When I was still in the magazine business, I commissioned a study with an organization of human resource managers about the potential pitfalls during a job interview. It revealed that the decision not to hire is often made within the first five to fifteen minutes of an interview. You need to instantly impress with your promptness, clothes, hair, handshake, body language and manner.
But you're still not over the hump, of course. Next, you must prove you're the one. Unfortunately, even a strong candidate can blow it with one bad comment. Here are some of the doozies I have heard over the years.
1) "My favorite magazine? Glamour, I guess."
There's nothing wrong on the surface with that answer, but the person who said it was applying to be my assistant when I was running, duh, Cosmopolitan. You might assume she was guileless and just couldn't utter a lie, but I think she was actually incredibly nervous and blurted out an answer that, though true, she instantly regretted.
My recommendation for every job interview, no matter how senior you are, is to rehearse. Jot down possible questions -- standard stuff as well as far-out ones (use your imagination) -- and role play with a good friend. But change your answers up a little each time so they won't sound canned during the interview. Even if you get thrown a few curveballs, rehearsing will up your comfort level so you'll be better able to deal with those.
2) "I'd like to be involved in some aspect of magazines -- editorial, or maybe marketing."
I heard many variations on this over the years ("articles or fashion," "fashion or photo," etc.) and that kind of response guaranteed I'd cut the session real short. It's not the interviewer's job to help you sort out how the company and/or field works. Nor is she there to help you decide on a career path. Never seem ambivalent or unfocused. Avoid the word "or."
3) "Does the company offer childcare?"
That may be something you definitely have to find out, just as you need to know about the 401K plan and vacation time. But don't solicit that information from a prospective boss during the initial interview. You need to be zero in on the job and what it entails, not the benefits and perks. You can get to those details when you're a finalist. Also, you can learn certain key details from the company website and then clarify before accepting an offer.
4) "I spent the last year traveling through Asia, and what I really want, I've decided, is to work in Manhattan in the magazine business."
Comments like this can sound very self-indulgent. In general, interviewers don't care about your moments of awakening and/or burning needs. They want to know what you can do for them.
5) "Is that a picture of your son?"
This was asked while the candidate -- for a deputy editor job -- was looking at a picture on my desk of my husband!!! Ouch! I tried not to be insulted and fought the urge to schedule a facelift (in my defense, a nasty case of pinkeye had necessitated I ditch my contacts that day and don an 11-year-old pair of glasses). But I also knew that I'd never be comfortable with that woman in my presence.
There are a couple of lessons here: Don't ask anything personal of the interviewer, even the most innocuous-seeming thing. And don't plunge into unknown terrain on your own because it's easy to slip into a sinkhole. In fact, it's probably smart to adhere to a variation on an old rule among trial lawyers: Never ask a question that you don't (pretty much) know the answer to.
6) "You're so cute, I wish I could wrap you up in a ribbon and take you home."
The would-be columnist who said this was trying to be cute herself -- and charming and gutsy -- and I appreciate that desire in a candidate. But the only person someone my age wants to hear that from is maybe George Clooney. Be careful about acting too familiar, especially if you are a member of Gen Y being interviewed by a Gen Xer or baby boomer.
7) "I wouldn't want to have to get coffee. That's not the kind of job I'm looking for."
This was said to a colleague of mine, but it's stayed with me. The girl lost the entry-level PR job, even though her writing test was the best. When you're just starting out, you will probably be expected to do some grunt work for a while. Get used to the idea -- or lose out.
8) "No, I think you've answered everything."
This is a very bad response to the frequently-asked "Do you have any questions?" but I heard it dozens of times over the years, often from otherwise good candidates. Always come to an interview with at least three or four thoughtful, nuanced questions that the interviewer probably won't touch on upfront.
9) "I'm not sure where I want to be in five years. Uh, maybe writing a novel."
When I was in my thirties and became a boss for the first time, I read that you were always supposed to ask a job candidate where he saw himself in five years (yeah, dumb question). The ideal hire was a person who wanted to be you someday -- and was gutsy enough to say so. But when I asked a young David Granger, now the brilliant editor-in-chief of Esquire about his plans, that was the answer he gave during his interview with me.
But I hired him anyway. Proof that when you are really right for the job, a smart interviewer will ignore certain gaffes on your part.
And what was the best thing someone said to me in an interview? It was always a variation on: "I love this magazine and I'd be thrilled to work here."