How to Pass an Interview
Maybe you’re rusty on interviews and haven’t done one in a while? Perhaps you hate interviews and find them a nightmarish prospect or possibly you keep getting knockbacks and can’t understand the knack of passing them?
Yet somehow there is always that lucky so and so that we all know that somehow breezes through them and never has a problem getting an offer. I am uncomfortable to say it, but that lucky so and so has been me in the past. And that’s before I was anywhere near even starting a career in recruitment. If you haven’t read my posts before I tend to differ from the hippy dippy “help the world” posts that, if you believed them, would encourage you to feel that you have no need to worry and that as long as you are bubbly and smiley everything will work out. Without wanting to bring a downer to your mislead optimism, that’s not how it works in reality. I tend to take a neutral viewpoint and give you the authentic picture warts and all so if, in this case you actually want to pass an interview, you can garner useful information to help your cause.
I tend to find that when you search the web for useful interview tips and advice on technique they’re written by people who tend to have some rose tinted glasses impression of interviewing and if you were to take their advice and apply it, you’d be commiserating yet another failed interview.
This is frustrating to me as I know of so many people that struggle with interviews despite being ideal for the job simply because in their hour window they had approached the process so very wrongly without even realising it. Contrastingly I also know of many useless blaggers who waft their way into job after job seemingly gliding through the interview process so casually they could have done it in their sleep.
So how do you pass an interview?
To answer this, and as a bit of a disclaimer, obviously no two interviews can or indeed will be the same. Some will be question and answer, some formal, some less formal, some one on one and some in front of a panel. Some may include practical tests, surprise out of the box activities/ questions and some may include psychometric testing. Therefore, I will approach this answer more generically whilst covering the possible interview variances along the way.
Before you attend the interview you will have some time, usually a few days or a week, to prepare. Use this period wisely. If it’s a non-management or sub 30k salary job, you can almost be guaranteed that at least one of your competition won’t have done their homework. If you don’t understand what I am referring to when I say homework and you don’t have a great track record of passing interviews, then that person is probably you. Never fear if it is, as it’s an easy fix.
You have several routes to gain knowledge in preparation for your interview. If you have gone through a recruiter, they will likely have useful information to assist you. Most recruiters will prepare you anyway, but don’t just rely on their input. Often the useful info recruiters have is from previous placements and dealings with the client. They’ll know their typical interview setup, the process, typical question routes, what the client is like on a personal level and even what you could do to get the client to warm to you. For example I have some clients that actively look for someone with a sense of humour as it mirrors their culture, but others who despite having a “good laugh” in their work environment believe an interview should be kept strictly formal.
TIP: When your recruiter is preparing you for interview take notes. A good prep will have enough detail for notes and the devil is in the detail.
Another route for gathering information is LinkedIn. Whether you have an account or not it is worth using your own or an associate, friend or family members account to view the interviewer’s profile. More often than not those who conduct interviews tend to have a LinkedIn profile and the information there could prove very beneficial. If it feels right in an interview, and the opportune moment presents itself, it doesn’t do any harm to volunteer that you looked up their LinkedIn profile. I’ve heard some people either feel uncomfortable about it or concerned that volunteering that information could sound like stalking, but that’s completely the wrong angle of perspective. LinkedIn is a professional networking site and the whole purpose is to professionally network and that includes LinkedIn profiles. It’s almost a point of compliment to view someone’s profile, especially someone who is taking the time to interview you. The info valuable to you is how long they have been at their current employer, their promotions there, perhaps a previous employment or background that can bear common ground and maybe a connection you both know of in a role of influence. After all, if somebody they respect happens to know you and would only say good things about you that’s hardly a bad thing is it.
Other routes of information gathering include the company’s website. This is, in my opinion pretty obvious to investigate, but alarmingly I find that it’s not quite as obvious to many others. I would go as far to say a quarter or even two thirds of my clients will as part of their process ask an interviewee what they know about the company. The reason for this comes down to assessing an interviewee’s level of commitment, interest and honesty. I myself have interviewed people to work for me and I always ask this question for that very purpose. When put on the spot people tend to be naturally competitive as it is our survival instinct coming out. The result of this is that when asked a question that they do not know the answer to during an interview they will attempt to bluff their way out of it. The only problem is that trying to tell a senior employer a bluff about the company that they work for tends to expose your bluff rather easily. They’ll either state the blindingly obvious basics that a child could tell you or try to get creative by rewording the obvious into a hastily crafted lie. Either way this only has the effect of counting against your level of commitment, integrity or professionalism and none are black marks you want against your name in an interview. Simple fix: do your homework.
