How to perform well at interviews


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Getting an interview is an achievement in itself. Only a small proportion of applicants are selected for interview (often about 10%) so you have already made a positive impression to have got to this stage! Many people have a fear of interviews, so here are some tips to help you make the most of this opportunity.

The purpose of the interview

Firstly, it is for the interviewer to see if you match the requirements of the job. These will naturally vary with different jobs but are likely to include:

The recruiters will already have an indication of these from your initial application but now the interview will assess you in person.

It is also your chance to meet somebody from the organisation and assess them: are they offering what you want?

There aren't any right or wrong answers to interview questions: how you come across is as important as what you say. Be yourself – if you have to put on a completely false act to get through the interview, is this really the right job for you?

Preparation for the interview

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

Abraham Lincoln

Preparation is the key ingredient for interview success. Careful planning and preparation will make sure that your interview goes smoothly and will also help to calm your nerves!


Interview skills

Arriving for the interview

Try to arrive ten or fifteen minutes early. This doesn't just give you the opportunity to visit the loo – time spent waiting in the reception area can be very useful if there are publications about the employer or their field of work to read. Be polite to everyone you meet, including receptionists, porters and security staff.

First impressions

These are very important - they set the tone for the rest of the interview. A survey of 273 managers by found that interviewers take on average less than 7 minutes to decide if a candidate is right for the role.

Factors influencing whether an interviewee is viewed as employable were

The five most important factors interviewers considered when hiring were:


According to a survey of 1000 recruiters by Fly Research three quarters of interviws are lost within three minutes of entering the room. Research by Springbett found that 85% of interviews were decided in the first two to three minutes:


Interviews are, in general, poor predictors of job performance. Schmidt and Hunter found that standard unstructured interviews only accounted for 8% of the difference in performance and productivity over chance when selecting candidates by this method. However structured interviews where candidates are all asked the same questions had a 24% selection accuracy: three times as effective as unstructured interviews.

A trainee accountant once told me about his interview. The interview had seemed to be going well when the interviewing partner had asked about his interest in cricket. They were discussed the merits (or otherwise!) of the England cricket team when the partner asked him if he could bowl. He said he was the opening bowler for his club, at which point the partner mentioned that the firm's team needed a good fast bowler and asked him when he could start!

The standard method of selecting candidates for jobs is to make list of key competencies required in the job and then to match these to the candidate's application. However two US researchers (Higgins & Judge) followed 100 university students trying to get their first job. They analysed their CVs for qualifications and work experience and talked to the interviewers afterwards. Surprisingly the main factor in deciding which ones were selected was whether or not the candidate appeared to be a pleasant individual.

Research by Sears and Rowe has found that interviewers tend to favour candidates with personalities, attitudes, values, and backgrounds similar to their own.

The successful candidates had:

How to overcome interview nerves

Always remember you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

Winnie the Pooh

Should you mention a weakness at the start or end of an interview?

One interviewee, asked about her weaknesses, thought briefly and then replied "Wine, chocolate and men - though not necessarily in that order."

She got the job!

If you have a potential difficulty (e.g. poor exam results or a disability), should you disclose this at the start or the end of the interview? According to research by Jones and Gordon of Duke University, candidates appeared more likeable if weaknesses were disclosed early in the interview and strengths towards the end.

Candidates who disclosed potential problems early on were thought by interviewers to have more integrity and strength of character and thus were not attempting to mislead them. Candidates who mentioned strengths (such as having been awarded a scholarship) later in the interview appeared more modest than those who blurted it out at the first opportunity, thus seeming boastful.

For more details on both the above pieces of research see the excellent "59 Seconds" by Prof. Richard Wiseman

Types of interview

"Questions they might expect to face at most interviews (e.g. asking for an example of team-building, or showing that they are a fast learner) are difficult to answer well if you are not used to them, and haven’t prepared a list of examples to draw from. We’d recommend students consider why we’re asking the question. For example, a good answer on team-building outlines difficulties you may have had with other team-members and show that you understand what you need to do to overcome that, rather than simply tell the interviewer that the team worked together really well."

Civil Service

Competency-based interviews

Many large graduate recruiters now used competency-based (also called "structured" or "situational") interviews in which the questions are designed to help candidates give evidence of the personal qualities which are needed to perform well in the job. Usually, you will be expected to give an example of how you have demonstrated these qualities in the past in reply to questions such as:

Describe a situation where you had to.....


