Find out how to prepare for an interview and how to give a good interview.
Preparing for an interview
Planning and preparing for an interview can take a great deal of time and should not be overlooked. Planning for an interview can be divided into two areas: general preparation and job specific preparation. This guide aims to provide you with some helpful information to support you with such preparation and provides some general hints and tips for the interview itself.
Types of interview
These are the main types of interview you'll need to prepare for:
Most commonly used in smaller organisations, one-to-one interviews are conducted by one other person. During a one-to-one interview it is important to follow the usual interview preparation guidelines (see below) and try and build up a good rapport with the person interviewing you. It is that one person who will decide your fate.
Most commonly used in large and public sector organisations, panel interviews consist of a panel of two or more people. Panel interviews are usually more structured with set questions asked in turn by each panel member. Each member of the panel will have some say in whether or not you get the job. Treat the people on the panel with equal importance and make sure you answer to all of them.
Competency-based interviews follow a strict set of questions which focus on work-related skills and abilities rather than questions about your personality and background. The panel expect you to evidence, by way of real life examples, of how you operate in a work context. Both one to one and panel interviews can be structured in a competency-based way. Total Jobs have produced some example competency-based questions.
Re-read the letter inviting you to the interview to ensure you are fully aware of anything you need to take, any presentations you have to do, or assessments you need to complete prior to, or on the day of, the interview. This will ensure you are in the right mind-set and do not have to complete an assessment that you were not expecting to do.
Some other guidance to follow is below:
Ensure you are aware of the exact location of the interview and know where you can park and whether you will need to pay. Consider doing a practice run to the interview location and, if using public transport, always get the earlier train or bus that gets your there in plenty of time.
Gather together any documents you are required to take to the interview, ensure you do this a day or so before so that you are not trying to find them just before you set off. It is always sensible to have a contact number for the company or interviewer. If you’re unavoidably delayed you can then call ahead to let them know.
Ensure you have thought about what you are going to wear and have checked all is in order the day before. If you’re not sure whether it should be smart casual or a suit, always go for the latter. Consider the role and location and hopefully that will guide your decision relating to dress code.
Job specific preparation
Re-read the job description / person specification to familiarise yourself with the key duties of the role. It is likely that some of the interview questions may relate to some of the key duties of the role so have a think about how your experience to date relates to these.
Some other guidance is below:
Re-read the application form you submitted so that you can recall any examples you gave and be prepared to talk about them. Another good reason to re-read and familiarise yourself with your application is because the interviewer(s) may ask you about something you have detailed on your form.
Research the organisation to gain some basic background knowledge, things to consider are: size of organisation, locations, aims and objectives and any key developments.
Research the people that are conducting the interview; understanding their role and background can give you an insight into what they may be looking for in the role.
Prepare your own questions to ask the interviewer(s). Try to ask a couple of questions that relate to the job role itself and future orientated questions such as ‘what training will be available?’ or “will there be opportunity for career development?” give the impression that you are looking for a long-term, rewarding, career. Some suggested questions are:
- Can you tell me more about the company / organisation?
- Can you describe my area of responsibility in more detail?
- Is this post a new or existing one?
- What are the promotion prospects?
- Is there a clearly defined career path?
- What training will be provided?
- Will you be holding second interviews?
The interviewer(s) are interested in what you have to offer them, so try to avoid asking questions such as ‘what breaks / holidays do you provide?’ this suggests that your priority is time off work rather than a keen interest in the job.
An essential part of interview preparation is to familiarise yourself with your own skills and experiences so that you can readily talk about them if asked to provide an example. Personal reflection is a really useful way to do this. Looking at the job description / person specification pick out the skills required to undertake the role e.g. communication skills, presentation skills, report writing etc. Make a list of these and next to each write an example of when and how you have used that skill. This may be in your present or previous employment or even in a role outside of work e.g. a voluntary group. For communication skills you may wish to detail examples of how you have used a range of communication skills to different groups, varied circumstances or to a difficult audience. This takes time but it will really help you to be able to talk confidently about your skills and experiences, backed with examples.
The interview itself
Creating the right ‘first impression’ is vital. The way you dress, smile, maintain appropriate eye contact, and even the way you walk into the room and sit during the interview, are important. The impression you give in the first 90 seconds of your meeting can be pivotal.
Avoid the negative aspects of non-verbal communication (body language) such as fidgeting, doodling or tapping your foot or finger. Those little things you do when nervous.
Many hiring managers start the interview by asking you to tell them ‘a little about yourself’. This is not designed to put you under too much pressure but to relax you by giving you the opportunity to talk about something you should know a little about - yourself. This open-ended question might require a two-minute, or more, answer. A two-minute answer gives you time explain who you are and where you're from, what schools you've attended, your work experience, leadership traits, why you're interested in the position and what attracted you to the industry in the first place.
