Fail to plan, plan to fail! You are very likely to be asked questions about your potential new employer, so make sure you’ve done your homework on things like their last year's profits and latest company news.
Here are a few places you can find some useful information:
An online search
The company’s website is of course the best place to start. It shows the company as it would like to be seen and the products and services they offer. You’ll get a feel for the corporate style, culture and tone of voice. Check out the annual report and look for a press or company news page.
As you filter all this information, consider how the role you’re applying for relates to the company’s mission. You may also be able to use the site’s search facility to discover more about the person or people who will be interviewing you.
You should spend some time looking online for any other information you can find about the company. For example, put their name into Google News to see if they’ve had any recent interesting stories written about them. You could also discover some information written by their current employees on what it’s like to work there. It’s also worth searching for your own name to see what crops up – your potential employer may be doing the same thing.
It’s not just information about the company you need – you should also have a good background knowledge of the industry so you can impress at the interview. Browse through business publications and websites to see what they are writing about your potential employer and their industry. Have a look on the newsstands at the big magazine retailers - there’s an amazing list of publications out there.
You may find back issues of trade publications at university or public libraries, or you might be able to access them online. Some journals are even available for free or by subscription through their own websites. If you’re already in the same industry as your potential employer, it may be possible to discreetly ask colleagues or your suppliers if they know anything about the company you’re interested in.
This is the bit most people forget to give enough time to, so don’t get caught out. Just like when you’re going into an exam, feel confident that you can field any question they throw at you, and try to feel as good about yourself as you can. It shines through.
Here are a few top tips:
• Have a mock interview with a friend based on the common interview questions you’re likely to face.
• Be sure you know the time, date and location of the interview and the name of interviewers.
• Decide how you will get there and when you need to set off to arrive in good time, anticipating any delays. You could even do a dummy run to make sure.
• If you look good, you tend to feel good too. Avoid any last minute panic by preparing what you’re going to wear the night before.
• If you are asked to bring certificates, references, etc, get them ready well in advance to avoid having to chase around on the morning of the big day.
• Easy to forget, but make sure you use the toilet before you go in – you don’t want to be bursting to go when you’re mid-interview!
Sit down with your CV and make notes, just as if you were preparing for an exam. Study your work record and what you have achieved. How do you see yourself? What have you done? What ambitions do you have? Make notes and prepare and rehearse sound bites about yourself. Do this out loud, even if it makes you feel weird. Try to relate specific areas of your CV back to the job description. It will make it clear to the interviewer why they should hire you.
Remember, one of the most common interview questions is “Tell me about yourself”. Prepare a balanced and succinct answer to this question, not a life history. Keep it business-like and don’t stray into personal feelings or family relationships. Avoid anything to do with politics or religion! Interviewers use this question to learn about your personal qualities, not your achievements - they should already have those from your CV.
Common interview questions
Although there is no set format that every job interview will follow, there are some questions that you can almost guarantee will crop up. Here’s a list of the most common questions and a guide to the kind of answers your interviewer wants to hear.
• Tell me about yourself…
This is usually the opening question and, as first impressions are key, one of the most important. Keep your answer to under five minutes, beginning with an overview of your highest qualification then running through the jobs you’ve held so far in your career. You can follow the same structure of your CV, giving examples of
achievements and the skills you’ve picked up along the way. Don’t go into too much detail – your interviewer will probably take notes and ask for you to expand on any areas where they’d like more information. If you’re interviewing for your first job since leaving education, focus on the areas of your studies you most enjoyed
and how that has led to you wanting this particular role.
• What are your strengths?
Pick the three biggest attributes that you think will get you the job and give examples of how you have used these strengths in a work situation. They could be tangible skills, such as proficiency in Primavera planning software, or intangible skills such as good people management. If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at the job description. There is usually a section listing candidate requirements, which should give you an idea of what they are looking for.
• What are your weaknesses?
The dreaded question, which is best handled by picking something that you have made positive steps to redress. For example, if your IT ability is not at the level it could be, state it as a weakness but tell the interviewer about training courses or time spent outside work hours you have used to improve your skills.
Your initiative could actually be perceived as a strength. On no accounts say “I don’t have any weaknesses”, your interviewer won’t believe you, or “I have a tendency to work too hard”, which is seen as avoiding the question.
• Why should we hire you? or What can you do for us that other candidates can't?
