Job Interview Preparation: the Essential Guide
When it comes to getting your dream job, we all know how difficult and tiresome the process can be. You may have spent weeks, or months, searching through job boards, speaking to recruitment consultants, and working through online tests. However, after all of this, you may fail in securing the prized role in the face-to-face interview. Even after all your hard work you can fall short in the interview for a number of reasons, be that a lack of company knowledge, poor communication skills or simply the way you highlight your accomplishments.
Lots of the time interviewees think this is due to nerves or a lack of experience, but there is normally one culprit: poor interview preparation. To increase your chances of landing that dream job and taking a step up in your career, here is your essential guide to interview preparation.
Research the company
One of the biggest deal-breakers for hiring managers is when candidates are invited to interview but know very little about the company or the position they’ve applied for. Spend at least an hour on the employer's website learning about the organisation.
The 'About Us' section is useful to see the mission of the company and their core values - use this to see whether you are a good match. There may be a recruitment section that tells you about the type of people they’re looking for so consider tailoring your answers to incorporate these attributes.
Make sure you carefully research the company website before the interview, particularly the About Us section.
Find out about the industry as well, especially if it's a different industry to your current one. Keep up-to-date with the news in case there have been any big stories in the industry as you may be asked about this, for example, you may be applying for a job in psychology and two days before the interview the news may report on a study highlighting the high percentage of older adults suffering from mental health problems. You may be asked, for instance, how you can make this demographic aware of the help your organisation can offer.
Also, someone in your network may work or have worked where you are interviewing for so talk to them - this could give you the advantage over the other candidates.
Go over your CV / Resume
Study your CV very carefully because you may be asked a question based on what you've written. If you answer incorrectly the employer may think that you're not credible and they may not trust you. Ensure that you also re-read your CV just before your interview so it's fresh in your mind and you feel confident.
Find out as much as possible about your interview
Ensure that you know the format of the interview and the number of interviewers. You're reducing what you're most afraid of - the unknown, so you'll feel more relaxed.
Also, the planning won't differ significantly but there are small things you can now prepare for, for example, if you know you're getting interviewed by three people rather than one person, it would be beneficial to practice looking at the person who asked the question when you answer because when you're nervous you may try looking at all of the interviewers. If you have the facts beforehand you can prepare aptly and practice.
If you are given the name of the person interviewing you, look them up on LinkedIn (although it’s probably best to do this when you’ve signed out so that they can’t see you viewed their profile). This will give you an idea of their work history and you’ll be able to see if you have anything in common, such as studying at the same college, for example.
You can then incorporate your commonality into your interview so that you can make a stronger connection with your interviewer. Remember during your job interview preparation that your success is also partly based on whether the interviewer would like to work with you.
Answering common interview quesitons
There’s no better way to undertake interview preparation and to overcome nerves than by practicing interview questions. If you are applying for some of the larger, more famous companies, then you will likely be able to search online and find sample questions that candidates are often asked. If not, find questions from similar companies in your industry and get friends or relatives to test you on them. There are also some great apps to help with your job search and interview practice.
The interviewer will want to see clarity in your answers, as well as a creative and passionate flair for finding unique solutions, so don’t stick to bog standard answers but, instead, offer insightful and detailed answers.
Here are some tips explaining how to answer commonly asked questions:
"Tell me about yourself / your background"
- This question helps you ease into the interview as it gives you the control.
- Your answer much be relevant to the job you are applying for.
- Avoid long-winded answers and going on tangents.
- Cover your education, experience and interest in the industry
- It's not your life-story - it should take around 2-3 minutes
- Begin with a strong sentence, for example, "I am the head of a school's science department with 10 years of experience of teaching people from ages 5-83 from varying walks of life."
"What are your limitations / weaknesses?"
- Be honest - everyone has weaknesses.
- Tell the interviewer your weakness, without using negative language, and explain how you're trying to address it - essentially you want to explain how this weakness will be a strength in the near future.
- For example, "In the past I found it difficult to work simultaneously on different tasks, preferring to finish one task before starting another. However, I've recently attended a time-management course where I've learnt how to plan ahead and manage my time and scheduling more effectively. This has made it easier to work on different projects at the same time and it's a skill that I'll keep practicing and developing."
"Why should you get this job?"
- The interviewer wants you to persuade them why you're the best choice.
