Keeping Your Cool in a High Stress, High Stakes Interview

Have you ever found yourself wondering: “Is it just my imagination or is this interviewer trying to get under my skin?”

The questions all seem a little rude. The tone is sharp and overly critical. Sure, a job interview is nerve-wracking by nature. And of course you’re being judged – that’s a given. But this just feels like overkill.

You know what they say: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Some interviewers are intentionally trying to freak you out.

It’s actually a real interview technique: Pile on the pressure and see how the candidate responds – sometimes called a stress test. And while it may feel like the interviewer is just a jerk who likes to make people squirm, there’s more in it than that. The technique has a very specific purpose and you, as the interviewee, should respond in an equally purposeful way. Here’s what you need to know.

First, it’s not just you. If you feel intimidated, overwhelmed or even on the verge of tears, you’re normal. The interviewer is not out to get you; he’s out to get every candidate. He’s intentionally trying to elicit a reaction. The interviewer wants to see how candidates handle themselves in these kinds of high-intensity situations.

The kinds of questions you’re likely to encounter are designed to put you on edge. For example:

–Why weren’t you promoted in your last job?

–Why haven’t you accomplished more in your career?

–Why didn’t you go to a better college?

–What makes you think you can survive here?

Those questions feel a little “in your face” don’t they? Well, that’s the point. The interviewer is watching your reaction: your body language, facial expressions, behavior and communication. Do you go speechless? Do you stutter? Do you get angry? Do you shift and fidget and show your discomfort?

To handle stress interview questions, your main goal is to stay calm. Don’t take the bait. As best you can, shorten and simplify your answers. Don’t be afraid of repeating yourself – especially if the same question is asked repeatedly in different ways. And don’t be afraid of standing up for what you know is right. You were invited to the interview for a reason, so don’t let them push you around or make you question your capabilities.

For example:

Interviewer: “Wow. You really haven’t done much in your career. Why is that?”

You: “Actually, I respectfully disagree. I’m quite proud of my professional accomplishments, particularly the work I did on project XYZ…”

When it comes to a stress test, the answer itself typically doesn’t matter as much as your unspoken response. So keep your cool, smile and stay strong. Speak slowly and intentionally. It’s perfectly fine to pause and take a breath when needed.

A sense of humor can be your best ally in a situation like this. It’s even perfectly OK to acknowledge what’s going on in a lighthearted way by saying something like: “If you’re trying to rattle me, it’s not going to work.”

Most people who encounter stress interviews are well aware of the high-pressure nature of their profession, so it’s not altogether surprising. It’s most common in interviews for sales jobs and other roles where there is a high level of stress to meet quotas or deadlines. Of course, if you’re not prepared for a high-stress interview and it happens, you may want to consider what this says about the company and the role you’ll be in should you take the job. If it upsets you deeply, it might not be the right position or environment for you.

Stress test interviews aren’t easy. But understanding what’s going on makes them much easier to handle. It’s not personal; it’s business. Make sure your reaction reflects that – stay professional and poised

Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of EatYourCareer.com, believes work can be a nourishing life experience. As a career coach, corporate trainer, and public speaker, she helps professionals of all levels unlock their true potential and discover long-lasting career fulfillment.

More From US News & World Report
• The 100 Best Jobs

• Why Today’s Interview Process Is So Difficult

• How to Stay Relaxed During a Job Interview


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22 Comments
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deadkenny • 11 days ago
Why didn’t you go to a better college ? Well…..what’s WRONG with the school I attended? ………What makes you think you can survive here ? Well ……generally speaking , if YOU’VE managed to thrive here , I figure I’ll be just fine . ?…….Why haven’t you accomplished more in your career ? Well …..sometimes it’s hard to overcome the drag from uncooperative teammates , that’s why I came to interview here . And on a personal note , I’d Like to ask you if you think YOU’VE accomplished as much as you should have ? It’s obvious that you’re not as smart as you think you are because you’re still working for a living ………That was the end of my interview ……I then went in business for myself .
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Adam Smith, Jr. • 11 days ago
What makes you think that I won’t reach over your desk and bludgeon you with a desk lamp until you are crying for your mommy?
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Michael • 11 days ago
Meh. There are a bunch of #$%$s in the world. You will come across one from time to time. Makes sense that your prospective employer would want to know how you’d react to one. Is an interviewer who takes this approach being an #$%$? Yes. That’s the point.
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JEM • 10 days ago
Well, if you become aware that this is a stress interview, you have to ask yourself if the benefits of the job merit this much stress. If yes, continue; if no, politely thank the interviewer, and say “I’ll be in touch.”
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Tb@G!NgHello • 11 days ago
HR peeps are legends in their own minds! Everyone laughs behind your back just like you fear they do!
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Willie Fistergash • 9 days ago
A hiring manager once made a smart#$%$ stress-type remark in an interview to my ex-wife and really upset her (of course that didn’t take much…). A few years later, his company went BK and he was squirming for a job from her. She crucified him for hours. No, he didn’t get the job. It turns out personal relationships are important.
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John • 10 days ago
Someone does this to me, I just quietly get up and leave.
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indy lady • 5 days ago
Bring a poodle with you to do tricks… You will have a better chance at getting the job!
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Joe • 8 days ago
A few shots before the interview would put me in the correct frame of mind to answer these questions…
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Keil • 6 days ago
There are jobs and organizations where a high-stress interview is the only reasonable way to be sure that the candidate can actually perform under realistic conditions. Police officer, firefighter, soldier … Depending on what the job entails, you’ll do the candidate and the organization alike a disservice if you DON’T comprehensively evaluate the candidate’s ability to perform under pressure. I have examples of these techniques listed over on my columns at Business Technology.

That being said, there’s no reason at all to be a jerk in an interview. I like running full-immersion scenarios during interview that can be quite stressful. Immediately after the interview is concluded, though, I have the actors de-brief the applicants. They explain what their role was during the scene, discuss the applicants’ strengths and weaknesses, and give them positive, encouraging feedback on how to improve their performance. The interview should (I believe) be a meaningful and productive two-way exchange, not a hollow farce.

Ms Scivicque made an excellent point when she advised the reader to *recognize* that the stress-inducing attitude is part of the evaluation, and to treat it as such. Once you realize how the game is played, you can at least try to play to win.

By Chrissy Scivicque