What a Job Interview Is, and Isn’t


It can be a real challenge to get a job interview these days. If you get an interview, that is good news, as it means you are one of a few chosen out of possibly dozens or even hundreds of other applicants. It is important to have realistic expectations for your interview, though, to avoid unnecessary feelings of disappointment and additional stress.

The employer’s purpose in an interview

An interview is the employer saying, "based on your application documents, we feel you may be a good match for the requirements of this position, and we would like to discuss it with you." The employer is seeking additional information from you that cannot be obtained via a resume and cover letter. They’ll ask for specific details about the experience, accomplishments, and skills that are listed on your resume, as they relate to the job they are trying to fill.

The interview will indicate whether you can establish rapport with the interviewer(s) and fit in with the culture at that workplace, how interested you are in the job, and how well you prepared for the interview. You may be asked behavioral questions to demonstrate your decision-making skills and how you would handle certain situations that may come up at that workplace. Employers also want to know about your soft skills and may ask you self-assessment questions to understand your character and determine if you are likely to succeed in that position.


Your goal and focus

You should emphasize how well suited you are for that job specifically and what you can do for that employer. The interview is also an opportunity for you to demonstrate your verbal communication skills, knowledge of the field and the employer, and persuasive skills. You can also show your motivation and enthusiasm for the job, your ability to think and perform under pressure, and an understanding of what is appropriate dress and behavior for an interview and in the workplace.

Another important purpose of the interview is for you to get more information about the employer and the job. You can and should ask questions about the responsibilities of the position, what the employer is seeking in the person they hire, and that workplace and their future plans. (Save the questions about salary, perks, and your needs and preferences for after you’ve been offered the job.)

Realistic expectations

It is normal to feel excited and encouraged if you get a job interview. An interview, though, is just a step in the hiring process. While it is beneficial to be positive and optimistic during your job hunt, it is in your best interests to understand how the process works too.

Simply put, an interview is not a job offer. It is not an employer saying “we want to hire you.” It is not a promise from the employer; just the same, an interview that is not followed by an offer is not a broken promise. It does not indicate an obligation in any way of the employer to the interviewee (nor is there any obligation from the applicant to the employer either).

Having all the stated qualifications and being the right person for the job are two very different things. There may be (and often are) many applicants who meet the requirements and who look good on paper, but only one who is an excellent fit. That is why interviews and reference checks are part of the hiring process. If fit were not important, all you would have to do is prove that you had the required degree(s) and skills and years of experience, and you could be hired sight-unseen and without even a phone conversation with a hiring manager.

Being qualified for the job and getting called for an interview means you are one of a number of applicants being considered and interviewed. While you should present yourself as a strong candidate, you don't have enough information to assume that you are the strongest one and therefore the one most likely to get the offer. A second interview means only that you have progressed to the next step in the hiring process and the employer wants to learn more about you. You should keep in mind that at this point the employer is still considering others.

I have heard job hunters say, “I interviewed but did not get hired, it must be [racial discrimination, age discrimination, a badmouthing ex-boss, or other specific obstacle].” To say that is to say, "That job was mine, but someone treated me unfairly, and that's the only reason I wasn't hired." That's not how it works, though. The employer has just chosen another candidate. If you have an interview that does not mean that the job is "yours to lose." The job is not yours at all at that point. Someone else may be better qualified or a better fit, or have something additional to offer that the employer values highly.

Don’t celebrate too soon

No matter what is said by anyone, before, during or after the interview, or if the interviewer(s) speak to you for hours and seem very positive and encouraging, it is still just an interview. You’ll be setting yourself up for likely disappointment if you assume early on that you’ll be offered the job.

Until you've received the offer in writing, negotiated whatever requires negotiation, formally accepted the job offer, received a start date, and begin work that first day, the job is not yours. Possible reasons for an offer to fall through include: a hiring freeze going into effect after the offer, another (stronger) candidate emerging late in the process, and a background check revealing something the employer considers a deal-breaker.

What you should do

Prepare carefully and thoroughly before your interview, in order to make the most of the opportunity. After the interview, give yourself a “debriefing”: review how it went, what you felt you handled well and what you could have done better. Send your ‘thank you’ note and follow up as appropriate, but other than that, put that position out of your mind and continue to apply for other jobs. If you get called for another interview with that employer, then you can turn your attention back to that position.

Photo by Victor1558 via Creative Commons licensing