How you screw up your job interview after the first question

This month we’re talking about Finding Your Global Career Path, and I’m delighted that my TrekDek colleague, Dale Davidson, is here to share ideas for creating a narrative about yourself so you can land that globally-focused position you’ve been eying. Speaking as someone who has experienced the search committee side of things, I think Dale’s comments are spot on. We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences – share in the comments! 


Most people are just awful at job interviews.

They show up to the interview, try to just answer the questions the best they can, and often respond with rambling nonsense that the interviewer doesn’t care about. Then they end up bitter when they don’t get the job.

It’s not their fault; they just don’t know what they don’t know.


I used to be that way too. I would just show up to interviews, having done only minimal research and just try to answer the questions. Afterwards, I would think about how stupid most interview questions are. Of course I don’t know what I want to do in 5 years.

Why do they really need to know a weakness?

What does being a team player have to do with this particular job?

The thing is, most people don’t even get that far before they mess it up. They mess up at the beginning of the interview, and most people don’t even know it.

Want to know what the question is?

Tell me about yourself.

That’s it. It’s not even really a question. You might not even think it’s part of the interview, but this sets the tone for the entire session.

The question can take different forms:

  • Walk me through your resume
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • How did you find out about this role?
  • Why are you leaving your current job?

Though the question itself may change, there’s only one thing that the interviewer wants to know:

“Does it make sense that you want to work here?”

photo credit: IronRodArt - Royce Bair ("Star Shooter") via photopin cc
photo credit: IronRodArt – Royce Bair (“Star Shooter”) via photopin cc

How not to answer the question (and what 99% of people do)

Most people would respond by simply listing everything they’ve done since they graduated college.

“I graduated in 2009 with a degree in X. Then I got a job at LMNO INC where I did [professional activity]. Then I got a job at ABC Corps where I was a [insert job title]. Now I’m working at XYZ Partners doing [professional activity].”

That’s really boring, and your interviewer will find it boring, and you just came off as an extremely boring person.

More importantly, you didn’t answer the interviewer’s real question, which is:

“Does it make sense that you want to work here?”

How to answer the question correctly

In order to answer the question correctly, you must do the following:

  1. Explain your background and professional history thematically
  2. Link your background to the position you’re interviewing for

If you’re really good, you’ll also signal a few valuable skills you have within the context of the story.

Let’s look at the first thing you need to do, explain your background and professional history thematically.

First, you’re going to assess your work history and your accomplishments to date.

Write down:

  1. Every job you’ve had
  2. What your official role was there
  3. What your unofficial duties included
  4. Special projects you took on
  5. Things you enjoyed about the job
  6. Things you hated about the job
  7. Skills you learned on the job

The end result should be something more comprehensive than a resume, with each section looking something like this:

Project Manager at ACME Consulting

  • Primary responsibilities were to ensure our consulting projects were on time and on budget. Led three projects that led to fantastic reviews by the client and that were extremely profitable for the company.
  • Started a company blog that increased our thought leadership in the industry. Our website page views went from 100 a month to 10,000 per month.
  • I learned how to build a Microsoft Access database to store data that was useful for running reports that required heavy data analysis.
  • I hated doing repetitive data-entry, so I found a way to automate it.

Next, you’re going to look at everything you wrote about your previous jobs, and try to identify patterns.

Look for:

  1. Categories of work you were good at (project management, marketing, organization, communication, handling people, etc.)
  2. Categories of things you volunteered for or projects you were drawn to that were beyond the scope of your official responsibilities.
  3. Types of work that you wanted to do more of at your previous job, but were unable to do. This is the type of work that you want to perform at the new job you’re interviewing for.

Use this information to craft a 3-5 sentence personal narrative. It should look something like this:

“In my previous roles, I was hired to do [insert category of work that was part of your official responsibilities]. Over time, I developed skills in [insert category of work you volunteered for]. Now, I’m really looking to do [something you want to do] while leveraging my [mention previous skill-set], which is why I’m talking to you!”

Once you have this, you can expand on it to include specific examples of awesome work that you did that will have your interviewer drooling!

Example of a Good Narrative

Let’s take a 24 year old named John who majored in International Affairs, studied abroad in Spain during college, taught Englishlarge_4293035451 in Korea, and is now applying for a job as a Student Advisor at a University Study Abroad Office.

John is asked: “Why do you want to work here?”

Below, is a great response that meets all the criteria of an excellent personal narrative:

“That’s a great question. When I was in college, I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted to do for a career. I chose to major in International Affairs because I was vaguely interested in the world of diplomacy and international policy issues, but nothing really appealed to me.

I then decided to spend a semester studying abroad in Spain, and I had an amazing time. But during that semester, I noticed I had to deal with a lot of issues that I never knew existed. I learned that communicating with local Spanish people was not just about learning the language, but also about understanding the cultural context in which they grew up. Going through this also forced me to think about my own beliefs and assumptions as an American that I never would have thought about if I hadn’t studied abroad.

Because of the impact study abroad had on me, I knew I wanted to do something overseas after I graduated, and teaching English in Korea seemed like a great way to do it.

Teaching was definitely a challenge, and not only did I have to deal with the same intercultural communication issues that I dealt with in Spain, but I also had to learn to do my job well! I developed skills in curriculum development and learned how to balance student’s individual needs with the school’s overall goals.  I received extremely positive reviews from both parents, and my supervisors.

As I mentioned, it was a challenge, but also extremely rewarding. I also realized that while I did not necessarily want to teach English to 5th graders as a career. It was great to be able to see the students progress in their ability to learn a new language, but I wanted to go deeper than just teach students a new language.

I wanted to take the skills I developed during my time in Korea, including my administrative, teaching, and relationship building skills, and help people leverage international experiences to grow personally and professionally, as I did.

Based on my research of the Student Advisor role here, I believe I can use my skills and experience to help students who will be studying abroad set and achieve their personal and academic goals. I also believe I can use the organizational and administrative skills I developed to help the study abroad office run efficiently. Based on my experience and what I know about this position, I think it would be a good fit, which is why I’m talking to you!”

This story works because it gives an appropriate amount of background information, it explains a few key moments in John’s life that are relevant to the position, and it also links his background and the skills he developed with the position he is interviewing for.

Your profession and personal history and the job you’re interviewing for would of course be unique, but the process you use to create a personal narrative for a job interview will not be.

Don’t be the boring candidate who just rattles off a list of positions you held; tell a story about yourself that makes sense and you’ll be ahead of 99% of people who just show up.



Dale Davidson Photo

About the author:  Dale Davidson spent the first half of his life living in Korea (South, not North) on an American military base. To make things more confusing, he is half Japanese, half-American, and can’t speak Korean or Japanese. His first trip abroad without his family took place during his junior year in college, where he spent a semester in Marseille, France. Since then he has lived in several places in the US and Cairo for six months. Travel highlights include eating delicious hummus in Lebanon, relaxing on the beaches of Santorini, and flipping coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

When not working on TrekDek, Dale spends his time writing for his own blog, Dale Thoughts, and coordinating camel rentals for a defense company (yes, camels). He also daydreams about his future travels and all the adventures he hasn’t experienced … yet.