The job market these days can be tough for professionals at any stage of their careers. For every person who secures a new role with apparent ease many others find themselves having to deal with a string of disappointments before being selected for a role that suits them in a sector of their choice.

Job searching can be particularly challenging for graduates and young professionals in the early stages of their careers. Competition for most of the jobs for which they are eligible is strong and the number of well qualified candidates can seem overwhelmingly high.

From the outset, it’s important to keep in mind that for every contested role there is always a successful candidate; somebody whose resume stood out sufficiently for them to be short-listed and who then performed better than all other candidates in the selection process overall. In their pursuit of a first or next role, graduates and young professionals can beat the odds by making sure that at each stage of the recruitment process, their performance is the best it can be.

Getting your resume into the best possible shape is the critical first stage. This guide focuses principally on the stage after that – the interview process. It covers the essential skills you need if you are to stand out from the crowd and become the successful candidate. ‘Interview skills’ refers not only to the skills you need when you are face-to-face with your interviewer or interviewers but also to the skills you must apply in preparing to be interviewed and the skills you should apply after the interview is over. These aspects are discussed in detail in the next three sections of this guide:

  1. preparing to be interviewed;
  2.  the interview; and
  3. after the interview.

By the time you are invited to attend an interview, you are likely to have already done a lot of work towards securing the job you want. Researching the job market, developing your resume and submitting applications all consume significant amounts of time and effort. But, as the rest of this section explains, there is more to be done before you attend the interview. Interview preparation includes making sure you are well-informed and knowledgeable about:

  1. the interview process;
  2. the employing organisation;
  3.  the role for which you have applied; and
  4. the people involved in your interview.

Interview preparation is quite simply about making sure you are ready to be interviewed.

a. The interview process

When you’re invited to attend an interview it’s important to be clear on where this interview sits in the overall recruitment process and its purpose. For example, is it a short, screening interview to help the employing organisation to create a short-list? Or are you already on a short-list and this interview could lead to your becoming the preferred candidate? If it’s a second or subsequent interview, what is its particular purpose? For example are there aspects of your background or experience that your interviewer wants to explore further because they are not quite sure about your suitability.

Being clear on the type of interview you have been invited to attend is important because it helps you prepare adequately, including being mentally ready for the interview meeting. For example, if you have made it to the ‘long list’ of candidates selected from their resumes and the interview is with a recruitment firm, your task at the interview will be to convince the interviewer that your application should make it to the ‘short list’ of candidates who will be invited to meet with their client – your prospective employer. You are likely to be offered a relatively short amount of time to do this and you are likely to be meeting with a highly-skilled interviewer who will want to focus on what you have said in your resume.

On the other hand, if the prospective employer has not engaged a recruitment firm, your interview is with someone from the employing organisation who may or may not be a skilled interviewer. You need to be ready for either! Candidates have fallen at the first hurdle because they politely waited for a nervous interviewer to stop talking only to later discover that they were deemed unsuitable for the role because they had not said much at interview!

In the course of obtaining a clear understanding of the interview process, you should make sure you ascertain what, if anything, you are expected to bring along to the interview. A portfolio of work examples is important in some professions and it’s critical that you make sure you assemble one that will meet the interviewer’s needs. Check too that, whether in hard copy or electronic form, it is organised in a way that enables you to present it confidently at interview. A good candidate’s standing can be seriously compromised by anything less.

If you’re not clear on the type of interview, where it sits in the recruitment process or what you are expected to have with you, it’s important to ask. For example, the following, straightforward questions are useful for eliciting relevant information when you are being invited for a first interview:

  1. How long have you allowed for the interview?
  2. Would you like me to bring anything along?
  3. Who will be interviewing me?

An interview process overall can involve several steps before the hiring organisation makes their final selection. A first ‘screening’ interview, an interview with the person to whom you would be reporting and another interview with the ultimate decision-maker. The larger your prospective employer the more likely it is that the ultimate decision-maker is other than the person who would be your immediate line manager. On the other hand, if you are applying for a role with a small firm of professionals your first and only interview might be with the business owner with poorly developed interviewing skills!

In combination with other preparation outlined in this guide, knowing about the interview process before you attend the first interview increases the likelihood that you will make the most of the time made available to you. You will always need to be ready to deal with uncertainties but a few simple questions will help you to be as clear as possible about the interview process.

b. The employing organisation

Knowing about the employing organisation is an important part of interview preparation because it provides you with a basis for talking about how you, a prospective employee, could add value. It enables you to move beyond generalised answers to making links between what you have done and how you could apply your experience in the role on offer.

Your preparation should always include a detailed examination of the recruiting organisation’s website. It’s also prudent to do undertake broader web research. Have they been in the news recently?  Any latest developments? If possible find out who the most senior managers/owners are and extend your research to those individuals. Also, for any particular industry there might be a peak body or industry association where you can research the broader context.

