Interviews and assessment centres

How to recover from a nightmare interview

25 Jan 2023, 13:36

How do you get back on track if an interview goes wrong? We’ve listed some nightmare scenarios alongside advice on how to not let them ruin your prospects.

Man in a suit running after a bus, waving his hand to catch it.

It might be that watching too many episodes of The Apprentice has left you with some misconceptions of the interview process. Surprisingly, reality TV shows aren’t actually accurate representations of the real world. (Who would have thought?)

That is not to say that things don’t occasionally go wrong. The trick is to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and to not let it affect your performance. Here’s a list of the most likely nightmare scenarios, alongside instructions on how to control the damage.

Nightmare interview scenario one: running late

You’ve planned your journey in advance, taken the early bus and made sure that you would arrive at least half an hour early. But luck is not on your side. There’s traffic and you’re now going to be at least fifteen minutes late.

An alternative, but equally as frustrating, scenario: you’ve plugged your laptop in, double-checked your emails to make sure you received the link to the Zoom call and told everyone in your house not to disturb you between 11.00 am and 12.30 pm. But, again, luck leaves you. Your internet goes down and your laptop decides to turn itself off. By the time you’ve found a housemate willing to lend their laptop and connected through a wifi hotspot, you will be at least fifteen minutes late.

What to do: While not ideal, recruiters won’t write you off. Call up the organisation and let them know the time that you will likely reach the interview. Explain your reason for being late, sounding apologetic as you do so. It’s better for employers to know in advance that you will be a few minutes late to stop them from sitting around, wondering whether you’re even going to show up. They’re human too and understand that sometimes circumstances are beyond our control.

Nightmare interview scenario two: feeling ill

You might have had too much to drink during your weekly catch-up with friends, eaten a dodgy Nando’s takeaway or just caught a bad flu.

What to do: If you begin to feel sick mid-answer, politely excuse yourself and explain that you are not feeling well. It would be smart to have some paracetamol on hand that you could take quickly before the interview. This should help with everything from nausea to headaches and get you through the next couple of hours. If you are seriously sick, try to rearrange the interview. Employers don't want to see you vomit all over your bedroom carpet or, if your interview is in-person, to worry about getting infected. It’s the sensible option, both for them and yourself, to wait a few days until you are feeling better.

Nightmare interview scenario three: dealing with a rude interviewer

Some people just love power trips. Although these cases are rare, you might be unlucky enough to have an interviewer whose sole purpose is to intimidate you. Some people recall being given five seconds to answer impossible maths questions, while it seems that others were asked to interview simply to be criticised for 20 minutes.

What to do: If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t panic. Keep your cool and answer all questions in as polite a manner as possible. Afterwards, there might be an opportunity to give feedback on your interview experience and you could mention that you felt uncomfortable with the interviewer’s approach.

In the past, people have boycotted companies after terrible interview experiences, forcing interviewers to change their tactics. The interview is not only an opportunity for the employer to assess you, but a chance to evaluate whether they are the right fit for you. A rude interviewer is indicative of a hostile working environment. As it’s likely that you would be working closely with your interviewer if you were to get the job, you might be better off saying thanks, but no thanks.

Nightmare interview scenario four: having your parents interfere with the interview

It is not unheard of for people to bring their parents to the interview for emotional support. What could give the wrong impression, however, is if your parents somehow end up in the board room – or bedroom during a video interview – trying to answer questions or speak to the interviewer.

What to do: If your parents insist on being on-hand for emotional support, have them sit in a nearby cafe rather than in the building. If the interview is being held virtually, ask them to stay in another room. Having your mum wait in the reception for you or sit behind you in your room might give off the impression that you’re still a child – hardly the independent, self-sufficient candidate that companies are looking for. Explain this to your parents and make it clear that you appreciate their support, but just need a little space for the duration of the interview.

Nightmare interview scenario five: phone ringing in the middle of the interview

We live in an age where mobile phones are pretty much a fifth limb. For some reason, asking someone to switch off their phone for a couple of hours, be it in a cinema or office, is a shocking request. What is more shocking however is your phone ringing mid-interview, with Britney’s ‘Womanizer’ blaring from the speakers.

Alternatively, you may find that a video interview at home means you can neither prevent nor predict whether your landline will ring.

What to do: If the potential problem is your mobile, just don’t let it jeopardise your employment chances – switch it off!

If it’s the landline, trying to choose a room to carry out the interview where you don’t have a phone is a good idea. However, if that’s not possible for you, don’t worry. Just be ready to apologise if it does ring and calmly repeat your previous sentence or ask the interviewer to repeat the question. The interviewer will understand that an interview from your home may lead to interruptions that aren’t your fault.

Nightmare interview scenario six: having a mind blank

We’ve all had this nightmare before – the one where you open your mouth and nothing comes out. During your interview, there might be a moment where you don’t know how to respond. Your mind is blank and, no matter how hard you think, you have no idea what to say.

What to do: Take a sip of water to give you time to think, breathe and respond calmly. Sometimes two seconds feel like two hours, but the interviewer will hardly notice the pause. If you still have no idea, there’s no shame in admitting that. You could ask them to rephrase the question or ask for additional details. Most importantly, don’t let one difficult question knock your confidence and ruin the earlier interview.

Nightmare interview scenario seven: getting caught lying

Hopefully, you have read our interview tips and know better than to lie on your CV. However, if you’ve had a moment of madness and decided to boast of your fluency in five languages when you can barely speak one, this is the tip for you.

What to do: The best thing you can do in this situation is just own up to the lie, cut your losses and move on. Attempting to convince the interviewer of something you both know is a lie will only be digging yourself into a deeper hole. Apologise, admit your mistake and focus on the aspects of your application that are true. Honestly, this is a difficult one to worm yourself out of. Just don’t lie!

Nobody’s perfect, and things do occasionally go wrong. If they do, breathe, focus on how to recover and move on. Reacting with a cool head to stressful circumstances is something a lot of companies need in their employees. Turn the nightmare into a dream.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

People reading this also searched for roles in these areas:

Related careers advice

undefined background image

We've got you

Get the latest jobs, internships, careers advice, courses and graduate events based on what's important to you. Start connecting directly with top employers today.