Preparing for the worst in a job interview

Ask anyone and they probably have a nightmare job interview story.

Either a candidate hasn’t sufficiently prepared and the interview dissolves into a stuttering mess, or vice versa, the interviewer is incompetent or untrained and the interview dissolves into a stuttering mess.

The point being, the outcome can be the same whoever is accountable, but as the job-seeker, you need to prepare as best as possible for any given situation, so much the better to ensure the outcome works for you – you get the job.

Preparation is key

Nearly all difficult interviews can be avoided or won round with preparation, a lack of which is also the most common reason for most interviews going awry.

“When preparing for a job interview I often think it’s best to assume that it will be the worst interview you will ever have,” says Kiera Webber, manager – finance, temporary and contract at Morgan McKinley.

“So many candidates are used to the standard format of talking through their CV and the role, answering a few technical questions and competency questions, discussing the company, and then finishing off with any questions they have as the candidate. While 90% of the time this is enough to get you through most processes, what if you turn up and there’s so much more to it that you just didn’t expect?”

Worst situations, best solutions

 First impressions

Just as in any new relationship, first impressions matter, says Phil Sheridan, senior managing director, Robert Half UK. “To avoid making a bad first impression arrive at the interview around 10-15 minutes early. Also, ensure you are dressed appropriately; think about the company culture and the environment, your attire should reflect this.”

Declan Robinson, a business manager at Page Personnel Finance, even believes it’s good practice to test the route to the interview. “If you’re unfamiliar with the location it’s important to do a trial run before the interview. Take the journey around the same time of day as your interview so you will not be caught out by traffic.”

It is also good to be organised, have a copy of your CV and cover letter for reference and take along a pen and notepad, suggests Phil. “This will allow you to make notes during the interview – whether it be prompts for questions you would like to ask, or examples from your previous experience that would be helpful to reference. This gives an interviewer the impression that you are taking the opportunity seriously.”

Not researching the company

When a candidate fails to prepare and tries to pull the wool over the interviewer’s eyes, things can only head one way, says Phil. “A common, but easily avoidable, mistake is failing to research the company. Interviewers will expect, at a minimum, for candidates to have a basic understanding of the organisation. It does not make a good impression if candidates stumble over these questions and are not fully aware of what the organisation does or its mission, particularly as organisations prioritise the need for cultural fit with any new hire.”

Further research into the company will set you apart from others and demonstrate that you are serious, with a willingness to work hard to achieve this, says Phil. “Reading the company’s website should be the minimum background research, other areas to look into could be recent awards, articles in the media, current projects the business is working on and clients they work with. It is also advisable to be aware of competitors to demonstrate wider industry knowledge. “

The interviewer hasn’t read your CV

A common issue many candidates face, says Kiera, particularly within the fast-paced world of contracting or other temporary posts, is that the interviewer hasn’t read your CV. “And it’s usually obvious! You may be thinking that you’ve done your research and it’s a shame they haven’t done theirs, but, this can work in your favour.”

The interviewer has absolutely no opinion of you whatsoever, all they know is your name, or so you hope. What you can do is use the situation as a means of selling yourself in the way you want, really defining the conversation. “There could have been something like a gap in your CV that you didn’t wish to explain… Well you don’t have to now,” says Kiera.

Illegal questions

Another problem can be the interviewer asking questions they simply shouldn’t ask, says Kiera. Most interviewers are trained on what they can legally ask, but sometimes you may be asked something about your age, religion, family plans, medical history, etc. “Of course you could respond by saying you are uncomfortable with the question, but I would say it’s highly likely that if you say that, the atmosphere will become very stale. Chances are the interviewer hasn’t realised their mistake, so I suggest you redirect the question. As an example, if they are asking how old you are, turn this into an opportunity to explain how much experience you have. And if that question may be implying you are too young, discuss your quick ability to learn new things.”

Not listening

As Phil points out, listening is as important as talking in an interview. “One of the most valuable, and underrated, interviewing skills is to be able to listen to what the interviewer is saying and absorb the information.” Attentively listening demonstrates skills that may be vital for the role, but you may also be able to glean information that could provide certain extra opportunities to “sell” yourself further.

Over-selling and interview jargon

The objective of an interview is to “sell” yourself, your skillset and attributes, but avoid the temptation to use too much jargon or slang, even if you think it will make you seem more knowledgeable or natural – it doesn’t, it’s a pet peeve of many interviewers and professionals in general. What’s most important is presenting an accurate picture of your skillset and qualifications, and avoiding stretching the truth.

Ask for clarification

Most interviews will consist of at least one or two typical questions: why do you think you’re well suited for this position? What can you bring to the organisation? Why have you chosen to apply for the job? However, there will likely also be original questions that are not always predictable and therefore not easy to prepare for. “If you find yourself in this situation and are unsure on what the interviewer is asking, or the objective of the question, you should not be afraid to ask for further clarification. This will prevent you from running off on a tangent, wasting time and creating a poor impression by saying something irrelevant,” says Phil.

Ask questions

If a candidate has well thought through questions that demonstrate they have considered current issues in the industry and how that might impact the business, it reflects enthusiasm and eagerness. “Prior to the interview it is important to think about what qualities you are looking for in a role and employer, and it is advisable to make a note of these questions so you can remind yourself in the interview. It is uninspiring and suggests a lack of care if you have no questions to ask,” says Phil.

Additional interview tips


  • Make strong eye contact
  • Remember your CV details and be prepared to elaborate on skills or past experience
  • Role play an interview situation and say your answers aloud
  • Plan your journey and check traffic or transport delays on the day


  • Interrupt the interviewer
  • Volunteer your weaknesses
  • Speak badly of previous organisations or employers
  • Overshare – avoid your personal life

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

Related articles