Interviews

Interviews

Interviews can seem very frightening, but with the right preparation, you can overcome most of your anxieties, and perform to your best!

The purpose of the interview

Interviewer:

Do you have the skills and qualities required, and do you want the job?

You:

Can you convince them you have the skills and qualities and are they an organisation you want to work for?

The employer is really trying to predict your future behaviour. This has to be based on your past behaviour. You need to communicate effectively enough for them to be able to have a clear picture of how you have behaved in past situations.

Student in an interview meetingFor example, if you can describe how you’ve been an effective team member in the past, they’re going to believe you’ll behave in the same way with them.

The good news is that your application has already largely convinced them, otherwise you wouldn’t have the interview!

Your interview needs to complete the job.

The employer should also be trying to give you an accurate and positive picture of what it’s like to work in the organisation.

Preparation is all!

Always bear in mind the purpose of your interview: to demonstrate clearly that you have the skills and qualities required for the job.

How can you be sure what these are? Look at the organisation’s web site and find out about the requirements of the role.

Use careers sites such as Prospects to find out about the entry requirements of the type of job. Study any person specification carefully. Identify what the key skills and qualities are for the employer and the job.

Situation Task Action Result - STAR

Look over your past experiences and look for evidence of these skills and qualities. A useful way to structure your thinking is to use the STAR acronym:

Situation Task Action Result

  • Describe a particular Situation/Scenario
  • What was the Task or Target? Explain what you had to do (include information such as any issues encountered and how you solved them)
  • What was the Action you took? Use positive action verbs, such as I organised; I negotiated; I developed; I presented; I persuaded; I encouraged. Try to use “I” far more than “we”, including when talking about your role in a team
  • What was the Result? Give a positive outcome

Try to write down every “STAR Story” you can think of for each requirement as concisely as you can. Prioritise them according to how relevant and persuasive they are.

It's important to be positive, but don't be tempted to exaggerate or lie. Tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth! Just don't mention what didn't work (unless you were clearly able to turn negative situations into positive ones).

Don’t worry about where your evidence is from. Experiences from paid or unpaid work; degree course activities; spare time activities and family commitments are all valued by employers. The point of transferrable skills is that they are transferrable!

When you’re talking about your experience, if you follow the STAR format, you should make it easy for the interviewer to understand:

  • The context of your experience
  • What you have done
  • What you have achieved

Think about when you’re having a normal, relaxed conversation - don’t you naturally cover all the STAR elements?

The interview is simply a conversation, but with a purpose. Try to treat it as a “normal” conversation and be yourself, as you tell of your experiences so far. The interviewer will then have a clear idea of your past behaviour and your effectiveness, and will have confidence that you can repeat those behaviours in their role.

Here’s an example of the rough proportion of time you might want to give to each element of the STAR structure in an answer. Please be aware though, that you would give much more information than this in a real verbal explanation overall!

Situation (~15%)

I am an active member of the University International Society and last year I was elected Chair of a committee to organise and oversee the annual charity ball.

Task (~10%)

My target was to deliver an enjoyable event and raise a minimum of £2,500 for charity.

Action (~60%)

I was the leader of the committee of about eight people, each with different ideas and agendas. I encouraged good communication between members of the group and this helped create a relaxed and supportive atmosphere, which was essential.

I led the team and made each person realise they had an important role to play. I identified the main duties and delegated responsibility to those most interested and skilled in particular areas and followed their progress closely.

There were some conflicts within the group (in a real interview you would expand on this) but I encouraged the team to listen to each other and take into account other people’s ideas and advice. Any disagreements were sorted out. I did this by allowing each person to have their say, while encouraging them to identify areas of potential compromise, within a definite time frame.

Result (~15%)

We overcame these issues, and raised over £3,000 for charity as well as providing a fantastic evening of entertainment with guests from more than 20 different countries.

You’ll end up with a bank of “STAR Stories” relevant to the requirements of the job. This is your evidence.

Irrespective of the questions involved in the interview, it’s important to try to work as much of this as possible into the conversation, so that by the end of the interview you’ve given concrete evidence of all skills and qualities.