Other things to do prior to interview include buying a suit, shirt, nice shoes and a tie or business dress or ladies suit. I presume the choice of attire can be interpreted dependent on your gender. Make yourself look professional is the point. You have one hour typically to present an impression to somebody who does not know you, may never meet you again and is going as much on information as face value. An easy win is to look the part. That doesn’t mean dress over the top, I.E wearing a tuxedo. Dress smartly, but not too smart as to outdo the interviewer. As a general rule a plain black, blue or dark grey colour is ideal. Try not to come in reeking of cigarettes if you smoke, but don’t suffocate them with cheap aftershave or perfume either. Play it slightly understated. And make sure the suit or dress fits. You want the outcome of their impression to be that you look smart and presentable, not a talking point.
You now look the part and have the appropriate knowledge so let’s explore the interview itself.
One common issue that many people experience is nerves when it comes to interviews. Nervous tension is brought on by fear, which is in turn generated by negative association with whatever is making you nervous and this is amplified greatly by over thinking. Do your preparation two days before interview and the day before your interview, if you suffer with nerves, arrange to do something that will divert your concentration elsewhere. That doesn’t mean go for a walk or a drive; do something mentally taxing. This sounds an unusual recommendation, right?
What is making you nervous is the constant thought and worry about the interview. So force your brain to concentrate for several hours the day before on something completely unrelated and you will find that your nerves supress and by the time you come to do the interview you are not a nervous wreck. The beauty with the human brain is that it can only focus on one thing consciously at a time. Feed it something to concentrate on that you enjoy or like and you’ll find by the time you wake up on the morning of the interview your nerves will be much more under control.
For the actual practical side of the interview take note of these five points before entering the interview room:
- Always arrive 10 minutes early. If need be travel to the location and get there half an hour early and wait around until you can enter the premises 10 minutes prior to your interview slot. Do not be late. If you cannot even turn up for an interview on time, how can the hiring manager be confident in your ability to get to work on time?
- Scope the location out in advance if you do not know it clearly beforehand. Maybe drive the route or check it out a couple of days before. Although cliched, compare it to an army operation and reconnaissance work.
- Your interview starts from the moment you enter the companies premises. Most companies have camera systems and it is not unusual for a receptionist, security officer or even the hiring manager themselves to be watching you. I’ve heard stories of people smoking and flicking their cigarette butt on the ground only for the veteran security guard to mention it in passing conversation to the hiring manager. You learn a lot about people when they think nobody is watching.
- Ensure your phone is off. Just check beforehand.
- Don’t chew gum in the interview.
You are now either led to wait in the interview room for the interviewer or greeted in reception by the interviewer. A simple firm handshake, a “good to meet you” and a look in the eye is all that is needed.
One difference that separates the people who tend to pass interviews easily and those that struggle is what they do next.
People that struggle in interviews use this period to worry about what the interviewer is thinking of them. People that tend to pass interviews are using this period to try to suss out the interviewer. Be on the front foot. Try to suss the interviewer(s) out using this initial window because they won’t ask or dive straight into anything taxing for a few minutes. This first two to five minute period is for ice breaking and establishing the format of the interview. Therefore, it gives you a few moments to try to figure the interviewer out. A simple psychological trick is to subtly mimic their engaging body language, tone of voice and expression.
Starting with “engaging body language” this refers to hand gestures and if they are sat back or forward. Keep this part simple. If when they speak they talk a lot with their hands, try to subtly mimic this. If they are sat back, mimic this, if they are sat forward, you guessed it, mimic this. If you have two interviewers focus on the one you perceive to be leading the interview. That is the one doing most of the talking.
Regarding “tone of voice” if they are a bit louder than most people, try to do the same. If they are softer spoken, again, try to do the same. Do not try to outdo them, this is not a competition. It is an attempt to establish subconscious common ground.
And thirdly if they are smiling a lot, smile a lot back. If they are glum though, try not to be glum, but don’t smile quite so often.
It is true that people judge you in the first 30 seconds of meeting you whether they will admit it or not. First impressions really do count. So if you get this initial part right you will give them a positive first impression.
THE INTERVIEW INITIAL PHASE:
There is always the argument of how to answer certain questions and this is the part most people get caught up on. A good interviewer will use open questions as opposed to closed questions for the majority of the interview. These are those that require a more expressive answer rather than a simple yes or no. The first rule of this is to listen to the question and unless dead certain on the answer take a second or two to consider it. Your brain processes information at a rapid rate, but always consider that there are at least two ways to answer each question so consider what they could both be and the best approach.
