Keeping Your Cool Despite Interview Jitters

By Susan Kreimer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 14, 2009

Interviewing for a job is akin to performing on stage: Knowing you have only one chance to get it right can make nearly anyone nervous. But you can tame those jitters and prevent them from jolting an interview off course.

"Just like any performer, know your script -- cold," said Ed Schilling, 56, of Davidsonville, who started in March as executive director of the Biomedical Engineering Society. Although Schilling tends to talk rapidly when he's nervous, a conscious effort helped control his speech.

Job interview jitters are normal physical and emotional reactions. Kept in check, they can be more positive than negative, spurring candidates to prepare well and be at the top of their game when it matters most.

"It's like having butterflies before you go on stage to perform -- a small amount of them is good, so that your body and your mind are ready for the experience," said Marsha Lindquist, a career consultant in Prescott, Ariz.

Every job seeker probably deals with these sensations to some degree during the course of a career, "perhaps more so in the earlier years as the interviewee is not as experienced and probably less confident," Lindquist said.

Anxiety surrounding the interview process may intensify in a troubled economy, when there is more at stake. It's much easier to feel less pressure when the outcome seems not so critical or when the interview is one of many scheduled, said Kathy Albarado, chief executive of Helios, which serves companies in the Washington area.

Because of the pressure, job candidates should try even harder to keep calm, said Shira Harrington, director of professional search at Positions Inc. in the District. If you're unemployed, act like you have a job and are just looking for your next career move.

Researching an organization before the interview will calm your nerves while providing an impressive platform for discussion. Review its Web site thoroughly, try to find people who work or have worked there, and ask the recruiter for any information he or she can provide. Employers are impressed if you remember specific details and ask intelligent questions related to the organization, Harrington said.

You have to get there first, though. Leave home with plenty of time to spare, avoiding the anxiety that comes with feeling rushed.

"Do whatever you can to be 10 minutes early -- no more than that, however, so that you don't put pressure on the recruiter," Harrington said. "If you are extremely early, hang out in a local coffee shop or your car and continue to prepare."

Use the time to re-examine your appearance, said Amy Foy, a nurse recruiter at Harbor Hospital in Baltimore. "Check a mirror before you come in to HR, if anything just to confirm for yourself that you look okay," she said.

Once you reach the reception area or interview room, refrain from fidgeting, playing with your hair, glasses or clothing. Being relaxed will show. Be leery of talking too much and not listening enough.

"Too many nervous candidates try to fill the air with expanded versions of their accomplishments," Harrington said. "While you should provide good detailed responses, recruiters want to know that you can effectively tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end."

The conversation should help both parties gauge whether the position and environment are a good fit. "You have just as much right to say 'no' as they do if you don't feel the click. Knowing that puts you more in a balanced relationship," Harrington said.

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