Hints and tips

  • Prepare yourself
  • Having a positive attitude to the interview is crucial to your chances of success!
  • Practice talking about your STAR stories with friends and family. They can tell you if you’re easy to understand and whether your pace of delivery is appropriate
  • Why not arrange a mock interview with a Careers Manager to get feedback on your technique
  • Record or video your answers to typical questions and look for ways to improve
  • Your CV or application has been convincing – get ready to talk about and elaborate on this at interview. Don’t undervalue your experience.
  • Try to look forward to the interview – this is a chance for you to talk about yourself and explain why you’re enthusiastic about the opportunity
  • Expect to be nervous – nerves can actually help your performance
  • It’s not an interrogation! Think of it as a normal conversation, just one with a clear purpose
  • It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security during a "friendly chat". Remember you're there to talk about what you've done so that you can clearly demonstrate you have the skills and qualities required for the job
  • Make sure you know how to get there, and in good time – at least 15 minutes before your appointment
  • Decide what you’re going to wear – appropriate clothing that you’ll be comfortable in
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before – avoiding alcohol is a good idea!

Remember, the interviewer already thinks you can probably do the job – otherwise you wouldn’t have the interview!


Interview formats

There are a number of formats a recruiter might use to interview you. Knowing what to expect can make it much easier for you to prepare – and ease those nerves!

One to one

This probably seems like the least stressful format.

Advantages

  • You only have to deal with one person - not a panel of interviewers
  • You can build up a strong rapport over the interview

Disadvantages

  • If you make a less than convincing start, it can be difficult to recover
  • Your success depends on only one person’s opinion of you

Tips

  • The interviewer will be under pressure to make a record of the interview – don’t be surprised or put off if they break eye contact with you and write notes
  • It’s best to assume that their notes about you are positive! No point in thinking the worst!

Panel

A panel consists of two or more interviewers; usually 3 or 4 - the most we’ve heard of is 13! One of them might chair the panel and explain the format to you. They might introduce the other panel members and give you an idea of their jobs, and the questions they’re going to ask you.

Advantages

  • Your success doesn't depend on one interviewer alone
  • You can get an insight into the working culture of the organisation

Disadvantages

  • It can be intimidating
  • It can be hard to engage with more than one person at a time

Tips

  • The interviewers will be under pressure to make a record of the interview – don’t be surprised or put off if they break eye contact with you and write notes, particularly those who are not questioning you
  • It’s best to assume that their notes about you are positive! No point in thinking the worst!
  • Maintain eye contact with the person speaking to you, but try to glance at the others to engage with them too

Informal/group interviews

We’re not talking about an assessment centre exercise here! An employer might use this format to give information about the organisation and allow you to ask questions.

You’ll be with other candidates, so it’s important that you’re friendly and approachable. Despite the informality, you need to prepare just as well as for any interview.

Advantages

  • Can be a relaxed atmosphere
  • You can get an insight into the working culture of the organisation

Disadvantages

  • You can be lulled into a false sense of security – you still have to speak!

Tips

  • Be approachable and friendly but make sure you contribute to the discussion and ask relevant questions
  • Maintain eye contact with the person speaking to you, but try to glance at others to engage with them too

Telephone interviews

Many recruiters use these as initial screening interviews because they’re cheap and quick.

Advantages

  • You don’t have to travel anywhere
  • You don’t have to physically meet anyone new
  • You don’t need to worry about your clothes or appearance
  • You can be in comfortable familiar surroundings
  • You can make quick notes to yourself during the interview - maybe questions you’d like to ask at the end
  • You can have your CV or application with you and notes to jog your memory. You can have a note of questions you’d like to ask too

Disadvantages

  • Your interviewer can’t see your facial expressions or posture
  • You can’t see theirs either – so it’s not so easy to pick up clues as to how you’re doing
  • It’s easy to worry about pauses in the conversation, for example, when you can’t see that your interviewer is simply making notes

Tips

  • The big difference is that your interviewer can’t see you – so you need to convey your enthusiasm through the tone of your voice. You need to speak clearly and sound motivated and interested in the job and the organisation. Don’t be monotone! Smile!
  • Make sure you’re not going to be disturbed or interrupted
  • Don’t slouch in a comfy chair – it’s best to sit at a table or desk
  • Have a few bits of paper around if you want, but not too many – you don’t want to struggle to find anything
  • You could practice answering typical questions over the phone with a friend, or record your answers and let someone else listen to them – this can be really useful if the interview isn’t in your first language

Video interviews

An increasing number of recruiters are using video interviews. Like telephone interviews, these are a relatively inexpensive way for recruiters to initially screen applicants. Do well, and you will probably be invited to a second, in person, interview.
There are two main types of video interview: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous interviews are carried out with an interviewer in “real time”, through Skype or similar. Asynchronous interviews are automated, and your answers are recorded via webcam.

