Friday, 12 August 2011

The essentials of interview preparation

I was offered a job after my last interview in London, on Wednesday (I’ll tell you who with once I’ve signed a contract.). Until this point I have been very reluctant to write anything about the process of applying for jobs, writing applications, or attending interviews. As someone who is unemployed it is easy to feel that you lack the credit to be able to write something and deserve to have anyone pay you any attention. On occasion, you'll find many guides on how to get through an interview, but many of these are full of unhelpful platitudes which aren't much help.

Here are my brief tips. Of course they’ll be of varying use to you, depending on what job you’re applying for, so be sure to tweak them accordingly.

Them:

1. Visit their website.
It’s a very basic suggestion, but you really ought to have done this while you were writing the application. If for some reason you didn’t do that then, do it now. Read all relevant publications they produce – know how they communicate to potential clients. Know what their working hours are and what services they offer.

2. Talk to people.
See if you know of anyone that has worked there. For example, if it’s a job at a University or a Council try to speak to employees, ex-employees, students, clients, ex-clients, or anyone that can give you a little more insider knowledge of how they operate.

3. Know the team.
A few companies have staff pages/profiles. Give them a read, know who you’re working with. Search for the organisation’s name and see what they have been involved with recently, and whether they’ve been in the news.

Part of any application process is letting an organisation know why you’ve picked them. They’ll want to know why they ought to hire you, but also why you want to work for them specifically and how you can make their organisation better.

You:

1. Choose your attitude
This is really the biggest point I can make. An interview is about giving the employer a snippet of your personality. They’ve seen on paper what your qualities are, but they want to know if you’re going to drive them round the bend during day-to-day activities. If you come across as snarky, jaded, facetious, or just annoying as hell, then you can forget about it. Key point: strike a balance with everything. Don’t be unbearably arrogant but don’t be insecure; don’t be happy-go-lucky without a care in the world, but also don’t be negative.

2. Keep a professional distance
The relationship your employer is looking to establish with you is (one would hope) not a romantic relationship. Whilst there needs to be a foundation of trust, they do not need to know all your deepest darkest secrets and they are not committed to loving the true you. Even if they ask you what your biggest regrets are, what your worst qualities are, or other questions that could easily lend themselves to long life stories: avoid this at all costs. Which brings me to my next point.

3. B+!
Be positive. This isn’t the sort of recommendation that says: you can do anything if you put your mind to it! No, this is meant to be taken literally. Whenever you’re asked a question, try to reply with a positive answer. If you come across as someone that can’t stop moaning you may find that people are somewhat less eager to share a work environment with you, day in, day out.

4. The nitty-gritty
You have to know why they should hire you. If you’re iffy about yourself, they’ll be iffy about you. If you can manage the previous 3 points, then now is the time to know yourself. Before your interview go over everything you sent in your application and your CV; write a long list of all your professional and personal achievements. Know what you have done, know what you’re most proud of.

For any interview, these are the things you should know so well that you can recite on queue at any time:
  1. the main projects you’ve worked on, how you went about organising them – what action you took, what your results/achievements were. Make them tangible. 
  2. your greatest personal achievement (success in sport, success at University, success with a personal project, etc)
  3. when you’ve worked alone and with others – this crops up repeatedly! 
  4. your strengths, know how to tie them in with your experience.

5. The tricky questions
It is common to be asked what your weaknesses are, and the usual recommendations for this are as follows:
  1. pick a weakness that isn’t really a weakness
  2. pick a weakness that everyone has
  3. pick a weakness that is unrelated to your job
  4. whatever your weakness is, mention how your strengths make up for it (ex.: my weakness is [x], but I see it as a vital part of [y] which I’m really good at) 
Other “trick” questions include “where do you see yourself in 3/5/10 years?” and “what is your ideal job?”. Try not to be overly idealistic. In the case of the first question don’t tell the interviewer that you want their job – find an answer that encompasses good personal development and that shows that you’re willing to commit and grow with the position you’re being interviewed for.

In terms of your ideal job it can be wise to not be too specific and list elements common to the job you’re applying for. So, for example, if you’re working with people or developing a certain skill, you might say that your ideal job incorporates more of this. 

Key point: Whatever they ask you, keep in mind points 2 and 3. Don’t get too personal and maintain a positive attitude.

6. Be prepared
If you’re reading this, then this is likely to be a moot point, but take the time to properly prepare for an interview and not just wing-it. For a specific interview make sure you know exactly what you can bring to the workplace and why you’ve picked them. Being familiar with the ins-and-outs of the organisation will allow you to do this well.

Think of all the questions you’d ask yourself, and again use online resources to find questions that are most asked. Ideally, get a friend with some experience in your field to give you a good grilling the day before.

7. Ask a question
If you’ve thought of a question during the interview, then great. If not, try to prepare an open question for your interviewers. Don’t ask any questions about yourself (how much you’ll be earning, what benefits you get, etc) because that sends off all the wrong motivation signals. Try to take the opportunity to find out more about the job you’re going to do, about how the organisation typically go about a certain task, or something that shows curiosity. Do not ask a question whose answer would take 30 seconds on their website to answer.

My notes for my latest interview