Structured interviews can seem unfriendly and off-putting to candidates. They do not give opportunities for discussion - when you have answered one question as far as you feel able, the interviewer will move on to another topic. The advantages of these interviews is that they are standardised - important when many different interviewers are assessing a large number of graduate applicants - and that they are based upon the skills essential for the job. See the Competency-based applications and Competency-based interviews pages for more detailed help with this

How not to do it:

  • Candidate had a fizzy drink just before interview and spent the whole interview burping.
  • Candidate brought a large dog to the interview.
  • Came dressed in pyjamas and slippers.
  • Wore a personal stereo and said she could listen to me and the music at the same time.
  • When asked him about his hobbies, he stood up and started tap dancing around the office.
  • Pulled out a camera and took a photo. Said he collected photos of everyone who interviewed him.
  • Without saying a word, candidate stood up and walked out during the middle of the interview.
  • Handcuffed himself to the interview desk.
  • Said he was so well-qualified that if he didn't get the job, it would prove that the company's management was incompetent.
  • Asked her about the many jobs she had had and she said ‘I get bored easily’.
  • Interrupted interview to phone her therapist for advice on how to answer specific questions.
  • Brought his mother to the interview and let her answer the questions.
  • Sang her answers to questions.
  • Dozed off during the interview.
  • Dunked his biscuit in his tea and lost it.
  • Announced she hadn't had lunch and proceeded to eat a hamburger and chips during the interview.
  • Said he would demonstrate loyalty by having company logo tattooed on his arm.
  • Said she would prefer a job offer from one of the company's competitors.
  • Said he never finished high school because he was kidnapped and kept in a wardrobe.
  • Interviewer: What is your date of birth?
    Interviewee: May the 15th
    Interviewer: Which year?
    Interviewee: Every year.
  • Interviewer: Tell me a word that has more than 10 letters in it?
    Interviewee: Postbox
  • Interviewer: Do you know MS Office?
    Interviewee: I'm sure I'll find it if you tell me the address.

"Traditional" interviews

These are more like a conversation - but a conversation with a purpose. It is up to you to show that you are the right person for the job, so bear this in mind when replying to the questions. These interviews will probably be based largely around your application form or CV. The interviewer may focus on areas of particular interest or relevance - such as vacation jobs or projects.

Interviewers often expect interviewees to talk much more than the candidates themselves expect to. So don't be too brief in your answers - but don't rabbit on for too long either. Watch the interviewer and pause from time to time - he or she will either encourage you to continue or will introduce another question.

It's OK to pause briefly. A short gap to gather your thoughts shows thoughtfulness, assertiveness and self confidence.

Be polite, but don't be afraid to enter into a discussion and to stand your ground. Some interviewers will deliberately challenge your replies in order to stimulate this kind of discussion.

How to handle questions:

Typical questions at traditional interviews:

Questions about yourself: your background and your future ambitions:

Questions about your knowledge of the employer, or career area:



Closed questions

Selling the skills you gained from vacation jobs.

Recruiters now seem to put great weight on the ability to "sell" the skills gained in your work experience.

Many students feel that their casual shop or restaurant job is of no interest to employers but nothing could be further from the truth. Recruiters expect you to be able to explain the skills you gained serving customers, working in a busy team, being tactful when handling complaints etc.

Being aware of competencies developed through casual work IS of interest to employers. This can include voluntary work but preferably anything that demonstrates leadership skills and customer service experience (retail, hospitality, call centres etc. - anything involving putting the customer first).

Here is an example of how one graduate did this on their CV: "All of my work experiences have involved working within a team-based culture. This involved planning, organisation, coordination and commitment e.g., in retail, this ensured daily sales targets were met, a fair distribution of tasks and effective communication amongst all staff members."

These are questions which can normally be answered with a simple "yes" or "no". If you are asked a closed question open it up, as in the following example:

Interviewer: "So you're studying History at the University of Kent?"

Interviewee: "Yes, I've found it a very interesting course because ..."

See our page on types of interview questions

Give answers which are relevant and illustrated with examples:

Interviewer: "This is a job with a very heavy workload. Do you think you could cope with that?"

Interviewee: "Well, during my final year I've had a great deal of academic work and I've also been working three nights a week at my bar job and kept up my involvement with the squash club. All that has meant that I've had to be very organised but I've never missed an evening's work or an essay deadline and I reached the semi-final of the squash tournament too!"

Hypothetical questions

Some interviewers like to pose hypothetical questions, or questions that you could not be expected to have anticipated. These questions are used precisely because it's impossible to work out your answer before the interview, thus it tests your ability to think quickly, reason logically, and produce practical solutions.

You may be given an example of a situation that might arise in your work, and asked what you would do about it:

Sometimes questions may be about non-work situations:

Don't panic! Don't try to blurt out your answer. Take a few seconds to think - this shows confidence and assertiveness rather than weakness.

