Research, Rehearse, and Write It Down: Managing Interview Anxiety

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
The fundamentals of interview success share some humor and an acronym with the foundational elements of literacy. They both involve The Three R's. Instead of reading, writing, and arithmetic, job search candidates are advised to research, rehearse, and write it down in preparation for their big event.

A comment on one of my recent blog posts asked how one should manage interview anxieties. This phenomenon plagues us all. Interviews are tests and how might one overcome the natural nervousness that comes from sitting before an interview panel while a half-dozen potential colleagues scrutinize your every word looking for reasons to knock you out of the running for that coveted position? While seemingly simple -- just answer ten questions well and you get a job -- the stakes are high.

A couple of examples might illuminate the point. Professional basketball players shoot free throws. They have ten seconds to shoot from 15 feet without interference from others. They have taken the same shot tens of thousands of times from their childhood to the present, but in games their percentage of success is dramatically lower than in practice. The same applies to professional actors. A leading lady might hesitate or fumble the delivery of certain lines that were flawlessly delivered in rehearsal many times before. When one is on stage, in front of others, or being tested, results are often lower. Psychologists tell us that it could be due to test anxiety, stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, shyness, or just simply nerves. To prepare to do one's best, The Three R's are sage advice.

Research involves learning as much about the position, the institution, and the interviewing process as possible. These blog posts, the resources on HigherEdjobs.com, and a plethora of other resources that are an internet search away will provide tips on the typical questions to expect during an interview. Learning about an institution's mission, history, culture, ways of operating, and major initiatives should provide some insight into what they might expect of employees. Any clues into what a department is involved in, the things the previous incumbent/vacant position was involved in during the past, or what is meant by phrases presented in the vacancy announcement, can all provide context that will make answering questions more meaningful. These efforts will help with the inevitable feelings of insecurity from not knowing what to expect.

After completing one's research, the next step is to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. No athlete, actor, or performer of any kind walks onto stage or into an arena having only practiced a few times. Interviews are our form of 'Game Day.' Our livelihood and career prospects are on the line, and we should practice as much as possible given our available time. Having an executive coach is a smart way to go as it might give one an advantage over their competition. Rehearsing involves three additional R's. Reflecting upon one's career to date, reviewing one's application materials, and mock responding to anticipated questions are defenses against interview jitters.

The two basic forms of interviews are situational and behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing asks questions about your past and assumes that past behavior will predict future behavior. So, reflecting and having your best experiences top of mind will help you interview better. Situational questions provide a likely scenario for the future and ask how you might respond. Applying your experiences to likely challenges in the new job can be prepared for by thinking ahead. Using what you know about the institution and the job from your research, think about how your background prepares you for the new position and what you can and might do if you were given the job. This mental exercise ensures that you do not get surprised when you walk into the arena having never considered typical but important questions or what else might happen. Forethought is the best preparation you can get.

Assuming one will be nervous, it is simply smart to write down some notes before the interview. I usually suggest to coaching clients that they prepare three different documents and place them into a portfolio. Each document is a single sheet of paper with bullet point ideas. The first sheet is a summary of things about the position and institution that you want to be mindful of. The institution is committed to the internationalization of the campus, many students are first generation, the culture is one of service, or the history is filled with heroes who experienced personal and professional sacrifice. The job announcement mentioned innovation three times and ways, the ability to work with other departments was pronounced, the preferred criteria included global experience, and familiarity with certain software was underscored as well. This information is invaluable as reference points when preparing and rehearsing for the interview.

The second document should be a list of the noteworthy elements from one's background and experience. Jot down the things that make one unique, ultra-competitive, and the special things that one wants to ensure they highlight during the interview. If you were awarded a fellowship in an area that makes you uniquely qualified for the position, you would not want to miss the opportunity to embellish upon that in the interview, whether or not a relevant question is asked. The final document is a list of three to five questions to ask the interviewer. Most often you will be given an opportunity to ask interviewers a question or two. Having thoughtfully prepared questions in front of you keeps you from stumbling over the moment or blowing the opportunity.

The three elements of research, rehearsing, and writing things down reinforce one another. You write down things you learned in your research. You rehearse from things you researched and wrote down. You learn from your rehearsing that there are gaps in your knowledge and memory and that causes you to do more reflection or research. The worst thing one can do for an interview is to show up and assume that one can simply 'wing-it' or that one is smart enough to think on their feet. Think about the professional athletes or other performers who make mistakes because of the pressure of performing with all eyes upon them. The stakes are high and the other two finalists are likely to come prepared to make a good showing. As admonished before in an earlier blog post, it is the candidate that interviews best -- not the best candidate -- who gets the job. Everyone should take the opportunity to ensure that the presentation of their background and experience is as good as those experiences themselves. Preparing, practicing, and documenting essential information in advance are words to the wise.