The Single Most Important Thing in Any Job Interview

In the film The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock is advised by a family friend that the one-word key to success is “plastics.” And what does it take to create plastics? Chemistry.

And that’s also what it takes to get the job in most cases. Chemistry. According to Wikipedia plastics are “polymers: long chains of atoms bonded to one another.” A lot like the workplace where different people are in effect bonded together to create something or produce a service of some kind.

That’s not to say that you don’t need some basic skills and/or experience for most jobs – but usually by the time you get to the interview, you’ve been screened for that at least to some extent. And it’s true that the employer will want to make sure you can do the job – and in jobs where there are specific high-level skills like in technology, you will be quizzed at a much deeper level.

But before you can get to any of that, there has to be a feeling that you would be a match for the company as well as the particular department interviewing you. And that feeling can be summed up in the word “chemistry.”

And it’s a two-way street. Not only is the employer trying to decide if you would be a fit for them, but you have to figure out whether you think the job would be right for you. You can get a lot of cues about the way a place operates and how you might be treated from the interview.

I’ve usually been pretty lucky when it comes to the chemistry thing in interviews. But there’s was that one interview a few years ago. Here’s the story:

I had heard about a job helping to improve public employment policies and, even though I hadn’t worked in a government agency in many years and wasn’t quite sure that was what I wanted, I decided to apply. I figured it was worth a shot. When I arrived at the office, my instincts went off immediately – something about the environment felt cold and not really a place I’d want to be, but still I shook it off and just put myself fully into interview mode. You always have to do that, no matter what else you’re feeling. It’s a little like acting: energy up, smile…the interview must go on!

There was a preliminary interview with someone who worked there already and it just clicked for us. She was delightful and I could see working with her. And she was genuinely enthusiastic about me when her boss walked into the room, telling him what a great interview we’d had so far. I was feeling pretty good about the job at this point. But when the boss walked in, even before the woman spoke so glowingly about me, he glanced at me briefly and in that instant I could see he wasn’t interested. Seriously – his look showed it all.

Now not all bosses are that transparent, but as he looked at me you could see his eyes deaden. Could it be that I’m in my 50s? Or maybe I just reminded him of someone he hated. I’ll never know. Anyway…we shook hands and he sat down across from me. And then he proceeded to give me one of the toughest interviews I’d ever had – more like a grilling! “Exactly how did you perform that analysis?” he asked, narrowing his eyes. Now this was a complex analysis involving lots of proprietary details, so I assumed he meant I should give him the basic steps. But almost with anger in his eyes, he said “I asked EXACTLY how did you do it. Give me details.” OK. So you get the point. This wouldn’t work for either of us. I tried for a bit longer since I always believe in giving things a chance, but we both knew it was over. Mercifully we admitted it after only 30 minutes.

Just like a blind date, the first few minutes of an interview can tell a lot. It’s a time to make the best impression possible and also watch for cues. Bosses are looking for people who show appropriate enthusiasm and a positive attitude. If you walk in with your head low and don’t even look the interviewer in the eye, this is a big turn off from the git go. Sure you’re nervous – that’s ok – but make an effort to come in looking like someone who at least believes they deserve the job. A firm (not painful) handshake (if the situation permits) and a warm smile as you say hello always helps.

When I interview people, I like them to be as natural as possible. Not that I’m telling you to take off your shoes and put your feet up on the desk (always a bad idea), but I need to see the real person behind the stiff, nervous interviewee so I’ll know if there really is chemistry. By the way…it’s ok to say you’re a little nervous if that helps you relax. You’ll see right away what kind of person you’re dealing with. If they smile, that’s a good sign. If they are turned off by your honesty, then that might reflect something about the company and whether you’d be comfortable working there. Of course it’s not quite that simple, so no matter what the reaction, take a breath, ramp up your attitude, and keep your best interview energy going. Still…watch those cues.

