Why You Need to Be Yourself in a Job Interview, with Courtney Ulwelling

Listen On:

It’s normal to want to show up as your best self in a job interview; after all, you want the hiring manager to like you and want to hire you. However, there’s a difference between being your true best self and being someone you’re not. Find Your Dream Job guest Courtney Ulwelling says there are three things you need to do to show up as your authentic self in an interview. First, prepare, but don’t go in and recite a bunch of facts you read on their website. Second, wear professional clothes that make you feel comfortable. And finally, pay attention. Listen to their questions and be ready with questions of your own. 

About Our Guest:

Courtney Ulwelling is a talent acquisition specialist at Portland General Electric. 

Resources in This Episode:

Connect with Courtney on LinkedIn.


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 455:

Why You Need to Be Yourself in a Job Interview, with Courtney Ulwelling

Airdate: June 18, 2024

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

You want to make a good impression when you meet a hiring manager.

But you might get nervous, too.

Or think you need to behave like someone you’re not.

Courtney Ulwelling is here to talk about why you need to be yourself in a job interview.

She’s a principal talent acquisition specialist at Portland General Electric.

Courtney has more than 25 years of experience in full-cycle recruiting, from sourcing and screening to negotiating and onboarding.

She joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Well, let’s jump into it, Courtney.

Why wouldn’t candidates behave like themselves in a job interview? Why does this happen?

Courtney Ulwelling:

I believe this happens because there’s a belief out there that you need to walk into an interview, and completely impress people, and you need to walk into an interview and answer all of the questions, 100%, and that’s just not true. There’s no interview where someone answers all of the questions completely, that get the high scores. We really want to meet you in the interview.

Mac Prichard:

Can you tell, as an HR manager, and you’ve done this for many years now, Courtney, you and your colleagues; can you tell when someone’s feeling nervous or maybe not behaving like themselves?

Courtney Ulwelling:

Absolutely, it’s almost assured every time a person walks into an interview that there will be some level of nervousness. Being aware of your body language is pretty important in showing up as your authentic self, as well, and we try to ease people into the interview when they walk in the room, but it can be daunting to be sitting in front of a panel of people that you’re not familiar with or you don’t know.

Mac Prichard:

Again, people want to make a good impression when walking into an interview room. Are there habits or practices that you see people use, that, while well-intentioned, that you’d encourage them not to follow in order to show their authentic selves?

Courtney Ulwelling:

Absolutely. I think first, it’s important to prepare, but don’t over-prepare. It’s important to become familiar with the company. Maybe look up the panel members on LinkedIn, but you don’t want to feel like you’re reciting something straight from a website or tell people, “Oh, I looked you up on LinkedIn. You went to this college and this high school.” And going too far.

Preparing but not over-preparing is one of the first things that I would say.

One of the other things that I would recommend is to dress professionally but comfortably. It’s important that you look comfortable in your interview. And also listen. That’s a very important trait that I like to see candidates walk into the room with.

They’re listening. They’re listening to the questions that we’re asking, they’re answering the questions that we’re asking.

I would say that those are probably my top 3 recommendations.

Mac Prichard:

When people, you think, aren’t listening, what are they doing instead? What’s going on there?

Courtney Ulwelling:

I’ll give you an example of when someone isn’t listening.

Whenever I open my interview, my initial interview with a candidate, the first thing I ask them is, “How familiar are you with PGE?” And they might start by saying, “I’m a customer.”

“I followed you for a long time,” but then they might immediately start going into their professional background, their experience, why they think that they’re a fit, and I haven’t gotten there yet with them.

I really want to know how familiar you are with us, and what research have you done. I’m trying to listen to see that you’ve looked at the website. We’re going to get to your professional skillset, absolutely.

Mac Prichard:

Besides that connection to the company, in this instance, as a customer and sharing that perhaps you’ve looked at the website or done other research, what other answers are you looking for when you ask that question, what do you know about my company?

Courtney Ulwelling:

Well, I think, particularly with Portland General Electric, I’m listening to see if people are attuned to our mission. We are really a mission-driven organization, we’re fighting climate change, and one of the things that I’m listening for is, have you done your research? And does that value align with your values?

Mac Prichard:

Another point that you touched on at the start of the conversation, Courtney, was that you don’t expect candidates to know all of the answers to all of the questions. What do you recommend somebody do when they don’t know the answer? How should they respond by staying true to themselves? What do you recommend here?

Courtney Ulwelling:

This is probably one of my favorite questions that I get asked by candidates when I’m going through a coaching session with them, whether they’re internal or external to Portland General.

You know, we know whenever we walk into an interview that there’s not going to be one person that possesses every single skill or every single bit of knowledge that we might be looking for.

We’re looking for attributes or traits in a person, and how you can answer a question when you don’t have a specific experience, or you haven’t experienced that specific scenario, is kind of leaning into it.

