Job interviews are an odd ritual. You’re supposedly there to demonstrate your qualifications for the job, your likability, and your impeccable personal hygiene. And yet, beyond the expected Q&A, so much goes on behind the scenes. So much is implied. Both sides hold their cards as close to the proverbial vest as possible.

Don’t underestimate the interview – it is a veiled sparring match, a poker game where the stakes are your future job and the interviewer’s reputation. To go into a job interview expecting mere small talk is to doom yourself to the “we-appreciate-your-interest” letter.

Go into your next job interview prepared. Along with a healthy sense of confidence and your most professional outfit, having an awareness of the pitfalls that await you will let you put your best foot forward without sticking it in your mouth. Check out the following five most common interview pitfalls, courtesy of, a free college information service:

1. “Tell me about yourself” – Where to start? “You” is a pretty vast topic. For starters, don’t tell them your life story. Don’t tell them your favorite movies, colors, or ice cream flavors. They’re asking for a brief summary of what kind of employee you are, what you do better than anyone else, and what assets you will bring to their company. Our suggestion: write it out and rehearse it. Great personal summaries don’t come by just shooting from the hip.

2. Problems with Co-workers – Don’t interpret this as a chance to gossip about past workplace soap operas. Rather, see this as a chance to show your ability to resolve interpersonal conflict. Be very careful about how you describe negative individuals. Especially avoid saying what race or gender they are. The last thing you want is to be perceived as a bigot, a sexist, or a racist. Companies generally avoid these people like the plague as a legal liability.

3. Your Biggest Weakness – This odd question is more common than you might think. It may seem like an invitation to shoot yourself in the foot, but it’s not. The interviewer only wants to see that you are self-evaluating, manageable, and, heaven forbid, humble. Therefore, the best way to answer this question is to find a weakness that you actually have and turn it into a positive. Also, don’t go with any seriously detrimental personal flaws.

For instance, don’t say, “I lose my temper, say terrible things, and throw things at people.” This sends up about a hundred red flags. A better approach would be to say, “I am very passionate about my work. I really put my heart and soul into projects. Sometimes I need someone to pull me back and help me keep sight of the big picture.” Responses like this show an ability to evaluate yourself, rely on others, and work passionately- all great plusses. Practice this one beforehand to make sure you say it just right.

4. The Facts – My tip: get them straight. If your resume says that you closed a $2-million deal, be careful not to inflate that number in the interview to $3 million. At best, it signals that you’re not quite sure. At worst, it indicates that you are lying and can’t be trusted. Avoid this pitfall by keeping your resume visible during the interview.

5. Salary Requirements – This high-stakes question separates the pros from the schmoes. Just throwing out an arbitrary number is dangerous. If you go too high, you disqualify yourself. If you go too low, you set yourself up for a disappointing salary later on if you get hired. Both mistakes make you look unknowledgeable. Conclusion: don’t just guess.

The only way to nail this one is to give a well-informed range (low to high) and an explanation of where you think you fit in that range. Ask people who have experience in your prospective job can be a great second opinion. Responding with a well-researched range will make you look like a pro and give you great bargaining position later on when you get offered a job.

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