You were sure you did well in the interviews: you dressed right, talked well, and knew the answers to all the questions. Your resume, cover letter, and writing sample all looked perfect to you and your advisors. But when you checked in to find out where you stood in the process, you learned the job had been filled by someone else. What could have gone wrong?
First, the flaw in your thinking is thinking that anything went wrong. It may not have been the outcome you wanted or even expected, but it may have been the right thing, for both you and the organization. You only see the tip of the iceberg–the organization knows much more. What seems to have gone wrong for you is simply an outcome, a step along the path to the organization’s future. You may not have been the best candidate for the job. If you did your best, you did your best. Sometimes that isn’t enough. The best candidates may have networked to the interview and position instead of responding to the posting, allowing the hiring manager many more glimpses at their fit.
Second, think about your narrative. Your narrative is simply your personal story, your truth, your platform. If you answered all the questions but didn’t reveal enough of your narrative for your interviewers to know who you are and what it would be like to work with you, you concealed that you might be the best candidate for the job and the organization. It isn’t enough to answer the questions. You have to generate new questions, ask good questions, and raise important questions. A robust dialogue that results from a strong and interesting narrative lingers with an interviewer. If you lurk along the perimeter of a safe version of your narrative, you held back, and that’s not good.
Third, did you make stuff up? Now, this is very bad. And by the way, a talented and experienced interviewer will not let you know that his or her radar is on full alert–quite the contrary, the rope is going to go full out for at least an hour, maybe more. If you have been scheduled for a half day, you’ll probably go the full half day, and never know that you pretty much blew it in the first hour when you told that tall tale. If you embellish the truth, you will not be the successful candidate, one way or the other. The internet being what it is, outright fibs and fabrications get caught very quickly, but more importantly, the aftermath of the interview will raise questions instead of enthusiasm and confidence. If you aren’t forthright, you aren’t in control of your story and that leaves a murky impression of you. You look like you take risks at the expense of others. Not good.
Fourth, you were totally wrong: the answers you thought were right, weren’t. Because answers are not right or wrong–they are simply revealing, or diagnostic, or supportive of an organization’s growing enthusiasm or concern. Sometimes, you get called in for that interview just because of one thing on your resume. Or, that phone screen caught someone on a good day and they were feeling expansive instead of critical. But when you got to the interview it became apparent that you didn’t have the right stuff. You weren’t really qualified.
Fifth: Bad Manners. Most folks don’t know what they don’t know about etiquette. Graceless individuals struggle upstream with the burden of un-awareness. Do you interrupt? Grab candy from the dish? Talk too loud or use coarse language? Wear too much fragrance? Grab and squeeze a hand instead of shaking it? You get the picture; only part of an interview is about the content; form and behavior is the rest. Your personal habits and manners are basic to all performance matters, and if they don’t measure up, an employer will not want to take the risk that they can’t be corrected or improved.
Last. You have one chance at references. If they are marginal, that won’t be good enough. Your references have to sell you. Make sure you prime them by calling in advance and laying groundwork for support of your candidacy.
You are unlikely to ever get the precise reason you were not selected for a job, that means you have to do a lot of guessing, obsessing, and wondering. Sometimes you can ask, but the answer may not–and should not–satisfy you if you are looking for ways to improve your chances in the future. If you really liked the people you met, it’s hard not to feel some rejection. The best thing to do is to debrief yourself on these points and create a (written) list of what you will do or do better, the next time you have an opportunity to interview for a job you think you want.