In this period of economic uncertainty, it will be even more important for job seekers to make the most of every interview they go on. Asking for feedback on your presentation skills is one way to maximize the interview experience and speed up your search.
I never once found out why I didn't get jobs I interviewed for in my early twenties, and there were many jobs I did not get. I went on at least ten job interviews in a period of two years at such locations as Cosmopolitan magazine, the Metropolitan Opera and the French Film Office. I cried when I received the rejection letters in the mail and wearily plowed forward with my search. Instead of seeing those letters as an opportunity, I viewed them as a dead end. There are some people who get every job they apply for. I was not one of those people. Did I answer the questions poorly? Was I not wearing the right outfit? Did my qualifications not measure up for the position? I remained completely in the dark about why I didn't get a job when for all I know it was given to someone's niece or nephew.
It was not until earlier this year when I spoke to Leslie Warner, an alumni career counselor at Tufts University, did it occur to me to ask for feedback. I had interviewed for a position with a local university when a letter arrived nearly a month later thanking me for the interview but stating another candidate had been chosen. I was disappointed. Since this was a job I could see myself doing, Leslie suggested I call the hiring manager for feedback. I had not heard a more terrifying suggestion in a long time.
My main fear thinking about asking for feedback was that I might hear a painful truth about my presentation skills. What if I was awkward? Or said something that turned off the entire committee. To make it less personal and easier to go through with, I tried to think of the interview as a sales presentation, and one I was looking to improve upon for the future.
Leslie coached me on what to say: "I really enjoyed meeting you and was very excited about this opportunity. I would welcome any feedback you can offer to help strengthen my applications in the future." While a person may not be willing to put such feedback in writing, she pointed out, they might be willing to give you helpful suggestions over the phone.
Another approach could be: "I want to be sure I'm making the best possible presentation since I'm excited about this type of opportunity." If the response is general or vague, you could persist with, "Given I may be in a similar situation in the future, would you have any feedback about the actual presentation of my skills and experience?"
It took me three weeks to speak with the director for the position, to the point where I almost gave up. I wasn't dying to put myself through this kind of torture anyway. I tried to reach her on the phone at random times but she was never available. I finally realized that if I was serious about my quest for feedback I needed to set up a time with her to speak. I sent her an email saying I was hoping to speak with her briefly; she responded right away saying to call her that Monday. With a quick pep talk so I wouldn't chicken out, I looked at my script above and placed the call.
The information I received was much better than expected. The director said that the only reason I was not hired was because there was an internal person already working in the position before it went full-time. I had great energy and excellent answers to their questions. In short, I did nothing wrong and could continue doing what I was doing. What a relief! She even suggested I apply for a position that she knew of and said she would immediately send off an email on my behalf to find out if it was still available.
It turns out, the rejection was not really a rejection of me at all. I was incredibly grateful for this information. I could move forward with my search with confidence knowing I was on the right track.
On the flip side, I had the opportunity to hire two summer interns this year and met with six or seven talented college students about the openings in the spring. I winced at some of the obvious interviewing mistakes these students made, seeing my younger self in them. A number of them did not have any questions to ask when it was their turn, one or two were dressed way too casually for a job interview, and only one sent a proper thank you letter following the interview. As someone interested in helping to develop young leaders, I would have gladly provided gentle feedback to these students if any of them had called or emailed to ask for it. None of them did. I don't blame them because it takes a lot of courage to do so and is not commonly known as an option that is available.
There is something liberating about the experience of asking for feedback. I was able to face my fear and come out okay on the other side. I discovered that the job interview process doesn't end when another candidate is chosen. In my early twenties I might have spared myself a lot of pain and disappointment if I had received some guidance about interviewing. Sometimes, it turns out, the best information arrives after the interview. With this outlook nothing is wasted -- even the so-called rejections along the way.