Some final tips from me:

  • Before you go into the room, stop, take a few deep breaths, and try your best to relax.
  • As some of the experts suggest, if you’re nervous about being interviewed, it really does help to practice a LOT with a friend or in a mirror ahead of time. I remember one time when I was asked to work with a woman who was incredibly nervous despite her excellent skills, and after about 3 separate sessions where I gave her some tough interviews and helped her know where she could be a little stronger (including that first impression) she got the job! I was thrilled for her.
  • Think of a few things that you’ve done in other jobs where you succeeded or helped improve the way things are done. If you prepare these ahead of time, you’ll have them ready to use at the right moment in the interview.
  • Think of your best qualities and worst ones in case you are asked to talk about them. Never really give a “worst” one of course. You can always try “I sometimes am a bit of a perfectionist but I’m learning when to let go (smile)” or “I’m sometimes a little shy about giving my opinion, but I’m getting better at it (smile) or “A few times I got so caught up in something I was working on my boss had to tell me to go home.” (no smile) Well…you get the idea. And if the interviewer presses further for you to come up with something really bad…don’t! Just say “I can’t think of anything other than what I mentioned.” (smile now)
  • Come prepared with some good questions that show you know something about the company or have really thought through the job itself and want to know more about what would be required.
  • Be present! I just heard Jennifer Hudson say this to Ellen DeGeneres when asked how she seemed to stay so calm at the Oscars. Basically it means stay in the moment, as they say in zen philosophy. Don’t start thinking about other stuff during the interview – like what they might ask or what you are or aren’t. Just shake off all those other thoughts and from the moment you enter the room, face each moment as it comes.
  • Show good energy (look alert and no slouching) and have a positive attitude.
  • Really let yourself believe that you deserve the job and can do it well. Most of the jobs I’ve held are jobs I had never done before. Don’t let yourself think that you don’t have what it takes even if you don’t have all the specific experience. If you have a brain and the determination to dig in and get the job done no matter what it takes, then you deserve to be in the interview.
  • If the interviewer actually says you don’t have the exact experience, your answer should somehow convey that there have been other times when you’ve been in a situation like that and you dug in, learned what you had to, and did the job well. Maybe you even became the expert after that. Be prepared with a specific example!
  • If the interview feels like it’s going badly, make a note of the cues you are observing and try to adjust. Is the interviewer looking bored? Don’t give up. Try to liven things up. Maybe try to fit in some of the really good things about yourself you prepared. It may be a lost cause, but you never know when you can recover a fumble.
  • Keep your answers clear and on topic. Look your interviewer in the eye when speaking and try to speak as if you were talking to a friend you like and respect. Just make sure you are talking about what they asked you. And don’t go on too long!
  • Leave with confidence, a warm firm handshake, and a smile.
  • And remember to follow up with a note as the experts suggest.

Chemistry is not necessarily about personality. You can be shy and still come off as a good employee who cares about producing top quality work. Good work habits and a feeling that you would not only be someone who comes through no matter what the challenge, but also great to work with on a daily basis go a long way in any interview.

But in the end, it’s still about the right match. And if it’s not there, please remember that does not reflect on your ability for this particular job or any other one. It really is about chemistry.

One last thought: Each interview for a job you don’t get is just practice for the right job – one where all the elements are in balance. So when you’re ready to start looking, get yourself out there with a solid resume, a great attitude, and your best interview skills – and don’t give up until you find the right match for you!


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Thank you for this great piece of advice! It was really useful. God knows I shrivel like a prune in front of a panel of interviewers. :D

    I have a question, however. I hope you can help me with it. I left my engineering job about 3 months ago. The reason is that I discovered I prefer people to numbers, and thus, I left to seek a new job. I believe successful people do not continue to do things that do not interest them. They move out of their comfort zone(and believe me, it was very comfortable at my old job). I had excellent working relationships at my old company and have made firm friends there. We parted on very amicable grounds.

    Thing is, I left after working for only 7 months and I do not know how to answer the dreaded “Why did you left your previous job?”. I have an interview next week for my dream job and I really need help!

    Thank you so much for even reading this!

    • You just answered your own question. LOL. ” I had excellent working relationships and parted on amicable grounds.To be successful you need to move out of your comfort zone and I am somebody who’s always interested in new challenges”. Then something to the affect that you’ll stick with this particular company and grow within the company etc.

      • Not sure who “me” is…but great advice! Thanks for the help, me.

        Linda, your words “I discovered I prefer people to numbers, and thus, I left to seek a new job. I believe successful people do not continue to do things that do not interest them” are a powerful and honest answer. Shows you know who you are and what you want. That alone sets you apart from the crowd. ;-)

        I wish you MUCH luck, Linda. Please let us know how it goes.

