Were you the one who always took charge of group projects in school—or the quiet confidant whom people drew aside for advice? Do you deliberately limit your social interactions, or do you become more energized when you spend time around others? Whatever your preferences, recognizing your natural tendencies and personality traits—and knowing how to make them work for you—can go a long way toward job interview success.
Start with a self-assessment
You’re probably already aware of your strengths and weaknesses, but when you’re facing a round of interviews, it never hurts to do a little introspection. A simple, informal method is to reflect upon what you already know about yourself. What have teachers always said about you? Friends and family? Which situations make you feel confident and comfortable, and which throw you out of your element? Reflect on your behavior patterns with a constructive, yet critical, eye.
If you need more direction or are interested in a more formal assessment, there are many personality assessment tools available. One is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, based on the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung and co-creators Katharine Briggs, and Isabel Briggs Myers. This popular tool evaluates personality based on the following four areas:
- Extraversion or introversion: whether you prefer to spend time in the outer world or your inner world
- Sensing or intuition: whether you like to focus on information gathered through your senses or apply your own interpretation and meaning to the information you receive
- Thinking or feeling: whether you prefer to deal with principles and facts or people and circumstances when coming to a decision
- Judging or perceiving: whether your goal is to reach a decision or explore information and options
Another popular assessment is the Big Five personality traits, developed by several different researchers over many years, starting with D. W. Fiske in 1949 and continuing through Robert McCrae and Paul Costa as recently as 1987. This theory focuses on five general areas, sometimes referred to with the acronym OCEAN:
- Openness: characteristics such as imagination, insight, and abstract thinking
- Conscientiousness: your propensity for organization, attention to detail, impulse control and goal-directed behaviors
- Extraversion: whether you gain or expend energy in social situations
- Agreeableness: your levels of cooperation and competitiveness among others
- Neuroticism: your emotional resiliency and stability
Once you’ve assessed your personal style—whether formally or informally—consider how to make the most of your strengths and adjust for your weaknesses.
Are you all ears?
Perhaps you’re known for being a good listener among your friends, and your patients seem to relax and readily share with you. Even so, being a good listener in an interview can be difficult. In addition to having nerves working against you, your mind may be distracted—anticipating the next question or meeting or mulling over the last topic discussed.
William Silber, M.D., a gastroenterologist from Dallas, makes a dedicated effort to focus on his listening skills at an interview, and he takes it a step further by asking targeted questions to draw out the information he needs.
“People won’t hear you until they’ve been heard,” Silber explains. “I want [interviewers] to tell me their situation, what they’re looking for from me, so I know if I can fulfill that. People are willing to tell you what you need to know, if you give them the opportunity.”
To fine-tune your listening skills, brush up in everyday life; listen more attentively to co-workers, your partner, even the radio. Another useful strategy is to practice mindfulness, which teaches you to remain focused in the moment.
Even with the best intentions, don’t panic if your listening efforts are derailed, either due to a wandering mind or an unexpected tangent. Refocus on the speaker, perhaps paraphrasing or asking a question to zero in on the topic again. “So you’re saying that… ” is a good phrase to use to steer the conversation back to the original topic.
Do you go after what you need?
Some people find it easy to ask questions; others proceed with caution, concerned they’re being a bother or coming across as too assertive. But asking questions—even the hard ones—is an expected part of any interview.
Malika Fair, M.D., assistant clinical professor and emergency medicine physician at George Washington University and senior director of health equity partnerships and programs at the Association of American Medical Colleges, recalls that when she was interviewing, she raised a question that provided valuable insight into an area important to her.
“I asked them to describe their commitment to diversity,” she said. “Not only did it get them to explain their commitment, but it enabled me to evaluate how comfortable the person was in answering the question. If a place looked great on paper, but the person was uncomfortable with that answer, that gave me valuable information.”
Fair says this input provided her with additional helpful criteria for ranking her options and determining where she’d feel most comfortable.
Experts agree that you should always arrive armed with a solid bank of questions. In addition to showing that you’re well prepared, having questions on hand ensures you’re ready for whatever is thrown your way.
Do you tend to ramble?
Being easy to talk to can be an asset in many walks of life, but in an interview, tread carefully—verbose responses can hinder success.
“If you provide too many details [or] your stories are too involved, you can’t tell if they’re interested or if they’re bored. Don’t overload them,” suggests Silber.
Whether you have the gift of gab or tend to ramble under pressure, practice providing short, direct answers to some common interview questions. Key in on your point early on. Studies show that the average listener remains focused for about 90 seconds.
Being observant can also help you gauge if you’re talking too much. Watch for clues that someone isn’t really listening: robotic nodding, detached responses such as “hmm” or “uh huh,” or stolen glances at the clock. Have some strategies in mind to pull yourself back if you digress—like smiling, pausing and revisiting the question asked. “So in summary, my favorite rotation turned out to be….” Or simply wrap up your answer, leaving the ball in their court to request more details.
Are you hard to get to know?