Don't try to form your whole answer immediately - just try to say one or two sensible things first - in the example above, you could say that first you would examine the dam keeper's leg to see how bad the injury was. This gives you time to think further.

There may be many possible solutions to the problem. The interviewer won't be expecting a perfect answer. What you actually say in answer doesn't matter, so long as it sounds reasonable, confident and well-thought-out and you show awareness of the issues involved.

See our page on types of interview questions

How many interviewers will there be?

One-to-one interviews are the most common. In this situation your interviewer is most likely to be somebody from the Personnel department but, especially in a smaller company, may be from the area of work for which you are applying.

Two-to-one interviews may involve both a Personnel and a line manager. This can be more tricky for the interviewee as the questions seem to come faster, giving you less time to collect your thoughts between different topics. Don't get flustered.

Panel interviews could involve a panel of half-a-dozen or so interviewers. They are relatively rare but are most likely to be found in the public sector. Direct your attention to whoever is speaking: when answering questions, begin by directing your answer to the person who asked the question, but try and include the panel as a whole.

Questions you can ask

At the end of the interview, it is likely that you will be given the chance to put your own questions to the interviewer.
  • Keep them brief: there may be other interviewees waiting.
  • Ask about the work itself, training and career development: not about holidays, pensions, and season ticket loans.
  • Prepare some questions in advance: it is OK to write these down and to refer to your notes to remind yourself of what you wanted to ask.

It often happens that, during the interview, all the points that you had noted down to ask about will be covered before you get to this stage. In this situation, you can respond as follows:

Interviewer: Well, that seems to have covered everything: is there anything you would like to ask me?

Interviewee: Thank you: I'd made a note to ask about your appraisal system and the study arrangements for professional exams, but we went over those earlier and I really feel you've covered everything that I need to know at this moment.

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The interview is a two-way process.
You are choosing the organisation
as much as they are choosing you, so ask questions!

You can also use this opportunity to tell the interviewer anything about yourself that they have not raised during the interview but which you feel is important to your application.

Don't feel you have to wait until this point to ask questions - if the chance to ask a question seems to arise naturally in the course of the interview, take it! Remember that a traditional interview is a conversation - with a purpose.

Examples of questions you can ask the interviewer

These are just a few ideas - you should certainly not attempt to ask them all and indeed it's best to formulate your own questions tailored to your circumstances and the job you are being interviewed for! Make sure you have researched the employer carefully, so that you are not asking for information which you should be expected to know already.

How not to do it: real questions asked at interview

  • What is your Zodiac sign?
  • Do I have to dress for the next interview?
  • I know this is off the subject, but will you marry me?
  • Will the company pay to relocate my horse?
  • When is pay day?
  • Would it be a problem if I'm angry most of the time?
  • Why am I here?

Following up

Narcissistic candidates are more successful at interviews

A University of British Columbia study found that narcissistic applicants are more successful in job interviews than candidates who act more modestly. Applicants from Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures that place greater emphasis on humility may struggle to find work in countries with Western values. Behaviours displayed by narcissists included making more eye contact, joking with interviewers, boasting and asking more questions. The study said that interviewers should focus more on ability than superficial charm.

After the interview, jot down some notes of the questions asked and anywhere that you felt you could have responded better. You may want to work on these points before your next interview.

Send a thank-you note. Jessica Liebman wrote in a blog that if she doesn’t get a thank-you note after interviewing a candidate: “I assume you don’t want the job; I think you’re disorganized and forgot to follow up…I’ll forget about you.”. See this Wall Stret Journal article for more about thank you notes

The interviewer will probably let you know when you can expect to hear the result of your interview. This may be within a couple of days ... or weeks.

Not every interview will result in an immediate job offer: the next stage may be a second interview or selection centre.

If you are turned down for the job, you may pick up some useful tips to improve your performance next time by telephoning your interviewer to ask politely what - if anything - you did wrong. Not all interviewers are willing to provide this feedback but it's worth a try. Sometimes the information you get will be vague and basic: often along the lines that you were a good candidate but others were slightly better.

Dear ....

I would be most grateful for some feedback on my unsuccessful application for the post of ....

I understand that you must be very busy and must get large numbers of applicants but it would be help me greatly if you could please give me some information on why I was unsuccessful, so I am able to improve my applications to other organisations.

Thanking you in anticipation ....

You can console yourself that at least you were selected for interview. Less than one in five of applicants are typically interviewed, so you were probably in the top 20 percent!

Further information


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