Synchronous Interviews

Advantages

  • You don’t have to travel anywhere
  • You don’t have to physically meet anyone new
  • You can be in comfortable familiar surroundings

Disadvantages

  • Sometimes the video of your interviewer can be slightly “out of synch” with their speech. This can be off-putting.

Asynchronous Interviews

Advantages
  • You don’t have to travel anywhere
  • You don’t have to meet anyone at all!
  • You can be in comfortable familiar surroundings
Disadvantages
  • It can be disconcerting to speak only to your videocam
  • You have no interaction or feedback from a human being
General video interview tips
  • Remember that all the other advice in this section applies!
  • Our top tip is practice, practice, practice – record, record, record! If possible ask someone to ask you typical questions and video yourself answering them. If you discover any obvious repeated movements, facial expressions, or verbal ticks like “em” or “um”, then practice to minimise these
  • Our second Top Tip is to remember that, especially in an asynchronous interview, employers will not expect you to give a perfect interview and/or recording. They’ll expect you to be nervous, and have some fidgeting, verbal stumbles and pauses.
  • Make eye contact by looking directly at the camera rather than the interviewer’s image on your screen, or your own image – again, practice!

Example questions

It’s really important not to fixate on what you might be asked and think you have to have a pre-prepared answer to any question! It’s impossible to predict every question exactly. Rather, good interview preparation, as we’ve described, should allow you to answer virtually anything you're asked effectively.

Use every question, if possible, as an opportunity to cover a piece of your prepared evidence. This is your agenda for the interview. That said, here are a few types of questions and tips on how to cope with them.

Competency

The interviewer will ask questions directly related to the essential and desirable criteria for the job. Typical competencies are:

  • Communication skills
  • Team working
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership
  • Time management
  • Organisational skills
  • Customer-facing skills
  • Influence

Your STAR preparation should make these questions relatively simple to answer.

QuestionTips
  • Can you tell me when you’ve been part of a team?
  • What was your role and what was the outcome?

Testing team-working.
Just use a STAR example – it fits perfectly.

What would you do differently in hindsight?

Examines whether you’ve reflected on the experience and learned from it – one of the most desirable qualities for an employer.

When have you ever had to explain something to someone who didn’t have your level of knowledge?

Testing communication skills.
Cover all 4 aspects of the STAR format. This will make sure you give a convincing answer.

Give me an example of something you have organised. What was your role, and were you successful?

Testing organisational skills.
Just use a STAR example – it fits perfectly.

What would you do differently if you were in this situation again? Examines your ability to reflect.
Tell me when you have successfully worked out a solution to a difficult problem.

Cover all 4 aspects of the STAR format. This will make sure you give a convincing answer.

Tell me about when you have had to meet a deadline under pressure. How did you cope?

Cover all 4 aspects of the STAR format. This will make sure you give a convincing answer.

Strengths based

Some recruiters are changing from competency interviews to strengths based because they feel that applicants are being given lots of help with competency interviews and are becoming too good at them!

The recruiter is trying to find out what skills you genuinely enjoy using, as these are likely to be your strongest. The interviewer will look for signs of genuine enthusiasm, such as how easily your answer appears to come to you, your tone of voice and body language. Don’t worry! Follow our preparation advice and then think how you might answer strengths based questions and give appropriate examples of evidence.

At first glance, these can seem really tough. However most of them are just competency questions in disguise!

QuestionTips
  • How do you judge if you've had a good day?
  • What does success mean to you?

If you are genuinely suited to the job you will have examples of experiences which demonstrate the qualities the employer is looking for.

Tell me something you learnt last week.

Most students might not have prepared such a recent example. Remember the employer is trying to find out your genuine and most enjoyable strengths. You’re more likely to exhibit these more often – like last week! It’s useful then, to think about a recent example.

  • What energises you?
  • What activities come naturally to you?
  • When are you at your happiest?
  • What are you most proud of in your life?What are your greatest strengths?

Again, give examples of when you’ve done something successfully which demonstrates one of the key skills or qualities. If you enjoyed it, then it’s more likely to be a genuine strength.

