you may never see again? How are you supposed to choose the right level of hardship?
If I had given them my worst sob story, they might have thought I was dramatic and a little crazy. If I had given something inconsequential, they might have thought I was not taking the interview seriously. Both options pointed toward not getting accepted.
Before I knew what I was saying, I just started talking. Sometimes winging it means surprising even myself.
I started talking about a relatively simple subject, but one that affected me deeply. I talked genuinely about complicated family dynamics. At the time, like most eighteen-year-olds, I was learning that you could simultaneously love a family member and not like them even a little. I spoke openly about how confusing and freeing that can be. I dropped the big words and simply spoke about something that mattered to me and how it was changing my outlook on life.
It was the question that changed the entire tone of the interview. I understood then that people aren’t looking for perfect qualifications or rehearsed answers telling them what you think they want to hear. They’re talking to you to get a real picture of the person you are.
Since that day, I’ve always approached an interview as a conversation between two potential new friends. Sure, it’s more formal, and the topics of conversation are more confined, but the point of it isn’t to talk about how great you are—it’s to tell the story of how you got to be great—how you became who you are and how you plan to get where you're going.
I ended up picking Arizona State University for college and graduated with an English degree—about as average as you can get. And still, I’ve been offered a position at every company that I’ve ever interviewed with, except for one (I'll tell that story in a different post).
Throughout the years, I’ve figured out the simple way to ace any job interview. It’s a strategy I outlined in my book We’re Just Talking, but the gist of it is in the title. Changing your perspective on interviews from interrogations to conversations about the one thing you have the most expertise in — yourself — is the best way to get any job.
It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get every interview you want, or that you will have the same success rate that I’ve had. But following the steps I outlined in my book does prepare you to have the best interview, every time. And I can guarantee know being prepared and feeling confident in your expertise is a great way to increase your odds.
There’s plenty of success for the average, as long as you know how to get there and you’re willing to do the work. My hope is that using this strategy, changing your perspective on interviews, make you as prepared as possible so that you’ll feel accomplished and proud, whatever the results may be.
In the meantime, you’re always welcome back here for advice I hope you can use but I’m still supremely unqualified to give.
Here’s to your success.