I use the software Excel as the example because most professionals who have used the Microsoft Office Suite will have some exposure to Excel, but let’s say Excel is one of the skills that we’re looking for. We’re looking for somebody that has some experience with spreadsheets, and you come to that question in the interview, and you don’t have experience with Excel.

How I would recommend that you answer the question is you say, “You know, I haven’t had experience with that particular software. How do you use it in this role?”

And that would give the interviewer some time to say, “Well, we use the spreadsheets for tracking this and this and this.” And then I might have a similar experience with another software that does a similar thing, and then I would say, “You know, I haven’t used Excel for that, but I’ve used this other tool to do a very similar thing. I use it very efficiently. If I were to be selected for the position, what training might be available?”

That’s a great way to answer a question when you don’t have the skillset or the exposure to a scenario that you’re, again, going back to listening. “I might not have that experience with that particular thing, but I have something similar to offer.”

That’s showing me as the interviewer that you’re engaged, that you’re really listening and understanding, comprehending. It’s pretty important, and that’s a great way to answer that type of question.

Or you could say, if you’re stumped, maybe you’re nervous, you can always ask to defer the question. Maybe it’s a scenario, and you want a little more time to think about it, ask, “Can we table that question for a little while? I want to give that some more thought before I head straight into an answer.”

Mac Prichard:

What do you, as an employer, think when somebody makes that request, “Can I table the question”? What’s in your head?

Courtney Ulwelling:

I think this person is thoughtful; that the interview means something to them because they really want to offer the best answer that they can, and you’re not always going to get it five seconds after a question is asked. You might need a little bit more time, and that’s okay.

I also like when people are really open about – it’s an indicator of how they’re feeling, if they’re comfortable to say, “You know, I need a little more time here, so let me give that some more thought.” It’s almost like a soft boundary if you will, and I think that’s an attractive trait in an applicant.

Mac Prichard:


We want to take a break, Courtney.

When we come back, Courtney Ulwelling will continue to share her advice on why you need to be yourself in a job interview and how to do it.

Stay with us.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Courtney Ulwelling.

She’s a principal talent acquisition specialist at Portland General Electric.

Courtney has more than 25 years of experience in full-cycle recruiting, from sourcing and screening to negotiating and onboarding.

She joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Now, Courtney, before the break, we were talking about why you need to be yourself in a job interview, and you were sharing some tips for how people can do this and how they might respond in order to be themselves in what can be a nervous and stressful situation.

I know something that comes up in an interview, sometimes a candidate might make a mistake or give a less-than-ideal answer; what do you recommend that someone do when this happens in a conversation with an interviewer?

Courtney Ulwelling:

Well, I have a recommendation on how to avoid some of that, to get ahead of that, if you will, and then end with how you can circle back and readdress the question and answer the way that you want to.

I always recommend that applicants bring notes with them about their experiences. You know that you’re going to get asked certain types of questions, like you’ll be asked a question about collaboration, about customer service, about friction. Taking notes about some of those key moments in your work history and bringing those to the interview can help you stay on topic and help you and be an assist to answer questions to begin with.

If you feel like you haven’t answered a question adequately or maybe you just didn’t give the best answer, you can always ask after the interview, after they finish their questions, to revisit a question.

Say, “I’ve given this a little more thought, and I’d like to give you a more detailed answer.” Or, “I’d like to answer that question again.” You can certainly do that. Or you can, I’ve had a lot of candidates over the years, they’ll follow up with an email to me, and they’ll say, “Hey Courtney, I felt like this question, I didn’t answer very well. When I left, I thought, I should’ve said this.” And then, I’ll forward that to the interview panel.

Mac Prichard:

What do you think when someone does that, when they send that follow-up email? What’s the best way to do that well, and what have you seen work, Courtney?

Courtney Ulwelling:

It hasn’t always been the thing that has awarded that person the position, but it has shown to my perspective, and I think the panel’s perspective in the past, that this person has a good EQ, and they can walk away and say, “You know, maybe I didn’t really answer that to the best of my ability” and to come back and say, “Hey, I didn’t exactly do this correctly, so I want to come back and say this is the full answer.”

So, that emotional intelligence piece of a person that really understands that, hey, you can make mistakes. It’s okay.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned a moment ago bringing notes to an interview to remind yourself of key points. What’s the best way to use those notes? I’m wondering if employers might be surprised to see someone take out notes. What have you seen work?

Courtney Ulwelling:

I’ve seen many candidates bringing notes to interviews and referring to them. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the actual panel interview, and maybe something that we’ve lost a little bit in terms of the nonverbal cues that you get when you’re interviewing in person rather than on video, but the interview isn’t just for us to understand who you are and how you might perform in a role, but it’s also you interviewing us.

