It’s the morning of the most important day of your life. Or it feels that way, at least. No, it’s not your graduation, your wedding, or the birth of your child. You’re about to interview for your dream job, and you’re stressed.
Staring down at your terribly uncomfortable shoes, you wonder why you even decided to crawl out of bed this morning.Your hands are clammy, your leg is shaking, and you can’t help but feel like you’re incredibly underqualified. It’s not true, of course, but those jitters have your mind all over the place.
It might feel overwhelming, but with a few tips to calm your nerves, you’ll be in a much better position to ace the interview. First, though, we need to get to the bottom of why we feel so much anxiety in the first place.
Why do we fear interviews?
Before we can conquer our fears, it helps to know why they exist in the first place.
“Whenever we face big moments like a job interview or public speaking, the fear-generating amygdala is trying to protect us,” says executive coach and leadership development coach Victoria Myatlyuk. “Unfortunately, this ancient part of the brain treats the eyes of the interviewer or the audience we are about to present to as a potential threat as if we were seen by and exposed to dangerous predators.”
According to Myatlyuk, as this is happening, our prefrontal cortex is hard at work coming up with reasons for our amygdala-based stress. “Dwelling on the cortex-generated explanation of the amygdala's reaction, we create even more cortex-based anxiety,” she says.
Hundreds or thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were actually constantly vulnerable to physical dangers, this reaction made sense. In the modern world, however, extreme reactions to non-physical stressors can have a debilitating effect. “Anxiety can get completely out of control and result in less productive behaviours, such as loss of real focus on the task in hand or the risk of catastrophizing or pre-empting the worst case scenario,” says neuroscientist Dr. Tracey Evans.
How to combat stress
Now that we recognize why we have stress, what can we do about it? Here are seven expert-approved tips to make sure you conquer those fears.
1. Identify and visualize
First thing’s first, in order to interview successfully, you need to define what it is you’re doing in your mind. Bring yourself down to earth and remind yourself of what it is you’re actually doing. You aren’t fighting a lion or running for your life from a typhoon. You aren’t facing anything that can physically harm you, and your life won’t be over if you don’t nail the interview. Remind yourself that at the end of the day, the people on the other side of the table are just that—people.
Visualize what the interview will look like as you prepare to go inside. Remind yourself that you’re there because you deserve to be interviewed; you are a capable and qualified candidate. The interviewers aren’t out to get you. “See yourself in the interview and feel confident,” Evans says. “Each time an intrusive thought enters this visualisation, such as 'I will not know the answer,' bat it away and re-focus on the interview.”
2. Clear your mind
While preparing in advance is important, in the final moments before your interview, don’t focus on cramming information into your head. Don’t try to memorize word-for-word responses, or commit the company’s mission statement to heart verbatim. There’s a point where final preparation causes more stress than it’s worth.
“Do not walk into the interview full of head chatter; it will not leave enough space for clear and concise responses to questions,” says Evans. “A mindful approach to the interview will be based on no expectations. Expectations feed anxiety often in a negative way, and this perpetuates the anxiety enhancing it to a level that becomes beyond one's control.”
3. Practice your main points
Although you shouldn’t cram information into your head at the 11th hour, practicing responses far in advance can help you feel more prepared.
“Use the amygdala's ability to learn from its own experiences and make new connections,” says Myatlyuk. “Combine positive emotions with the practice of mock interviews or presenting the information to friends and family to create new neural networks associated with the anxiety-triggering event.”
When practicing questions, focus on main ideas and highlights that you’d like to work into your answers. “You have to think about why you are going for the role and why you think you would be a good fit,” says Victoria Hepburn, a certified business transitions coach. “Take some time and write down these reasons by hand.”
If you have a special skill, you might not know exactly how you’ll work mentioning it in an interview question, but you might know you need to include it in a response somehow. Practice thinking on your feet as opposed to carefully formulating standardized answers.
