Guide To Essential Interview Skills

The job market these days can be tough for professionals at any stage of their careers. For every person who secures a new role with apparent ease many others find themselves having to deal with a string of disappointments before being selected for a role that suits them in a sector of their choice.

Job searching can be particularly challenging for graduates and young professionals in the early stages of their careers. Competition for most of the jobs for which they are eligible is strong and the number of well qualified candidates can seem overwhelmingly high.

From the outset, it’s important to keep in mind that for every contested role there is always a successful candidate; somebody whose resume stood out sufficiently for them to be short-listed and who then performed better than all other candidates in the selection process overall. In their pursuit of a first or next role, graduates and young professionals can beat the odds by making sure that at each stage of the recruitment process, their performance is the best it can be.

Getting your resume into the best possible shape is the critical first stage. This guide focuses principally on the stage after that – the interview process. It covers the essential skills you need if you are to stand out from the crowd and become the successful candidate. ‘Interview skills’ refers not only to the skills you need when you are face-to-face with your interviewer or interviewers but also to the skills you must apply in preparing to be interviewed and the skills you should apply after the interview is over. These aspects are discussed in detail in the next three sections of this guide:

  1. Preparing to be interviewed;
  2. The interview; and
  3. After the interview.

By the time you are invited to attend an interview, you are likely to have already done a lot of work towards securing the job you want. Researching the job market, developing your resume and submitting applications all consume significant amounts of time and effort. But, as the rest of this section explains, there is more to be done before you attend the interview. Interview preparation includes making sure you are well-informed and knowledgeable about:

  1. The interview process;
  2. The employing organisation;
  3. The role for which you have applied; and
  4. The people involved in your interview.

Interview preparation is quite simply about making sure you are ready to be interviewed.

a. The interview process

When you’re invited to attend an interview it’s important to be clear on where this interview sits in the overall recruitment process and its purpose. For example, is it a short, screening interview to help the employing organisation to create a short-list? Or are you already on a short-list and this interview could lead to your becoming the preferred candidate? If it’s a second or subsequent interview, what is its particular purpose? For example are there aspects of your background or experience that your interviewer wants to explore further because they are not quite sure about your suitability.

Being clear on the type of interview you have been invited to attend is important because it helps you prepare adequately, including being mentally ready for the interview meeting. For example, if you have made it to the ‘long list’ of candidates selected from their resumes and the interview is with a recruitment firm, your task at the interview will be to convince the interviewer that your application should make it to the ‘short list’ of candidates who will be invited to meet with their client – your prospective employer. You are likely to be offered a relatively short amount of time to do this and you are likely to be meeting with a highly-skilled interviewer who will want to focus on what you have said in your resume.

On the other hand, if the prospective employer has not engaged a recruitment firm, your interview is with someone from the employing organisation who may or may not be a skilled interviewer. You need to be ready for either! Candidates have fallen at the first hurdle because they politely waited for a nervous interviewer to stop talking only to later discover that they were deemed unsuitable for the role because they had not said much at interview!

In the course of obtaining a clear understanding of the interview process, you should make sure you ascertain what, if anything, you are expected to bring along to the interview. A portfolio of work examples is important in some professions and it’s critical that you make sure you assemble one that will meet the interviewer’s needs. Check too that, whether in hard copy or electronic form, it is organised in a way that enables you to present it confidently at interview. A good candidate’s standing can be seriously compromised by anything less.

If you’re not clear on the type of interview, where it sits in the recruitment process or what you are expected to have with you, it’s important to ask. For example, the following, straightforward questions are useful for eliciting relevant information when you are being invited for a first interview:

  1. How long have you allowed for the interview?
  2. Would you like me to bring anything along?
  3. Who will be interviewing me?

An interview process overall can involve several steps before the hiring organisation makes their final selection. A first ‘screening’ interview, an interview with the person to whom you would be reporting and another interview with the ultimate decision-maker. The larger your prospective employer the more likely it is that the ultimate decision-maker is other than the person who would be your immediate line manager. On the other hand, if you are applying for a role with a small firm of professionals your first and only interview might be with the business owner with poorly developed interviewing skills!