For example, a recent graduate did his homework and learned that his preferred employer was about to expand into Asia. At appropriate times during his interview he made sure to mention his familiarity with the region due to an extended period of travel and his experience of living away from home. This candidate was successful against competitors with far more career experience because he convinced his interviewer that he could help the organisation achieve a key business objective.

In combination with the other interview preparation outlined in this guide, being well-informed about the employing organisation allows you to think about how you could help them achieve their business goals and to consider how you can refer to this in the interview.

c. Your new role

Being well-informed about the role for which you are to be interviewed is important because it helps you focus what you say about yourself in interview on what will be of value to your prospective employer.

You should read the ‘position description’ carefully. If you have not been provided with one, make sure you request one – you unnecessarily disadvantage yourself by not doing so. Information such as the responsibilities of the role, the knowledge and experience expected of the successful candidate and the objectives the incumbent is expected to achieve provides you with a basis for tailoring your answers to interview questions. You are much better placed to speak about how you could apply your specialist technical skills in the employing organisation.

It’s important too to interpret from the position description (often referred to as a ‘PD’), the generic skills that are likely to be expected. Critical thinking, leadership and collaboration are examples of generic skills that are relevant for many professional roles. For example, if the PD refers to working in teams then your capacity to collaborate with others will be important; if the PD refers to innovation then the generic skill of creativity is likely to be important.

During your preparatory work, it’s also important to read carefully any other written material associated with the vacancy – for example, the wording of an advertisement will have embedded clues about what is most important to your prospective employer. Read them carefully and you will find that most job adverts contain these clues.

Being clear about the scope of the role, the limits of its responsibilities and the ways in which your performance would be assessed takes you a long way towards being as prepared as you can be for interview.

d. Interviewers

When you are invited to attend an interview make sure you know who will be interviewing you and, as far as possible learn something about them as it helps you be as prepared as you can be for interview.

First, be clear about whether you are to be interviewed by the employing organisation or by a recruitment firm. The latter is common if this is a first screening interview and the employing organisation is other than small.

Next, get to know if it will be an individual interviewer, more than one person or a panel interview. Be aware that some interviews involve both the employing organisation and a recruitment specialist. Knowing the number of people involved can be critically important if you are more comfortable one-on-one or have never experienced a multi-interviewer interview.

Your preparation should include accessing whatever information you can about the person or people who will be interviewing you. Company websites and social media can be rich sources of relevant information. Is your interviewer a professional in your field? Or do they have a background that is completely different from yours? Knowing more about who they are and their background helps you think about how you will approach what you have to say. For example an IT specialist about to be interviewed by an HR specialist would be wise to avoid technical jargon and IT acronyms and might advance their case significantly by demonstrating their understanding of the people aspects of IT work. Similarly, demonstrating an understanding of business aspects of the role would be important to financial or business interviewers.

Interview preparation skills checklist

Here are the factors you should have considered by the time you head off for that important interview:

  1.  are you clear about the organisation’s business overall, the markets in which it operates, the main competitors and its reputation?
  2. have you clearly understood the role for which you have applied and what you would be expected to achieve in the role?;Do you have a good grasp of the skills required for the job – both technical and generic?
  3.  did you establish the purpose of this interview (short-listing, final decision etc.) and the style of interview (individual manager, recruiter, panel etc.);
  4. have you thought carefully about how your skills, experience and potential could be valuable to this employer for this particular role?
  5. have you worked out where the interview is to take place and how long it will take you to get there?
  6.  and right before you head into the meeting – have you remembered to turn your phone off or on to silent?

The skills associated with the interview itself fall into three broad areas:

  1. how you present yourself;
  2. demonstrating your knowledge, skills and potential; and
  3. dealing with questions.

a. How you present yourself

How you present yourself for interview is about much more than what you wear. It’s about the impression you create from the moment you first meet with your interviewer. The way you walk, what you do when you are introduced, how you speak, your facial expressions and gestures throughout the interview and the attitude you project as well as how you dress all have a significant bearing on the impression you leave behind.

If you are unsure about the impression your habitual approach is likely to leave, then it’s wise to get some practice in before your next important interview and to enlist the help of someone on whom you can rely for honest feedback. The following merit your attention:

  1. how you walk into the interview room can both boost your own confidence and project confidence;
  2. making sufficient eye contact especially when you are introduced;
  3. whether your gestures and facial expressions complement what you have to say; and
  4. how you speak – are you clearly audible or do you tend to mumble? Remember that nervousness can cause a person to speak too quickly confusing both themselves and an interviewer.

