Preparing to impress at interviews

What to expect

Being invited for an interview might turn your legs to jelly but it is actually a good sign, it means you have passed the first stage of your application and they have liked what they have read. If you have applied for a graduate position you are likely to have more than one interview but sometimes this can be true for work placements too. Some large employers will get an agency to conduct the first interview, but there is an increasing trend for the first stage interview to be by telephone. For second stage interviews it is typical to have more than one interviewer. Interviews can last anything from 20 to 50 minutes but employers generally advise candidates on this and who will be interviewing; if you do not receive this information you may wish to ask HR.

Typical First Round Interview Questions

  • Why do you want the job?
  • What made you choose to study your discipline?
  • Tell me about your final year dissertation
  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • Who are our major competitors?
  • What do you know about us?
  • Competency based questions eg. When have you worked with others in a team and what was your role? Tell us about a problem you have faced, how did you overcome it and why did you choose that solution?
  • Where do you want to be in 5 years time?
  • Questions re. current affairs

How to prepare what to say

If you are feeling very anxious at the thought of an interview you may wish to jump to the section on Keeping the nerves under control, however thorough preparation will help as there’s nothing worse than feeling underprepared for an interview! First stage interviews are about checking out the application form, is the candidate as good as they sounded? Therefore candidates often feel like they are repeating what’s on their application form but to be successful you need to be able to take this to the next level. You will be scored against the criteria advertised for the position. The following steps will help prepare you for this:

  1. Check the employer’s website; From the job specification list the competencies (skills), aptitudes, personality required for the post
  2. Re-read your application form, look at the examples you gave and think about how you could expand on them.
  3. Ask yourself: ‘What did this situation teach me about myself? How could I improve? What other solutions were there to those examples?
  4. Identify any potential gaps in what they are looking for and what’s on your application form and get examples at the ready from a range of situations eg degree course, voluntary work, sports, clubs etc.
  5. Knowledge of the job – prepare to answer questions that explore your understanding of what you have applied for e.g. Management, HR, marketing etc.
  6. Knowledge of the organisation – check their website to see what’s new (any Awards, mergers or new CEO in post?) prepare for ‘Why do you want to work for us?’ and ‘Who are our competitors?’
  7. Commitment and drive – all employers want motivated and keen employees (ie ‘Where do you want to be in 5 years time?’) research what the career path can be at that organisation for new graduates and although it’s good to be ambitious avoid the cheesy ‘Doing your job’ or ‘Managing Director’ responses!

Second Stage Interviews

These can be more in-depth so expect to be asked more about your experiences. You may get more specific questions related to the post eg ‘What do you think of our latest marketing campaign?’ or ‘What is the current Interest Rate?’

You may get scenario questions eg ‘What would you do if…’ Often there are no wrong answers they just want to make you think on your feet.

How to answer the questions with confidence

A good interviewer will put you at ease and ask a lot of ‘open’ questions to give you the opportunity to expand on your answers and demonstrate how you respond to a challenge and how articulate you are. The following guidelines may help you handle the questions:

  1. Always be positive about yourself, and if asked what your weaknesses are identify a weakness that can be corrected or even better how you have already worked on it.
  2. Look at the person who asked you the question when answering, but glance at the others on the panel too so you avoid excluding them
  3. Seek clarification if you are not sure what has been asked
  4. Answer a simple question with a brief answer, but ask if that has answered the question or would they like you to expand further?
  5. If you need time to think about a question before you answer then just ask for it
  6. Speak a little slower than normal, nervousness speeds us up!
  7. Try to sit still and ask your friends if you have any annoying mannerisms you need to avoid

Telephone Interviews

Ensure you have a quiet place to talk and have your application to hand. Speak slower as most people speed up on the telephone and still smile to project warmth. If you need time to think, tell them so they don’t think you’ve gone! Some people find it helps if they dress the part.

Creating the right first impression

It is often said that we have four minutes to impress at an interview. First impressions start when you arrive (early but not too early!) be polite to everyone you meet (including the other candidates!) it is not unusual for interviewers to ask reception staff how the candidates came across. When you enter the interview room smile and shake hands with confidence. This is something to practise if you are not used to shaking hands. It is a good idea to wear a smart version of what the normal style of dress is in the organisation. Check their website to get an idea of what this is.

Preparing questions for the interviewer

It is a good idea to have two questions prepared. This will demonstrate your enthusiasm for the post as long as they are good questions! This is not the time to ask about salary; this information will be in a job offer and if you wish to negotiate over the terms that’s the time to do it. Avoid questions you could have answered by reading their website, instead use the opportunity to ask more about the training or career development, try and follow on from what was said to you at the interview. However, if you are at the end of the interview and are kicking yourself for not having had an opportunity to tell them something about yourself then this is your golden opportunity. ‘I have only one question but I am aware that I haven’t told you about my final year project that could be of interest to you could I briefly tell you about it now?’ But do keep it brief, the interviewers will be on a time schedule and will not appreciate someone who makes them overrun.

Questions for the Interviewer

  • How will I be assessed/my performance appraised?
  • Will I be assigned a mentor? If so, who will they be?
  • What has happened to previous post holders?
  • Do they think there would be an opportunity for you to use/develop your language skills?
  • When can you expect to hear about the outcome of your interview?

Preparing how to say it

Like preparing for exams everyone has their own preferred style of getting ready for an interview. If you are not used to interviews then speaking out loud and ‘blowing your own trumpet’ can be a challenge. The more practise you get at this the more relaxed you will be at interview so ask friends/family to ask you questions and get used to talking about yourself. If you are very uncomfortable at doing this then start talking to yourself! Summarise your examples to brief bullet points so you are not trying to learn passages of text which will sound too rehearsed at interview.

Key points to remember

  • Interviewers have been in your position and may be nervous themselves
  • It is normal to be nervous at interviews; it shows you want the job!
  • You have been invited for interview as your application was good!
  • If you are unsuccessful ask for feedback and do better next time
  • The worst thing that can happen? You don’t get the job, but there will be others!

Keeping the nerves under control!

Everyone gets nervous in interviews, but if your knees begin to knock as soon as you get the invite it may be a good idea to have a mock interview with a Careers Adviser when you have an interview coming up. Thorough preparation can really help, so following the advice above is a good start. Normally people get very nervous because they have experienced a bad interview before so it is worth thinking back to that and analysing what went wrong eg Did you talk too fast? Did you say too little? If you can identify what went wrong then it is easier to fix. If you feel anxious and think you could do with boosting your self-esteem then you may wish to look at the training programme offered by Counselling and Wellbeing and attend some of their sessions. Other practical advice is take water with you to the interview in case your mouth goes dry, chew gum before you go in to help relax your jaw (remember to get rid of it though!) and do some gentle exercise before you go to release those endorphins and relax. Remember no one gives a perfect interview and just because you may struggle with a question or two it does not mean you won’t pass the interview, you will be considered on your whole performance.

What to do next

  • Sign up for a mock interview with a graduate recruiter in the Careers Centre – see website for details or if you have an interview coming up book a mock interview with a Careers Adviser
  • See the Coaching sheet on Assessment Centres (include link) for second interviews
  • For further ideas on questions you might be asked see the following websites: Prospects and TargetJobs