How to Prepare for a Job Interview
Going to interviews is scary unless you’ve had a lot of practice: Even then, there is still a certain amount of anxiety because you may under-perform on the day. You could lose the job that you have set your heart on.
If you have got as far as the interview, it would be disappointing to muck it up. Make sure you prepare adequately.
Here are some tips:
Behind the scenes
I’ve worked in HR for years. What happens behind the scenes may surprise you. Recruiters aren’t out to get you, force you to do meaningless assessments or trick you. I’ve heard these types of accusations from friends and people I’ve worked with who don’t understand the life of a recruiter.
Believe me, the recruiter wants to find a fabulous fit for the role. So does the line manager. They want to fill the position and do it quickly.
The interview structure, the type of questions, and just about everything else in the interview process are to make it fair and compliant with legislation. This is how it is in New Zealand, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t be that way in other countries.
“Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it.” –Katherine Whitehorn
What will happen in the interview
Usually, there will be someone from HR and the line manager in the interview.
The line manager is there to make sure you know the technical stuff about the job. The HR person is there to make sure the interview is done correctly and advise the line manager.
The usual structure of an interview goes something like this:
Getting to know you
This is where someone will ask you if you have had a good day so far, did you find the building OK, and comment on the weather. This bit is to make you feel at ease.
What you need to do:
- Turn up on time, well-groomed, and in your best interview outfit.
- Be polite to the receptionist and anyone else you meet.
- Go to a cafe beforehand so you can do a quick check in the mirror and use the toilet.
Avoid: Being late, looking scruffy, and poor personal hygiene. Rushing in hot and bothered isn’t a good look. Neither is the game of hide-and-seek between you, the receptionist and the hiring manager if you ask to use the loo and disappear from the reception area.
Chit Chat about the Organization
You will be asked what you know about the organization.
What you need to do:
- Make sure you have studied the company website, both local and international.
- Google the company and look for recent news items.
- Make yourself an expert on the industry.
If you are going for an interview at a bus company, read up about transport. An interview at a bank should prompt a look at the banking and finance industry. You don’t have to be an expert but check out the politics and upcoming legislation.
Avoid: Saying you don’t know much about the company. You will be compared to people who have done their homework, so make sure you know enough to have a short chat. If you don’t know anything about the company, the interviewers will wonder why you want to work there.
A chat about why you are leaving your last role
The interviews will want to know your motivation for leaving your last role. You may also be asked what you liked and disliked about your last role.
What you need to do: Prepare your answer. If you are looking for progression or were made redundant, it’s pretty straightforward. Just say that. If you had a toxic boss or any other awkward circumstance, it’s a bit trickier. Tell the truth but make sure you give it a positive slant.
For example, if you have a terrible boss, say that you are looking for other opportunities because nothing is opening up in your organization’s near future. You don’t have to specify that nothing is happening for you in particular because your awful boss hates you.
Have examples of what you liked best and least in your last job-ready.
Avoid: Moaning about your current employer, boss, or team. It just makes you look bad, even if it is the truth. The interviewers will wonder if you will be negative about them if they hire you. No one likes a Moaning Minnie.
Never say there was nothing you didn’t like about your last role. Some people are adamant that they loved everything, but the interviewers know we are all human, and that’s just not true.
An acceptable answer would be along the lines of “My least favorite part was the invoicing as it involved so much data entry. I made sure that I did some every day to make sure I never had to spend more than thirty minutes at a time on it.”
Finding out why you want the job
The interviewers want to know why you are applying and if this is a genuine application. Do you really want the job, or are you getting a bit of interview practice under your belt?
What you need to do: Think about what appeals to you. It’s OK to say you want progression, but what else do you want from the role. Is it more challenge? A bigger team? An industry change?
Do you like the leaders of the organization, maybe something you have heard in the news? Have you had good reports about the culture or the development opportunities from people who work there?
Make sure you talk about what you can offer, as well as what you will get. Say you would love the chance to contribute to the organization. Or that you feel your skills would be a good fit.
If all the interviewers hear is what you will get from the job and zero about what you can offer, it will make a poor impression.
