6 Things to Watch Out for in Your First Post-Military Job Interview

(U.S. Air Force/Airman Eugene Oliver)

The civilian world can be a tough place to venture into, especially for those veterans who are getting out of the military after one enlistment. Many will be tackling the civilian job market for the first time and probably are inundated with job interview “dos and don’ts” from every angle.

Since any installation’s local transition assistance program is more than ready to remind veterans to go to a job interview well-dressed, having researched the company and with paper copies of their resume in hand, we’ll skip that part. This is about how to prepare yourself for the interview; things to watch out for as you polish those interview skills.

1. Don’t bring crib notes.

Every job search expert and every article about job interviews likely is going to have suggestions on things you’ll want to talk about during the interview, things you want to highlight and experience you should mention. They’re not wrong -- but that doesn’t mean you should write down all of these points to refer to during the interview.

When you’re looking at a set of notes and not making eye contact with the interviewer, you aren’t giving them your full attention. They’re guiding the discussion because they want to know specific things about you. To be sure, you get to mention your key strengths and do a couple of mock interviews with a friend or counselor to help you weave those points into conversation in a natural way.

2. Look at the interviewer.

Eye contact is difficult for many people. This is not a personal failing; it’s just a result of conditioning or other factors. In our daily lives, most people won’t even notice another person’s discomfort with maintaining eye contact. In certain situations, like a job interview, it definitely will be noticed -- and that’s not good for the interviewee.

Studies show that people interpret a lack of eye contact in many ways, and none of them are good for a job interview. Some see a lack of eye contact as an arrogant move, the hallmark of a socially awkward person or (even worse) someone who is disorganized or unprepared. This is nothing some pre-interview practice can’t fix.

3. Be thoughtful when answering questions.

A job interview is an honest discussion. If you made it that far in the process, the company is seriously considering adding you to its team. While some interviewers might try to spook you with gotcha questions, for the most part, they want honest answers to real questions. It doesn’t benefit them to ask questions that aren’t thoughtful, so be thoughtful with your answers.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a second to gather your thoughts, consider the questions as they’re asked and give a meaningful answer. It’s a conversation, not the lightning round of a game show. Trying to give short, fast answers only will stymie the discussion, and some of your answers might not reflect what you want to say.

4. Don’t be someone you’re not.

Remember that the person you’re about to talk to meets with dozens of people all day, every day. They have hired people based on their personality and worked with them, only to find they weren’t who they showed themselves to be. It’s their job to spot a phony, and chances are, they’re very good at it.

“Be yourself” sounds like the most banal job interview advice anyone can give, but it’s very critical in finding sustainable work after the military. Hiring a good fit isn’t just good for the company; it’s good for a veteran’s own long-term well-being. If you don’t fit with the culture, you won’t be happy, and if you aren’t happy with your environment, it will affect other areas of your life.

5. Don’t talk smack.

Badmouthing your old bosses or your old job doesn’t hurt their perception in the eyes of your potential new employer; it hurts yours. Remember that most civilians have a very positive view of the military, even if they know few people who served. If you pit yourself against that perception during an interview, you won’t come out on top.

Even if everything that happened during your service went wrong and you need to explain a few things, think of a better way to explain them than blaming everything on a toxic environment. Setting up a conflict that was resolved is a learning experience for you. Holding a grudge against a perceived slight makes you look petty.

6. Tell your story.

You don’t want to have a clinical question-and-answer session with a job interviewer. It gets the job done, but it doesn’t reveal who you are as a person. If you get a chance to weave a narrative about your life and your work experience, you stop being a name on a piece of paper to the interviewer. You become a person with whom they can connect.

Dozens of scientific books have been written on how human brains react to narratives. Stories need characters, obstacles to overcome, emotional highs and lows and, most importantly, goals. Make yourself the central character and tell them the story of your life and make them root for the good guy. When it comes time to make the hiring decision, they will remember that well-told story much more than where you went to school.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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