Lost for words?
How to avoid an interview from Hell
Love them or hate them, the big interview is an inevitability in almost every job hunt. But while having a bad interview can be seen as a rite of passage, plenty of graduates are inflicting unnecessary hell upon themselves.
We all get the basics right – we check the address, arrive early but not too early, don’t swear or bad mouth the employer and so on. So, what exactly makes an interview go pear-shaped?
"The biggest reason that things go wrong are that graduates decide that they can wing an interview, but you usually can’t," says Jenny Goddard, careers adviser at Warwick University careers service. "Sheer enthusiasm alone is not enough to get you through an interview. Students always say they’ve learnt this with hindsight but by then it’s too late."
And the problem with hindsight is that it usually comes when you’ve usually missed out on the job of your dreams, she warns. Lucy, now a senior recruiter, remembers being caught out at the start of an interview. "I’d gone for the interview having done very little preparation. The recruiter asked me what I knew about an organisation, which was an IT consultancy. I told them, ‘Well I was reading your web page yesterday but I don’t know a lot,’ expecting them to tell me about themselves. But they replied, ‘Well why did you apply for us then?’ It was downhill from there. I was dead in the water."
Although it’s never clear what will happen during the interview, intensive preparation will set a candidate on the best possible footing for success and quell interview nerves. But, adds Jenny, students often fail to prepare on the one of the most important areas: talking about their skills and achievements.
I can blag that
"An employer will assess a candidate’s skills by the evidence and examples they give in their answers," says Angela Vesey, employability development adviser at Nottingham Trent University. "All too often we hear students say, ‘well I can always blag that’ but if you claim you have a certain skill because you have taken a major part in an organisation or project … prepare to be tested."
As director of graduate recruitment at Teach First, James Darley has seen his fair share of candidates under pressure. "You can usually tell if someone hasn’t done exactly what they said or perhaps stretched the truth of an experience," he says. "If you say you’ve been a manager, then expect to be questioned closely about your experiences. You can spot a mile off someone who is struggling to describe what they did or has tried to stretch too much out of one experience."
Indeed, making the most of your CV is one thing, but sometimes the truth can be sacrificed to your detriment. "When I was the recruiter for Deutsche Bank, one candidate had put on their CV that they were a champion skier," says James. "When I asked about it they were totally taken by surprise. It turned out that they’d just put it on because their careers service had said employers liked to see examples of extra curricular activity."
Foot in mouth syndrome
From the moment you step through the door, remember that everyone you meet is a potential assessor, including the receptionist. Small talk before and after the interview can be one tricky area where candidates are often found to be suffering from footin-mouth syndrome. "On the way into the interview I mentioned how glad I was to be interviewed by someone who works on the floor rather than a ‘back office flunky’," says Arun, an English Literature graduate. "I knew I was in trouble when they asked me rather coldly whether I considered their job in human resources to be back office."
But while less would have been more in Arun’s case, employers say that monosyllabic answers are just as bad. "Recruiters won’t spend much time prompting you for full answers, they’ll quickly get tired of it and give up," says Paul Farrer, chief executive of the Graduate Recruitment Company.
Interviewers from hell
Unfortunately, excellent preparation often flies out the window when you meet a nightmare interviewer. The vast majority of interviewers will be experienced professionals. However bear in mind this is not always the case and that you may be subject to their level of experience and personality.
"Interviewers can be inexperienced, antagonistic, unprepared or bored," says John Lees, author of Job Interviews: Top answers to tough questions. "If you are faced with this, remain professional. You need to be adaptable and offer clear answers and keep checking that your message is getting across."
On the spot
With preparation many types of questions shouldn’t cause too much angst. For example, competency-based questions, which are very popular among employers. This is where candidates are asked to describe different situations, often from their CV, and say what skills they learned from them. However graduate nightmares often revolve more direct questions. All too often the basic question, "why should we hire you?" throws graduates into a spin.
But with preparation it shouldn’t, says James at Teach First. Bland replies such as, "because I’m a hard worker," won’t impress employers, he says. You need to develop a sales pitch. Look closely at the job in question and list what their requirements are. Then list the skills and abilities you have that meet these requirements. Match these two and think closely about your own motivation for applying: that’s what you want to sell to the employer.
Another area students also choke is on situational questions. These present you with hypothetical problems to solve on the spot such as, ‘You are not getting on with somebody at work. What do you do?’ But, says Angela: "There usually is no perfect answer. Often the employer is looking to see whether you panic or whether you can respond and then clearly talk through why you came to that conclusion. They just want to know that you can think on your feet."
A more extreme example of being put on the spot is the stress question. These are purely designed to test you how you respond under pressure. Examples include: "If you were a roundabout what song would you want to sing 24 hours a day?" or "sell me this paper clip".
John Lees still remembers as an arts graduate being asked to calculate 8.5 per cent of 17,000 in an interview. "I froze in the headlights and made a guess, but I didn’t get the job," he says. "But what they were testing wasn’t my numeracy, it was my ability to respond to demands under pressure. Now, I think I might have made a snappy answer, such as ‘give me a calculator’."
Contrary to popular belief, graduates can prepare for stress questions, John says. By looking up tough questions and practising how to answer them you will get better at responding. However, don’t parrot-learn answers and keep a cool head even if your instinct is to run away. "Listen carefully to the question," Lees says. "Pause, but don’t leave it too long or the recruiter will conclude that you can’t think on your feet."
But sometimes, even with the best of preparation, interviews can still go badly. If that happens, then it’s time to ask for feedback, take it on the chin, learn from the experience and move on.
"If you don’t believe in what you are saying no-one else will. Confidence is essential."
Sapana Agrawal, 22, is studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. As president of the Oxford Union, student debating society, she certainly needs the gift of the gab. "Chairing student committees, joining debating societies are all really useful activities for students in terms of improving interview technique," she says.
So what makes a good communicator? "It’s about confidence and good delivery," she says. "You need to grab the point quickly and then be able to deliver an answer with a punch."
"Questions from hell include: if you were a roundabout, what song would you sing 24 hours a day?"
10 INTERVIEW QUESTIONS TO check-out YOUR future employer
Remember that interviews are a two-way process. The following questions could help you uncover the truth about the kind of training on offer to you:
1. How do you measure the quality of the graduate development you offer, and compare it to other leading graduate employers?
2. What is the objective of your graduate programme?
3. How involved will the senior managers of the organisation be in my development?
4. Who are the good role models in the organisation, and why?
5. How do you handle graduates who are not making the grade?
6. How does the organisation measure the return on investment on graduates?
7. On average, how long does a graduate trainee stay with you?
8. Where do your graduates go when they leave, and what do they think of the development you have offered them?
9. What development do you offer when recruits have completed the graduate programme?
10. What development opportunities are there for me to contribute to the wider community, as well as to the performance of the business?