Avoid: Looking like you hadn’t really thought about it or don’t know why you want the job. If you don’t understand why you want the job, why should the interviewers pick you over the other applicants?
Don’t say something crass like, “The pay is more than I get now.”
Yes, people do say that.
A look through your CV
Usually, the interviewers will go through your CV with you. They will be looking at where you worked, the type of role, and the skills and experience you have. They will also look at any gaps in your CV and evidence of job-hopping. If you have a career gap make sure you are ready to explain it.
Similarly, if you have a history of changing jobs every year, be ready to discuss the rationale behind it. Recruiting and training new staff is time-consuming and expensive. The interviewers want someone who will stay long enough to give something back.
What you need to do: Take a copy of your CV with you so you can look at it as you discuss each role. You will be asked why you left each position, so make sure you have thought about what you will say. Be ready to explain any gaps or job-hopping.
Avoid: Failing to answer the questions about career gaps and perceived job-hopping. Never give the impression you are unfamiliar with what you have written in your own CV.
“Opportunities don’t often come along. So, when they do, you have to grab them.” –Audrey Hepburn
Checking out your skills and experience
This is the meaty bit of the interview where you will be asked questions to prove you have the skills and experience to carry out the role.
The questions may be based on the STAR method, which stands for:
STAR interviewing is based on the idea that past behavior is the most reliable indicator of future behavior. This is called behavioral interviewing.
You can Google examples of STAR questions for specific skills and jobs.
The STAR questions will be asked with regard to the skills and experience that are in the position description and the advert.
Prepare an example of when you have done each task.
For example. the advert & position description says that you must have:
- Excellent conflict resolution skills
- Leadership skills
- Knowledge of Health and Safety legislation
This is quite a short and simple list for illustration purposes. Make your own list for the job you are being interviewed for.
STAR questions will be something like, “Tell me about a time you did xxx.”
Required: Have excellent conflict resolution skills
Question: “Tell me about a time when you used your conflict resolution skills to good effect.”
Required: Leadership skills
Question: “Give an example of when you demonstrated excellent leadership skills.”
Required: Knowledge of Health and Safety legislation
Question: “Describe how you have mapped the H&S legislation to the requirements of your role.”
Listen carefully to the question. Make sure you answer it. No one wants to know your opinion about conflict resolution. The interviewers want to know what you have actually done in real life on a specific occasion.
Here is an example of how to answer the STAR question:
“Tell me about a time when you used your conflict resolution skills to good effect.”
Paint a picture of the context of your answer.
“I walked into the office last week and a team member came up to me and started shouting loudly about the rosters. She was very upset, nearly crying.”
“Last Tuesday I was on an early start so I got to the office at 6.30 am. I usually get a coffee but that day I didn’t as I’d had one before I left home. When I walked in Jane was there because last night we had a campaign and everybody had stayed late. The campaign is to sell more life insurance and we are all expected to chip in and work overtime. I was helping out with phoning clients though that isn’t my job. Usually it’s Mary there in the morning but Jane was there because Mary had stayed late. She was yelling because she was tired and had to get her husband to look after the kids and didn’t like the new roster. The rosters are worked out like this blah, blah, blah, lots of talk about the structure of the roster.”
Stick to the point. The question is about conflict management, not the rosters or anything else. Don’t ramble. Be concise.
This bit is all about what you had to do. The task.
“I knew I had to calm Jane down and get her away from the team and into one of the offices to talk to her in private.”
“Jane is really annoying and I didn’t really know what to do but someone said I was in charge so I should take her in to an office.”
Even if you knew what to do, you could come over as passive and unsure. Make sure you use decisive language that shows you know what you are doing.
This is what you did.
“You” is the crucial part. The interviewer doesn’t want to know what the team did or what ‘we’ did. They want to know what you did.
“I took Jane into one of the private meeting rooms, and I got her some tissues and a glass of water. I asked her what was wrong. I listened while she talked without butting in.
I waited until she stopped talking and paraphrased her concern back to her. The problem was that her roster had been changed at the last minute, and she had to ask her husband to mind the kids at the last minute.
