Chapter 15: My new hobby: attending job interviews

Job interviews are quite the nerve-wracking experience. There is the whole pressure of having to present yourself in a positive light as you want to be successful in getting the job – which is the whole point of going to the interview in the first place, obviously. There is the awful fear of failing, of not being good enough. Also, there is the detrimental social comparison and the constant subliminal feelings of hostility towards the other candidates you compete against. The worst of it all though is the sheer anxiety-evoking image of some HR person sitting across the table from of you, drilling a hole into you by their mere stare, asking you all these uncomfortable questions. Job interviews do really put you in the spotlight whether you like being on stage, or not, and it seems as all they are designed for is to catch every single one of your faults.

Yeah, job interviews are scary. They are a challenge, but sooner or later we all must face them. So, I decided to get over them sooner rather than later. Last autumn, after I had quit my last job, I started applying for various random jobs, regardless whether I could realistically commit to them or not. I literally sent applications to every second job I came across. It did not take long until my keen interest in the job market had turned into some weird kind of hobby. By now, you could perhaps even call it a passion of mine to attend assessment centres.

The reason why I keep applying for various jobs is not so much because of my desire to actually start working at one of them; instead, I do it, first and foremost, because of the experience that comes with it. Not only does it help me to improve on my job application game, it also helps me to normalise job interviews, making them a far less dreaded procedure. Hopefully, in the future, when a job interview will truly matter to me one day, I will then be an expert in passing all stages of job applications.

I tell you, there is no more superior position to enter a job interview from than from a position of independence and freedom. If you are under no pressure, and are not urged by any necessity to become a successful candidate, you can be far more relaxed – you can even find yourself enjoying the interview process because you have nothing to lose.

The truth is that most jobs will underwhelm you as recruiters oversell them in respective advertisements. You should  consider that employers compete against each other in their hunt for the best workforce just as much as we, the interview candidates, compete against each other in securing employment. Therefore, employers utilise every strategy to make the to-be-filled role sound as appealing, lucrative, and special as possible.

For example, “competitive salary” is something you will read in job specifications quite a bit; yet, what does competitive even mean? While this phrase may raise your expectations to earn good money, it is not quantifiable at all and depends entirely on the relative perspective which, in turn, is determined by the field of occupation, your previous experience, and the like. In the end, “competitive salary” can turn out to be simply minimum wage; but minimum wage does not sound quite as attractive, am I right?

Overall, my personal statistics show that expectations, which I had formed based on the eloquently phrased role advertisement, have been let down in more than 50% of the time. In all these cases where I got disappointed by the discrepancy between advertisement and reality, the following had happened: I arrived on the day of the interview with the initial belief that I really wanted the job in question. However, my mind abruptly changed upon entering the office building of the respective company. The moment I saw the grey office block as well as the crowded, fast-paced working environment, getting an impression of what my everyday work would look like; the moment when I observed the current employees, their demeanour, their way of dressing, their language, I realised that jobs suddenly seemed far less attractive, demanding, and special than originally advertised by the employer. This change of perception caused a decrease in my desire to secure the job, making me more careless which also lowered my anxiety and stress level.

Monitoring your anxiety and stress levels, keeping it under the critical threshold of becoming counterproductive, is key to performing successfully in job interviews, and in life in general, in fact. You want to strike a good balance between caring enough to make an effort and caring so little that your confidence is not compromised. In order to not let my nervousness overrule me, I also find it very useful to change perspective on the power distribution. Instead of viewing the job as something I want, I began to adopt the attitude that it is the company wanting me to work for them. It is the company being after my skills, my personality, and my experience; therefore, it is the interviewers who must sell themselves to me, and not me who has to sell myself to them. Turning the tables on the classic interviewer-interviewee hierarchy raises confidence, trust me.

