How to Survive a Stress Interview (and Land the Job)


You lean back in your chair, satisfied with your thoughtful, well-spoken answer to the interviewer’s question.

But instead of smiling or nodding, he proceeds to pick up a file of papers on his desk and flip through them.

“You’re not a very good fit for this role,” he says casually, still focused on the papers.

What would you do?

Unfortunately, situations like this can come up when you’re applying to stressful or high-level jobs. Hiring managers use them to gauge how you respond to pressure or hostility.

But rather than standing up and walking out, use these strategies to stay calm—and ace the interview.

Know the Signs

One of the reasons people take the bait during stress interviews is because they don’t know they’re in one: They think the hiring manager is simply a jerk.

So, if you can register what’s going on right away, you’ll avoid reacting emotionally.

Multiple interviewers can be one clue. Some companies will use a panel interview to amp up the pressure, especially by having several people barrage you with questions simultaneously.

Another giveaway: The interviewer seemed normal enough when you first met and shook hands, but he or she definitely seems to be getting more antagonistic as time goes on.

Or maybe the interviewer is acting friendly, but won’t give you enough time to answer any question in full.

Any of these signals should immediately tell you this isn’t a normal interview.

Shift Your Mind-Set

Once you’ve put the signs together and determined you’re in a stress interview, take a deep breath and remind yourself this isn’t personal. The hiring manager doesn’t dislike you or want you to fail—he or she is simply doing a job. (In fact, hiring managers want you to succeed, because that means the search for a new employee is over!)

You can even pretend you’re a contestant on a hidden camera show or the participant in some social psychology experiment—whatever will help you remain unaffected.

Act Normal

And remaining unaffected is key. Even though your interviewer is acting bizarrely, answer his or her questions as though nothing is off.

Let’s say the hiring manager asks, “Why haven’t you achieved more in your current position?”

Wrong answer: “What the heck are you talking about? I tripled our region’s revenue in just two years, implemented a new CRM, and completely redid our training process.”

Right answer: “Actually, I was able to have a big impact in my current job. First, I tripled…”

By answering normally, you’ll be able to communicate your relevant strengths, experience, and skills, while also showing that you perform well under stress.

Get to the Point

When people get nervous, they tend to ramble. However, not only will giving a long, unfocused answer let the hiring manager know he or she has successfully rattled you, it’ll also increase the odds that you’ll say something you weren’t meaning to.

So, if at all possible, keep your answers concise. For example, imagine the interviewer says, “How well do you think you’ve performed in this interview so far? Be honest.”

Don’t launch into a long, drawn-out response. Instead, say something along the lines of, “I think I’m doing well.”

Pause if Necessary

Even with your best intentions, you might feel yourself beginning to panic or get angry. If this happens, take a beat.

Interviewers won’t ding you for pausing briefly. And even if the pause stretches on past the “normal” limit, you can say, “I needed a second to gather my thoughts. Now, back to your question…”

Since this is a stress interview, the other person might be sarcastic or rude, but that’s fine—keep calm and remember you’re not actually being penalized.

Maybe you need more time to develop an answer. Try repeating the question or saying, “Hmm. That’s an interesting question,” before launching into your reply.

Answer Each Question as it Comes

Many stress interviews are rapid-fire, meaning that the hiring manager will throw you a new question while you’re in the middle of answering the last one.

When this happens, don’t say, “Hold on, let me finish this question first,” or “I’ll answer that when I’m done responding to your previous question.”

Simply stop and pivot to the new question.

Here’s how that would play out:

Interviewer: So, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made on the job?

You: Hmm. That’s an interesting question. When I was working as a marketing manager for Cavicular, then—

Interviewer: How would you react if you caught your boss stealing?

You: First, I would…

Even though undergoing stress interviews are never fun, they can actually be a great opportunity. Not many candidates handle them well—so when you finish the interview without breaking down or getting angry, the hiring manager will definitely be impressed.

About the Author

Aja Frost is a freelance writer specializing in business, tech, career advice, and productivity. Check out her website or say hi on Twitter.