How to Handle a Bad Job Interview

Can you recall a time when an interview didn’t go well? Many factors can result in a bad interview. Maybe you showed up late, were unprepared, didn’t connect with the interviewer, or let your nerves and anxiety get the better of you. It happens to the best of us. This post will cover techniques to turn a bad interview into a learning experience that improves future performance. Let’s begin!

My Bad Interview Story

I want to start by sharing my worst interview experience to date. I remember it vividly.

It was the summer of 2014. I took a big risk and moved to the Netherlands with no job lined up and excited about the prospect of living and working abroad. I was actively searching for R&D positions with global plastic product manufacturers.

My job search was extra challenging because I needed to convince a prospective employer to sponsor me for a work visa over a native Dutch citizen. Therefore, the pressure was high to make a strong impression.

I arrived on time for the interview. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got.

It was a panel interview with 3 people: the R&D Director, who would be my manager, the HR Manager, and an R&D Scientist, whom I would work with directly. Full disclosure – I hate panel interviews. I think they’re stressful, alienating, and give the feeling you’re being ganged up on.

Personal feelings aside, panel interviews rarely provide a fair assessment. They are often one-sided, with one interviewer dominating the questioning. One interview may react positively to your response, while another may see it as a red flag, making it confusing for you, the candidate, to know how you’re coming off to the interviewers.

I know I felt this way during my experience.

Things got awkward right away. Normally, I’m great at remembering people’s names, but today was different. I called the HR Manager the wrong name (I wasn’t even close), then mispronounced the R&D Manager’s name.

During the interview, I ended up completely ignoring the R&D Scientist. I didn’t do this on purpose, but the panel style made me anxious about where to look the whole time.

Taking notes helps me stay engaged and remember important details for later. That morning, I might as well have forgotten how to write. I was too slow and had to keep asking the interviewers to repeat things while they had to sit and wait for me to finish my notes awkwardly. Looking back, I shouldn’t have bothered taking any notes at all.

I couldn’t click with the interviewers. My brain went blank on multiple questions. I couldn’t articulate thoughtful or organized responses and replied multiple times with, “I don’t know.” A total conversation killer.

There was one particularly awkward moment when the R&D Director asked me to tell him about one of my most creative moments in a lab setting. After sharing my story, he said, “I don’t see the creativity in your example.” Instead of asking a follow-up question or clarifying my example, I got quiet and wanted to melt into the floor, Terminator 2 style.

At the end of the interview, when the HR Manager asked if I had any questions, I replied, “no.” I’ll never forget the look on her face that told me I messed up. At that point, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there as fast as possible. Yet, by doing so, I gave the impression I was not interested in the position.

Simply put, I made a lot of mistakes.

So, what do you do after a bad interview?

The best thing you can do after a bad interview is to use it as a learning experience to improve for future interviews (because there will be more).

  • Step back for a moment and reflect on what happened.

Bad interviews happen to all of us. It can be harder to pull yourself out of a self-defeating cycle if you are a high achiever or have imposter syndrome (or both).

Don’t give in to cynicism (easier said than done, I know) or let this experience take you away from your goals. Venting about the experience to a trusted friend, mentor, spouse, etc., is a great stress reliever and does wonders for making you feel less alone.

  • Send a custom thank you note to EACH person who interviewed you.

I believe writing a thank you note was the only reason I got a second interview with the company in the story above. This note is an opportunity to explain why you seemed off.

Multiple factors lead to bad interviews. If your poor performance was related to an outside distraction or a serious life event, feel free to mention it. You don’t need to over-explain or make excuses, but you can help them understand and look past what didn’t go well.

Remember, the note is a tool to remind the interviewer(s) of your skills, experience, and value. Learn more here.

  • Think about what went well.

It’s easy to agonize over everything that went wrong, but you must use the thank-you note to remind the interviewer(s) of your relevant skills, experience, and value.

Remember, there was a reason they selected to interview you in the first place. Remember if there were moments when the interviewer(s) reacted positively to something you said and emphasize those in your note.

  • Now, what went wrong?

Think about questions that tripped you up or made you freeze. Write them down so you can be prepared for future interviews.

Now, think about one thing you would change. Were you over or unprepared? Talk too much or too little? Forget to ask questions? Display a lack of confidence? Preoccupied with a personal matter?

  • Make a plan.

By understanding and owning what went wrong, you can use that information to improve your performance for future interviews. In the example I shared above, I wrote down the questions I struggled with and reflected on why the examples I shared were not good ones. Knowing this, I could better prepare myself to handle similar questions, share more engaging stories, and communicate my key talking points.

Here’s a helpful framework I teach in my interview coaching sessions to help my clients better organize and convey their thoughts:

Challenge: What challenge or problem did you face?

Action: What actions did you take to solve the problem?

Result: What happened after you took those actions?

  • Update your professional references.

Even if you bombed the interview, there is still a chance the employer could move forward with your candidacy. Therefore, it’s important to brief your references on how the interview went. Your references can help fill in the gaps on how you used specific skills on projects you led and worked on for them in the past.

This strategy can influence the interviewer’s perception of you and help them overlook what went wrong.

  • Keep applying.

Nothing else to add here other than a bad interview or two doesn’t define you or your value to prospective employers. Keep applying, interviewing, and staying focused on what you can control.

  • Bonus Tip: Ask for feedback.

Feedback can be valuable for helping you improve for future interviews and understand why you didn’t advance in the hiring process. This tactic can be a hit or miss.

Employers are not legally required to provide feedback. Some employers are willing to share details, while others are hesitant due to legal concerns that a candidate may interpret feedback as hiring discrimination.

A friend of mine, a recruiter, once experienced face-to-face harassment and intimidation by a candidate after she provided feedback and updates about a job opportunity for which he was not selected. Situations like this can give hiring professionals pause in sharing feedback.

Bringing It All Together

Bad interviews happen to everyone. Use them as an opportunity for improvement and make better choices, whether being more prepared with more engaging career stories or showing up more confident. Finally, be kind to yourself (easier said than done, I know). Job searching and interviewing are exhausting. If you reach a point where you need to take a break and can afford to do so, go for it. If that’s not an option for you, find other ways to take care of yourself, such as spending time with friends and family or immersing yourself in a hobby.

I’ve said it once and will continue to say it repeatedly. Focus on what you can control. Don’t stop your job search unless you need a recharge until you accept a job offer. By applying to other jobs that excite you, you’ll hopefully spend less time dwelling on this bad experience while improving your interview and communication skills and progressing towards your job search goals. You got this.

Scientech Resumes is dedicated to helping science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals find fulfilling work through targeted, branded, and keyword-optimized resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and other career marketing documents. Schedule a FREE 20-minute discovery session to get real-time feedback on your current resume and job search strategy, or connect with me on LinkedIn. Let’s get you where you want to go with greater results!

Kate Williamson

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