Q: I struggle with feeling authentic at interviews, in cover letters, and on my resume. There are so many job search rules about what to say and what not to say that lead me to total anxiety. Do you have any advice for someone who struggles to talk the talk at interviews? How can I balance being myself with speaking their language?
A: “Authentic” is a hot buzzword today. It means genuine, real, representing one’s true nature. Your job as a job seeker is to be honest. Along the spectrum of honesty, there are some who believe the only way is to be brutally honest, while the other end of the spectrum borders on taking dramatic license. Every aspect of your job search, from networking to your resume to interviewing, should be designed in a way that presents you and your experience in the best possible light while offering accurate data about what you have to offer a new employer.
If you are uncomfortable talking about yourself, it may feel inauthentic. However, speaking about your capabilities is a skill that has to be developed to be successful. Often, job seekers don’t take credit for the their level of responsibility, and as such diminish their own accomplishments with phrasing like “involved with” instead of articulating more supervisory or leadership roles. It may be easier for you to talk about what a great team you had, but hiring managers understand you have colleagues or work in teams and they need to hear your story, not information about your colleagues.
Perhaps you would benefit from roleplaying. Most people don’t want to, and yet they will tell you it is a valuable exercise. Prepare the questions that give you the most discomfort and answer them. Try recording your answers with a friend and review them carefully. Are you selling yourself short? Does it sound like you’re selling yourself short? Does it sound authentic? What kinds of words are you using that make you uncomfortable? Are there better words that also describe your contributions? Keep at it until you are comfortable with your words and the story. Often people minimize their own contributions out of a need to be humble or a concern that they may overshare. Figure out where you lie on that spectrum during the roleplay, and adjust.
As far as cover letters are concerned, one of the best methods to write them effectively is to utilize a T-grid. Create a T on a piece of paper or your computer. On the left, fill in the company’s desired skills for the position. Then, on the right, fill in your own qualifications or experience that speaks to each requirement. This is objective data that should satisfy both you and the hiring manager that you’re the right candidate for the role. Other software tools can help you visualize the data in other ways, as well; websites like Jobscan can measure the words in the body of your resume against the skills and keywords listed in the company’s job description. Seeing this data may give you comfort that it’s not just your opinion about how skilled you really are, and that it is okay to talk about it!
People can “shut down” when they are interviewing. You’re not alone. It happens if people feel under-prepared. Interviewees will occasionally freeze up and just can’t talk. Interviewing well is a skill, and like any other, it requires practice. You sound like a person who needs that practice. Roleplay those interview questions and develop a real confidence in all of your written materials so that your comfort level with what is on the page can come through when it’s time to talk.