3 Ways to Cultivate Confidence to Ace Your Interviews

Tiffany Franklin, Associate Director

Photo Credit: krung99/iStockPhoto

As the leaves start to turn, the days get crisp, and pumpkin products are ubiquitous, that means fall is in the air and so is interview season. For Career Services, this entails a lot of mock interviews to help students prepare and it’s one of my favorite parts of my job as a career advisor. I’m always struck by how amazing Penn students are and the incredible things they are doing. I’ve also noticed a tendency for students to minimize their achievements, almost as if imposter syndrome has swept through campus like a cold or virus. While I’m not advocating for anyone to be arrogant and walk around campus randomly rattling off their resume, there is a proper time and way to discuss your accomplishments. Your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profiles, and interview are the perfect place to articulate what you have achieved so far and where you aspire to go next. In order to shine in these job/internship interviews, you must believe in yourself.

Why is confidence necessary for interview success?

To understand why confidence is a key component of success, let’s reflect on the purpose of the interview. Employers already think that you can do the job and that’s why they are inviting you to an interview; otherwise, they would not waste their time. Resumes lead to interviews and interviews lead to job offers, so by the time you land the interview, you have already crossed some substantial hurdles to get to this point. The interview is the time for you to show the employer why their first instinct about you was right. During my recruiting days, I wanted to confirm that the candidate had both the skills and the motivation to do the job. Basically, I needed the candidate to inspire confidence that they would be able to hit the ground running, make positive contributions to the team, and collaborate well with their colleagues.

How does a lack of confidence manifest itself in an interview?

When discussing upcoming interviews, some students say, “Why did this employer pick me? It must be some mistake?” Statements like this may lead the student to not prepare as thoroughly as they should because they are giving themselves as out and letting fear win. I didn’t think I would get it anyway, so why try? Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For others, it may not be as blatant. When answering interview questions, his/her voice may go up at the end of the story signaling a question rather than a statement. Or, the person may have answers that fade out at the end. Over the years, I’ve had students in mock interviews rattle off a list of reasons why they aren’t qualified for the job so they can get that out of the way and tell me why I should hire them. The reason this strategy backfires is that it leaves the hiring manager with a negative impression from the beginning that’s hard to overcome. On the nonverbal front, fidgeting, a lack of eye contact, a weak handshake, and using filler words (um, like, you know) can also signal a lack of confidence.

Let’s Pretend You are the Recruiter

Imagine a scenario where you are the founder of a club and need to recruit a handful of new members to help you build the group into something that will live on after you graduate. When speaking to potential candidates, would you want to work with the student who can barely look you in the eye and cannot provide examples of past experiences that relate to the position you are filling?

How to get confidence for your interviews

Now that we’ve talked about why you need confidence, let focus on ways to build it in yourself.

1) Take the time to prepare for your interviews.
a. This means thinking about your answers and practicing them aloud repeatedly. No, you are not memorizing answers. Instead, you are smoothing out the delivery. This will go a long way in building your confidence.
b. For tips of answering interview questions, see an older post about an Essential Interview Skill.
c. Check out all the interview prep resources on the Career Services website.
d. Schedule a mock interview with a Career Services adviser.

2) Stop comparing yourself to others.
When surrounded by overachievers, it can be a bit overwhelming and easy to feel like you are falling behind. Don’t forget all the incredible things you did to get admitted to Penn. You are one of those overachievers! No matter how together people look, everyone has their struggles and some are better at hiding in than others. Check out PennFaces, a wonderful site with stories of the ups and downs other students have navigated. You are not alone! Take some of the pressure off by focusing on your own achievements and not those of others.

3) Make a List of your 3-5 greatest achievements
When preparing for an interview or any challenge that seems intimidating, it’s helpful to think of your past wins. Do this not only to prepare answers for your interview questions, but also as a way to visualize yourself being successful. Think about the process that got you there. It’s wonderful to focus on the pride you felt high school graduation day or when you met a goal that had eluded you for a while, but also think of the process of how you got there. Remember the ups and the downs and how you demonstrated an ability to persevere. Resilience is a quality that employers value!

Building confidence for your interview may feel awkward at first and take some practice, but you can do this. If you feel you need extra help in boosting your self-esteem, you have resources on campus that will support you such as the CAPS office, which offers group workshops and individual appointments. Career Services is here to support you through every aspect of your job search whether you are just beginning to explore options or you have an idea and need career advice during the job/internship search process.

Do You Have this Essential Interview Skill?