If you can show why this proves you have a strength, it will make you look like you’re good at reflecting on your own performance.

Motivational

This type of question seeks to examine if you’re genuinely interested in, and have the right motivations for the job.

QuestionTips
Why have you applied for this job with us?

You need to show why you are interested in the job and/or the organisation. If you make a claim that you have a quality they desire, try to back it up with an example.

Why are these reasons important to you?

You can only give a convincing answer to this if you’re really genuinely motivated e.g. if you have said that you like the fact that teamwork is emphasised in their work culture – back it up with proof that you like teamwork.

How did you prepare for this interview?

If you can talk about looking at the company’s website, then ok. However, if you’re genuinely motivated, you might have done a lot more, such as networking; reading business/industry reports; talking to people doing a similar job; coming for a mock interview at the Careers Service.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

If genuinely motivated, you will have researched into typical career paths within the organisation and have an idea of how you might progress if you were successful.

Chronological/biographical

These types of questions can seem vague or even irrelevant, but it’s important to remain focussed on the purpose of the interview, or you can become side-tracked.

QuestionTips
What have you learned from your degree course?

If you’ve prepared well, you’ll have examples of things you’ve done as part of your course that demonstrate relevant key skills and qualities. For example, talking about a field trip overseas could show teamwork, communication skills and time management.

Don’t talk much about course content unless it’s directly relevant (like going for a scientific or engineering job with a science or engineering degree).

Why did you change course/have resits?

Expect questions about time gaps or anything unusual in your CV /application. Always give positive reasons for your choices or negative outcomes if at all possible. Talk to a Careers Adviser if you need help with this.

Tell me about your dissertation/project.

Don’t go into lots of detail about the content unless it’s directly relevant. Rather concentrate on how you researched, worked on your own, managed your time, analysed data and presented conclusions.

  • What was the last book you read?
  • What kind of music do you like?

These might seem irrelevant, but the employer is trying to gain an insight into your true interests.

How did you choose your degree course?

The employer is trying to gauge your genuine motivations and interest. Try to include concrete examples of some activities you’ve done as part of your course that demonstrate relevant qualities.

Commercial

These questions are designed to test whether you’re commercially aware. They also show whether you’re genuinely motivated to work in the sector or for the organisation.

QuestionTips
  • Why have you decided to apply to our company?
  • What do you know about our business?
  • What are the key issues facing us?
  • How should we respond?

Commercial awareness is a vital quality for a lot of employers in many sectors. They want employees who understand business ideas and how their function contributes to the growth and development of the organisation. It’s important to research these areas carefully, and have informed opinions.

Hypothetical

These questions are hard to prepare for. You can ask for a few seconds to think about your answer. The employer is not looking for a “perfect” answer, but you need to show that you can think on your feet and justify your opinions or suggested actions.

Question

You’re monitoring the customer service area of the supermarket, when a customer arrives complaining of finding a fingernail in his pre-packaged pizza. What do you do?

You’re working for an Environmental Consultancy. It’s Friday afternoon and you have a report to finish by 5:00pm for the Director. Your line manager calls and asks that you join her on site to look at an urgent problem with a client company’s effluent, which is toxic and leaking into farmland. What do you do?

Challenging

The questions are to see how you react under pressure. There probably aren’t any perfect answers, but it’s vital that you say something.

QuestionTips
We have seen 5 others today, why should we employ you?

Don’t be critical of anyone else, or run anyone else down! Rather, use this question (which is usually asked towards the end of the interview) to sum up your blend of relevant skills and qualities. You could give extra examples if possible to increase the effectiveness of your evidence.

  • What would you say is a development point for you?
  • Do you have a weakness?

Try to turn such things into a strength or at least show that you have recognised a weakness and have improved. This shows you can reflect on your performance positively and take steps to improve.

For example, “The first time I gave a presentation, I was nervous and didn’t enjoy it. However, the feedback from my audience was better than I expected. I took confidence from this, and made sure I was even better prepared in future presentations and my grades have improved.”

  • If you were a biscuit, what would you be?
  • If you were an animal, what would you be?
  • Give me two things you could do with a paperclip apart from hold paper together?
  • Sell me this pencil.

Thankfully these are not very common. Don’t panic! Try to think of something – it could be witty.