In combination with other preparation outlined in this guide, knowing about the interview process before you attend the first interview increases the likelihood that you will make the most of the time made available to you. You will always need to be ready to deal with uncertainties but a few simple questions will help you to be as clear as possible about the interview process.

b. The employing organisation

Knowing about the employing organisation is an important part of interview preparation because it provides you with a basis for talking about how you, a prospective employee, could add value. It enables you to move beyond generalised answers to making links between what you have done and how you could apply your experience in the role on offer.

Your preparation should always include a detailed examination of the recruiting organisation’s website. It’s also prudent to do undertake broader web research. Have they been in the news recently?  Any latest developments? If possible find out who the most senior managers/owners are and extend your research to those individuals. Also, for any particular industry there might be a peak body or industry association where you can research the broader context.

For example, a recent graduate did his homework and learned that his preferred employer was about to expand into Asia. At appropriate times during his interview he made sure to mention his familiarity with the region due to an extended period of travel and his experience of living away from home. This candidate was successful against competitors with far more career experience because he convinced his interviewer that he could help the organisation achieve a key business objective.

In combination with the other interview preparation outlined in this guide, being well-informed about the employing organisation allows you to think about how you could help them achieve their business goals and to consider how you can refer to this in the interview.

c. Your new role

Being well-informed about the role for which you are to be interviewed is important because it helps you focus what you say about yourself in interview on what will be of value to your prospective employer.

You should read the ‘position description’ carefully. If you have not been provided with one, make sure you request one – you unnecessarily disadvantage yourself by not doing so. Information such as the responsibilities of the role, the knowledge and experience expected of the successful candidate and the objectives the incumbent is expected to achieve provides you with a basis for tailoring your answers to interview questions. You are much better placed to speak about how you could apply your specialist technical skills in the employing organisation.

It’s important too to interpret from the position description (often referred to as a ‘PD’), the generic skills that are likely to be expected. Critical thinking, leadership and collaboration are examples of generic skills that are relevant for many professional roles. For example, if the PD refers to working in teams then your capacity to collaborate with others will be important; if the PD refers to innovation then the generic skill of creativity is likely to be important.

During your preparatory work, it’s also important to read carefully any other written material associated with the vacancy – for example, the wording of an advertisement will have embedded clues about what is most important to your prospective employer. Read them carefully and you will find that most job adverts contain these clues.

Being clear about the scope of the role, the limits of its responsibilities and the ways in which your performance would be assessed takes you a long way towards being as prepared as you can be for interview.

d. Interviewers

When you are invited to attend an interview make sure you know who will be interviewing you and, as far as possible learn something about them as it helps you be as prepared as you can be for interview.

First, be clear about whether you are to be interviewed by the employing organisation or by a recruitment firm. The latter is common if this is a first screening interview and the employing organisation is other than small.

Next, get to know if it will be an individual interviewer, more than one person or a panel interview. Be aware that some interviews involve both the employing organisation and a recruitment specialist. Knowing the number of people involved can be critically important if you are more comfortable one-on-one or have never experienced a multi-interviewer interview.

Your preparation should include accessing whatever information you can about the person or people who will be interviewing you. Company websites and social media can be rich sources of relevant information. Is your interviewer a professional in your field? Or do they have a background that is completely different from yours? Knowing more about who they are and their background helps you think about how you will approach what you have to say. For example an IT specialist about to be interviewed by an HR specialist would be wise to avoid technical jargon and IT acronyms and might advance their case significantly by demonstrating their understanding of the people aspects of IT work. Similarly, demonstrating an understanding of business aspects of the role would be important to financial or business interviewers.

Interview preparation skills checklist

Here are the factors you should have considered by the time you head off for that important interview:

  1. Are you clear about the organisation’s business overall, the markets in which it operates, the main competitors and its reputation?
  2. Have you clearly understood the role for which you have applied and what you would be expected to achieve in the role?;Do you have a good grasp of the skills required for the job – both technical and generic?
  3. Did you establish the purpose of this interview (short-listing, final decision etc.) and the style of interview (individual manager, recruiter, panel etc.);
  4. Have you thought carefully about how your skills, experience and potential could be valuable to this employer for this particular role?
  5. Have you worked out where the interview is to take place and how long it will take you to get there?
  6. And right before you head into the meeting – have you remembered to turn your phone off or on to silent?

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