Tiffany J. Franklin, Associate Director


Congratulations! You landed an interview for your dream job or internship and you think you’ve done all the necessary prep work. Are you really ready to knock it out of the park and show this company why they should hire you? Before closing the book on your interview prep, you must be sure you possess this skill

The ability to articulate your experience in a way that is meaningful to this particular employer.

The employer already has a vague notion that you can do the job or else they would not bring you in for an interview. Now, they need you to inspire confidence in them that will confirm their initial instincts about you were on point. Specifically, the interview process needs to assure the employer that

  • You have the specific Knowledge, Skills (soft and hard), and Abilities to perform the job duties
  • You have the motivation/initiative to do the job
  • You will work well with the team/clients and demonstrate emotional intelligence
  • You have problem solving skills and can offer solutions to company pain points

Now that we know what you need to accomplish, there are 3 concrete steps you can take to prepare for your interview.

  1. Know the job description inside/out and do in depth research about the company.

    This is huge! To tailor your message to this employer you have to understand who they are (Corporate website, About Us page, Mission statement, Press Releases, Social Media Accounts) and have a firm grasp on the key qualities they are seeking in a candidate. Most job descriptions will ask for 50 different things, but you can usually group these into 3 to 5 major skill areas (hard and soft skills).

  2. Understand Yourself and Be Able to Tell Your Story.

    This is an exercise I call Your Greatest Hits.” This will give you a quick visual depiction of approximately 30 success stories across skills areas and is a great prompt for those behavioral, “Tell me about a time when” questions.  They are based on the premise that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

    On one sheet of paper write 10-15 skill areas (for example, Leadership, Teamwork, Cultivating Client Relationships, Demonstrating Initiative, Customer Service, Project Management, Problem Solving, Data Analysis, Persuasive Communication, Delivering Presentations, Mentoring, Product Management, Budgeting, Coding, and other technical/non-technical skills. Select those 5 skill areas represented in the job description (from step 1) plus soft skills and other skills applicable to your field/industry.

    For each of these skill areas, write 2 – 3 CAR stories meaning Challenge (what was the challenge you encountered), Action (what were the specific actions you took to address the challenge), and Results (what were the positive results). The answers to these should be 90 seconds to 2 minutes long and demonstrate you using that skill.

    When doing this exercise, don’t write out long answers. You know your experience and should not memorize the answers – rather use the keywords and phrases to trigger your memory. For example:

    C: Wedding Planner for outdoor ceremony/reception in FL in July; forecast called for showers

    A: Encouraged couple to consider party tent; called frequently used vendor and secured tent days before ceremony; worked with other vendors to adjust to new configuration for reception. Ordered umbrellas.

    R: Sunny for ceremony, but rained most of reception. Tent in place, dry guests, good time had by all. The couple was happy and guests commented on beautiful event in spite of weather.


  3. Practice saying these success stories aloud. It will help you smooth out the flow (get rid of ums, pauses, likes), identify areas where you need to come up with a better example, and in the process increase your confidence.

By engaging in these exercises, you have made a significant step in preparing for a successful interview. You are now able to articulate how everything you have done in your career to this point has been building transferrable skills and leading you to this interview!

Career Services is here to help you with this process. Review numerous resources online at www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/interviewingadvice/practiceresources.php and you are welcome to schedule a mock interview with one of our career advisors.

Interviewing Season

Marianne Lipa, Associate Director

Hope you all had an enjoyable Spring Break! With the spring weather upon us, this also means we’re in the season of internship interviewing.   Some of you may already have landed internships in certain industries which tend to hire early (such as finance and consulting) while many of you may still be in the search phase for the vast array of industries which tend to have later hiring cycles including marketing, non-profit, government, entertainment, just to name a few. For those who are preparing for interviews, here is some general advice to assuage your concerns and anxiety. The first round is often done via phone or Skype. Now some of you might feel intimidated by a phone conversation, but it isn’t as scary as it sounds without the face-to-face interaction. One plus side is that you can have some notes in front of you with points you want to be sure to mention. Skype interviews are “quasi in-person” and you’re able to see the non-verbal body language.   For second-rounds/final rounds, these are typically conducted in person. You are likely to meet with more than one company representative and the duration for all the interviews may last a few hours to almost the full day. Make sure for any interview you show your enthusiasm for the position and are actively engaged during the dialogue. For all interviews, be sure to research the company/organization and prepare yourself to answer the frequently asked/standard questions. We have a list on our website here.

Additionally, please check out our interviewing advice section on our website for more insight into the interviewing process. It discusses in depth interview preparation, etiquette, attire, questions, and overall advice.