One gripe I have with many of these “interview advice” posts is to always “be yourself”. That’s all very well, but it fails to take into account that a human being will act differently or have a separate decision making motive dependent on their emotion at the time. For example some days you will make the decision to run for the bus because your brain is stressed at the consequences if you miss it. Other days you will be more concerned with what people you do not even know will think of you if you were to run for that bus because you are considering your ego and therefore will take a casual stroll or a thinly disguised walk run. Yet both decision making outcomes are still from the same person. Therefore that initial sussing out of the interviewer part is even more important as you can gauge the emotion that they are looking to see in you.
Remember the interviewer is in their comfort zone and therefore will act much more naturally in their normal environment. This gives a much easier first impression of their accurate persona in those first few moments than visa versa. Whilst they are still trying to suss you out, you could have them categorised and identified already.
With this information in your arsenal you can approach the rest of the interview adopting a suitable version of yourself to present to them. By that if they are a run for the bus type and want someone on the ball put your “run for the bus” hat on and visa versa. This way their first impression of you is the version that they want to see of you. As a closing point how many times has it been said following an interview that “I didn’t put myself across as well as I would have liked”? This is because they didn’t use the suss out window at the very beginning of the interview and only after reflection did they work out how they should have played it.
Let’s explore some typical questions and how to answer them simply and effectively.
1-Why are you looking to leave your current job (if you are employed still)?
Firstly, to anyone that tells you that “I am looking for a new challenge” is a good answer, for the record it really isn’t. A savvy interviewer will simply pick this fluffy reason for leaving apart rather quickly because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s generic and it seems to be the default interview answer by all and sundry. To answer this properly, you firstly need to be honest with yourself about why you are leaving. If you’re seeking a counter offer I don’t even want to help you as you’ll waste mine and my clients time. Presuming you are not a time waster though and are actually looking to leave for legitimate reasons something is making you unhappy. What is it? You will have a root reason and you should be able to answer it in a short sentence. Once you have identified this you simply need to package your answer correctly bearing in mind two things:
A-The emotive style response that the interviewer will favour based on your “suss out” of them.
B-Not to be unprofessional or critical of your previous or current employer.
Some clients you will find don’t mind a little sob story of how badly you were treated, but how humble you have taken it. Others would find that approach a bit weak and therefore you’re not cut from the same cloth. On the other hand if your reasons are assertive and you’ve outgrown the unambitious and outdated mentality of your employers that could impress a driven and ambitious hiring manager, but frighten or at least put off a more mild mannered interviewer. Package your answer according to the recipient.
2-What are you looking for in your next role?
Not to state the obvious, but try to package your answer to be directly in line with the job that you are interviewing for. Shockingly, despite this in my mind being plain common sense, I can’t recall how many seemingly intelligent people over the years that I’ve interviewed that haven’t been able to work this out. You don’t need a glorified speech here, just keep it simple and make it plain and obvious that the job you are applying for is basically what you want and why.
3-Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
This is a vailed attempt to gauge your level of ambition merged with your loyalty. It is often asked in a different way to try to hide its intention. The simple way of answering it is to think of what the interviewer will want to hear. If you are applying for a role 2 or more levels below the interviewer and they are the ambitious type your answer will be about progressing with that company. If the interviewer is a young manager who would become your direct line manager if you were to get the job, probably not the best idea to imply you’ll have their job off of them. Use your common sense. However, as a general rule you are looking to settle there and build a career over the long term. As most companies have 2 stages of interview; the first with a hiring manager and the second with a director being common place, alter the approach of your answer in line with who is interviewing you.
Much of an interview will see skill-based questions crop up. You could present yourself as well as you like, but if your skills are limited you’ll have an uphill struggle. I have no fix for that, but I do have some damage limitation tricks.
- When asked a skill question that you do not know the answer to take a second or two to answer it. You may have an educated answer that comes to mind once you’ve thought about it, but blurting out a stab in the dark guess in the fear that you could get caught out as a fraud if you take your time still results in a wrong answer.
- Never say you don’t know. That’s just admitting defeat. At least give an answer a go. If an interviewer can tell that you don’t know something, but can see that you are switched on enough to pick it up quickly with a little training, often you can get away with it.
- Do not dig yourself holes when giving examples. I’ve known it that when people think an interview is going well they start embellishing their experience and expertise with an example answer to a question. If this example is built on fabrication, they will find themselves inadvertently presenting an opportunity for a line of questioning on that thus digging themselves a hole.
- Don’t waffle on when you only know the basics of an answer. The power of presumption is best used when combined with restraint. It’s not what you know, it’s what people think you know. Think in terms of conversations you might have at a social event with people you do not know well, but to remain in a group conversation you have to give the impression that you have knowledge on the subject being discussed. If they are talking about football or 1970’s heavy rock music I could confidently discuss the subject at length and in detail. If they are talking about cricket or pure mathematics I am quite limited in my knowledge. Stick therefore to what you know when answering questions and puff out your answer length with some extension terms such as “I do recall a couple of years back when I worked at….” Or “It’s funny that you mention that because one of the people I used to work with…”. Still keep your answer short, but not 5 seconds short.
