How to overcome the scariest job interview mistakes

These job interview tips will help you avoid frightful missteps.

How to overcome the scariest job interview mistakes

Oh no. You've been fielding interview questions from a hiring manager, and you suddenly realize you flubbed an answer. The interviewer knows that everyone is human—so you can just move on and pretend you didn't just accidentally bomb on one of the most common interview questions, right?

Wrong. It’s better to acknowledge when your interview skills fall flat and address it somehow, says Heather Neisen, director of account services at Enliven, LLC in Nashville. “If you catch yourself in a lie or you get tongue-tied, it may sound cliche, but honesty is the best policy. Start over and explain.”

Countless things can go wrong in a job interview, no matter how much interview preparation you engage in, so be ready to address these four common mistakes with our pointers.

You’re running late

You know that being late to an interview can leave a bad first impression, so you should plan your route in advance and leave extra travel time. But sometimes unpredictable traffic or personal emergencies can’t be avoided, and you find yourself late for the interview.

What do you do?

Call to let the interviewer know. “Do not wait until you are there and make excuses," says Peter Studner, author of Super Job Search IV: The Complete Manual for Job Seekers & Career Changers. "Your smartphone is your best friend for such occasions.”

If you fear you’re not going to make it within a reasonable timeframe—generally 30 minutes after your scheduled meeting—it’s best to call ahead and find out if you can reschedule or push the interview later. Don’t leave them waiting and wondering if you will show.

You’re stumped by a question

Interview questions and answers are the nuts and bolts of the screening process. Suddenly, the interviewer asks something you’re not prepared for, and your brain begins to reel as you try to think of what to say. The worst answer at that point is, “Um, I don’t know”—but you hear yourself say it anyway.

What do you do?

“Preparation and practice will not only help prevent some slip-ups but also help you recover more quickly,” Studner says. If you catch yourself saying “I don’t know,” remember your preparation and search through your mental files for a reasonable answer or explanation. “A candidate should be armed with dates, names and metrics concerning his past history as well as his accomplishments.”

If you’re not thinking quickly enough, and the interviewer has moved on, don’t be afraid to return to the point later in the conversation.

“If you’re quick enough to realize your mistake during the interview, it’s absolutely appropriate to bring it up before the end of the conversation,” says Mikaela Kiner, founder and CEO of Seattle-based uniquelyHR. “Ask to come back to that point, say you want to clarify your response, and that you’d like to share another example.”

Your smartphone buzzes, beeps or rings loudly

You always turn your cell phone off during a movie and you scold your friends when their phones ring during dinner, but you forgot to turn yours off for your job interview. Suddenly, emerging from your coat pocket, is the theme song from Ghostbusters—and then the room falls eerily silent.

What do you do?

Apologize, make light of the situation if appropriate, and move on, says Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president of Connecticut-based Magas Media Consultants. “Be honest, be upfront, be prompt, be true to yourself.”

“If you don’t address it, it becomes the elephant in the room and overshadows what you did right in the interview,” Magas adds.

You fear you gave a “wrong” answer

You leave the interview and then realize you may have made a mistake, or were somehow misunderstood. You ask yourself over and over again, “Did it sound like I was badmouthing my co-workers?”Did I seem like I wasn’t excited about this position?You know you aren’t getting any sleep tonight while you ponder what you might have said wrong.

What do you do?

First, suggest evaluating whether you even made a mistake. “You won’t answer every question perfectly, but if you were direct and got your main points across then following up may seem like overkill,” she says.

If you decide you need to clarify something, you can use your thank-you letter to the interviewer as an opportunity to explain anything you think may have been misunderstood. “If a candidate feels like they were bashing their previous employer or was nervous, they can often follow up and just say thank you for the interview and apologize for the faux pas,” Neisen says. “That’s appreciated.”   

Additionally, if you think you didn’t show your true interest in the job, you can ask a respected colleague or client to send a letter of endorsement on your behalf, Kiner suggests. It may be an added boost to your thank-you letter explaining that this is the job you are most interested in.