Oliver Laity is the Careers Information and Systems Manager for the University of Exeter. As an experienced interviewer, and interviewee, he knows a lot about the peaks and pitfalls of interviews.
Knowing that you’ve got a job interview coming up can feel daunting. If you’re lucky you might have a relatively simple recruitment process to deal with; you fill in a form, or email your CV and letter, and then you’re called for interview. But you might have to navigate tests, gamified selection ‘rounds’, assessment centres, and in my case finding your interviewer starts talking to you in German after you mentioned you were studying it at A-Level (thankfully 19 year old me was telling the truth and successfully landed the role).
If you get to the interview stage, well done. Depending on the competitiveness of the role, you can consider yourself to be in the top 5% of applicants, which should give you loads of confidence. Whatever comes next, your application has been a relative success, I want to you remember that.
So, let’s think about what you can control, and the art of the possible.
“If you get to the interview stage, well done. Depending on the competitiveness of the role, you can consider yourself to be in the top 5% of applicants.”
Your task is to do yourself justice in the interview, by portraying your true self, your skills, your achievements, and experiences in the best way you possibly can, which is not always easy.
As someone who’s interviewed hundreds of students and graduates for many different roles, there are a few key elements that I always look for, things that make a candidate stick in my mind (in a positive way). I’m looking for someone who can do the job well, but who also fits into the organisation’s ethos, and has something ‘extra’ to add to the team dynamic.
Whilst there’s no guarantee of success in any interview, here are five ways to ensure that you’re in the best position to succeed and portray the best version of yourself to employers.
One – Prepare yourself
Undertake your company research
This can be done via Handshake, LinkedIn, or the organisation’s website. If the job advert offers an ‘informal discussion’ about the role, take it, but be prepared to ask sensible questions about the company and the role. Practice values matching; how do the values of the organisation match with your own? Will it make you proud to work there, and support the direction of growth that you’re looking for in your career?
In your company research, find out some killer stats about the organisation, the sector, and the external market within which they operate. If you aren’t directly asked a question about the context within which the company works, you’ll certainly have the opportunity to impress the interviewers by talking knowledgeably about the wider environment and circumstances affecting the company.
“As someone who’s interviewed hundreds of students and graduates for many different roles…I’m looking for someone who can do the job well, but who also fits into the organisation’s ethos, and has something ‘extra’ to add to the team dynamic.”
Fully understand the role
Read the job description and person specification fully. Check your understanding with trusted people around you so that there can be no misunderstandings, and if in doubt, contact the employer and ask for clarification.
Understand what’s likely to be assessed at interview. Not everything in the person specification will be ‘tested’ at interview. Traditionally your qualifications will have already been assessed at the application stage, so don’t expect to be quizzed on them. My tip would be to focus on the skills and experiences required, while demonstrating the personal attributes they’re asking for.
Two – Prepare yourself more
Once you’ve fully researched the role and the company, you need to start working on your answers.
Examples and possible responses
Consider answers for questions you could reliably predict. For example, if your company research uncovers an emphasis on teams, teamwork, team players, and talks about clients “as part of the team” along with a job description that cites similar, and an ‘essential’ related to teamwork in the person specification, then it’s very likely that this will come up at interview. You should think of at least two experience-based responses (commercially based if possible) in case one prepared response doesn’t exactly answer the question posed. Remember STAR – Situation, Task, Action, Result/Response and tell the panel what you achieved and what you learned from that experience.
Understand arrangements for the day itself
Make sure you understand the travel plans, dress code, and timings (how long is the interview? If there’s an assessment, how long do you have?). Demonstrating that you’ve planned well and are able to deliver professionally can go a long way to impressing your interviewers and creating a great first impression. If you haven’t been told how long the interview is, or you’re unsure about the dress code etc., ask the employer! No one wants to recruit a person who doesn’t ask questions or check their information is correct.
“If your company research uncovers an emphasis on teams, teamwork, team players, and talks about clients “as part of the team” along with a job description cites similar, and an ‘essential’ related to teamwork in the person specification, then it’s very likely that this will come up at interview.”
Three – Practice
Practice your interview with your friends (and help them with theirs), and with trusted people whose opinions you value. You can also ask your tutor, or other academic if they can listen to your answers. While not everyone will be able to say if you’re doing well, it’ll help you get some of your technique together.
Video interview practice can be very helpful. Within My Career Zone Digital, Interview 360 enables you to create your own practice video interviews based on a number of sectors, or approaches (i.e., strengths based, hypothetical, motivational interview questions and more).
Crucially, if you upload your CV to I360 not only do you get an instant CV review, you also get an interview based on the content of your CV. Because I360 uses AI similar to the kind that employers use, you’ll get feedback that includes criteria such as body language and other non-verbal communication.
At the Career Zone, we offer a great range of employer mock interviews throughout the year – this may be something you have to factor in, before you get invited to a formal job interview as part of your early career planning. There is genuinely nothing more valuable than getting feedback from an employer working within the sector that you’re interested in. Check Handshake for upcoming mock interview opportunities.
“Within My Career Zone Digital, Interview 360 enables you to create your own practice video interviews based on a number of sectors, or approaches.”
Four – Practice more
It’s time to refine your answers and practice the responses you’ve created to match the job description/person specification. Will these answers score points? Are they STAR? Are they too long/too short? You’ll likely have an hour or less for the whole interview, and the interviewer will typically ask at least ten questions, plus time at the beginning for welcome/instructions, and at the end of questions from you, and follow-up information including when you’re likely to hear if you’ve been successful.
Record yourself, score yourself, identify gaps where you can give more information.
My tip is to create cue-cards, but not write everything down to take into the interview – you need to be very well prepared but not over prepared to the extent where you can’t be yourself or deal with any curveballs professionally. This balance is key.
And finally prepare two to three good, insightful questions that you’d like to ask the organisation. This is another chance to demonstrate several things: Your motivation; the amount of research you’ve done; and your ability to fit into the team.
Five – Be confident, be yourself, smile 😊
So, you’ve researched, prepared and practiced (which is why we do these things again and again!). Following the first four steps above will enable you to be present, to concentrate on making connections and delivering your responses well. Remember, this is about doing yourself justice and showing the best of yourself.
Be genuine – don’t tell them you can speak German if you can’t. Let them see your personality. If it’s appropriate to mention hobbies or personal interests in responses, this can be powerful.
Whether you get this particular job or not, the end goal is to walk out of the interview room (or Zoom chat) with your head held high knowing you did the very best you could.
Now, go get ‘em!