What makes you special and where do your major strengths lie? You should be able to find out what they are looking for from the job description. “I have a unique combination of strong technical skills and the ability to build long-term customer relationships” is a good opening sentence, which can then lead onto a more specific example of something you have done so far in your career. State your biggest achievement and the benefit it made to the business, then finish with “Given the opportunity, I could bring this success to your company.”
• What are your goals? or Where do you see yourself in five years time?
It’s best to talk about both short-term and long-term goals. Talk about the kind of job you’d eventually like to do and the various steps you will need to get there, relating this in some way back to the position you’re interviewing for. Show the employer you have ambition, and that you have the determination to make the
most of every job you have to get where you want to be.
• Why do you want to work here?
The interviewer is listening for an answer that indicates you’ve given this some thought. If you’ve prepared for the interview properly, you should have a good inside knowledge of the company’s values, mission statement, development plans and products. Use this information to describe how your goals and ambition matches their company ethos and how you would relish the opportunity to work for them. Never utter the phrase “I just need a job.”.
• What are three positive things your last boss would say about you?
This is a great time to brag about yourself through someone else’s words. Try to include one thing that shows your ability to do the job, one thing that shows your commitment to the work, and one thing that shows you are a good person to have in a team. For example, “My boss has told me that I am the best QS he has ever had. He knows he can always rely on me, and he likes my sense of humour.”
• What salary are you seeking?
The best advice here is generally to deflect the question and ask them to liaise with us. This means that you won't have to negotiate on the spot. We will already have let them know your current salary and also the sort of range you are looking for. Alternatively, If they have provided a guideline salary with the job description, you could mention this and say it’s around the same area you’re looking for.
You should always have some questions for your interviewer to demonstrate your interest in the position. Prepare a minimum of five questions, some which will give you more information about the job, and some which delve deeper into the culture and goals of the company.
Tips for second interviews
Once you’ve reached the second interview stage, it can be tempting to think you’re almost there and that the job’s there for the taking. It is, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Prepare as well for the second interview as you did for the first. Think about what it is about you that makes them want to consider you for the job.
They may want to delve deeper into your personal skills and interests to see if you’re the right fit for the team, or they may have brought someone in to play the tough guy to see how you handle pressure. If you do have a new interviewer, be prepared to go over some old ground using notes from your first interview.
As before, plan your answers to their likely questions, and be clear in your own mind where your cut off point is in terms of sharing views or talking about your private life. Expect more open-ended or challenging questions about your experience. Have some examples in your head about specific projects you have managed or challenges you have met. It may be worth preparing some cue cards of your key work achievements to keep them fresh and organised in your head ready for when you go in. If you’ve been asked to give a formal interview presentation, request that all the equipment you need is ready and waiting for you when you turn up.
Making your mind up Second interviews are a good opportunity to deal with the second thoughts you had on the way back from the first. Go through any notes you took first time around, during or after the interview, and draw up a list of things you’d like to clear up when they offer you the chance to ask questions. This is also a great time to really think hard about whether you’d want to work for these people or not. Do you like them? Is there something deep down that doesn’t feel right? Try to pick up as many signals as you can.
We’re going where?
Occasionally, second interviews will take place off-site, in a bar or restaurant, for example. There’s a very good reason for this - your interviewer may want to check out your interpersonal skills by seeing how you react in an informal setting. This technique is also used to catch you off guard and tempt you into saying something you might not say in a more formal environment. Be on your guard. Alcohol can often make you say something you regret so wait to see what your interviewer is drinking before ordering yours, and never fall into a trap of drinking too much too quickly.
Making an interview presentation
It’s not unusual when recruiting for senior roles, or where presentations are going to be part of the job, to ask candidates to make a presentation as part of their interview. This is an excellent opportunity to show your potential employers what you can do, away from the formal interview question and answers procedure. Preparing your presentation The most important thing is to know who you’re going to be speaking to.
This will inevitably influence what you say and how you pitch your presentation. Find out how many people will be on the panel, their status, their expertise, any knowledge levels you can safely assume, and whether they know each other. This information is vital in helping you pull together the right amount of material, pitching it at the right level, and ensuring you have enough supporting materials to hand. Once you’ve established these details, you can get to work on the all-important structure. Getting the right structure You should always have one clear message that runs through your presentation, and limit yourself to three sections: introduction, development of your argument, and summary. Any more than that and your presentation will lose focus. Develop a powerful introduction and close, as these are the times when your audience will be most attentive. Ensure that your ideas are clear and come in a logical sequence, using sentences that are short and to the point.