And remember you can also meet with an advisor in Career Services to help guide you through navigating the interviewing process. We also offer mock interviews where we provide feedback (both positive and negative) to assist you with your interviewing skills. Interviewing skills are a continuous work in progress for people at all stages of their career from undergraduates to seasoned professionals.

Best of luck on this journey and we look forward to seeing you in Career Services!

Help! I keep getting interviews, but they don’t turn into offers…

Career services advisors encounter one scenario with some regularity: a student or postdoc is in the midst of a job search, and is frustrated because they are not getting the offers they hoped to receive.  They want us to figure out what is going “wrong” and how to fix it.  While there is rarely a quick explanation, or even a sure “fix,” there are some ways to pinpoint behaviors that students and postdocs could change to improve their outcomes.   If you find yourself in this situation:

First, acknowledge that getting to the interview stage means you have desirable qualifications.  Sometimes job seekers lose sight of this fact when feeling frustrated with their search.  Sometimes that frustration can carry over into your interactions with future employers, and this is to be avoided if possible.  Remember instead: past interest from employers generally suggests that your application materials are well targeted to the jobs you seek.  

Evaluate all you are doing to prepare for your interviews. Are you researching the employers, deciding on what examples of accomplishments you want to share in the interview, clearly articulating your career goals and your potential, doing a mock interview to get some practice under your belt?  Can anything be strengthened at the preparation phase, before the interview actually takes place?

Consider if you are respecting the etiquette conventions of the interview process. Are you getting to your interviews early, dressing professionally, and greeting everyone pleasantly? Are you acting in a way that fits with the culture of each employer?  Do you ask interested questions, and express enthusiasm for the position and organization? Do you send a thank you note (or email) after each interview?

Do you take time at the end of each interview to consider how the process went? Reflect on what questions you answered well and what was unexpected or not handled smoothly.  In particular, questions about salary can be mishandled if the discussion leads the employer to believe you want much more than what they might have budgeted for the position.  What information did you get during the interview about the responsibilities of the position, or that might even indicate the interviewer’s experience of you? A few moments of analysis after the interview can help you in any future interview situation, and sometimes even help you shape any follow up during the rest of the selection process.

Do you know if or when your references are being contacted? Do you believe that you are getting strong support from your referees? (Someone who doesn’t speak highly of you can end up hurting your chances of getting an offer, “damning with faint praise.“)

Finally, remember that there are aspects to hiring that go beyond your interview performance. Sometimes there are inside candidates, changes to funding situations or priorities that shift during the hiring process.  Occasionally, the “fit” with the culture or future direction of the organization just isn’t there, even when you have the right skills for the job at hand.  

Whether or not you have yet to receive an offer, reflecting on some of the points above will undoubtedly improve your future interview experiences.  Ultimately, the best you can do as a job seeker is to be prepared, present yourself thoughtfully, and acknowledge that some rejection is part of most job searches, as is a lot of ambiguity.   At any time, if you want support in your job search, including talking about interview strategies, please make an appointment with Career Services advisorsWe are here to help!

Do you really have to talk about your weaknesses?

Dr. Joseph Barber

It is a hard question. You are pretty sure it is going to come up, but like most other people, you are probably not very comfortable with any of the answers you have been thinking about for this question. No-one wants to talk about weaknesses in an interview setting, after all. So, here are just some of the suggestions that I have for people thinking about this question.

First of all, there are different types of weakness question you might get an in interview, and some of the common ones include:

  • What is your greatest weakness?
  • If we spoke to your supervisor today, what would they say is your greatest weakness?
  • Based on the job description, what can’t you do, or where do you lack experiences or skills?
  • What are your skill competencies that you need to work on if you were selected for this position?

It is definitely a good idea to have a well-thought out answer that you might be able to use for these types of questions. Each of these questions is slightly different, and can be tackled in slightly different ways, but there are also some general approaches that can be useful for each one. Let’s start with the general advice first.

Pause, think, and respond: If you are asked the much nicer “what is your greatest strength?” question, then I would advise answering quickly and confidently, without much of a pause, and definitely without any “ummm-ing” or “ahhh-ing”. You should definitely know what the greatest (and most relevant) strength is that you bring to a job to which you are applying. In essence, the answer to this question is one of the main reasons you have for someone hiring you. When it comes to weaknesses, you don’t want it to seem like you have so many, and that they are so obvious, that you can immediately think of 4 or 5. Even if you have a well-rehearsed answer to this question, take a thoughtful moment before answering.