- You need to show them why you want the job and why you're valuable.
- E.g. "From what we've spoken about, you want to X/ resolve X. In this past I have shown that I am…. (your experience and your skills).
"Why did your apply for this job?" / "Why do you want this job?"
- Concentrate on why the organisation and job enthuse you.
- This is a good place to reveal your knowledge about the organisation and mention points from the job description that make you suited for the role.
- E.g. "I want this customer assistant job at X shop because I know I would be great at it. I enjoy engaging with people and helping them to the best of my ability. I have worked as a customer assistant for the last three years in other shops so I have a lot of experience of handling money and working with different cash register systems. I'm especially excited about working at X shop since I buy most of my clothes from here so I'm keen to use all of my skills in a place that I support."
"Where do you see yourself in five years?"
- By asking this question, the interview is checking to see whether you're ambitious, motivated and that you genuinely want this job.
- This answers needs to be tailored to the company and role you're applying for, for example, for an entry level position explain how you want your career to develop, for example, "I see myself being a digital assistant..." For a senior position explain how you want to help the organisation achieve its company's objectives and explain how you can assist in fulfilling these goals.
- Essentially: be enthusiastic about the industry and fit your own aims around the company's objectives.
"Why is there a gap in your work history?"
- Be honest - if it was due to personal reasons then state this. Otherwise, you can say that "I was taking timeout whilst searching for a new career direction". Avoid being defensive.
- You may also be asked why you left a previous job, if you're struggling to find an "appropriate reason" you can say that there were no/limited opportunities for career progression.
Other common interview questions include:
- Why are you interested in this industry?
- What makes you think you are the right fit for us?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- What are your biggest weaknesses?
- Why have you not yet found a role?
- Why do you appear to be doing a lot of job hopping?
- What are you learning in your spare time?
- How do you deal with stress?
- Tell me about a time when you dealt with ambiguity?
- What salary are you seeking?
- What makes you a good team player?
For more interview tips, example questions, and to be able to practice questions in VR, check out our interview training course.
Most questions in an interview are competency-based and you simply answer them based on your previous experiences. The interviewers are trying to see the compatibility with the position you're applying for. It's easy to distinguish these questions as they generally start like this:
- Tell me about a time when you...
- Do you have an example of when you/how you...
Some key competencies:
- Decision making
- Communication skills
- Ability to work under pressure
- Goal orientation
To prepare for competency-based questions:
- Look at all of the competencies in the job specification.
- Think of examples of how you meet these.
- Think of a variety of examples you can use, for example, you may talk about experiences from daily life, previous work, at your current job, in sports etc.
- Use the STAR technique to create an answer.
The STAR model:
The STAR model is a way of forming an answer that helps you meet the requirements of a competency-based question. It's a two-minute answer which shows your skills and how they've been helpful in previous experiences.
- Situation - What was the context? What was happening at the time?
- Task - What did you want to achieve? What were your aims? Was there a specific problem?
- Action - How did you deal with it? What actions did you take?
- Result - What was the outcome? How has this helped in the long-term?
Diagram showing the STAR technique. Read here for more information.
For example: "Do you have an example of when you have problem-solved at work”
- Situation: “At the surgery I currently work at, a patient rang up complaining that no one had replied to her email requesting an appointment which she sent two weeks ago”
- Task: “I had to figure out what had happened so I could provide her with an explanation and also resolve the situation so the patient could get their appointment.”
- Activity: “I apologised and asked for the email's details to help locate it. I couldn't find it so I asked the patient what email address they had sent it to. I realised she had sent it to the surgery's previous email address - this was changed one year ago. I explained this to the patient and reassured her that it was an easy mistake to make. I provided her with the new email address for the future and booked in her appointment in the earliest available slot.”
- Result: “The client apologised for being initially hostile and thanked me. Due to this experience we have emphasised the change to our new email address on our website to make it more obvious and we are also advertising this change in the surgery as well."
We provide an online course with online tutorials, question handouts, and virtual reality practice where you can select general interview questions, technical ones, or company-specific questions. These are all questions that have been asked in real interviews just like yours so are the best way to prepare.
The VR practice could help calm your nerves too because you’ll be answering in front of a panel of photo-realistic people.