        ~ Ronnie Ann

  2. Linda, read your question because you have answere it entirely, and perfectly! Turning a negative, such as leaving a job, to positive, in illustrating you are someone who doesn’t settle and knows themself

  3. I like that JB! Good answer. Thanks!

    Ronnie Ann

  4. ok sooo… i think i had all of these “qualities” when i was interviewed for a very easy, entry level job (movie theater conessionist/usher) and i had good answers too! but i dont know. everything was going good, they seemed like to me (i guess i did kind of “suck up” one time… and i couldnt think of any questions afterward) i was confident and smiling, and the general manager even noticed how calm i was! ( i was really nervous at first, but then i got used to it… also im a pretty good actor :))) im 16 and this would be my first job (they know that). im realllyyy hoping they call me back (its been a week today interview on monday the 22 now its the 29.. they asked if it’d be ok if they called on thursday the 25 but they didnt and i understand that they are super busy) ive tried calling this past saturday (he wasnt there) and sunday (he was busy) and i think they are inteviewing more candidates today….. anyway i guess my question is, since i didnt relly have any questions at the end and i may have been a “suck up” and i now remember things that i should’ve said at first, do you think they will call me back…ever? i thought they liked me and to me we had fun…. but maybe im all wrong… <:(

    • Hi Livi!

      Welcome to the horrible but also wonderful world of job search. It sounds like you did well. Often energy and attitude is as or more important than your exact answers. As for not having questions at the end…although I hope you get this job, next time come prepared. It’s NOT a deal killer, but shows you are thinking about the company and what your job might be like on a daily basis – or anything else you might ask related to the field.

      You gave it your best. You followed up. If you haven’t sent a thank you note, please do so and let them know again how much you enjoyed meeting them and you’d love the job. Other than that, you need to keep looking and hope they still get back to you.

      BTW…sucking up would mean you’re being phony. If that’s true…don’t ;-) Just be yourself. But if you think smiling and being nice is sucking up…please don’t worry. People are looking to hire people they’d like to work with day in and day out. So reliable, competent, intelligent and above all NICE is very important.

      Good luck, Livi!

      • thanks!! i think i had good attitude and energy (at least for my standards)
        by sucking up i mean i complemented the general manager saying: “i can see it” -it being that she seems like she was young at heart after i asked how she became a manager at this large corporation (i didnt have any questions at the end!!.. and i could tell she was young at heart) but i didn’t say that… they also chuckled bc they thought i was being phony…. idk. maybe i was… ://
        so you think, even after almost two weeks, i should still send in a thank you note? should i send a note and call… or just send a note with a reminder im still interested?… im thinking its the “thank you and im still interested” note….
        anyway, thanks for the advice and good lucks, i appreciate it very much!!!

        • sorry, i forgot to mention that i am looking for a good solid, two year job till i have to go off to college….. unfortunately i forgot to mention that……. should i say that in the note? also, should i hand it in to them personally and/or leave it with someone? mail it?
          …. maybe i should just look at the pages about how to composite a thank you note….lol.
          thanks again!!

  5. Hi again Livi,

    I think your own advice is good: I’m thinking it’s the “thank you and I’m still interested”
    note….” (Check carefully for typos.)

    No guarantee, but nothing to lose at this point. And a little sucking up is ok, even if they chuckle. Just keep it as real as possible.

    Fingers crossed for you. Please let us know how it goes.

  6. Livi,

    Keep the note simple. You can work that other part out once you have a job. ;-) The rest I leave up to you. There are no rules…only best guesses.

  7. hi again, i did a follow up call but i didnt get the job because i wasnt as available. :( at least i know what to say next time!! thanks for your help!!

  8. Oh…I’m so sorry Livi. )-; But yes…each time we can learn from something makes us all the stronger in our career down the road. I think you’re great.

    I just wrote about you in my latest post and was totally rooting for you. But better to find a job that meets your schedule. Hope you get just what you want!

    Good luck, Livi!

  9. I love this blog. This is very realistic and down to earth advice for people and this article about chemistry is spot on. I think this is also something the interviewee should consider as well when evaluating an employer’s offer. Potential employees should trust their gut when confronted with chemistry they know probably isn’t right.

