"Thanks for your interest, but we've decided to go with another candidate."
It seemed like an offer was definitely in the works, too; after all, you'd sent them references upon request, and even briefly chatted about possible compensation. Plus, you bonded with the hiring manager--you can't have made that up.
In spite of an outstanding final interview, you didn't get the job--now what?
1. Take Time to Heal
Simply put: Rejection stings! Slow down and give yourself time to deal with your emotions. Lean on your support system and vent to family and friends--not networking contacts you don't know well on a personal level. You're going to need time before you feel ready to re-build your confidence and put energy into the job search again.
If you don't cut yourself some slack, you're bound to run out of steam in the process, and maybe even make careless errors. Give yourself a week or so. That's enough time to lick your wounds without completely losing momentum.
2. Think About What You Could've Done Differently
Hindsight is 20/20, so don't get defeatist as you consider what you may have done differently. Perhaps you could've spent more time prepping answers, sent a stronger thank-you note, or been more confident when talking about your accomplishments.
And, if you conclude that you did your best and wouldn't change anything, that's fine, too. It's the reflection and self-awareness that really matters. Based on my recruiting experience and as a candidate, I know that unless the hiring manager is running short on time, she's guaranteed to ask if you have any questions. During that final Q&A segment, if I'm the interviewee, I'll often ask, "Is there any reason that you can think of as to why I may not be offered this position?"
That query has given me the opportunity to clear up any miscommunication, address any perceived weaknesses, or, at least, prepare myself for not receiving an offer. Do this next time.
For now, though, if after a couple weeks you're still questioning the outcome, hop on LinkedIn and take a peek at who landed the role and what qualifications they brought to the table that you may be lacking. A caveat: Proceed with caution here, because this information can't tell the full picture.
3. Acknowledge What's Out of Your Control
Sometimes the stars just don't align. No need to beat yourself up over things you can't influence or control. As a recruiter, I can't count the number of times I've witnessed a company pass on extremely qualified candidates. Those decisions taught me that viewing hiring from the outside is incomplete.
In reality, the full picture includes company politics with employee referrals, in addition to individuals who are already in the hiring manager's professional or personal networks. Internally, there may be candidates looking for promotions or lateral moves. And don't forget former interns and pipeline candidates who've interviewed in the past. And, this is all assuming hiring freezes, budgetary realignments, or role changes don't pop up.
The point is, since you'll never know for sure, it's important to give yourself the benefit of the doubt that you're confident you interviewed well and impressed the people you met.
4. Get Back to the Hunt
Now that the initial sting has subsided and you've began to regain confidence, it's time to dive back in. Start by breaking down what exactly made your dream job so desirable. Use that info to discover comparable companies in your market. Start with the competition and dig in from there. A list of 10 or so targeted companies is a good way to zero in on the right place for you.
If your interview experience gave you a new determination to land a job at the aforementioned company, that's OK, too. Continue to build your resume and LinkedIn profile via new cases of volunteering, accomplishments, training, and recommendations.
You may not be working in your dream job yet--landing the perfect position takes time. A friend once told me, "It only makes sense that highly regarded companies make it tough to get in the door. If it's a special place, then it's worth the extra effort, plus the wait."
Focus on the positive; you're now that person in the pipeline, so when a new role arises, you have direct access to influencers and decision-makers that other candidates simply don't.
Recently, I coached a friend in preparation for a big interview. She didn't get the job, but because she was the organization's second choice, months later when the initial hire didn't pan out, they reached back out to her. After just one super informal interview, she was hired! You just never know how you're going to arrive at your dream job--or exactly when.