Questions for the interviewer
You shouldn’t spend the whole time answering questions - you should prepare 2 or 3 of your own to ask the interviewer as most interviewers will ask if you have any questions.
Your questions should be specific, not generic, to show that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about the job and that you have thought about the role and company. For example, you could ask about the company culture or the challenges previous employees in your potential role have faced.
Other potential questions:
- Is this a new role or an existing one? What did the previous employee go on to do?
- Does the company offer any training schemes?
- What would you describe as a typical day in this role?
- What are the company's plans for the future/growth and development?
- How do you advance in this company?
- What are the biggest rewards of this role and working for this company?
- What are the biggest challenges of this role?
- Who does this position report to?
- How many people work in this team/office/department?
- What is the best thing about working here?
- What is the management style here?
- I saw that you've recently done X. Can you please tell me more about this?
- What are the career progression opportunities?
- When can I expect to hear from you? This is a natural way of ending the interview.
There are certain questions you shouldn't ask, here are some of them:
- Avoid questions about your salary or any benefits, such as, your annual leave and sick days. By asking, it sounds like you're assuming the position is yours - only ask when you find out you've got the job.
- Avoid yes or no questions because you want to continue building rapport and not prevent a potential conversation.
- By asking "What does your company do?" it looks like you haven't put any effort into preparing for the interview and you're not bothered about this job.
- Don't confuse the interviewers by asking them multiple questions at once - ask one question at a time
- This isn't a question but it's very important: don't ever criticise your previous or current employer, for example, "That's good to hear that the manager is so supportive, my current manager isn't like that - they're hard work..." The interviewers probably don't know your current employer so they can't support this opinion, you'll just look untrustworthy and potentially incapable.
- Ask questions covering a variety of topics or the interviewers may think that you're bothered by a specific topic. For example, you may ask a few questions about promotion and development which may lead them to believe that you don't want to stay in the position for long.
Plan ahead for the interview
Job interview preparation isn’t just about the interview itself, it’s about getting you in the right mindset too. Interviews are stressful enough for most people so ensure that you organise what you need to the day before.
Plan your journey to the interview location and factor in an extra half an hour for traffic or delayed public transport. Find a coffee shop beforehand so you know where to go if you arrive too early - you'll feel less nervous sitting in a cafe than in your interview's venue.
Plan your outfit at least the day before to ensure you have clean, pressed, clothes to wear. Your outfit should be professional, comfortable and make you feel confident.
Tips for what to wear
- Suit with skirt or pants (regardless of company dress code, take the conservative approach)
- Knee-length skirts are typically appropriate
- Stick to dark colour schemes, no loud colours
- Understated makeup and nail polish
- Limit jewellery and accessories
- Neat, conservative hairstyle
- Wear a suit (even if typical company dress code is more casual)
- Matching dress suit and trousers
- Dress shirt
- Dark socks and polished shoes
- Neat and tidy hairstyle
Bring these to the interview
- Copies of your CV - even if the interviewers have their own copies it at least shows that you're prepared and are taking this seriously.
- Examples of your work if possible - this is specific to the industry.
- Notebook and pen - you may want to make notes during the interview about important points, such as key features about the role. It will show that you're interested and motivated. It's also a useful technique to control your body language if this is something you struggle with.
Coping with nerves
It is completely natural that you will get nervous during an interview for a role that you are particularly passionate about. This is to be expected, and hiring managers will understand minor nerves, but it is always best to try and compose yourself as much as possible and come across as strong and confident when meeting with them.
Read our 8 Elements of Confident Body Language.
To help you hide those nerves and display the best possible image, here are some interview tips to help you:
- Choose to stand, instead of sitting, while you wait in the interview room, this means you are prepared and look more in control when the interviewer comes to meet you.
- Take deep breaths before entering the room as a means to calm yourself and control your breathing.
- Just before the interview, open your mouth, stick your tongue out as far as possible, and speak your favourite nursery rhyme. This technique helps open up your throat and allows you to speak more clearly and more confidently.
- To overcome any shaking, squeeze your buttocks tight together while sitting.
- Sit slightly forward in your chair, this makes you come across as more confident and helps stop your throat from closing up.
- Showing your hands at all times is seen by our subconscious as a sign of honesty, and it also helps stop you from fidgeting.
- Listen clearly before answering any questions so as to help avoid any awkward silences and responses.
