Lessons From the 3 Worst Job Interviews I’ve Ever Had
Especially as an inexperienced young person, interviewing for jobs can be scary, and just by virtue of fewer years, you probably have less experience in jobs and in interviews. I also used to be intimidated (petrified might be more accurate) by anyone I perceived as having higher authority than me.
As I got more experience, I developed skills with interviewing, but I still remember the 3 worst job interviews I’ve ever had. For a long time after these interviews, I wasn’t confident in job interviews because I expected to be torn down at each turn. These experiences had a negative effect on my interview style and confidence that took a while to unlearn.
Here are the 3 worst interviews I’ve ever had, what I did wrong, what they did wrong, and what I learned.
The Late Show
I was interviewing for a marketing internship in San Francisco. This was before turn-by-turn directions and I was unfamiliar with the city, so I printed out MapQuest and left over an hour of extra time to find parking and still arrive 15 minutes early.
One wrong turn and I was hopelessly lost. Anyone who’s driven in San Francisco knows how easy it is to get turned around. The one-way streets make it impossible to turn around real quick and get back where you were if you pass your destination or miss your turn.
It was a nightmare. I ended up all the way across town in an area past the edge of my printed map. Eventually I was able to find my way to the correct address — 30 minutes late.
When I got to the office and told the receptionist I was there for an interview, of course she pointed out my tardiness and said the hiring manager couldn’t see me anymore.
I was crushed. I tried to explain that I got terribly lost and couldn’t pull over to call, but it didn’t matter. I was turned away at the door, and all the stress and panic of trying to get there on time was for nothing.
Even back then, I didn’t fault that person for not seeing someone who was a half hour late for an interview. And especially now as a busy professional who often has back-to-back meetings, I understand how tight schedules can get.
I learned to pad my travel time even more for interviews in San Francisco. After this incident, I started taking public transportation to offices in the city. This was a bit of a gamble because the trains aren’t always on time, but I left enough time in case the train schedule was off, I missed a transfer, or anything else. With smartphones and turn-by-turn directions widely available, I could probably get away with driving now, but I found that taking the train has the added benefit of getting fresh air and maybe some sun. The down side was that I sometimes have to leave extra time to cool off after walking to the office from the train station.
I also learned to take extra steps to decrease my stress levels as much as possible before the interview for optimal performance. Honestly, if this person had been forgiving enough to meet with me after getting lost in the big city, I would not have been able to interview at my best anyway.
The Open-Ended Question
I applied for an internship at a public relations firm, and immediately after I emailed my resume, I received a response from the president asking to schedule an interview. I was excited since the application process usually involved a lot of waiting, so I scheduled right away.
When I showed up (early this time), I chatted with the security guard then went upstairs to meet with the president. She asked me for a copy of my resume, which I provided on high quality 25% cotton paper as was the custom back then.
Then she sat there and read it — as if it was the first time, not a quick glance to jog her memory. If that was truly her first time reading my resume, that explained how she was able to respond to my application so quickly.
Even with what little experience I had back then, I knew that was a bit of a red or maybe yellow flag. Why would anyone schedule an interview without even reading their resume first? Sure, maybe she was a slow reader and really did just jog her memory, or maybe it was a test to see what I would do in the silence. Either way, it was strange that she sat there and read in front of me for several minutes.
After she was done reading, we continued with the interview, and she eventually asked me what PR meant to me. The way the question was phrased made it seem open-ended, as if personal opinion was invited. So I responded with my interpretation of PR, though I’d only taken one class about it for my degree.
A curt “not even close” (verbatim) was the response.
I was shocked by the ridicule in her voice and don’t remember much else. On my way out, the security guard I had chatted with earlier asked me how the interview went. I responded quickly with tears of frustration in my eyes and excused myself.
Always ask for clarification if a question isn’t clear. I thought she was asking me what PR meant to me specifically, but maybe what she really wanted was the textbook definition. That’s an important distinction. Understanding what’s being asked of you is critical — in a job interview and beyond.
I also learned that, although most people show their best behavior in interviews, some people show you a glimpse of what working for or with them might be like. After this interview, I took a hit to my confidence, but I likely would not have been successful or happy working under someone who would respond to an incorrect or unexpected answer that way and who had no regard for my time (asking for an interview without reading my resume).
A dear friend needed help at her company, and they were hiring another person for the same position. I applied and was called in for an interview, for which I prepared like I normally did, though this time I didn’t spend too much time researching the company itself.
Part of the interview was a pop quiz to list as many U.S. state capitals as I could in a short amount of time. Since state capitals were not related to the job, I assumed that the purpose was to see how I performed under pressure. So I wrote down what I knew or sort of knew, which wasn’t much. Maybe 6 capitals (I know, it’s sad).
But apparently, I was mistaken about the point of the quiz. The point wasn’t to see how I performed under pressure because the guy interviewing me gave me a hard time about how few I’d written. I explained that state capitals weren’t something I needed in my daily life or job, but I memorized procedures and project numbers at work; I remembered what was necessary and important.
He asked me to describe what his company did, so I provided a general answer about advertising services based on the website description and what my friend had told me. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough because he then demanded to know how I prepared for this interview. I told him I prepared for standard interview questions like my skills, experience, and strengths and weaknesses.
Sounding combative, he asked what those were, and in that same tone, why he should hire me over someone else with my same experience. None of my answers were ever good enough; they only led to more questions in quick succession and asked in a rude and belittling manner. My confidence took massive damage, so I flubbed every answer and obviously didn’t get the job (thankfully).
This interview felt more like getting interrogated as the suspect of a crime rather than a prospect for a job. If you ever feel like that, it’s not ok. You are entitled to respect. If they’re browbeating you or being rude, they’ve likely already decided not to hire you. And if they’re treating you this way as an interviewee, will their behavior be any better as an employee? Not likely.
I didn’t prepare as much as I usually did because I thought I had an in with my friend, so I learned that the friend gets you in the door and you have to do the rest. But this interview went so badly that, in the middle of it, I considered politely explaining that this wasn’t a good fit and leaving. The only thing that kept me from walking out was that my friend had recommended me, and I didn’t want my behavior to reflect poorly on her.
Looking back on it now, I know my friend would have supported me if I had chosen myself over… whatever I thought I was accomplishing by staying. (She later ended up leaving that job due to poor treatment too.) I thought I had to accept that treatment, but I didn’t have to take it, and neither do you. I won’t allow that kind of behavior towards me again.
Being interviewed for a job can be vulnerable, and the entire process is stressful and exhausting. Even if you’re not an inexperienced kid just trying to get a foot in the door, you’re still putting yourself out there. You get excited for this job, you’re hopeful that this is the one. Maybe this is your first interview or maybe you have interview fatigue after doing so many. Whatever the case, you spend a lot of time preparing, then you get dressed up, worry about every detail, and analyze every interaction. And interviewers get to judge you by tiny details or random things you may not expect. They might ask you to take a quiz, give you an impossible riddle, or even ask what kind of animal you’d be if you could choose. I remember wondering after an interview if the piece of paper on the floor by the front door was a test to see if I would pick it up.
I used to think that the interviewee had all the power and all the cards. I thought I was just lucky to be in the room with them, and I should take what I can get. Maybe that’s true in some cases, but what I learned from the many interviews I’ve had — good and bad, on both sides of the table — is that interviewing is a good opportunity for everyone to get to know each other. You can learn a lot by paying attention and asking the right questions, but most of all, remember that you deserve respect, period.