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Interviewing Around the Elephant in the Room

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Northeastern University Career Development
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Published on August 20, 2014

Whether you’re interviewing for a job or an internship, you will inevitably have something about your education, background, or experiences that isn’t quite what your potential employer has in mind. This however isn’t personal and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not qualified. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that any candidate is going to be perfect for a job. There’s always something that could be a little better or a little more on point, and it’s probably an amalgam of different candidates that equates to the perfect package. Once you have the interview lined up, know that you met the basic criteria for the job and then some — at least on paper! The point of the interview then is for your potential employer to gauge if you’re the best possible candidate out of all of the other applicants. And that’s where you have the opportunity to discuss all of your experiences and accomplishments, but it’s also where perceived weaknesses and imperfections can get highlighted and probed.

Although we’d all love to pretend these perceived imperfections don’t exist, we can’t. They become the elephant in the room: everyone knows they exist and they’re impossible to ignore. Because you can’t ignore them, it’s important that you’re ready to acknowledge and address any questions about your perceived weaknesses with confidence and then take the focus off that pesky elephant and quickly move to more positive experiences and traits.

Some common examples of perceived weaknesses are grades and lack of experience. Although your potential employer will have reviewed your resume and decided that you meet their basic criteria, you are still not in the clear, and may have to justify your low GPA or lack of industry experience. Maybe your employer sees that you have a 3.2 GPA, and the job posting just said 3.0 or above (or maybe didn’t even include one), but they’re really hoping for someone with a 3.5 and above. Your GPA may be in line with their requirements, but they may want to know if some of your lower grades were outside of your major or during your freshman year.

Or in regard to experience, maybe they don’t see an experience on your resume, but because they were impressed by the rest of the package, they wanted to see if you had similar work experience, or at least have some trait that gives them the confidence you can pick it up on the job. Try not to get thrown off by these questions because they’re all part of both you and the employer figuring out if this is a good fit. Indeed, you wouldn’t want to work somewhere where your background and experiences aren’t valued!

Coming back to grades and experience as the potential elephant in the room, the best way to answer questions that aim to probe these potential weaknesses is to identify those areas in advance (which a careful review of the job description will usually bring to light), and then to acknowledge them, address them, and move on to the positive that came out of the those circumstances. Always remember to speak in an honest, confident and importantly, proactive manner that keeps the conversation moving forward and focused on the skills and experiences you do have.

For example:

  • Did you perhaps struggle with some biology classes during your freshman year before realizing that you wanted to pursue international affairs and not pre-med? Can you discuss that realization with your employer, and then explain that since transferring to international affairs you’ve maintained A-level grades and have participated in several significant research projects?
  • Are you maybe lacking in some experience that was listed on the job description but did some similar tasks during an internship and can truthfully and confidently explain that you’re ready to take on this new responsibility? Instead of saying “no, I don’t have that experience,” can you instead, more positively and proactively, explain that “while I haven’t done A, I have done X, Y and Z during past internships and feel confident that I can tackle A if I’m hired.”

Notice here that we’re not letting the elephant just sit there. We didn’t shut down when asked these difficult questions, or give a one-word “yes” or “no” answer, or one that acknowledged the perceived weakness without any concomitant positive. Rather, we aimed to carry the conversation forward and in the direction we wanted it to go, away from the elephant and toward the positive attributes that we, as a candidate, bring to the table.

The take-away from all of this is not to let that pesky elephant that lurks in the background for all of us as candidates, in one way or another, derail an otherwise promising opportunity. Be prepared to address it, and know how to keep the conversation moving forward after you’ve done so.

Northeastern University Career Development

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