Artwork by: Katya Vakulenko
What not to say in an interview is as important as what you do say. This guide will help you avoid things you shouldn’t say in a job interview — with tips on what to say instead to show you’re the best person for the job.
What you say in an interview can help a potential employer determine if you’re the best fit for the position. Being prepared can help you show your value to the hiring manager, along with doing your research on the company (and dressing the part), but it’s also important to stay positive, concise, and professional.
In this blog, we’ll discuss common interview mistakes and some ideas on what to say instead to avoid any potential “red flags” and increase your chances of getting the job you desire.
In this article, we’ll cover:
Things you should never ask
Examples of what you should say
Focus on the positive
Even if you’re nervous, never speak negatively about yourself. Always talk about things you can do and how you can add value to the company. Don’t focus on your weaknesses: your answers should project confidence and positivity.
It’s also important to never speak negatively about a former employer. This shows a potential new employer that you can remain positive and professional no matter the circumstances (and that you won’t badmouth them down the road!).
Focus on the positives that the new company has to offer.
Put yourself down, or focus on what you can’t do.
Highlight your skills and positive attributes.
Complain about a lack of opportunities in your current position.
“While I appreciate the opportunities my current employer has provided, I am looking to utilize the skills I’ve developed over the last six years and apply them to a leadership position. Unfortunately, my current employer isn’t offering any opportunities for growth, and has no plans to in the immediate future.”
Take a moment to find an answer
It’s impossible to know everything or prepare for every single question you might be asked. Is it okay to say “I don’t know?” or will it ruin your chances of getting the job? It’s a tricky situation. Instead of saying “I don’t know” and risk looking unprepared, use this opportunity to show off your critical thinking skills and your ability to problem-solve. Ask the hiring manager if you can have a minute to think about your answer, ask them for additional information before formulating your answer, or even for a pen and paper or a glass of water.
“That’s an excellent question. Thank you for that. Do you mind if I take a moment to think about it?
Don’t be the first to bring up salary, benefits, and schedules
Interviews are about finding the right person for the job. This is the time to show why you’re that person and to talk about your background, skills, and experience. Unless the interviewer brings them up, avoid talking about salary, benefits, vacation, or schedules. Generally, you should wait until they make you an offer before you negotiate these things.
Avoid using “what’s in it for me?” questions. Potential employers want to know what you can do for them and why you’re the best person for the job. Making demands too early in the interview process makes you look like a less-than-desirable candidate.
Instead of directly asking about salary or benefits, you can bring it up indirectly at the end of the interview. This lets them know you have questions but doesn’t put them on the spot.
“I’m very excited about this opportunity, and I’d like to discuss any compensation and benefits issues in our next meeting.”
Don’t deflect a question
Obviously, your interviewer has a copy of your resume and presumably has reviewed it. If they ask you something that you’ve included in your resume, don’t dismiss the opportunity to elaborate. Brushing it off and saying “It’s on my resume” tells the hiring manager you’re not invested in this opportunity or that you don’t have confidence in your abilities. This is a great time to add some context to your answer and give specific examples to show how your skills and experience are a good fit for the position.
“I have a degree in English from Monmouth College. All of my courses required extensive analytical reading, imaginative problem-solving, and extensive research skills, which led to my proven ability to negotiate and work efficiently in a team setting to present ideas and information. This helped prepare me for a career in sales management by teaching me communication and active listening skills. I am also detail-oriented and able to effectively explain complex details and ideas.”
Watch your mouth
Professionalism is the key to success in any interview situation, and this includes your use of language — avoid colloquialisms, slang, vulgarity, or “filler words” like “uh” or “um.” And remember to keep your overall language G-rated.
Make sure to rehearse potential answers ahead of time. This will help you slow down, give you time to collect your thoughts, and focus on what you want to say.
Conversely, you don’t want to be a jargon machine or use too many abstract, complex words. This will allow the interviewer to concentrate on your skills, experience, and information. This emphasizes clarity over formality, which is especially important if the person interviewing you isn’t an expert in your field.
Filler words imply a lack of self-assurance, so take the time to prepare for the interview, which will help you project poise, confidence, and expertise.
Never fly blind
A major no-no for any interview is not actually knowing anything about the company you want to work for. Never say, “I didn’t research your company.” That is a huge red flag for interviewers because it tells them you’re not serious about the opportunity. It is vital to research the company as well as the position for which you’re interviewing. Do your best to have a solid grasp of the company’s mission statement, values, and what they actually do.
