The unemployment rate may be down, but competition for good jobs is still fierce, which makes nailing your interview all the more important.
"The average hourly wage is down, the average number of weeks [worked] is down, the average labor participation rate is within a half a percentage point of the lowest since early 1978," said Oakland, California-based career coach Marty Nemko. "For the average person, it's far more difficult to get a good job, and the more competitive it is, the better the job you need to do [in the interview]."
Of course, job interviews make most people anxious and can present a number of tricky situations. How can you navigate those inevitable awkward moments and use your interview to stand out in a large applicant pool? For pragmatic as well as ethical reasons, honesty is indeed the best policy.
"It's been said that a job interview is two people lying to each other. The employer says how great the place is; the employee says how great he or she is," Nemko said. "The more you can show that you are the exception to that and that you are being radically honest, not only are you likely to impress, you're more likely to land a job in which you will be accepted for who you are."
For example, if you're lacking some requirements that were included in the job description, better than claiming that you do have them or hoping no one will notice, you should be prepared to discuss what you're missing. Since you were called in for an interview, not meeting a job requirement or two probably is not a deal breaker, but you should still be up front and explain why you're still a good match for the job.
"Bring those issues up yourself so you can describe it as reassuringly as you can within the bounds of honesty," said Nemko. If you, say, don't have a bachelor's degree when the job description asked for one, explain why you chose to forego the high cost of college and learn your skills by other means, Nemko said. Highlight the work experience, including any internships or volunteer positions, that make you qualified for the role they're hoping to fill.
You can handle the situation similarly if you have any gaps in your work history. Whether your time off was for personal reasons or due to difficulty finding a job after a layoff, explain what you did during your time away from the workforce and how you improved your skills or grew your experience during the break. "No matter the reason, be upfront when asked about your employment gap, but answer with eloquence," said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for CareerBuilder. "Employers want to hear you've treated your time off as a period of self-reflection."
Even with more sensitive topics, speaking the truth is your best option, Nemko said. For example, if you've been fired numerous times, let's say due to anger issues and losing your temper at work, when you're ready to get back on track with your career, you should be candid about your history.
If you have issues that have caused you to get fired more than once, be sure you have dealt with them so you can explain them to a potential new employer. "The first thing you should be doing is looking inward," said Nemko. Once you feel you've worked through your issues, you can honestly explain your situation and tell your interviewer how you're equipped to do better.
Keeping it real is a good way to pick your interview apparel, too. With many work places going casual, your go-to interview suit may not be the right fit. "If you're going to be at a Silicon Valley job where everybody's wearing T-shirts, you don't wear a suit (for the interview) — that's ridiculous," said Nemko. "All it does is makes you look phony."
A good rule of thumb is to dress one or two notches fancier than what you'd wear on the job. So if most people wear T-shirts, wear a collared shirt for the interview. "Your best bet is to do your homework ahead of time to figure out what the standard dress code would be for the role and company to which you're interviewing," said Haefner. "But in general, err on the side of overdressing."
And dress the same way for a Skype interview as you would for an in-person meeting. "Shedding your lounge wear will help switch your mind to professional mode," she said. "And it'll avoid any mishaps that could occur if you stood up and the hiring manager saw your pajama pants."
Of course, the most common tricky interview situation is discussing salary — and it may be the one time you want to dial down how forthcoming you are.
In your interview, Nemko recommended asking what salary has been budgeted for this position right after you feel you've impressed them. "That way, you're getting them to give you the number," he said. "Once they ask you what your salary requirements are, you're in a dangerous situation. If you give too high an offer, you may have priced yourself out. If you give too low a number, you've now given away thousands of dollars."
It's best to avoid divulging your salary requirements too early in the hiring process, if possible, Haefner said. "It's a good idea to say you'd like to defer a conversation about compensation until after the company has had a chance to evaluate your experience and skills to decide whether you're the right fit for them," she said.
"In general, it's best to wait a bit before discussing salary requirements, because focusing solely on the salary can raise a red flag with employers that you are only there for the money and not for deeper reasons."
— Stacy Rapacon, special to CNBC.com