It’s okay to bring notes to an interview. It’s okay to bring your resume to an interview, though we likely already have it. You can ask for the interview questions in advance, or sometimes, in the interview, we’ll give you a copy of those.

Not all companies and not in all circumstances do we give you the questions in advance, but often, we’ll give people a copy of the questions when they’re in the interview room, or if you’re on video, you can ask us to type the question in the chat, or you can turn on a closed caption.

People sometimes comprehend better if they’re reading the question rather than just hearing it, so I really want to empower people to treat the interview as a discussion, as two parties are coming together to learn more about one another and what a professional position on this team might look like.

Mac Prichard:

Another tip you offer that candidates could use to help be themselves is to take a pause when answering questions. How does pausing help you be more like yourself and be more comfortable when you’re in the interview room?

Courtney Ulwelling:

A pause can be very valuable because you might be asked a question – the best example that you have might not immediately come to mind, so taking a few seconds just to sit with the question, think about your experience, and then answer the question, is a much better way to answer the question than just rushing to an answer.

I have to say, I’m guilty of this. This is my own kryptonite when I’ve interviewed, wanting to answer right away, but sometimes, if you answer right away and you don’t take a moment to really think about the situation or scenario that you want to share, you’ll lose focus. You might start going off on a tangent and say, “I’m so sorry. Did I answer your question?” Or, “Can you repeat the question again?”

It’s much better to take those few seconds and think about how you want to answer it before you actually start talking.

Mac Prichard:

What about follow-up questions, Courtney? If you’re not sure, for example, what the interviewer’s trying to get at or you don’t fully understand a question, is it okay to ask clarifying questions?

Courtney Ulwelling:

Absolutely, absolutely. Some questions can be vague; sometimes, they’re meant to be vague to see how the person’s going to answer it, but if you’re not quite sure what kind of example they want or scenario they want, it’s absolutely okay to ask follow-up questions.

“I’m so sorry. Can you explain that a little bit more?” Or, “Are you going for this kind of situation or this kind of situation?” That’s absolutely fine.

Mac Prichard:

I’m intrigued by a suggestion that you made a moment ago, about asking for the questions in advance. How common is this?

And when you do get the questions in advance, how should you use them, and how will it help you be more like yourself in the interview room?

Courtney Ulwelling:

Asking for questions in advance is somewhat of a new thing. I would say not all companies have totally embraced that. Sometimes, companies will give you the behavioral competencies, “These are the areas that we’re going to talk about.” Or, “You’re going to have a technical interview that is going to ask these types of questions.”

If you’re fortunate enough to be interviewing with a company that does give you your interview questions in advance, it gives you that time to prepare. It gives you that time to think about, “Okay, what is my best example of that?”

Mac Prichard:

What’s the best way to prepare those answers? Is it something that you should write out and rehearse in advance? Should you bring notes in or an outline? What would you recommend?

Courtney Ulwelling:

I would do two of those things for sure. I would bring your notes to the interview, and I’d also practice.

Interviewing is…as recruiters, we’re always asking ourselves to be watchful of, “Is this person just great at interviewing, or does this person really possess the attributes that we’re looking for in the position?”

Again, prepare, but don’t over-prepare. Bring your notes, do a mock interview with your friends, your partner, whomever, and maybe if you’re internal, maybe an HR business partner. I think practicing how you’re going to answer questions is really important.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Courtney.

Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Courtney Ulwelling:

What’s next for me? It’s intern season here at PGE, Portland General Electric, so we are starting that effort now. I have a focus on early careers, so that’s where I’m going to be for probably the next 2-3 months, and just, in general, keep enjoying recruiting for Portland General Electric.

Mac Prichard:

Terrific. Well, I know listeners can learn more about you and your work at Portland General Electric by connecting with you on LinkedIn, and when they do reach out to you, I hope they mention that they heard you on Find Your Dream Job.

Now, Courtney, given all of the great advice that you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to be yourself in a job interview?

Courtney Ulwelling:

I really want people to remember that bringing their authentic self to an interview process is going to help you actually find your dream job.

It’s going to help the people that you’re interviewing with know who you really are. You’ll be showing up as your authentic self, and so as you interact with the company, you’ll start being able to discern whether or not this is a group of people you want to work with or an organization you want to work with.

Being your authentic self in an interview, through some of the things that we talked about today, you really can find your dream job.

That’s how I found mine.

Mac Prichard:

Next week, our guest will be Zach Moore.

He’s the career pathways manager at College Possible.

It’s a nonprofit that coaches students from low-income communities to and through college.

You’re moving into a new career.

How do you show employers that what you did in your old occupation applies in your new field?

Join us next Wednesday when Zach Moore and I discuss how to identify and talk about your transferable skills.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List.

Susan Thornton-Hough schedules our guests and writes our newsletter. Lisa Kislingbury Anderson manages our social media.

Our sound engineer and editor is Matt Fiorillo. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.