Job interviews can rattle even the most seasoned job candidates. This isn’t surprising given that the stakes are high. It’s common for applicants to be anxious about their qualifications, about appearing awkward in the interview or simply about not getting the job.
Our research team recently reviewed the academic literature on all studies that had looked at interview anxiety and we meta-analyzed all the study results (if you want to read the entire study, you can find it here). Meta-analysis is a process that aggregates all findings on a given topic – a little like how Rotten Tomatoes aggregates all reviews for a movie – to show the big picture in the findings. It turns out that there is good and bad news.
Interview anxiety: the good and the bad
First, the bad news. People who report more anxiety during the interview do receive lower interview scores (as judged by interviewers). The effect is not huge, however. Imagine that we ask people to report their interview anxiety on a 1-5 scale (where 1 is very low anxiety and 5 is very high anxiety) and the interviewers score interview performance on a 1-100 scale. The results of our meta-analysis show that for every 1-point increase in interview anxiety, interview performance decreases by around 7 points, on average. The effect is small, but in a competitive job market, where there are many applicants a few positions, even a small effect can make the difference between getting a job offer – or not.
Here’s the good news. We divided up the studies that were conducted with “mock” or practice interviews and the studies that involved job applicants applying for actual jobs. The negative impact of anxiety on interview performance seems to be smaller for real job applicants. This could mean that, despite their anxiety, job applicants who are highly motivated to get a job may well be able to overcome their anxiety. For example, they could be compensating for their anxiety by preparing really well for their interview.
How interviewers interpret interview anxiety
The key question, which we can’t answer from this study alone, is: what does a job applicant’s anxiety really tell an interviewer? That is, would interviewers be right in using anxiety as a basis to make personnel selection decisions, such as using anxiety to inform their ratings of applicants’ interview performance? This strategy could be accurate if job applicants are anxious because they are underqualified or not prepared for the interview. In this case, rating applicants lower would be an accurate reflection of their qualifications (and their anxiety). But what about qualified applicants who are anxious because they are applying for a very desirable and competitive job? Would a manager be justified in rating these applicants lower simply based on their anxiety? We would argue that in this case, interviewers who rate anxious applicants lower would be using the “anxiety cue” incorrectly.
To answer these questions, we conducted a lab study where we had 411 people listen to audio recordings of applicants going through job interviews. One group of listeners heard a highly anxious candidate and the other half heard a candidate who was not anxious. We asked our listeners to rate the applicants’ anxiety and tell us what auditory cues they used to make their evaluation. The most common cues that our participants listed were “voice quality” (things such as shaky voice, quiet voice, awkward laughter), “filler words” (such as “um”, “ah” and “like”), “lack of response” (not really answering the question, or providing an incomplete answer) and “silences and pauses” (long spaces in the conversation where nothing is said). These results point to the importance of preparation and practice, especially for applicants who know they are prone to anxiety. Ensuring that one is qualified for the position, well-prepared and ready to answer common questions (e.g., “tell me about yourself”; “why do you want this job?”; “tell me of a time when you had to resolve a conflict in a team”), will go a long way in ensuring that one’s anxiety is under control. Preparation and practice through mock interviews will allow candidate to get feedback not only on the content of their answers, but also on their delivery – and in particular their voice quality. This will help them do a better job of portraying their true qualifications during the interview.
Change your language, alter their perspective
Our research team has also investigated how styles of speech in interviews relate to interview performance. We subjected 123 interview transcripts to text analysis software and found that transcripts with a high proportion of words conveying uncertainty were rated lower. These are words that we call “hedges,” such as “I don’t know,” “I mean,” “like,” “kind of,” “sort of” and “I think.” These words reduce how powerful speech sounds.
Imagine that you are interviewing an applicant. How would you rate a candidate who says:
“Once I became a more a more experienced worker, I was given a number of trainees to teach. So essentially I was able to show them, umm, how to do everything, I guess, and how to deal with the sort of specific equipment at their location.”
“Once I became a more a more experienced worker, I was given a number of trainees to teach. I was able to show them how to do everything, and how to deal with the specific equipment at their location.”
The content is the same, but the second version sounds more decisive, compelling and confident. Anxious or not, job applicants who will participate in an interview can increase their preparation by listening to the way they talk about themselves. They can do so by recording themselves answering common interview questions to see if their voice sounds strong and confident, and working on their answers to avoid filler words and “hedging” their language.
Ideally, the interview should be designed to identify the person who is most qualified to perform the job. It should not be influenced by factors such as interview anxiety that may not actually relate to how the person would perform. We encourage interviewers to look beyond interview jitters as they may be overlooking their next star performer.