“I researched your company, and I was particularly impressed by how you provide employees the opportunity to volunteer to help the community. I prioritize using my skills and experience to help those in need, and I was wondering what specific organizations the company has supported and what opportunities to volunteer the company has offered in the past.”
Do your homework
You should demonstrate that you have researched the position you’re interviewing for. At some point, the interviewer will probably ask if you have any questions. Be ready with at least three pertinent questions. This will show that you’ve done your homework and that you’re enthusiastic and serious about the position.
Here are some examples of job-specific questions you could ask:
What are the qualities someone needs to have to be successful in this role?
What are some challenges a person in this position (or team) might encounter?
What is the potential career path for someone in this role?
Can you share any insights about the team I’d be working with?
Don’t get personal
Nerves are no excuse. Make sure to avoid the dreaded “TMI'' at all costs. Even in the most casual environment, it’s possible to be too casual, and this is not the time to discuss that your sweater is too itchy, how you had a wild time in Daytona, or how your “famous lemon bars” gave everyone at your current job food poisoning. Even everyday, seemingly benign topics such as marital status or family matters should be off-limits unless the information is relevant to your position.
Instead, use specific examples and professional anecdotes to demonstrate your qualifications and stand out from the rest of the candidate field. Interviewers want to know that you can do the job, whether you can work in a team, and how you can bring value to the company.
“Let me give you an example of a time when I led my team to meet our goals…”
Avoid clichés and the illusion of perfection
No one is perfect, and interviewers don’t expect you to be. While you absolutely want to be prepared for the interview, it’s also important to be sincere and genuine. Avoid the use of clichés in your answers. Be honest, and demonstrate what makes you unique. Instead of saying, “I care too much about my work,” try to use an experience that allowed you to learn and grow in your role.
It’s also okay to admit you’re not infallible. Candidates who believe that they’ve never made a mistake may be unable to see themselves objectively, might not take responsibility for their work, or are just not team players.
“In my most recent position, I would, from time to time, take on too many tasks and find myself overburdened. While I don’t like to say, “That’s not my job,” I learned that it is all right to delegate tasks so that the team could achieve our goals efficiently and on time.”
Don’t offer blind ambition
Ambition is good — it shows you’re motivated and committed to your career. However, most hiring managers want employees who are going to stay with the company for a while, and if they think this job is just a stepping stone for you on your way to bigger and better things, they’ll probably take a pass. Interviewers are interested in stability and want to know that you plan to stay put for a while.
You also don’t want to be too aggressive in your interview answers. If the interviewer asks, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” you probably don’t want to answer with “In your job,” or “I want to be your boss.” Keep the ambition in check for the moment, and focus on how your current skills and background align with the new position.
“I’ve had the opportunity to supervise a direct report in my current role. So, in the next few years, I would like to continue to develop my leadership and management skills, and be in a position where I can lead a dynamic team.”
Some things should go without saying, but sometimes they get said anyway. But as Benjamin Franklin said, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place but … leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” Here is a list of things you really need to “leave unsaid” in an interview:
“Sorry I’m late.”
“I’m so nervous.”
“Excuse me, I have to make a phone call.”
“I really need this job.”
“This isn’t my ‘dream job.’”
“How soon do we get a vacation?”
“Do you mind if I chew gum?”
“I’m going through a rough time right now.”
“So, did I get the job or not?”
Stay positive. Focus on your abilities and achievements.
Never say, “I don’t know.” Use this opportunity to utilize your ingenuity and critical thinking skills.
Avoid discussing salary, benefits, and schedules until you’ve received a job offer.
Keep your answers professional, and avoid slang, filler words, and overly-technical jargon.
Don’t be too casual. Keep your focus on your professional accomplishments.
Avoid clichéd answers or the illusion of perfection.
Let the interviewer know that this position is important to you, and not just a weigh-station to something more important.
Jennifer Inglis is a freelance writer and content creator with extensive professional expertise in advertising, media analysis, teaching, writing, and literature. Prior to working for Career.io, Jennifer was a public school teacher, teaching courses in college and career readiness, writing, and public speaking. Jennifer has a master’s degree in Teaching, and is the author of two published novels.