Managing Interview Stress

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

In a recent poll on the Career Development home page, job seekers told us that the most stressful part of changing jobs was preparing for and attending interviews. This ranked higher than telling the people at your old job you were leaving, preparing your CV and getting used to a new working environment. So why is it that we find the interview process so stressful and how can we make this inevitable part of jobseeking a more pleasant and rewarding experience?

This article identifies five key problems or challenges in the interview process and look at ways of minimising them. 

Problem 1: uncertainty

It is human nature to be frightened or worried by situations in which we cannot control the outcome or situations in which we are unsure of how things will progress. A job interview is the classic unpredictable situation. You don't know who the other candidates are, what questions will be asked and in some cases what sort of person they are looking for.

Many interview advice websites are full of horror stories detailing bizarre and random questions asked by interviews to which the interviewee had no response or simply ‘froze'. It is this unpredictability that frightens us most, but luckily it is one of the easiest fear-factors to beat.

The Solution

Overcome uncertainty by informing yourself as far as possible about how the interview day will go and what the employers want from the candidates. When you are invited to an interview you will be sent a rough timetable of the day. If anything is unclear, you are perfectly within your rights to contact them and ask for clarification. It is important to inform yourself of the structure of the day, especially if there will be several smaller tests or interviews as well as the formal interview, as there often is for academic posts.

You can't predict what questions will be asked or which criteria are being used but you can make a reasonable guess based on the person specification that was distributed with the original job application pack, which outlines the duties and responsibilities of the role. During the interview the employer will obviously invite each candidate to show how he or she matches the criteria.

Another way of working out what the employer might be looking for is to use your networking skills before the interview. Everyone that you have met over the course of your career could be useful here. Do you know anyone who has worked for that employer before? Could they give you the inside scoop on what they will be looking for? The more you know before going into an interview, the less you will be fazed by the uncertainties inherent in the process.

Problem 2: public speaking

Many people dislike public speaking. Of course if you are a lecturer then you are probably used to standing up in front of an unfamiliar and sometimes even hostile audience. But for the rest of us the thought of public speaking fills us with dread. In most interviews you will have to speak to a panel of at least three people, and you might also have to speak to larger audiences, including perhaps staff members and students. So how do you overcome a fear of public speaking?

The Solution

If you have to give a formal presentation as part of your interview then preparation is the key to avoiding nervousness. If you have practised your speech and made sure you know your material and are keeping to the allotted time then this will alleviate some nerves.

Also for both formal and unscripted parts of the interview, remember some simple techniques and you should be able to convey your message successfully. Maintain eye contact with your audience, but don't stare. Speak slowly, at a natural conversational pace. Speak at a decent volume. Try to convey interest and enthusiasm. Sometimes nerves can make us come across as a little wooden or distracted.

Problem 3: competition

There's nothing you can do about the other candidates for the job.

The Solution

Don't even think about them! If you start worrying about the competition then it will distract you from performing your utmost.

Ignoring the competition is especially difficult in day-long academic interviews where you have to spend time with the other candidates. In that case be polite and friendly, but don't get drawn in to discussions about interview strategy or about how long you have been looking for work.

Stay focussed on your own performance on the day and don't worry if another candidate seems to be more qualified in a certain area than you. It's the overall package that will sway the employer.

Problem 4: nerves

Closely related to the issue of public speaking is that of overall interview nerves. This is a problem that you don't want to eliminate completely. Some nervousness is good. It gets the adrenaline pumping around our bodies, making us alert and focussed and this can help us to perform better. Obviously too much nervousness can be a negative influence. If you do suffer badly from nerves try to develop your own rituals that will help you cope. No doubt you have faced this same problem of nervousness, perhaps when doing exams at school or university.

The Solution

For serious attacks of nerves, some people use yoga or meditation to calm down; another tip is to avoid caffeine if you are prone to feeling shaky.

The night before the interview make sure you have a quiet time, perhaps do a little light exercise and slowly and calmly prepare your bags and materials ready for the interview the next day.

And remember that nerves affect everyone, not just you. It shows that you are human and that you care about the outcome of the interview.

Problem 5: waiting for a decision

The interview is over and you have done all you can. For some people the worst part is waiting for a decision. Your mind will be working overtime trying to decide whether it is a good sign that you haven't yet heard anything.

You are entitled to ask the interview panel when they expect to make a decision. They should be able to let you know whether you will hear on the same day or if it will be longer. The successful candidate is told first. If for any reason he or she declines to take the job, then it will often be offered to a second choice candidate.

The formalities of the process, such as informing Human Resources of a decision, can mean that unsuccessful interviewees are left waiting around for some time before hearing a firm ‘no'. Anecdotally, there have been cases of interviewees hearing nothing for weeks, but this is rare.

The Solution

If you can, try to forget about the job and the interview once you have completed it. This is difficult if you were very impressed with the employer and desperately wanted the job. But try to move on with your life, perhaps thinking about other employment options, so that if you do get that phone call offering you the job then it will be a pleasant surprise.

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