Don’t linger: For any negative-leaning question, your goal is to spend as little time as possible talking about negative aspects of yourself. Be able to talk concisely about your answer, and when you have said what you need to say, practice the art of not talking. Practice how to stop talking confidently. Practice being comfortable with a little bit of silence as the interviewer prepares to ask their next question. Your brain and mouth will be tempted to fill in silence with anything, and in most cases, this filler will make what might have been a great answer into a much more wishy-washy type of answer.

Don’t be a cliché: If your greatest weakness is one of the following, then you are probably coming across as a bit of a cliché, and not showing an employer that you can effectively self-assess your skills or develop as a professional:

  • You are a perfectionist
  • You work too hard on your projects
  • You are just never satisfied and always want to be better or do better
  • You have never really had any weakness
  • Kryptonite
  • Chocolate
  • Garlic

You want to identify an honest weakness, making sure not to pick an area that would be an obvious obstacle to you being able to perform the job for which you are interviewing. Think about tangible skills or knowledge areas…, because the trick to this type of weakness question is to be able to end you answer on a more positive, upbeat note.

End on a positive note: See…, I told you. Ending on a positive note does not mean saying “ahhh, but that actually means that it is also my greatest strength”. Your actual weakness might be a useful attribute in certain settings, but have you been able to work on it so that it is helpful (or at least not unhelpful) in all professional settings? If you end your weakness answer by saying that your weakness is something you hope to address in the future, and you’ll work hard on improving, then you are basically saying that the weakness you have identified is and will always be a weakness. After all, if you haven’t addressed this yet, what is going to change in the near future that will make it more likely that you will? So, your main goal is to show that you have been working on whatever weakness you have identified, and to provide an example of how this approach has allowed you to be successful in the work that you have done without the weakness holding you back.

I’ll end today by just mentioning some of the specific strategies you might be able to use to answer the four specific questions that I listed above. There is no right way to answer these questions, though, so incorporate this advice with all of the other advice you are sure to have read about when preparing for your interviews.

What is your greatest weakness? Try to actually answer the question “what WAS your greatest weakness?” by separating your weakness from you by time. You might say “when I first started by PhD I found that I wasn’t good at communicating my ideas to people from different disciplines, and it made it difficult for me to…”. Of course, now that you might be at the end of your PhD, you can say “…but since then, I have taken the opportunity to work in cross-functional groups to be able to better practice my ability to translate my work for others, and in my latest collaboration, I am working closely with researchers from three disciplines, and we have a successfully co-authored paper in press”. Even though you are not really answering the question being asked, I think this approach is close enough to satisfy the interviewers. Also, if they ask for one weakness, don’t give them four! I’ve seen this happen in several mock interviews.

If we spoke to your supervisor today, what would they say is your greatest weakness? For this question, you can’t really focus on what has happened in the past. You will need to think about what your supervisor might actually say, because they might actually say this in their recommendation letter too. In this case, pick something that your supervisor said that you could do better, rather than something that you do poorly. So, “my advisor recently told me that to be a better problem-solver I should try to incorporate even more perspectives into the way I look at the problem in front of me…”. Obviously, you’ll need to talk about some honest feedback you received relevant to you. The way to end this on a positive note is to talk about the ways you have been thinking about to do be better. So rather than just saying “…and I hope to work on this in the future…”, you might try to come up with a specific example of what you could to that would illustrate that you have given this some thought. You could also state that you really valued hearing this feedback from your advisor, because you respect their expertise and judgment, and that you believe that good mentoring is very important for professional development (again, only if you actually feel this). This has a positive feel to it.

Based on the job description, what can’t you do, or where do you lack experiences or skills? Don’t start off with “although I can’t do X and Y, I can do Z”. Instead, start off talking about being able to do “Z”. You could also mention that you are quick learner, and provide an example of this skill in action (both the learning and the application of that knowledge/skill). Talk about how much you are looking forward to working with and learning from your future colleagues and mentors to get up to speed on all of the skills and knowledge areas they are looking for.

What are your skill competencies that you need to work on if you were selected for this position? This isn’t actually such a negative question. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your understanding of what skills are needed for the position, what you know the organization already provides in terms of training, mentoring, hands-on experience, and so on, and for you to show that you are eager to grow as a professional within the role.

As always, feel free to schedule an appointment with an advisor if you have questions about how to answer tough interview questions like these. You’ll also want to schedule a 1-hour mock interview before your next actual interview – you will find it very helpful!