what does it mean to “be yourself” in an interview?

A reader writes:

I am an 18-year-old college student looking for an entry-level part-time job. I have been trying to prepare my answers ahead of time to some of the common questions, and I have examples my previous work experience with things like “dealing with an angry customer” and all that. I am trying to improve my interviewing skills because I am frustrated that I haven’t been hired anywhere, but my mother told me not to over-prepare and I should “be myself” and “say what I really think” instead of trying to tell them exactly what they want to hear. I try not to look phony but I don’t think this is the best advice. What do you think?

Well, it’s certainly true that you should be yourself rather than telling them what you think they want to hear, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare. Thoroughly preparing and practicing for an interview is one of the best ways to do well in them.  Let’s break this down a bit.

“Being yourself” is important so that you’ll end up in a job and culture that’s a good fit for you, rather than one where you’re miserable or don’t do well. So that means that you shouldn’t hide your personality or put on a very stiff and formal interview persona. You need them to get an idea of what you’re going to be like to work with day-to-day, because if it’s not a good fit, you both need to know that now. Otherwise you risk ending up in a job where you’re both uncomfortable with each other (or worse). For instance, if you’re naturally bubbly and they hate bubbly, it’s important that they see that in the interview so that you don’t end up in a job where they’re constantly nagging you to be less bubbly, when you can’t.  (You might be thinking that you just want the job anyway, but trust me, you don’t want to work somewhere that wants you to be something you’re not.)

Now, obviously, your professional self is probably a bit different from your social self. So “be yourself” really means “be your professional self.”  You’re not going to slouch halfway down in your chair during the interview, or tell a dirty joke, or refer to a customer as a d-bag, even if you do those things outside of work. We’re talking about your professional self here. You probably still have some personality at work, but you put a professional sheen on it, right? That’s the self you need to be in the interview. (And if you haven’t had a job before and you’re totally baffled by what I’m talking about, then just be warm, friendly, and polite.)

But none of that has anything to do with whether or not you work on your answers ahead of time and practice your interviewing. You should absolutely should do those things, because they’re key to doing well in an interview. That’s especially true of the sorts of questions you referred to, like “tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer” or any other “tell me about a time when…” question. Practicing answers ahead of time means that when you’re sitting in the interview and get asked one of these questions, you actually have a good answer ready, rather than trying to wing it and maybe not being able to come up with a good response right away. If you practice, those answers will be easily retrievable in your brain and you’ll be less likely to stumble over your answers.

Preparing and practicing makes a huge difference. (In fact, I have a whole guide that talks about how to prepare for an interview, and it is awesome.)

That said, there is such a thing as over-preparing, where you’re doing so much that you’re stressing yourself out. The litmus test:  Is your preparing making you feel more confident? If you’ve passed the more-confident stage and gone into the agonizing-and-freaking-out stage, then you might want to pull back a bit. But in general, preparing is incredibly helpful and a good thing to do.

Overall, it sounds to me like your instincts are right on how to approach this stuff. Follow them.

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