In the conference room, I imagined myself standing on a tennis court: I tossed the ball into the air then smashed an ace serve right past my opponent. Back in real life, I smiled to myself when the assistant came to tell me the McKinsey partner was ready to meet with me. With confident steps, I followed her down the hall to one of my final-round interviews with the strategy consulting firm.
So why was I thinking about tennis when I could have been recalling business frameworks and other concepts frantically to prepare for a likely-grueling case interview? For one, last-minute cramming—and anything done frantically—rarely adds value. More importantly, I was using positive imagery to boost my confidence for the interview. Imagining myself doing something in which I had proficiency—tennis, in this case, which I played for my high school team—endowed me with a greater sense of capability as I approached a less familiar and typically anxiety-provoking situation.
Much research has documented the effectiveness of positive imagery, and it’s used for a variety of purposes: excelling in sports, quitting bad habits such as smoking, even experiencing a less painful childbirth process. Many studies have demonstrated the ability of positive imagery, or “guided imagery,” to help patients deal with medical conditions ranging from allergies to heart disease.
So how can you use imagery to prepare for your interview, whether it’s for college, graduate school, or a job? First, you should practice the technique before you really need to use it. Start by finding a quiet space in your day, clearing your mind, and using one of the techniques below. The more you practice, the more easily you’ll be able to summon imagery when needed. Then, ideally starting a day or two before the interview, practice using imagery to relax yourself and boost your confidence. There are several specific ways to use positive imagery:
1. Visualize yourself doing something you excel at: This is the version I used as I prepared for my consulting interviews. Think of something you’re really good at, whether a sport, an academic subject, cooking, or whatever, then visualize yourself doing it. Use very specific details: imagine the setting, the equipment you’re using, the result, even the positive reactions of others.
2. Visualize yourself excelling in the interview itself: If you’ve been through successful interviews, use your memory of those to help create positive imagery about the upcoming interview. Imagine yourself shaking hands with the interviewer and providing poised and compelling answers to their questions. Imagine the interviewer nodding in response and giving you positive feedback at the end. Focus more on what this will look like than the content of the questions and answers.
3. Use positive affirmations: People have mixed feelings about saying positive things to themselves—it can feel forced, corny, or ridiculous to talk to yourself in this way (thanks in no small part to Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character on the TV show Saturday Night Live!). But you may find it helpful to say things to yourself (out loud or in your head) like, “I’m going to do well today” or “I deserve a place in this class.” And again there’s strong evidence that it works: in controlled experiments, people using positive affirmations were able to lift more weight or break boards more easily than those who weren’t. Hopefully you won’t have to break boards as part of your interview, but consider experimenting with positive affirmations, with or without any imagery.
Positive imagery helped me get the McKinsey job, and it can help you excel in your interviews.
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