The biggest mistake in a job interview

The biggest mistake at a job interview (and the one question you will always be asked)

Peter Harris|

The job of your resume is to convince an employer that you have the skills to do the job and to make them want to meet you in person. It’s really at the job interview that you either win the job or lose out to another potential candidate.

In a recent survey of over 2,000 employers, nearly half (47%) said that the most common mistake that candidates make in a job interview is having little or no knowledge about the company. In the Internet era, there’s just no excuse for this. The best way to win over an employer is to demonstrate what you can do for them specifically.

The only way to successfully do this is to know as much as possible about the job, the company, and the industry in advance. This way you can practice tailoring how you describe your past work experience and accomplishments in a way that is relevant to the employer. “Here’s what I have achieved in the past, therefore here is what I can do for you…”

Look the employer up online. Read their website. See if they are mentioned in articles on other sites or in news stories. Talk to people in your network who may have company or industry knowledge.

Think about what the future of the industry is and what the challenges of the job might be. Be prepared to explain how you can help with those challenges and to demonstrate how your qualifications make you uniquely suited for the job.

Employers are always more impressed with candidates who are knowledgeable about their company and who can show why they want to work for them specifically. (Rather than a candidate who is just looking to land a job, any job.)

This same survey also revealed that one third (33%) of employers know within the first 90 seconds of an interview whether or not they will hire someone. First impressions count. (Workopolis has previously discussed the four things that we decide about a person in four seconds.)

The most common job interview question

And it is in those opening seconds of the job interview that you will certainly be asked the most common question of all. The exact wording may differ, but very early in every job interview, you will be asked some variation of, “So, tell me about yourself.”

This is not the occasion to tell the story of growing up melancholy in a small town or of your passion for collecting stuffed owls. (Unless the job is at a stuffed owl emporium.) This conversational-sounding, ice-breaking question is your opportunity to start off the interview on a strong note and to powerfully demonstrate how you are the person for the job.

Employers don’t only want to know that you can do the job – they also want to know if you will like to do the job. If you are applying for a desk job, but all of your interests are about in being in the field, meeting people face to face, and interacting with large groups, you won’t likely be hired. That’s because even if you have the skills to actually perform on the job, employers don’t want to waste time hiring and training someone who isn’t going to be happy and is therefore unlikely to stay very long.

Be relevant

Tell them about yourself in a way that highlights your background and interests so that they make you seem like a natural fit for the role.

For example, although I have many interests including travel, literature, and blues music, when the VP of HR for Workopolis asked me to say a little about myself in the interview for this job, I didn’t talk about those things. Instead, I said something like:

    “I am a writer and editor who has really enjoyed working on the Web for over ten years. I love the interactivity of getting to know an audience and building increased engagement with them. I especially love the idea of working for Workopolis, because not only does this mean bringing the latest news and information to a vast audience of Canadians, but it also means having the chance to really help people. Learning to communicate your potential in a resume, winning the job in a tough interview – we can help people with challenges like these, and that has the potential to improve lives. I would love to be a part of that.”

It’s true, I still love being a part of that. It’s not that I was lying by not mentioning the other interests, it’s just that I chose to focus on what would matter the most to the employer.

Other common interview questions that you can bank on being asked:

Do your homework

Find out as much as you can about the company, and be prepared to ask smart questions that show your interest. (Asking, “So what does this company do?” is a deal breaker.) Tell the interviewer why you’d be passionate about doing the job as well as why you’d be great at it. The biggest mistake in a job interview is not being prepared, and there’s no reason that you can’t be ready to answer the questions that you know for sure are coming.


Peter Harris
Peter Harris on Twitter

Category: Job interviews
  • Roustam

    The honest kind, diligent person may try hard but never succeed answering the question “What is your greatest weaknesses” This is because in reality most employers have low tolerance to any kind of weakness addressed during the interview except for those weaknesses which actually serve as strengths. I don’t like that question because it prompt people to lie to one another.

    • Allwayswrite couldn’t be more wrong…the purpose of the question is not to define your weakness, but to assess your ability to acknowledge it and more importantly, how you plan to correct it.

      • Roustam

        I think you have to read my message twice. I didn’t mind the question “What is your greatest weaknesses”. I believed and I still believe that this question is good, but I don’t really appreciate the way how many people take advantage of it. As result many hard working and truly gifted people will always be left behind to collect the garbage down the streets, while shifty sweet talkers and pretenders will find their place under the sun. Am I wrong now? I wish I were wrong.

        • Ron

          You are perfectly right.
          Mr Einstein should take tutorial to learn how to lie boldly to pass this type of interviews.

          • Roustam

            Yes, and not only him. However, ability to be “sweet speaker” is not the only key for career success. It quite often comes with right connections as well. As it is, you maybe pathetic during the interview, but you would be chosen anyway, because you happened to have big uncle. You know what I mean:)))

          • Wendy Tucker

            Absolutely! Very often, it’s who you know….

      • Roustam

        By the way, your definition of the question “What is your greatest weakness” doesn’t really contradict, but rather support my “definition”. The ability to overcome personal issues actually turns one’s weakness to strength. Therefore, only those weakness who eventually serve as strength are usually addressed during an interview.

      • Wendy Tucker

        I agree with your point, but I think there are other times in the interview where the prospective employer can assess the interviewee and get a more honest answer. The only thing wrong with this question is most people who are going to interviews know it could be asked, and are prepared with a canned answer.

        • Wendy Tucker

          Having said that, it is amazing how many people come to an interview totally unprepared.

          • Wendy Tucker

            And please, not to sound snotty, but I notice spelling and grammar and handwriting; how well people fill out a recruitment package tells me a lot about a person. The question we are all talking about should be: “What is your greatest weakness?” or “What are your greatest weaknesses?” It can’t be singular and plural in the same sentence. A common error and often overlooked. :)

    • Ocramas

      oh, I hate that question! , I have to say that for me it is not easy to think in the answer, my first answer would be “my greatest weakness is dealing with this kind of questions…. :) (and a smile)” , because the reality is that … other than if you have issues like … making friends, difficulty with public speaking, math, etc! you can easily convert that weakness into a strength, so … here comes again the HR guy looking for a pre-built answer and then … kicks out this candidate! HR has taken a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be doing!, at least not the way they are doing it.

      • Roustam

        I absolutely agree with you. For nowadays, many people are taught to use standard scripts but not their own words when it comes for job interview. That what makes the interview absolutely useless thing and…. you know what I mean:))

  • Ocramas

    I just have to say that in too many cases there are recruiters that have no idea of what they are doing. Questions such as “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, or open discussions such as “tell me about yourself”, if I want to play with the recruiter’s mind, that is the moment to do it, so it is really manageable, actually if I am on an interview and somebody asks that you say … ok, use the script 1 for this! , so I don’t think those are mistakes, but instead what I would say is a big mistake is do not handle properly the information of the job that you are applying to, or even worse… do not handle correctly the field that you are suppose to work. Recruiters and HR people in general need to understand one very important thing, they cannot play with a job opportunity just because of their very “personal” impression, especially if they are hiring for an area that they don’t even know correctly. Let’s say that you are about to interview a guy called mr. Einstein, you enter the room and see that his behavior is kind of weird, answers really straight forward — no room for losing time! , and then you decide to do not hire the guy because of his apparent lack of interest, etc. HR should become more serious in terms of acquisitions.

  • August59

    HR personnel should return to their roots, payroll and benefits, and stay out of the recruiting business. If they don’t understand the job or have true knowledge in the job they are recruiting for, I question their judgement. Also companies would save a lot of money cutting HR departments which by nature are none profit generating entities. HR = BS these days.