You will then be asked a wide variety of questions dependant on the role but all will be aimed at establishing whether, or not, you match what you have put on your CV, and / or application form, and meet their requirements. The fact that you have been invited to interview suggests that they think you can do the job.
Some more guidance on specific aspects of interviews:
Many organisations will use competency, or behavioural, questions during either interviews or assessment days. They are designed to evaluate the applicant’s reactions by way of true experiences in their personal and working lives. It can be said that ‘past behaviour is a guide to future behaviour’ so companies want to ensure, as much as possible, that the applicant being interviewed will have the necessary traits required to meet their expectations.
These questions will focus on the key skills required for the role and will include things like communication, team working, initiative, customer focus, problem solving, and planning or organisational skills. It is therefore vital to correctly identify the key skills required for the role.
Prepare a list of real situations that you have experienced, ideally within the last 12 months, which demonstrate that you are competent in the above areas. It may help to use the following process in identifying suitable examples. Using the acronym STAR you should consider:
- S - What was the situation?
- T - What was the task?
- A - What actions did I take?
- R - What was the result?
More recently the acronym CAR has been used. It is exactly the same process except that the letter ‘C’ replaces ‘S' and 'T’ and means Context.
Wherever possible, it is important to use career or work related examples in your replies. Whilst family or other personal achievements and situations are just as important, remember that you are looking at a new career opportunity.
Negative questions, such as 'How would you describe your weaknesses?' should be turned into a positive. You should show how you've overcome a weakness and turned it into a strength. Take a question like 'Tell me about your biggest mistake?' A possible example could be:
I once organised a big office move which went wrong. The equipment wouldn’t all fit into the new office space. So using it as example of 'my biggest mistake', I would say that the experience taught me that I would have to do a scale of the equipment to make sure it would all fit in the new office, and that I would have to consult all the people involved in the move.
Basically, you are telling the interviewer that it would never happen again.
Negative questions are more about how a candidate copes with the question. They are about putting the pressure on. Interviewers are certainly looking for honesty in the answers, but, if the role involves pressure, then they want to know if you are able to cope with it.
Always answer the 'What are your weaknesses' question with honesty, but be careful in your choice of weaknesses. Don't pick one that will lose you the job or give a long list. Make sure the weaknesses you talk about are real and don't just list the classics like I am a perfectionist. Proving that you have a good knowledge of your weaknesses means you know yourself and are comfortable with yourself.
If the weakness is to do with a particular skill, or qualification, tell them how you’re putting it right. For example, ‘my IT skills are a little weak, so I’m doing an ECDL course at the local college’. Obviously don’t use this as an example if IT skills are key to the role.
It's important to be very open and honest. Don't try to hide things by saying things like 'I encountered this problem, but it wasn’t my fault, it happened because I had a bad manager'. Don't be defensive. If you are asked to describe a time you made a mistake, explain exactly what happened and talk about what you learnt and what you would do differently if you faced the same situation again.
If you are asked about a time when you have made a mistake or had difficulties, always present your answer in terms of what you learned from the situation. Be careful, though, not to come across as too practised in the way you answer the question. Some people, who interview very well, they come across as slick and packaged, but there's a sense that they are putting up a front.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a question to be repeated or for clarification if you do not understand the question. However, don’t do it too often as this will give the impression that you’re not paying attention.
Try to think about the question before immediately launching into an answer, a pause of a few seconds prior to answering is acceptable.
Most factual questions can be answered in 60 seconds, or less, so give them a straight answer, don’t waffle, and watch for signs that the interviewer may be losing interest. When nervous, most people talk a lot quicker than normal so, remember, pace yourself and pause every couple of sentences. This also gives the interviewer the chance to move things forward.
When answering questions, use examples of how you have done something or would do something rather than a blanket statement. For example, don’t just say “I prioritise my work”. Use examples of how you do this. Be clear about what you personally did, rather than only describing what your team and organisation did.
Keep your answers relevant and concise, giving sufficient information to substantiate your answers. Try not to move away from the question in hand.
Many companies now like to conduct telephone interviews often as a precursor to a face to face interview. These interviews can vary in nature from an informal chat right through to a full blown interview, therefore it is important that they are treated as face to face interviews when it comes to preparation.
Make sure you are ready for your telephone interview time, have any notes or materials easily to hand and be in a quiet room where you will not get disturbed. If mobile phone signal is bad in your area it might be wise to use a landline telephone for the interview.
See this advice on telephone interviews:
If you receive notification that you are unsuccessful following the interview it would be beneficial for you to telephone the recruiting manager to ask for feedback. This will help you to reflect and plan for future interviews.
Last updated: October 2019