Some people have no trouble opening up and sharing personal details, while others are naturally tight-lipped, especially in a professional setting. But if you keep your conversation only on academic and professional topics, you’re missing the chance to make yourself stand out as a unique candidate.
“We need to understand what makes you tick,” says Laura Screeney, director of physician recruitment at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. “There are good jobs from coast to coast, so we want to know why us, why you’re here. The CV doesn’t tell us your whole story.”
If it’s hard for you to open up, plan ahead. Identify a few topics you’re comfortable bringing up that lend insight into you as a person. For example, location can be a starting point for conversation, says Screeney. Share what attracts you to the area at hand (or why you want to stay there)—whether you’re drawn by your passion for the ocean, making a move nearer to family or relocating to accommodate a loved one’s job.
“Showing your ties to the area is always helpful,” agrees Screeney.
Another talking point can be a pertinent fact or two about your family or significant others: children’s extracurricular interests, loved one’s jobs or educational pursuits, or special child or senior care arrangements. This information not only gives a glimpse into your world, but often prompts others to share details that could aid in your decision-making process.
“I once met with a candidate who mentioned his daughter was a talented dancer,” recalls Screeney. “My niece was heavily involved in this area, and I was able get information from her about teachers in the area and pass this along to him and his wife.”
Even if you’re much more comfortable sticking with your credentials, you can still do your best to bring your personality to life in these conversations.
“Use real-life examples or a personal story in your responses,” suggests Fair. “For example, if you’re asked [how] you deal with a difficult patient, you could give a canned answer—‘I keep my voice low, stay at eye level,’ etc.—or you could share an example: ‘Well, a couple weeks ago, I did this….’”
Though you shouldn’t go overboard about your personal life, do offer a glimpse into your non-work personality.
Do you always do your homework?
Research and preparation are second nature to some people, while others proudly tout their proven ability to wing it. Whichever has been your standard method of operation, experts agree that prep time is essential prior to an interview.
Christopher Ewing, M.D., emergency medicine physician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, always goes into an interview armed with knowledge.
“I learned in residency that you really have to understand the people, environment and culture of a place,” he says. “Ahead of time, get the interview agenda to find out who you’ll meet and look up the names of people on LinkedIn and staff bios. This helps you anticipate the needs of the people you’ll be meeting.”
In addition to learning the who’s who of people you’re meeting, delve into the company—read about their strategic partners, special interests, planned growth or future direction and values. Look for both things that attract you and things you question.
Ewing recalls one interview where he used a potential concern to raise questions and generate a useful conversation.
“I used this as an opportunity to ask questions to learn about their process and think of ways to improve it,” he recalls.
Your research can also provide you with topics for side conversations. Make note of similar backgrounds, shared alma maters or mutual acquaintances, and pull these out when there’s a lag in conversation.
Are you a perpetual pleaser?
Do you often agree to things you don’t really want to do? Are you more likely to smile and nod politely than stir up controversy? Focusing too hard on trying to please can thwart progress in an interview. It doesn’t support a meaningful exchange of information and risks leaving your interviewers with a vague or false impression of you.
“Don’t put on a front and tell us what you think we want to hear. Answer honestly, even in situations where you think it’s not what we want to hear,” says Justin Sharpe, in-house physician recruiter at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare in Florida. “For example, don’t be afraid to say, ‘This isn’t my first choice, but…,’ and then go on to tell us why you’re here, what ended up bringing you out.”
Experts suggest initiating further conversation, rather than quickly accepting, when something doesn’t quite mesh with your goals. Ask the speaker to elaborate, suggest a compromise or present an alternative. Your probing could result in a scenario that works better for both of you.
Do you avoid social interactions or seek them?
Do you thrive in group settings, drawing energy from people? Or do you crave time alone to recharge and prefer to work independently? Whatever your style, your comfort in social interactions can be a factor in an interview.
If you’re an introvert—with a preference for independent tasks and “me time”—your quiet, composed nature can be an asset in a professional setting. But at an interview, that same nature may be misinterpreted as stand-offish or detached. If you’re an introvert, try these tips:
- Watch your body language. “Sit straight up, lean forward toward your speaker, and appear engaged and interested. Keep eye contact,” suggests Fair.
- Schedule wisely. Book events at the time of day that works best for you and try to build in a window for down time to collect your thoughts and refresh prior to the meeting.
- Show that you’re not all about isolation. Bring up examples of past successful team activities.
If you’re an extrovert—comfortable in groups and happier with exposure to people—an interview may seem like your ideal setting. But your social confidence may make you seem domineering or self-important. If you’re an extrovert, consider these factors:
- Don’t go overboard. Keep your answers focused. Don’t ramble, go on tangents or hijack the topic.
- Show stability. Discuss situations that depict your dedication and long-term commitments.
- Be humble. Touting your strong points may come easily and can be a positive trait. Just don’t take it too far—express gratitude for past opportunities and give credit to people who have helped you.
Whatever your personality, most people find interviews stressful. Get an edge on your nerves through preparation. Understanding and working with your true nature can help you put your best foot forward.