When calculating how much time to devote to each section, allow 10-15% for your opening, the same for your conclusion, and the rest for the main content. A clear delivery Keep your opening punchy and have a memorable ending that will leave your audience on an upbeat note. Speak slowly and with purpose; avoid rambling or making digressions. Make regular eye contact with members of your audience, rather than allowing your gaze to drift vaguely round the room or over their heads.
Try to learn your presentation by heart. It will save you having to fumble around with prompt cards or PowerPoint slides and will give an excellent impression of your confidence and professionalism. However you choose to present, practice your presentation beforehand, testing it on friends or family if you have the chance.
Most of us have experienced ‘death by PowerPoint’ at some time - that sinking feeling that comes from seeing ‘slide 1 of 60’ up there on the screen, or staring at densely-packed slides as the presenter reads the text out word-for-word. Have mercy on your audience and improve your chances at the same time. Maximum content should be a headline and perhaps three or four bullets per slide with graphs and diagrams where appropriate. It should be there to help emphasise what you’re saying, not to take the focus away. Don’t start the slides before you have first addressed your audience.
They don’t want to be distracted by what’s on the screen while you introduce yourself and what you’re going to say. As you progress through your presentation, give your audience time to digest what’s on each slide before you begin talking again. Flashy animations may show your technical expertise, but can cause major problems in distracting your audience and confusing you when it comes to pressing the button in the right places. Avoid glancing down at the screen for prompts – if you’ve learnt your presentation properly, you won’t need them – and talk to your audience, not your laptop. Always make sure any projection equipment is working properly and try to get set up and ready to go before you are asked to begin.
Taking questions Dealing with questions gives you the opportunity to further demonstrate your knowledge of your subject. Let your audience know in advance that you will be willing to take questions at the end so they don’t disrupt the flow of you presentation. Take your time to answer, be ready to defend yourself and don’t argue with a questioner. If you do come up against a conflict of opinions, don’t try to win the battle - search for a good compromise position. Inviting other questions or views from the other members of the audience may help you diffuse a potentially prickly situation. Answer the question you have been asked, not the one you fancy answering. Repeat each question as you receive it and give yourself a moment to consider what is actually being asked. If it is a loaded question that’s inviting you to say something you’d rather not, diffuse it by reinterpreting it in a less pointed way, or ask your questioners to expand on what they mean.
Finally, enjoy it. It’s a great chance to shine!
Questions for the interviewer
Most interviewers will give you an opportunity to ask questions after they’ve finished grilling you, so be prepared to make the most of it. Try to concentrate on issues that are important to you and combine an interest in the company with an interest in the job. With a wide variety of interview styles and structures, there’s every possibility that everything you want or need to know about the job will have been covered over the course of the interview. There is always more information available though and if you don’t have at least five questions prepared, you’ll come across as passive rather than curious and interested. Regarding role specific questions, look through the job description to see if there are any areas that you would like more information about. Here are some good examples of the questions you could ask about the role:
• Why has the position become available?
• What are the main objectives and responsibilities of the position?
• How does the company expect these objectives to be met?
• What are the measures used to judge how successful I am in the role?
• What obstacles are commonly encountered in reaching these objectives?
• What is the desired time frame for reaching the objectives?
• What can I expect from you in terms of development and support?
• What aspirations do you have for me at the company?
• Where will the job fit into the team structure?
Good interview preparation should have given you an insight into what it’s like to work for a company, but it’s good to get answers straight from the horse’s mouth in case you’ve misinterpreted anything. These questions are a good place to start:
• What’s the best thing about working at your company?
• What is the main thing the organisation expects from its employees?
• How do you build good relationships within teams?
• What is the turnover of staff like throughout the company?
• Are there any plans for expansion?
• How would you describe the company culture and management style?
To show your interest and knowledge of the industry the company operates in, it’s also a good idea to have a question ready regarding a current event or issue in the market. For example, “How do you think the recent merger between your two main competitors will affect the future of the industry?”
How well your interviewer reacts and answers your questions gives you a great insight into the company. The interview isn’t just for them to see if you’re the right fit for the organisation – if you’re confident about your skills and ability to do the job, you should also be making sure they’re the right fit for you. Generally, it’s not a good idea to ask about pay or benefits, as this can make you seem more interested in what the organisation can do for you, rather than what you can do for them.