“While presenting to friends and family, shift your focus to the subject matter of your talk and the excitement,” says Myatlyuk. “During mock interviews, focus on the value you're bringing to the table, think of it as a gift, a contribution to the team or organization.”
4. Harness the power of your anxiety
Your anxiety isn’t all bad. There are biological reasons you feel anxious, and they can be put to good use.
“A little bit of anxiety/stress is normal,” says Evans. “It is okay to feel anxious, but harness it with power! It is about mindful awareness of the process, balancing expectations, and taking control of the anxiety.”
Instead of ruminating over your anxiety, try focusing on your excitement over the opportunity. Your heart might be beating quickly out of fear, but if you can convince yourself that it’s because of an exciting new opportunity, you’ll be better equipped to go into the interview with confidence.
5. Try meditation
It might sound a bit extreme to bust out the yoga mat while in an interview waiting room, but there are more discrete ways to meditate.
“I work with my clients to use a centering practice regularly to calm nerves and connect with the interviewer,” says Hepburn. “Try an affirmation, Box Breathing, a Body Scan meditation, a Power Pose, using a mediation app exercise on Calm, Headspace, or Shine—whatever works for you is great. Practice it often so you can rely on it when under stress.”
6. Show that you deserve the job
You might believe that you’re vastly underqualified for the job. Maybe the description is looking for someone with five years of experience, and you only have three. While it’s never a good idea to lie about your experience or skills, it’s also not a good idea to limit yourself.
“In some industries, job descriptions can be exhaustive lists for the ‘perfect world’ candidate that often doesn't exist,” says Hepburn. “I've lost count of all the entry level job descriptions that say three years experience is desired which makes little sense.”
If you’re worried questions will be asked that you can’t answer, come up with a game plan.
“If you feel underqualified, be aware that you need to highlight your strengths and have a plan for what you'll do to stretch yourself to meet the demands of the role,” says Hepburn. “I've worked with software engineers who were interviewing for roles where they didn't know the programming language required. To show the hiring manager they could stretch to meet the challenge, they spent time building a simple project in the new language, shared it with the hiring manager during the interview, and referenced it in the thank-you note.”
7. Realize the stakes and recognize your value
Remind yourself that life will go on, no matter what. “Recognize that there is no actual life-threatening danger involved in the interview process or public speaking,” says Myatlyuk. Even if this job doesn't work out, believe that you will be a valuable asset to another company.
To do this, you have to believe in yourself as an employee. After all, why should an interviewer believe in you if you don’t have confidence in your own abilities?
“Whether it's a business presentation or networking outreach to learn more about a dream company, you have unique experiences and ideas that may be helpful to your audience,” says Hepburn. “Don't deprive them of your insight and positive energy. It could be exactly what they need to move forward in life or business.”
About our sources
Dr. Tracey Evans is a neuroscientist, biomedical scientist and brain health coach at Connections Health Coaching. Dr. Evans specializes in brain health coaching that aims to reduce disease risk, help clients maintain stress levels and improve overall health. She holds a BS in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from University of Bristol, and a PhD in Neuroscience from University of Plymouth.
Victoria Myatlyuk is an executive coach and leadership development expert. She helps current and aspiring female leaders achieve a level of success without compromising who they are and what is important to them. She is currently a fellow at Institute of Coaching, McLean/Harvard Medical School. Myatlyuk holds a BS in Accounting and Finance from City University of New York-Brooklyn College, and a MS in Taxation from Golden Gate University.
Victoria Hepburn, ACC is a certified business transitions coach, Amazon bestselling author and speaker based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Her company, Hepburn Coaching, specializes in helping professionals and business teams maximize business results in collaborative and fast-paced organizations using science-based brain training and career acceleration tools. Her new book, Pressure Makes Diamonds: Simple Habits for Busy Professionals to Break the Burnout Cycle, is available at victoriahepburn.com, Amazon and Audible.