Despite developments in technology over the last two decades, interviews remain a critical part of almost all selection processes for graduate-level jobs. The pandemic has accelerated the trend away from in-person interviewing with the result that in some cases all stages of the selection process are held virtually.
Since 2008, I’ve provided guidance to hundreds of students on preparing for interviews with leading graduate employers. In this article, I wish to share insights and conclusions from this experience, which I hope will help students prepare for any interview, whether in-person or virtual.
There are many different types of interview, but essentially all selection processes will combine three elements, which combine like the three legs of a stool. In the first place, employers want to know whether the candidate has the required level of technical experience, knowledge or aptitude required to do the job. Secondly, employers need to be sure candidates have the right level of motivation. They need to understand why the candidate wants to do this job and why they wish to work for this particular employer. Finally there’s the question of whether the candidate will be a good “fit”. Will the candidate be able to work effectively within the organisation, and be an amenable colleague who existing employees enjoy working with?
In my experience, if the employer has any doubts about any of the three legs of this stool, then it can’t stand and a job offer won’t be made.
So how can candidates prepare? In my view, the easiest way to structure any interview preparation is the same way as for a major exam. That said, students generally have far more time to prepare for exams – frequently they receive less than a week’s notice for some interviews.
So, even before a candidate submits an application, they need to think about what the interview process involves in order to ensure they have time to prepare. In my opinion, many candidates fail because they leave the preparation too late, meaning they don’t perform to their potential, even though they might have been a great candidate with sufficient preparation. The irony is that most students put in weeks of work for an exam, which, if they fail, they can usually resit. For an interview, which has a binary outcome (and no resit!), many candidates prepare for a few hours at most, often leading to under-performance and failure, which has arguably a much greater impact on the student’s future career.
So early preparation is key. When preparing for an exam, students frequently seek out previous exam papers to ensure they can answer sufficient questions to the required standard. They spend weeks revising their course material and refining their exam responses. The same approach to interviews is also likely to lead to success. Students cannot assume that they know their CV better than anyone and that they can blag their way through an interview without preparation.
So, how to prepare? Think of 10-15 questions you’re likely to be asked. Why this job/firm? How are you qualified? What are the likely developments in our industry in the next five years? Etc etc. Use websites such as Glassdoor and Wikijob, as well as classmates and university careers services to build up an understanding of the typical interview questions and other parts of the selection process. Begin by jotting down the key points you’d wish to make to respond in the interview. Ensure you read quality relevant business press – The Financial Times, The Economist, Marketing Week, any relevant trade journals, and websites.
After this, practice delivering your responses out loud. Record yourself on your phone and watch it back – you will find this excruciating at first but you will get a great impression of how you look and sound. Don’t try to memorise long responses – you will sound stilted and mechanical. Work with friends to help each other – you will gain confidence as well as tips that you can use. Most importantly, find seasoned professionals to provide mock interview practice – these can be university careers professionals, or practitioners from your target industry. Above all, make sure the first time you try to answer an interview question isn’t in the real interview – it’s almost inevitable that you’ll fail. However, if you’ve practiced responding to 15-20 different questions confidently, you’re more likely to be able to produce a good response if an interviewer asks you something you haven’t specifically prepared for.
Virtuoso musicians and elite sportsmen practice daily for several hours for something at which they are already a world leader. They wouldn’t dream of walking onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall or Centre Court at Wimbledon without hours of preparation, including some on the day. The same approach usually pays dividends for most interview candidates.