I assured her I would make sure that the rosters were never changed that late again. She seemed overly upset about this, so I asked if everything was OK otherwise. She burst into tears and said there were some problems with her marriage.
I sent her home, sorted out her absence with her supervisor, and arranged Employee counseling for her.”
“I didn’t really know what to do. She wouldn’t stop crying so I went and got my manager and she took over.”
You have no idea how many people say they dealt with a situation by fetching their manager. Your manager isn’t being interviewed. You are.
This is what happened as a result of what you did.
“Jane was really grateful that I had talked to her that day. She was very embarrassed about making such a fuss. Now we have a catch up every week to check she is OK, just while she is working through her marriage issues.”
“Nothing I did worked. I couldn’t calm her down. I hope nothing like that ever happens again.”
Your result should reflect that you could use the skill being discussed, in this case, conflict management, effectively.
I have had similar questions answered with, “We had a big row in front of everyone and my manager had to come and sort it out,” to “I punched him.”
Never give an answer that demonstrates you don’t have the skill.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” –Confucius
Answer all the questions
You must answer all the questions because you will be graded on each question. If you don’t answer, you will get a zero score for that question. Your overall total will be compared to the other interviewees. If you have some answers with zero next to them your overall score will suffer.
I have had people in interviews who have refused to answer a question or said, “Hire me and I will show you.”
If you get stuck and go blank, ask if you can return to the question later. If you don’t understand a question, ask the interviewer to repeat it.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Sometimes in interviews, you will be asked what your main strengths or weaknesses are, so have some examples ready.
There is nothing worse than sitting opposite someone struggling to come up with a basic answer about themselves. The interviewers will think you have no self-knowledge if you can’t answer a simple question.
Examples of strengths:
- Excellent communication skills
- Attention to detail
- Can motivate people
- Superuser for specific computer systems
Look at the skills and attributes in the job advert. If any of those are your strengths, mention them.
Google what the strengths of the role are. If you have those strengths, talk about them.
Be aware that you may be asked for an example of how you used your strengths. Prepare a STAR type answer.
Examples of weaknesses:
- Short temper
- Get bored easily
- Any missing areas of knowledge or skills
If you know you have a weakness or ‘area for improvement,’ voice it positively.
For getting bored quickly, say:
“I do get distracted quite easily so I mitigate this by putting on my headphones and a do-not-disturb sign on my desk. I use the Pomodoro technique and split my work into chunks of 30 minutes. The variety keeps me on track.”
Avoid the temptation to say you don’t have any weaknesses. That will just annoy the interviewer. Are you the only person on the planet without flaws? I don’t think so.
The last lap
At the end of the interview, you will be asked if you have any questions.
Good questions are:
- How many other people are you interviewing?
- When can I expect to hear back from you?
- If I am successful in this interview, what will happen next?
- Any clarification about the logistics or tasks of the job.
- Anything about the structure or future of the organization.
Unacceptable questions are:
- What is the salary?
- How many weeks of holiday do I get?
- Can I arrange to get all the early shifts?
- Anything that is all about what you get rather than what you can offer the company.
- Anything that varies from what was described in the job advert. If you can only work part-time, ring up and ask about that before you apply.
Being successful in a job interview is a mixture of many things. You must have the right skills and experience. You have to do an excellent job in the interview. And you have to be better than the competition.
You can make sure you have the skills and experience, and you can prepare for the interview. You can’t do much about the competition. It’s all about who applies on the day.
The last tip is to practice. If you know anyone in HR, ask them for a mock interview. If not, friends, family, or colleagues will have to suffice. If you are the shy type, record your answer on your phone and see if you answered the question.
Don’t waste time complaining about job interviews, the STAR method, or why you have to answer questions. No-one cares. If you want the job, you must comply with the interview process.
If you argue with the recruiter and don’t want to complete the process, that is a massive red flag about what you will be like as an employee. Don’t be that candidate.
If you prepare like mad and do an excellent job at the interview but still don’t get the job, it’s OK to ask why. This is useful feedback. And there may be two good candidates but only one job.
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”–Winston Churchill
I hope you found this helpful, here are some of my other articles below.