"There’s no way that I’m going to ace this interview—there are just too many factors working against me. While I’d love to be upbeat about my chances, I can’t help but feel that the deck is loaded and they've already decided who they want to hire. They’re bringing me in just for gender balance, or to meet their minimum number of applicants."

How’s that for a positive attitude? I heard this a few months ago from someone I thought I could help, but actually I didn't. Her negativity was too much for me to overcome.

Does it matter how you feel about an interview? Does your confidence in your ability to perform affect your performance? Absolutely. There's a consistent, clear advantage for people who go into job interviews with a certain comfort level that only confidence and positive thinking can provide. This month, my goal is to help you smile confidently as you shake hands, instead of worrying about your sweaty palms.

Mental preparation

I know: I'm starting to sound like Pollyanna, that 1913 girl’s book heroine with a positive outlook. Scientists have trouble believing that they can influence the outcome of an interview by "psyching themselves up." I’ve told my candidates to do this for years. Some of them listen; others laugh it off. It's the ones who listen that seem to do better. Thinking about the interview in advance, seeing it going well, and reinforcing positive thoughts really does make things go more smoothly.

Specific steps

  • Get the agenda for your interview, with the names and titles of the people you will meet with during the day. Look them up on Google or LinkedIn and see what kind of experience they have. Think about things you might talk about. Look at their photos and picture yourself walking into each person’s office, extending a hand, and introducing yourself. Feel the self-confidence you exude. Embrace the feeling that you're both enjoying a professional conversation about areas of mutual interest.
  • Deliver your job talk in your mind, visualizing the scene. You know the topic well—so feel your confidence build as you deliver a clean presentation to a smiling and nodding audience (nodding in agreement, not with sleep). Relish the feeling of being told that you delivered a good talk.
  • Starting several days before your interview, spend the last 10 minutes of each day in quiet contemplation, imagining things going well—perhaps with an image of the final "thank you" to the prospective boss and the warm feeling of knowing there's a job offer coming your way.

Throughout your preparations, focus on how you feel inside when you are confidant, cool, and collected. You know what that’s like: There is some activity—maybe at the bench, or maybe with a rod and reel in your hands, knee deep in a river—where you feel relaxed and confident. Those are the feelings you need to tap into and bring with you on interview day.

As I’ve written in previous Tooling Up columns, it isn’t the person who comes across as a salesman who closes the deal at job interview time. It’s the person who is sincere and genuine. In order to be the "real you," you’ll need to be confident and relaxed. That’s what takes so much mental preparation.

Open mouth, insert foot

Don't expect to perform perfectly. No matter how well you’ve prepared—no matter how much visualization you’ve done—you're going to goof up and say something stupid, or look silly because the answer to a question didn’t roll off your tongue.

Every time I have to sell my company's recruiting services, I do an interview with the employer that is similar to a job interview. Before investing, the employer has to see that we are credible—and I always screw up at least once. Last week, when I was asked how long I’ve been recruiting, I answered too glibly: "A lifetime." Frowns showed that they expected a real answer. They wanted a rundown of my employment history.

Some people make the mistake of carrying that error around with them. For the rest of the day, everything they say is guarded, or affected in some way by the earlier mistake.

This is wrong. Screw-ups happen to everyone. The key thing to remember is to bounce back quickly. You can’t let foot-in-mouth syndrome affect you for more than the 20 seconds it took you to mess up. Correct your answer and then drop it from your mind.

To prepare for an interview, mix hard and soft ingredients

You’re not going to ace that interview strictly by positive thinking, or by doing these "soft" exercises. You also need to prepare the old-fashioned way.

So get out that job talk and practice it live in front of a friend (or several) until you’ve got it timed just right. Practice it again and again. Read over previous Science Careers interviewing articles, and study the kinds of questions you will be asked. Get comfortable with how you might respond, but don’t memorize your responses. The idea of restating answers from a book like 300 Snappy Answers to Tough Interview Questions is just plain wrong.

But such preparations will make more of an impact when you prepare your attitude for the interview as well. In the book Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, authors Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould quote golfer Jack Nicklaus:

"Before every shot, I go to the movies inside my head. First, I see the ball where I want it to finish, sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then, I see the ball getting there, it’s path and trajectory, and even it’s behavior on landing. The next scene shows me making the kind of swing that turns this all into reality. These home movies are a key to my concentration and to my positive approach on every shot."

Make your own home movies. Use the Nicklaus approach to prepare for your next job interview and you’ll perform much better than if you sat around worried.

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300147