- Lighten the mood to ease pressure. You cannot change the subject like a normal conversation, but you can use humour to move things along. It won’t make them forget that you do not know something, but it’s better to use personality to get yourself out of a fix than simply admit a weakness.
There is another lesser recognised issue with skill based questioning; complacency. Simply because you’ve done something before, if it was 5 years ago, you’re probably rusty. Technology, techniques, regulations or terminology may have progressed. A simple fix is to brush up on any skill based possible question lines that you could be asked dependent on the position you are interviewing for. Do not let your own pride or arrogance get the better of you by unintentionally giving the impression that you are out of touch.
UNUSUAL OR TRICK QUESTIONS:
There is a tendency with contemporary type companies to get creative with their questions. I personally know of these two gems being asked by multiple companies that I have dealt with:
“If you were a biscuit what type of biscuit would you be and why”?
“Why is there fluff on a tennis ball”?
Seriously? Yes. And similar type questions are becoming more fashionable and unique. However, there is method in the madness. Once you dissect the thinking behind the question it becomes much more simple to answer them. With media, internet, YouTube and more movement in the jobs market candidates are becoming wise to tried and tested interview questions and so asking traditional questions won’t always yield a genuine response. By presenting or packaging a question in such a way that its purpose is unclear, we are much more likely to give an answer to the interviewer that is relevant to our natural personality. This gives an interviewer a more accurate assessment of what we are about. The goal of this post is how to pass an interview though and to do so we need to break down the general method of how these questions are constructed to identify what they are actually asking and therefore judge how best to answer them.
To keep it simple these questions will present something such as an object, subject or circumstance that sounds random and unrelated to you. In the above instances that is a biscuit or a tennis ball. It is not random though. That object, subject or circumstance is actually a representation of you and the type of question given is seeking to see how you would describe yourself or think naturally without giving the questions true intentions away. So for example describing yourself as a digestive biscuit because it’s simple would imply you are common, predictable and straight forward. If you described yourself as an oreo because it’s crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside would imply you have a tough exterior, but a good heart. Simply think about what they want to hear from your “suss out” and select a type of biscuit to and a reason why to support that. You’ll find all those sorts of question run the same theme.
Sometimes money comes up and sometimes it doesn’t. Never raise the subject first. However, if they do ask you what you are on or want, try to avoid giving a direct answer. Dependent on the mood you can be cheeky and ask what they would be willing to pay you, sincere and say you’d rather not talk money until they felt that you were the right person for them or restrained and say you know what they are paying and are in line with that range or figure. Unless you will only take top end and are damn confident you can get it do you give them a figure.
Always have a couple of question ready for the end of the interview. These should only be relevant to job duties or future plans of the company that would affect your job role. Avoid asking about holidays or smoking breaks. You want the interviewers last impressions of you to be keen whether you really want the job or are unsure. That way the ball is in your court not theirs.
Asking about the plans for the department over the next few years could imply you want to stay long term. That’s always a good one.
Asking about the other colleagues you could be working with could show keen interest.
If you fail to ask any questions you will leave them thinking you are unenthusiastic or uninterested. If you waffle on and get your notepad out, you could sound a bit too keen and verge on irritating. Two questions are sensible.
The last thing you say in the interview room is always that you are keen on the role if you do actually want the job that is. Also make sure to thank them for their time and that it was great to meet them. This is their last impression of you.
This is also an opportunity to see what they really think of you in their body language. Interviewers tend to drop their guard between the end of the interview and showing you out of the building. If it’s gone well it’ll all be smiles, a quick joke or maybe even a point out of what’s where in the building. They’ll be enthusiastic and they’ll be wanting to leave you with a good last impression of themselves.
On the flipside, if they lack eye contact, the smiles are gone and their conversation is more to fill the space than anything else you probably haven’t made the impression that you want. If they were like that the whole interview though then it becomes harder to judge.
Despite the old saying “no news is good news”, if they are interested you’ll probably get something by way of feedback pretty quickly. Your recruiter, if you are going through one, will be on the phone to you rather than visa versa. Your recruiter will typically know where you stand anyway. One trick is to email over a thank you email. It speaks volumes about your desire for the role and is a rare touch that clients really appreciate.
Hopefully after using these tips and tricks your interview success rate will increase dramatically and you’ll be that jammy so and so that always breezes interviews.
If you have any other suggestions or ideas please do feel free to comment.
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