If you manage to not approach job interviews with all that pressure and stress weighing on your shoulders, you may even turn to enjoy them. I mean, apparently, I added occupational assessments to the list of my hobbies judging by the amount of job interviews I have put myself up for. The thing is, if you will, job interviews offer you field trips free-of-charge. They represent little excursions to businesses you have no clue about as you have never heard of them before, or to  businesses you have always been intrigued by, wondering what they look like from the inside.  It is like your own field study to see what is out there, what kind of job opportunities are available, how different work environments can look like. In fact, they are as much a field study on the company you applied for as they are on people.

I personally love watching people. Perhaps this is due to my degree in Psychology (yes, I do tend to analyse people). Honestly though, studying people is insightful. Whenever I take part in job interviews I watch the other candidates with much interest. You get to see the terribly nervous candidates that cannot stop fiddling around, impatiently checking up on the time every second; you can downright see their sweaty palms and feel their accelerated pulse. You also get the quiet and shy ones that stand in drastic contrast to the overly-bold, competitive ones – you know – the ones that desperately try to impress employers by always answering the questions of recruiters first, hoping that would give them an advantage over other candidates. It is rather impressive how those excessively eager candidates never get tired of brown-nosing. But, of course, you also get quite a few normal candidates that are feeling and acting just the same way as you are.

What I always seek to do is connecting with my fellow interviewees. I hate the awkward silence, the competitive tension between me and other candidates which is why I always try to engage in small talk. A casual conversation works magic in making everyone just a little more relaxed. At the end of the day, connecting with your fellow candidates will let you reap the positive effect that social support has on your anxiety levels. Plus, initiating a chat with other candidates, allows you to learn something new too, as other candidates talk about their experiences and their past career paths.

Beside watching the other candidates, I like analysing the recruiters and staff too. Once you become aware of the little perks in recruiters, realising that they are just as flawed as any other human, it makes them seem much less super-human, intimidating, and much more relatable. Recruiters are not actually those dead-serious people you believe them to be. Surely, they might size you up in the most thorough manner; nevertheless, at the same time, they are people that also stutter, miss out information, arrive a tad unprepared, suck at operating technology, and do not know the answer to all questions. From my experience, recruiters can even be surprisingly kind and welcoming, showing a genuine interest in your opinion, your wellbeing, and your comfort. Some of the best recruiters I have met managed to make me feel homely upon my arrival, distracting my mind from the impending challenge of the assessment tasks.

Lastly, signing up for random job interviews has allowed me to test the effectiveness of different strategies. In some interviews I stick to plain, conventional, boring default answers that – even though they may not completely reflect the truth – are the answers employers want to hear. In contrast, in some other interviews I go for more unconventional approaches. Unconventional means that I would ask challenging questions back to the interviewer, or tell recruiters some random stories like the story about how I felt judged by my friend for eating fish skin (I guess this sounds totally absurd to you when I mention it like this without any further context; the important point is though that the recruiters really enjoyed that little story. Good storytelling skills help you immensily in job interviews). On some occasions, I go as far as to do not bother to prepare myself at all for the interview. Instead I trust in my ability ‘to wing it’. Although I would not recommend copying this approach for a job interview that you do care about, I can testify that the ‘wing it’ approach is highly effective in training your skills of being a fast thinker, a thorough listener, and a flexible, spontaneous converser – skills that are greatly beneficial to almost every aspect in life.

Most importantly, whenever I attend job interviews I try to be a more careful observer of my own behaviour than I was during the last interview. I notice if I smile or not, if I sit straight on the chair or not, what position my hands are in, where my eyes gaze at, and all other little aspects of my behaviour. You might wonder why it would matter to monitor these small things. Let me therefore remind you of some fundamental psychological mechanisms: even if recruiters claim they are unbiased, they are not, and will never be. It is human nature to unconsciously respond to everything that happens in your environment; everything we see, we hear, we feel – everything we are exposed to contributes to our attitude and behaviour, and unfortunately, many of these small things will bias us even though we may not be aware of it. Thus, the bottom line is that impressions do matter.

Wow, I am realising now that I have talked quite a bit about my hobby of attending job interviews – more than I expected I would, to be honest. In conclusion, whether you agree or disagree on the notion that job interviews can be categorised as leisure activity, I hope that some of the experiences I have shared may help you with your occupational assessments in the future.

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