Interview Mistakes: And How To Use Language Studies To Avoid Them


IMG_1345Foreign language minors and majors: did you know that a lot of interview advice and interview mistakes can be addressed by using your language studies?

Samuel Hershberger’s post, The 13 Dumbest Job Interview Mistakes from The SavvyIntern blog at YouTurn provides prime examples.  

Those of you who have minored or majored in a language can use the skills & knowledge you’ve acquired to avoid many of those 13 mistakes. Here’s how & why:  

Mistake # 5 “You Can’t Answer Basic Questions.”  

Often this is because the basic questions come as a surprise to the interviewee and that’s just a case of being under-prepared. You must know what the basic questions are, expect to be asked them, and have answers prepared.  

The questions cited by Hershberger are:

  • “What are your strengths?”
  • “Why would you be a good fit in our company?”
  • “Why should we hire you?”

I use all of these in my workshops with foreign language minors and majors because they can draw from their classroom experiences, study abroad, travels, and other international & multicultural experiences to answer all three of those questions.  Think of all the strengths you’ve acquired as a result of your language major:

  • Can you solve logistical problems like transportation snafus?  
  • Do you know how to analyze and interpret information like metro maps and bus schedules, price lists and instruction manuals?
  • Have you developed certain strategies to overcome miscommunications or language barriers?
  • Are you sensitive to the perspectives of others and have a specific anecdote to illustrate that?

In an interview, you should be ready to tell a short, clear, concise anecdote that illustrates one such strength. Then explicitly state the specific strength you derived from that experience. Bonus: you should also mention how you would bring that strength to bear on the company!

Mistake # 7 “You Know Nothing About the Company’s Culture.”

No excuses here for language majors and minors–you have been explicitly studying cultures as part of your academic program. You know that culture means all of our day-to-day practices (and not just national cuisine, flags, and some folk dances).  

You know how important it is to actively engage with other cultures as you learn about and experience practices that differ from your own. You know how to process those differences, make adjustments to your own behavior, and accept things that at first seem alien to you.  

Just as you have done in all your courses, travels, and international experiences, you need to take a look at the company’s culture before you interview so that you don’t ask any stupid questions, make any silly mistakes, or come across in the interview as a poor fit with that company’s culture.

As you know from you language studies, company culture can be anything from dress code to flex time to telecommuting to weekly hours of work, time “online” outside of work by email or cellphone, lunch breaks, client accounts, wining-and-dining. Culture is really everything!

What makes you stand out is your ability to recognize the familiar and the unfamiliar–the intuition to understand how things are done every day in a given workplace–and the ability to know yourself well enough to understand where you will fit right in and where you will struggle to fit in at all.

Mistakes # 8 and #9 “You Talk Too Much / You Don’t Talk Enough.”  

Every answer to an interview question is a balance between rambling and one word answers. I start my “First Impressions with Face to Face Communications” workshop with this interview question:

I see from your résumé that you speak French. Racontez-moi votre expérience.

You can’t start at the beginning and proceed chronologically with all the details of your experiences with language study.  And you can’t say “Oui, I speak French.” You have to strike the perfect balance, which is easy to do if you’re prepared for the common questions!  

Be prepared. And practice, practice, practice.

Mistake #12 “You Made a Weakness a ‘Strength’.” 

Here’s the big cliché answer that will get you eye rolls: “My weakness is that I’m a perfectionist workaholic who just can’t stop until everything is perfect.”  

While Hershberger frowns on making a weakness into a strength, you must be able to articulate what you have learned from the experience of your weakness.  Another way to think about this question is “tell me about a time you failed at something and what you did about it.”  

Then you can tell the story of a failure, how you dealt with it, and what you have learned from it.  

Language studies is full of these: a miscommunication, a time you didn’t know what a word was that someone kept repeating, a time you didn’t know what a word was that you needed to use, a moment of culture clash when you either inadvertently misbehaved or were unable to understand the behavior of others.

Mistake #13 “You Confused the Interview with an Interrogation.”  

This is another question too many are unprepared for: “Do you have any questions for us?”  

You have to have questions ready–some before the interview, some that you’ve accumulated during the interview, and some that highlight your language studies.  

Here’s a great way to approach the “do you have any questions?” question that highlights your language studies:  

  • Say something you know about the company’s international efforts (most companies have managers, employees, co-workers, owners, or clients abroad even if they aren’t actively expanding into international markets or competing with emerging markets).
  • Then mention your language studies, international experiences, and interest in multicultural / multilingual work.
  • Ask how your skills and interests could be brought to bear on their international work.  

This is a great way to follow Hershberger’s advice and “learn about your employer. Engage them in conversation. Connect with them on a personal level.”

Darcy Lear is a Chicago-based career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they standout in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy:
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