The interview, demystified

The Saint explores how to prepare for and answer some common questions


On Wednesday 22 February, the Careers Centre held a workshop on interview skills. Pamela Andrew, Careers Adviser, led the hour-long presentation. Here are some of the biggest take-aways:

One of the most important things you need to do in an interview, we were told, is create a narrative. The importance of a narrative is exemplified well by a common but frighteningly open-ended cue: “Tell us a little bit about yourself.”

Divided into pairs, we were asked to answer this prompt for our partner. Those whose responses stood out crafted a story, rather than listing attributes. Starting with their childhoods and progressing onwards to university and work experience, they used the opportunity to express what motivated them and develop a rapport.

Dry answers of “I went to an international school and then chose to study at St Andrews,” for example, were trumped by answers like, “one of the things I loved best about studying at an international school was how diverse my class was; the international student body at St Andrews was one of the main reasons I chose to study there.”

Applicants who understand the nature and values of the organisation to which they are applying can use the opportunity to show that their values and those of the company are aligned. Applicants to a multinational might subtly and indirectly express their love of diversity, while applicants to an NGO might demonstrate a passion for social justice.

When it comes to position-specific questions (“why are you the best choice for this job?” and the like), strong applicants know their job description well. A clue to the answer an interviewer is looking for is almost always hidden in the job posting Ms Andrew suggests using online software to make a word cloud of the posting, which highlights some of the buzzwords, qualities, and skills they’re most looking for (incidentally, she suggests comparing this to a word cloud drawn from your cover letter to ensure they match up).

In answering these sorts of questions, it’s important to provide examples. Saying “I work well in groups” isn’t nearly as compelling if not followed up with a relevant story of a time you actually worked well in a group.

When providing an example, Ms Andrew advocated using the STARR method. This entails giving background on the situation and the specific task you needed to perform, recounting what your action was, and detailing the results and your reflections on the experience. Of these five stages, the action phase of explaining what you did should take up the lion’s share of your time. When reflecting on the experience, it’s usually fine to admit shortcomings, so long as you explain how you’d address these if you were to face a similar scenario in the future.

As far as really tough questions go, it’s better to politely ask for a moment to plan a response than to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Dreaded questions like “what is your biggest weakness?” are really asking what you’re doing to improve your professional skills, so treat them as such. Start with an honest assessment of the shortcoming, but pivot towards the progress you’re making towards fixing that problem by the end of your response.

Google-esque questions like “how many piano tuners are there in London?,” while increasingly out of vogue, are less scary than they might seem. These are nearly always designed to test your reasoning skills, and most, obviously, aren’t looking for a precise answer. Detail your thought process aloud, as that’s what they really want to know about.

The most important facet in preparing for an interview, in the words of Ms Andrew, is “practice, practice, practice.” In the first place, this means having a face-to-face mock interview with a Careers Counsellor or someone you know. Ms Andrew suggests trying it out with someone ‘who doesn’t really like you’, as they won’t let you off the hook. Additionally, you can use the interview simulator on the Careers Centre website, which provides question prompts, records your timed response, and plays it back to you for review.

After thoroughly analysing the job posting as described earlier, you should also take some time to anticipate likely questions and game plan responses and examples per the STARR model. If teamwork, for example, is mentioned in the job description, it’s safe to assume that you’ll be asked about it in the interview, so think ahead.

Finally, know the company. One of the main things an interviewer is looking for is a genuine interest in the organisation and in the industry, so if you can express what about their organisation excites you, it’s likely to pay off. Just like anyone else, Ms Andrews points out, employers like to be flattered (but don’t lay it on too thick). Their social media pages, blogs, and recruiting websites are all great places to look for information.

There’s a lot more to preparing an interview than any reasonable article can cover, so be sure to take advantage of the resources available!


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