    I had a series of interviews recently for a state government contractor managing a large and growing contact center. During the final interview, which lasted a little over an hour, the interviewer became much more at ease with me and proceeded to spend roughly 60% of the interview bad-mouthing the person currently holding the position I was applying for. I found myself considering a scene in the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strike Back. Darth Vader addresses an Admiral who has failed to meet his objectives, “You have failed me for the last time Admiral,” Says Vader while the Admiral drops dead under the lethal gaze of his superior. Vader then turns to the man’s subordinate (who just watched his boss die) and delivers his promotion, “Captain Piett, …. you are in command now Admiral!” The implication, of course, is clear. You’d better do a good job or you’ll end up like this guy.

    I had to wonder, what would this guy be saying about me to the next interviewee 3 months into the job? How would this guy speak about me to other employees and managers? Did he have an unrealistic sense of what should be expected? Do I really want to work for the Dark Lord of the Sith? I quickly lost “that loving feeling” about the hiring manager, despite his chummy demeanor toward me. If the honeymoon didn’t even last past the interview stage I doubted I would find much happiness in the job.

    I left the interview knowing I was going to receive an offer on a hand-shake but questioning whether I should accept the position. Despite having been out of work for awhile I had great reservations about accepting a position with someone who was sending up such serious red flags (this was just one among many). Then the offer came. It was far below market value for the position described. This made the decision to decline very easy, especially in light of the “chemistry” of the situation.

    • Excellent instincts and move, Mike. Chemistry is so important to both a successful job search and success in the job. As I was reading your comment, I kept thinking about what kind of recommendations this manager would give, both to the current incumbant and to the next person in the job.

      Keep trusting your instincts!

      Work Coach Team Captain

  10. I have a “behavioral based” interview on Friday for an insurance company. I am having trouble coming up with ways to prepare for it.. I have a few examples of certain situations where I have excelled, but I worry I will end up sounding redundant or unqualified if they ask for more than I can come up with. Also, do you have any advice for trying to SHOW that while I have not worked in an office environment in a few years (currently I am a waitress), I still have the skills I previously gained? It’s a fantastic job, and something I have been looking for for awhile, but interviews and interviewers make me so nervous!! Thanks in advance for your help!

    • Since you are currently a waitress, you might want to bring some samples of the kind of work you did in the past that would be relevant to this job. Create and bring one or two samples of your work – totally fictional! Maybe letters to clients, to adjustors, or to carriers, incident reports, or whatever would be relevant and appropriate for the person doing this job.

      If you create work samples, be sure those sample are fiction! Don’t include any person’s or company’s real name. You may not need them, but if there is a question which seems to be aimed at understanding how well you could do an office job, you can show these samples of your work.

      For more information about behavioral interviews, see these posts:
      * What is a behavioral interview?
      * Behavioral Interviews

      Advice from Rich DeMateo in the 2nd article above:
      Be confident. Breathe slowly. Smile. These three things will go far in your interviewing, especially during a Behavioral Interview.

      Good luck with your job search!

      Work Coach Cafe Team Captain

  11. While I have worked with older people seeking to return to the workforce and I’ve shared various ways they can “manage” a hole in their jobs (skills resume, taking a relevant course to make them seem up to date and able to offer the most contemporary perspective/etc., volunteering in a relevant place they can talk about in an interview, cover letter, etc.), I wonder what other folks suggest as a way of working with a hole in one’s work experience due to child rearing or unemployment.


  12. I graduated college last December and still can’t find great work. I worked at 2 food service jobs but can’t put the last one on my resume because it was so bad and I’m pretty sure if anyone called my former boss he’d say horrible things. I was basically set up from the beginning, rude interview, took it coz I needed something, but he never gave me W-2′s, was treated like crap and talked about in Spanish as if I didn’t know and my boss once gave me my check with 0′s as my ssn which made me more suspicious. I decided to quit before I was fired. For the first time in a long time I had 2 interviews in 1 week.

    One interviewer made me feel kinda crappy by asking why my last job was in 2011 (because I refuse to bring up my last job a few months ago this year) and although the interview seemed to go well towards the end, I basically told her I’ve been looking for a job before I graduated college. I don’t know if that was a good enough answer. I’m not lazy, and really did not want to quit those jobs but I can’t find any work (I apply to jobs everyday) and don’t know what I should say to deflect the crappy fast food jobs. I have a really good resume other than that but some interviewers seem to focus on the most recent. Do you have any advice?

