What I Learned From a Dozen Unsuccessful Job Interviews

A few months ago, I ran into an old high school classmate at the grocery store, because that’s where “adults” run into each other. We hadn’t communicated in six years, so I found it odd that the first thing I noticed was how professional she looked. There I was in a Forever 21 tank top and pair of yoga pants while she donned a blazer, long-sleeve shirt and pair of slacks. It was six o’ clock on a Monday evening, so she’d been working all day.

And what about me? I’d been unsuccessfully applying for jobs throughout the morning and afternoon, my monotonous, lonely Monday routine. Though every interview request made me hopeful that I was one step closer to landing something, I’d been let down enough times to stop getting excited about my leads.

I’ve grown to dislike everything about entertainment business job hunting, from the silly cover letters employers require you to write (but probably never read) to the term “job hunt” itself. I know the drill by heart, having gone on 13 interviews in the past two months and only received two offers (for paid internships, nonetheless, but I’ll divulge more about that later) out of the hectic ordeal. You may be wondering why you should trust the advice of someone with a dozen disappointing interviews under her belt, but I’ve learned a ton along the way, including what not to do (obviously). Here’s what I got out of the grueling, brutal and often demoralizing job interview experience. I wouldn’t wish it on any of you, but I really hope I can ease the process in some way.

Interviewers can tell when you’re desperate

I applied for around 50 jobs before companies started calling me in for preliminary interviews, so by that point, I was so thrilled to even get a response that my desperation and eagerness were impossible to tone down. I was hungry for any opportunity without even fully knowing what I’d be getting into, and I didn’t play it cool at all. DON’T DO THIS. Don’t be over-eager, try to play it cool, take a second before responding to emails, take a breath before talking about how much you want the job.

It doesn’t help to be unemployed when looking for work, as you’re a much more appealing candidate when already working. Of course, someone who isn’t employed has more at stake, but employers don’t hire based on applicants’ need for money. So you need to make the best of the situation, play up what you have been doing (freelance projects, internships) and what you’re learning, and, let me say this again—play it cool.

But sometimes you have an unfair interviewer

Interviewees are constantly worrying about their own behavior and choosing their words carefully, but every once in a while, it’s not their fault if the meeting takes a turn for the worse. One of my first interviews seemed to be going well until I was asked what TV shows I liked. After I listed Lena Dunham’s Girls, the interviewer spent a solid three minutes criticizing what I’d just said.

“I hate those women more than anything. They’re awful, awful human beings,” she said in between bouts of laughter. “Sorry, I’m so viscerally upset by your answer that I can’t even remember what I was supposed to ask you next. God.” Needless to say, I wasn’t moving forward after that. I could tell you to be careful what you say during interviews, but you never really know what’s going to set off a stranger. Dunham has her fair share of haters, but I didn’t think throwing her name out there would screw me over. Like I said, you just never know with people. And that’s okay—much of successfully working with people has to do with chemistry and if you don’t have it, there’s nothing you can do to make it happen and it most likely wasn’t the best situation for you anyway. In those situations, you probably dodged a bad-job bullet.

Don’t get your hopes up, especially when you’re told you’re at the front of the line

A couple prospective employers were very encouraging during my interview, leading me to walk out the door feeling good about the meeting. A talent agent looking for an assistant told me I was at the “front of the line” and I would be hearing from her shortly. When a week went by without a word from her, I called HR for an update on my status. She said the agent was still deciding, and sure enough, I never heard back again. Something similar happened when I interviewed for an executive assistant at a production startup. The men interviewing me said they had a “really good feeling” about my qualifications and that I was miles ahead of the competition.

It took a lot of effort not to get my hopes up, but of course I did, so you can imagine how bummed out I was to have all my followup messages go ignored. A paranoid relative urged me to check my references, as it seems odd to receive ample praise only to be shut out sans explanation, but the sad truth is people change their minds and don’t owe anyone answers. And also people don’t answer emails. They really don’t.

Follow-up carefully

This is something I actually think I did right the whole time. A good friend of mine always goes to interviews with thank you notes in her bag so she can scribble something down and hand it to the receptionist on her way out. Handwritten letters do leave a lasting impression, but in today’s world, email is just fine too. It’s reasonable to follow-up via email a few days after going in for an interview, and if that email goes unanswered, send another after a week passes. If the prospective employers don’t get back to you after that, it’s probably time to move on. If you’re unemployed, you don’t have the luxury of being attached to an interview that may or may not have gone well. Your efforts will be better spent continuing with the search and moving on.

Certain people think it’s good to follow up via phone, but that can annoy busy boss people. I’d say stick to email, even though there’s always the off chance your message winds up in their Spam filter or simply lost in inbox world. The truth is, if someone really wants you, they’ll figure out a way to get in touch.

Keep it together before interviews no matter what happens

At the end of April, I really, really, really wanted to work for one particular company. Everything about it seemed perfect for me. I loved the work the company does, the office is right near my house (and in LA, you definitely don’t want to commute very far), the environment is young and laid back, and I had a great conversation with the men I’d be working for. I never wanted anything more than I wanted to work for them, and as I mentioned earlier in this post, desperation is tough to hide. I told myself I wasn’t needy, just excited about the once-in-a-lifetime shot at my dream job. I even mailed them a thank you note right after the interview in hopes of standing out.

I felt pretty confident that I’d get the job, but I had another interview a few days later, so I drove to Santa Monica for the sit-down to keep my options open. Right after finding street parking, I checked my email and saw a new message from my dream company. Turns out I wasn’t their dream applicant. Though they admired my enthusiasm and professionalism, I wasn’t the best person for the position. They’d given it to somebody else.

Though I only had twenty minutes to spare before my next interview, I sobbed in the car, truly heartbroken for the first time in the seemingly endless job application process. I’d been rejected from plenty of jobs, but that was the one I really, really wanted. It felt like a blow to the stomach, but as much as I wanted to wail for the next hour in my car, I had another interview to attend. An interview I now knew I needed.

Nevertheless, you can always tell when someone has been crying. My eyes were splotchy and I looked defeated the moment I walked into the office. But I had to put on a smile and act excited to be there.

To my luck, the interview itself cheered me up, as the interviewees were eccentric and funny, but I didn’t end up getting that job either. Even if I hadn’t stumbled in there with Post-Ugly Cry Face, I probably wouldn’t have been picked, but who knows? It would probably have been better to keep it together before the interview.

Try not to get too excited about any single opportunity

Always keep applying and digging around for other openings. One of my biggest mistakes was getting too attached to what seemed like my dream job, and that made their decision hurt that much more. Enthusiasm is great, but you don’t really know what working there is actually like and putting all your eggs in one basket is basically the worst move you can make in the job-hunt world.

Don’t let anyone rush you into making a decision

Out of 13 interviews, I’ve had two offers, both for paid internships. The first time I was offered a paid internship, I received a phone call on a Friday and was told I had to start the following Monday. It just so happened I had several job interviews that Friday, so I asked to be given a couple days to make my decision. Unfortunately, I had to let the internship know that day whether I could take it or not, and because I was overconfident in my interviewing abilities, I turned it down, sure that one of the other interviews would be a success and I’d have something more stable to my name.

I didn’t end up getting any of those jobs, but I don’t regret declining the internship offer. I didn’t feel comfortable making a decision on the spot or being expected to drop my other internship at a moment’s notice to start another. When I didn’t get any of the positions for which I applied, I felt guilty about saying no to a paid gig, but I didn’t like having ultimatums thrown at me. I had to trust my instincts, because they usually pay off in the long run.

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