Don’t choose badly though, such as “I’d be a Rottweiler as I always get my way in the end!”

Academic

These questions tend to concentrate on 3 main areas:

  • research skills
  • academic performance
  • teaching ability

It’s important to prepare any examples relevant to these criteria.

Here are a few examples of questions, but there are lots more on the vitae site and other resources.

  • What were the key achievements of your research project?
  • Outline the project you would undertake if you were awarded research funding.
  • How have you managed your research project?
  • If you were starting your project again today, what would you do differently?
  • Describe a research problem you have faced. What did you learn?
  • What experience do you have of teaching and what areas of teaching do you want to work in?
  • Tell us about your research.
  • How would you describe your research project to a layperson?

Technical

These are more usual for engineering and scientific jobs. You’ll be asked questions to see if you’re able to apply your technical knowledge and academic theory to solve practical problems. These could be real or hypothetical.

Interviewers will be interested in your final year project, including the techniques and skills you used and how you coped with any problems.

Some hints and tips

  • Try to stay calm and listen carefully to the interviewer.
  • If you’re given any resources, use them to make notes or calculations to help you form your answer.
  • Don’t rush – don’t miss anything important.
  • If you’re not clear about something – ask!
  • Make sure you know the basics of your subject. Employers love common sense!
  • It’s great if you can back up technical knowledge with experience.
  • You might be asked some competency questions too – prepare for this!

There are some more helpful tips at TargetJobs.


On the day

Some do's

  • As always – be positive!
  • If you’re nervous, breathe deeply and slowly a few times to calm yourself. Remember - some stress can help you to think on your feet more clearly, and perform better
  • Assessment begins as soon as you arrive – treat everyone you meet as a potential colleague – they might be asked what they thought about you
  • Make a strong first impression – smile and make it look like you’re pleased to be there – you should be!
  • An interview isn’t acting – don’t act unnaturally. Relax, be yourself – the positive you and the enthusiastic you! Employers want to see the real you
  • Listen carefully. Ask for clarification if unsure of a question - this isn’t a sign of weakness, but conveys confidence and assertiveness
  • Speak clearly and at an appropriate pace – remember to practice beforehand and get some feedback
  • Remember that the interview is a “normal” conversation – you need to make sure the interviewer understands your descriptions of your past experiences, so take your time
  • Answer questions fully, clearly describe your experiences and explain your personal contribution - talk about what ‘I' did, not what ‘we' did
  • Don’t go on too much though; 3-4 minutes is OK – remember to practice beforehand and get some feedback
  • They’ll nearly always ask if you’ve any questions for them. Prepare a few questions to show genuine interest in the job and to show you’ve researched the organisation. You can use this moment as a final opportunity to sell yourself
  • When it’s over, it’s not over! Make sure you thank the interviewer(s) and smile – even if it’s the last thing you want to do!

And some don'ts

  • Don’t be negative about anyone else, or blame anyone else for anything – try to give positive reasons, even for things that were not completely successful
  • Don't lie or exaggerate – tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but you don't have to tell the whole truth!
  • Don’t assume that the interviewer is an expert in your subject (unless it’s a technical interview)

Body language

Body language

Yours - make sure it’s positive

  • Sit up straight in your chair – don’t slouch or lean back
  • Point your knees and feet forward, towards your interviewer
  • Try to smile when appropriate – this conveys confidence and genuine motivation
  • Lean forward at times (not all the time) to convey interest and enthusiasm
  • Hand movements to emphasise points are fine, but don’t go overboard
  • Don’t fold your arms or hug yourself – that makes you look nervous
  • Maintain eye contact with the interviewer(s), but don’t stare!

Theirs

  • Remember the interviewer is under pressure too
  • They might break eye contact to make notes – don’t let this put you off
  • Assume they’re writing good things about you – they probably are!
  • If they look really bored and disinterested, then you might be talking too much, but it might just be that they’re rude
  • Remember you’re also judging them – does their body language make you think they’d be good to work for?

After the interview

  • Reflect on your performance but don’t obsess about it – you probably did better than you think!
  • If you’re successful then great – accept the job if you want it!
  • If not successful, then don’t worry – your time will come!
  • Ask for feedback if possible – this can be really helpful in improving your performance for the next time
  • Consider discussing it with a Careers Adviser to help you apply the feedback in your next interview

Tailor your interview style