- Finally, speak slowly and clearly to the interviewer and show that you are in control of yourself.
- Avoiding consuming too much caffeine beforehand as this is a stimulant and can leave you feeling more nervous and shaky.
Practice the interview
Practicing is the best way to prepare for an interview. When you feel confident in your question and answer preparation, conduct interviews in same format as the real interview, for example, if it's a phone interview then get your friend to call you. It's useful to give your practice interviewers the job description so they can create more authentic and realistic questions.
Practicing your body language is also very important because when we get nervous we tend to engage in our personal nervous behaviours. Firstly, detect what nervous behaviours you engage in - feedback from practices will helps with this and so would filming yourself during interview practice.
- Having an open body language e.g. not crossing your arms
- Avoiding slouching or sitting stiffly
- Laying your hands in your lap
- Speaking to and maintaining eye contact with the interviewer that asked you the question
- Shutting down your nervous behaviours when you notice you're engaging in them, such as, fidgeting
- Using your arms and hands to occasionally gesture for emphasis
Tips for answering interview questions
When it all comes down to it, the purpose of your interview is to know your stuff and you can be guaranteed there will be tough questions in place for you. However, there are some steps you can take to help remain calm and answer the questions in the best way possible.
Example: Cambridge law mock interview
This video shows a mock admissions interview for the Cambridge BA Tripos Degree in Law, conducted at Trinity College, Cambridge in November 2017. We've shortened the full video to just a few minutes, showing some example competency questions being answered.
When watching this video, think about she:
- Uses examples
- Doesn't ramble
- Is honest
- Knows about the role
- Research the company. This point was mentioned earlier and will pay dividends when you need quick answers at hand.
- Know your CV. It’s often surprising how many people don’t know the details of where they worked and when off the top of their head, as well as what skills they developed; make this a key part of your interview preparation.
- Practice, practice, practice. Nothing will better prepare you for interview questions than actually practising them with people beforehand.
- Use examples. One major pet peeve of any hiring manager is hearing blanket responses like “I’m highly driven”. You need to be able to back these statements up with examples of where you have shown drive in a previous role or activity.
- Bring it back to the role. When answering questions about your accomplishments, try and link examples back to specific skills you will need for the role you are applying for.
- Be honest. One of the easiest ways to get your thoughts in a knot is to start telling lies about your accomplishments. Experienced interviewers can spot lies a mile off and will punish you for it.
- No rambling. Don’t bore them with long-winded answers, instead be direct and to the point and don’t stray off topic.
- Ask questions. When possible, asking questions shows you are genuinely interested and creates more of a dialogue, and when at the end they ask if you have any questions, have some prepared that you haven't already raised.
You can use virtual reality to practice answering interview questions in a realistic environment using the VirtualSpeech app.
After the interview
Following up with email
Good interview etiquette means waiting between 24 to 48 hours before sending post-interview correspondence. A common way of doing this is via email, or alternatively any other form of communication they gave you. Ideally, you want to contact every person who interviewed you and briefly thank them for their time and reiterate exactly why you are perfect for the role.
Keeping the message to the point is crucial so don't waffle about why you love the company and how much you enjoyed meeting them. Instead, clearly identify what it is that you possess that will benefit the company and why you are different to everyone else they have interviewed. This brief yet concise email will help keep you fresh in their minds when they make their decision and also give them points by which to discuss your case for working for them.
How long will you have to wait?
This will vary greatly depending on the role you are applying for, what stage of the interview process you are at, and how many people they need to interview for the position. Hopefully, the interviewer will give you some indication of how long you will have to wait and, if you feel you have built up enough rapport in your meeting, you can even ask at the end whether they require anything else from you and when you can expect to hear from them.
Really, it all comes down to patience and knowing you did everything you could on the day of the interview.
After the interview you may be asked to attend a second interview so prepare for it in the same way but additionally:
- Ask for feedback from your first interview as this will give you suggestions on improvements.
- Go into more depth when researching the company and prepare examples of how you think you can help the company.
The more prepared you are for an interview the more likely it'll lead to a positive outcome. If you don't get the job, ask for feedback and see what improvements you can make for the next interview. Try to look at the value of this rather than the negativity - interviewing is a skill in which real-life practice is needed to develop it so treat each interview as an opportunity to refine this skill regardless of whether you get the job or not.