    • Jen,

      If I hear you correctly, you’ve been in the job market for ten months. That’s not an eternity, even though it may feel like it. Of the last job, I think you should mention it — but state only the facts without elaboration. I left because based on all signs I saw — the company was paying me under the table and not following state laws. I did not receive a W-2 and my Social Security Number was not listed on my paycheck. As I did not feel comfortable with this arrangement, I resigned the position voluntarily and did not list the job on my resume since it was a short time.

      As much as possible, steer the conversation in interview to the job you are being interviewed for.

      Good luck,

  13. I have applyed for over 30 positions – qualified for during the last two years. I am very discuraged – after using career services to make my resume/cover letter better, I thought a year ago I would have an offer. However 100 to 200 applicates are competing each time and even though qualified – never made it to an interview stage. Finally, I was invited to an interview last week ~ after all of the waiting, working, job hunting I thought this day would never come ~ I was so nervous that I was shaking horriblly the first few minutes – I can critize myself by saying that I talked too much or that I did too much complementing them on their work/business. I left uncertain. The decision was made today at noon and HR said they would call me today. They didn’t and that could be because they called the applicant they wanted first. I don’t know what to do at this point.

    • Patty,

      Give it a little more time. It ALWAYS takes time after a decision has been made.

      On the job search overall, I really recommend that you get more help on your resume, cover letter, and career story — I’d like to see you getting more interviews. Is there anywhere you can volunteer or work on a temporary basis so you will have something on your resume to show that you have worked?

      Also make sure you are having everything you turn in proofread.

      Be careful, and good luck.

      All the Best,

  14. I want to say how useful this site is.
    I went for my second interview this morning for a job I really wanted but I honestly can’t read the interviewer if the interview went well or bad. He was going to be the boss (he is British by the way) and even though I can see myself working with him I am not sure the feeling is mutual. The not so good- he seemed a little bored at some point, though he did smiled and nodded sometimes and he didn’t quite ask me ‘personal’ questions- as in what I am like as a person which was surprising. He also didnt quite have follow up questions. The good- he prepped me about his boss, another guy I would be working with, on his personality. And that he would get back to me by this week (good or bad news). I also wasnt sure if I gave the answers he was looking for. This wait would be so excruciating!

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Eileen,

      Thank you for the kind words! We hope to help.

      We Americans don’t read “Brits” very well, sometimes, and I think that the reverse is true, too. So, as you have noticed, it’s hard to tell whether or not the interview went well.

      Overall, I think it sounds relatively promising, but I hope you are still looking and not waiting for this one to come through (or not). Often, the wait between interviews and offers is much longer than either side expects, so it’s good to have other opportunities pending to keep you distracted and to increase the probability that you will land a job sooner.

      Good luck with your job search!

  15. I have my first major interview next week. I am very nervous and it is in a different state where I live on. (I am afraid we won’t connect since we are from different environments) I don’t want to mess it up. It is an engineering job and I don’t have a great GPA but I did meet the qualifications. That is why I would like to surprise them with other skills I have. I have had an internship before and I think that might help me. I am not sure what to answer if they ask me about my GPA. I did work and go to school and it was pretty tough for me. Do you have any advise? Thank you.

  16. I lost my job four years ago when my company went out of business. The company closed it’s doors after 31 years in business, mainly due to a.) the economy and b.) bad business decisions on the part of the owner and upper management.

    Initially I was frantically looking for a job but the longer I was unemployed, the more I realized how much I enjoyed being a stay at home mom. Fast forward 4 years and I need to find a job now. I have an interview this week and I know the question will come up “why have you been out of the job market for so long”

    Any advice? Thank you

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Simply state that you were laid off when your former employer went out of business (not fired!). And, you discovered that being a stay-at-home mom was good for your family. Now, your children are in school (or out of school or whatever is appropriate), and it is time for you to re-enter the workforce.

      No bad messages here. You were able to take time for your family, needed to take time for your family, and you now are able to return to work. Then, ask a question of the employer or interviewer, to move the discussion along to the next topic.

      Good luck with your job search!

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