5 Tips to Transform Your Next Interview
I recently started a new job (!!) at the Atlantic Council, the culmination of three years of hard work and prayer (more like begging) for a career that would fulfill me, excite me, and allow me to make a difference.
Unfortunately along the way, writing cover letter after cover letter, I lost a lot of my self-confidence. I yearned for the days when I would wake up at college, exhausted but motivated by my laundry list of papers to write, meetings to hold, and policies to influence. Jumping from class to advisory boards to clubs where I was in the senior leadership came naturally–it was tiring, but I knew I could do it.
Three years later, it felt like every job application I sent off vanished into the ether. I’d either never hear from them or make it through one or two rounds, but never win the offer.
Now that I’m on the other side of this journey, I can see what my past jobs were supposed to teach me. Since hindsight is 20/20, I’m going to share 5 things I’ve learned about interviewing and starting a new job. I hope it will surprise you, challenge you, and shine a light into your own career development. I can promise you that you will eventually find where you are meant to be, even if it doesn’t feel like that at this moment.
1. Interviewers want to see the real you, not just your best angle.
You’ve probably heard this before, but bear with me.
I got my first job in politics because I was a ballerina.
No joke. I had applied to be a Constituent Services Intern in the district office for my Congressman, and I was only a freshman in college, so I didn’t have much other experience on my resume besides my good grades and ballet training. But that caught the District Manager’s eye. She told me, “Oh you’re a ballerina, you must be very disciplined.” Yes ma’am, that clinched the deal.
The second part is on you to prove that you are disciplined, which I did by completely reworking the filing system for my supervisors, briefing him on case updates, and gracefully (*ahem* ballet again) engaging with angry constituents on the phone. In interviews for my new job, when asked about my willingness to perform administrative tasks that might not be as fun, I again referenced my ballet training–that it takes years to work up the flexibility and strength to go en pointe–and my month at Trader Joe’s.
As we’ve seen with the pandemic, sometimes the hardest jobs (and the most thankless ones) are the ones that matter most. I did round out my answer with a brief nod to a previous job, but by the look on my now-boss’s face when I gave that answer, my personal story made an impression.
2. Don’t neglect your administrative skills.
After I’d been on the job for a few weeks, I asked my new colleagues for their feedback on my application. It was a good opportunity since we were hiring an intern, so I had some context for my question. One of my co-workers mentioned the personal story I had included that stood out to him, and that my White House internship showed a strong ability to function in a high-stress job. My other co-worker agreed, but mentioned he was initially hesitant about me since I had played up my research abilities toward the end.
The lesson here is to be explicit about those soft skills that make you a good employee: time management, ability to multitask, grace under pressure, organization, program and project management, etc. All of these skills are vital to your ability to function in a fast-paced job–and to be honest, every single job I’ve ever applied for has mentioned a fast-paced environment. Employers know you likely have these skills if you’ve progressed in your career, but don’t make them guess. Stating them out in the open demonstrates a humility and attention to detail that you want to underscore, not imply.
3. Be honest about what you still need to learn… but don’t shrink from the challenge
In my interview with my now-boss, he mentioned that I had little professional experience with NATO and transatlantic security issues, which was true. I think my heart stopped. I wanted this job so badly, but he had just reminded me on a live video call that other candidates may be more qualified than me.
My answer wove in my bachelor’s and master’s degrees on the subject, study abroad experience in Denmark, writing experience for the Georgetown Security Studies Review, and travel to the region.
Professional experience is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters. More than that, what initially felt like a closed door, when framed correctly, can actually be an opportunity to demonstrate your passion for the position and remind your employer of how you’ve tried to incorporate the subject matter or values of the company in roles that may not have called for it before.
The key is to gracefully push back while owning your career story as a well-rounded, comprehensive individual. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: you are not your resume.
4. Don’t overlook the power of a simple “thank you”
You’ve probably heard this before, but you should always follow up after an interview with a thank you email. Use “Mr.” and “Ms.” even if they go by their first names (unless they’ve told you to call them otherwise, or unless they go by non-binary pronouns), and thank them for their time.
To stand out from the generic thank you’s others may send, mention a particular point in the interview that stood out to you–maybe you got into a substantive conversation about a particular policy.
The goal of any interview is to become a conversation, not a one-way interrogation, so if you can reference this point, it will hopefully keep you fresh in the interviewer’s mind, confirm the good impression you’ve already made, and bonus–slide you to the top of their inbox to maybe get back to you sooner.
5. Be bold about asserting your worth
Too often, women don’t negotiate for the higher salaries or benefits they deserve. There are plenty of resources out there to teach you how to do market research and be more assertive in your ask. I have successfully negotiated salaries for three jobs so far, and if I can do it, so can you!
But being bold about your worth is so much more than your bank account. It can mean speaking up in meetings because you’re confident in your ideas, asking for a greater portfolio once you’ve settled in and proved your abilities, and most importantly, steering clear of imposter syndrome.
If you haven’t heard of this by name, you’ve surely felt it: a deep-seated fear that your accomplishments are not really your own, that you’re fooling everyone as you “fake it ‘till you make it,’” and that it’s only a matter of time until you’re found out. To be honest, I’m still working through this in my current job.
On my second week in, I had a crisis of confidence. They had literally hundreds of qualified applicants for my job. Why in the world did they pick me? I settled on the notion that it had to be because I was Hispanic, and better yet, a Hispanic woman. I minimized myself into just a “diversity” hire. Worse still, I began to carry the burden many minorities do of worrying that if I didn’t do a good enough job, they’d be less likely to give another Hispanic woman a chance in the future. This is toxic, full stop.
Imposter syndrome is a lie and I beg you not to fall for it. I don’t have a tried and true formula for grappling with it, but I can tell you that when you are offered and accept a job, you are where you are meant to be. There is a purpose. Moreover, having seen how busy many of our bosses are, do you really think they would hire someone not capable for their job, constantly wishing they’d picked someone else? No, they picked you for who you are, your skills, and how you mesh with the team. They picked you because they saw your potential–and you will do a disservice to yourself and your new team and career if you don’t allow yourself to grow. Choke back the weeds of imposter syndrome, and you will thrive. Believe in yourself, and that person you think you they wanted to hire over you will become you.
Confidence is the key to applying for and starting a new job, but it’s so often the thing we lose first in this process. Remember that your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Have faith in who you are and who you are meant to be, and the next steps will fall into place.
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Gabriela R. A. Doyle is a speechwriter and communications specialist from northern Virginia. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in National Security Studies from Georgetown University and is an Elon University alumna. Gabriela is a ballerina who believes in happily ever afters and trusts that a little hygge and St. Joseph can fix just about any problem there is.