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From successes to disaster, four young South Africans shared their first job interview stories and the valuable lessons they learnt from them. 

Law student, 22, Cape Town

The interview I attended was for vacation work and articles at a large corporate law firm. One that I had dreamt of being part of as it is very well-known and respected. I received just 24 hours notice but made sure I could attend no matter what.

I prepared for the interview by researching potential questions on the internet and verbally practising them to myself. I arrived for the interview 30 minutes early.  I got to know the other candidates and realised we’re not much different although some were older and more experienced.

The head of HR asked all the questions I had prepared for. The HR team were overall pleasant and they remained neutral. However, halfway into the interview, the director suddenly decided to mention that she knows my family, and met me as a little girl. She had once dated a family friend. From there, the interview immediately went south. She began picking on me in the most embarrassing and reprimanding way. She made remarks about how I am small built, too soft-spoken, unassertive and said that I would not cope in a large firm. She also made a point of saying that I wouldn’t be able to stand my ground in a boardroom full of men. In answering her questions I tried to keep it professional as possible but none of my answers seemed to please her. I sat there shocked but managed to keep my calm.

Overall, I learnt that it’s important to really figure out who you are, and believe in that. If you find it difficult to define and express yourself, it is time to do some soul searching. Although my experience was unpleasant and I was left horrified, I look forward to improving my interview skills and attending more. Practice makes perfect after all.

Actress/Television Presenter, 24, Johannesburg

I went to an audition once where a white guy asked black women to act like cash tellers and to pretend to chew gum loudly. He was laughing hysterically at the performances and even asked the women to pat their heads like they’re wearing a weave. He then (in a stereotypical black accent) asked us to say “plastic” like ladies from “ShopRite”. He thought it was so funny but it was actually uncomfortably cringy. This was the guy giving us the job so we either did it and made him laugh or left.

From this, I learnt that I’d never do a job that goes against my beliefs, values and what I am constantly trying to fight against on a daily basis. I’d rather starve.

My advice is that, if it’s microaggression or soft racism or if you feel like the behaviour aimed at you or the people around you is violent then it is an attack and you should leave. Do not accept acting briefs that belittle you or go against your values and beliefs.

When auditioning remember that your self worth is not defined by casting agents. You are not less of an actress/actor because you did not get the part. Audition and let go of rejection gracefully and move on. If you get it, you get it, if you don’t, you don’t but there are so many more auditions ahead. Pick them wisely and make sure they do not go against what you believe in.

Financial planner, 21, Durban

To prepare for my first ever job interview, I had gone online and researched the company on aspects such as values, strategies, sustainability, charity funding and so on. I then decided if this company aligned with my values before proceeding. Once establishing the connection I did several mock interviews and thought about some personal experiences that showed evidence of my skills and knowledge.

Unexpectedly my first Interview was online which I found to be challenging in its own way. Thereafter I was invited to a personal interview which was rather exciting. Feeling accomplished to have made it this far had helped boost my ego.

Just before I met with the interviewees, I felt as though I was falling 30 floors but growing wings in the process. The interview went well. They had already done extensive research on me and knew my background, strengths and weaknesses. I got a call later that day asking me to join the company.

I realised that being offered a job from a company that wants you for your true self is better than a company that wants you for saying the right thing at the right time in a one hour interview. It's where you’re going to spend most of your life so make sure you're happy there.

Medical Officer, 28, Durban

My job interview was for a  medical officer post. I prepared by asking colleagues and friends in my field who had previously attended the interviews for advice. I spent time studying and researching the questions that seemed to be trending. I made a special effort to reflect and put into words why I wanted to pursue this specific field and the contribution I felt I could make.

I sat outside watching the other candidates enter and leave the interview room and this made the butterflies multiply inside my belly. At the time I felt like it was the be all and end all. In retrospect, I realise it was the first of many interviews and part of the learning process.

I sat down and the panel introduced themselves by name and designation. They explained an overview of the interview format and made me feel comfortable and welcome as their valued guest. The first interviewee asked her question, I was well prepared, but nerves got the better of me and I rattled off the correct answer quickly but in a disorganised manner. After this, I decided to take a deep breath and a moment to think.

As the closing question the panel asked me what I do to relax and cope in a stressful environment I answered that I rely a lot on my family for debriefing. I also added a half-truth said that I do yoga frequently to make myself sound more well rounded. It's a goal of mine but I have yet to achieve it.

I did not get this particular job. But from the experience, I learnt that the interview panel is not out to trick you or make you look bad. Staying calm is a learnt behaviour that comes with experience. And if you aren't confident, fake it. Smiling is very important, people like a friendly approachable person who appears confident. Lastly, a basic question does not deserve a basic answer. Structure it well and sell yourself.