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Written by Ray Bixler.

Don’t you wish you could read the mind of the person sitting on the other side of the desk during a job interview? What are they looking for? What are they trying to find out about you? What should you say when they ask you to define your biggest weakness and biggest mistake? Why are they looking at you in such a serious way? Uh oh, do you have a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth? (Well, hopefully you checked a mirror before sitting down and aren’t wondering about that last one.)

But it would really help to have a sense of what a prospective employer wants, wouldn’t it?

It may be impossible to actually become a mind reader, but you can aim for the next best thing if you listen carefully to what others have to say – especially job references. That’s because, after all, these are the people who know job candidates best and are often the types of people who are making hiring decisions as well.

At SkillSurvey, we recently completed an in-depth study of what job references say in their comments about candidates. We looked at a sample of nearly 45,000 words or short phrases that were provided by almost 13,000 references, and then identified the top work-related areas of improvement, as well as strengths.

These are the top-five areas of improvement that job references mentioned:

Word or Phrase Example of job reference commentary
Confidence “Joe was sometimes not confident in what he was doing.”
Communication “Communication in our job is key, so Rick can always improve a notch just making sure the right people are aware of an issue that could affect their financials.”
Experience “I believe her limited experience is an area for improvement.”
Knowledge “Needs to gain more industry-specific knowledge for further development and growth.”
Time Management/Prioritizing “Time management would be his biggest area of opportunity.”


You can be sure that employers will be paying special attention to these key areas of improvement whenever they’re talking to job candidates. By being aware of these five areas, you can improve your performance in job interviews and do as much as you can to set yourself apart from the crowd. Here are some ways you can be proactive about addressing each area.

  • Confidence – Preparation is key. Head into each job interview with a good sense of the role and your personal elevator pitch on why you’re an ideal fit. And do your homework – use LinkedIn and other tools to research the people who will be interviewing you so you can find common ground and simply have a feel for the person you’re talking with.
  • Communication – Develop a handful of examples of your work and experience and have them ready to go. Prepare your thoughts on what you’d like to say about these examples in advance. This will help you communicate clearly and confidently during the interview.
  • Experience and Knowledge – These two go hand-in-hand. There’s really no substitute for this – you can’t fake it – but you can be smart about how you apply your experiences to the challenges facing your prospective employer. Doing that kind of advanced thinking will demonstrate that you’re ready to step into the job on day one.
  • Time Management – This is a great area for you to bring up proactively in the discussion, even if it’s not asked about specifically. Offer an example or two of how you’re organized and well-prepared to take on a multi-faceted role and share these at the right time in the interview. They’ll help you “check the box” on this potential area of concern for your potential employer.

Our research also outlined the most common strengths that job references shared about candidates. None of these are very surprising, but it’s good to keep them in mind. You can think of these as requirements for a good interview – so make sure you’re thinking about these areas when giving examples and telling your story.

Top-five strengths:

Word or Phrase Example of job reference commentary
Commitment/Dedication “Alice is a very dedicated, loyal employee and is always there.”
Dependable/Meets Deadlines “Reliable! Give him a job and he will get it done.”
Team Orientation “Team player – works well with teams pulling his weight and the weight of others.”
Attention to Detail/Accuracy “He is meticulous in his attention to detail – never leaving any loose ends in his work.”
Attitude/Energy “Positive attitude, happy, well-rounded.”

You can think of these areas for improvement and strengths taken directly from job reference commentary as a handy checklist you can pull out whenever you’re heading into the next big job interview. They may not offer a window into your interviewer’s mind – but they can give you a leg up in a very competitive job market.