Dress can be of great or little significance and it’s best to include this area in your research. Whilst some people argue that how a person dresses should not have a bearing on how they are judged, the truth is that it often does and in some sectors inappropriate dress at interview can destroy your chance of a job offer, however impressive your background and qualifications. But if you do choose to dress in a radically different way from usual, just for an interview, be prepared to make that change permanent if you are successful!

How you present yourself at interview has a great deal to do with self-management. If you have doubts about any of the following areas, it’s wise to invest time in strengthening your skills:

b. Demonstrating your knowledge and skills

Interviewers want to know not only about what you know and what you have done but more importantly they need to be in a position to assess how you would apply those skills, experience and knowledge in the employing organisation. It’s important therefore to be able to talk about your background in ways that help them make that assessment. There are some ways in which you can make their job easier:

  1. have ready some ‘stories’ to support the claims you have made in your resume. For example if you claim to solve complex client problems be sure to have an example or two ready that will illustrate your skills;
  2. but make sure that, when you do illustrate your points, you do not breach confidentiality thereby demonstrating unreliability to a prospective employer;
  3. be ready to suggest ways in which you could apply your skills and experience to the prospective employer’s needs. Your background work as discussed in section 1 of this guide will help you do this;
  4.  if this is your first full-time job, then be ready to talk about how you see your academic learning, skills and experience being applied – draw on your background work to do this; and
  5. whether or not this is your first full-time job – you can illustrate generic skills such as leadership, creativity and collaboration using experiences from non work as well as work settings. For example, a new graduate might talk about their leadership experience in a social club setting or the way they have been innovative in a university project;

When you are in front of a skilled interviewer, all the above can be relatively easy to apply because they will ask questions that pave the way for you to demonstrate your skills and experience. A less able interviewer – for example, the manager who does most of the talking – can leave you with a far more challenging task. Doing the background work discussed in Section 1 of this guide will help you be as prepared as you can be including, if necessary, being ready to drive the interview conversation.

c. Dealing with questions

Responding to interview questions is not about providing your interviewer with as much information as you can in the time available. It is about thinking what is behind each question and responding in a way that helps your interviewer assess your suitability for the role. Even a seemingly simple question such as ‘Tell me about your background’ should be seen as an opportunity to offer information that is relevant to the interviewer’s decision making. The following general tips help you do the best job you can of dealing with interview questions:

  1. listen closely to each question and let the interviewer finish before you start answering;
  2.  a short pause after a question enables you to collect your thoughts and compose an answer that helps your interviewer. It is unlikely to be seen as a problem to your interviewer though it can seem like an eternity to an anxious interviewee;
  3.  if you are unsure what is being asked, seek clarification.  There is nothing wrong with your asking questions like Can you explain what you mean by ……..’ or ‘Is there a particular aspect of …… that interests you?
  4.  be ready for some ‘behavioural’ interview questions – many interviewers have been trained in this technique. Behavioural questions invite you to say how you have dealt with a particular type of situation. For example ‘Tell me about a time when you to deal with a dissatisfied client’;
  5.  look out for multi-part questions and if you are not confident that you can remember them all, be sure to have a notepad and paper with you. For example, an interviewer might ask ‘Give me an example of when you have had to solve a complex problem. What was complex and how did you go about dealing with it?’
  6. be alert for questions that are as wide as an ocean and make sure you don’t respond with a tidal wave of information. Whilst questions such as ‘Tell me about yourself?’ or ‘What do you know about our organisation?’ might appear to invite long responses, it is better to see them as opportunities to draw on your preparation and to provide information that is relevant to your application and perhaps not covered in depth in your CV;
  7. be observant and watch your how your interviewer(s) react to your responses. Aim to keep them interested and engaged;
  8. if you have any doubts about your ability to deal with ‘difficult’ questions, be sure to get some practice in well ahead of a critical interview. Questions such as ‘Why should we engage you?’ and ‘How would you add value to our company?’ can be fatal traps for the unwary and great opportunities for the well-prepared; and
  9. become adept at answering questions articulately and succinctly. If you have any doubts about your competence level then it’s not enough to practice in front of a mirror. There is no substitute for a constructively critical other person who can be depended upon to help you develop this skill.

Whilst your interview will mostly involve YOU in answering questions put to you, there is often an opportunity at the end to ask questions yourself. One or more of these might occur to you during the interview so it’s helpful to have a pad and pen in front of you to note them down. It’s also wise to make notes prior to your interview about questions you might want to ask. Whilst there is no guarantee that you will be invited to ask questions, it is generally unwise to decline to ask any if you are asked and want the job!

It’s important to think about your job search as an integrated process and not as a series of unrelated job applications. Unless you are one of the fortunate few who secure the first role for which they apply, you will need to deal with a few rejections along the way. This includes learning from each interview experience.

As soon as possible after each interview, set time aside for a critical assessment of how you went. It helps to record your responses so that you can go back to them later – like a ‘learning diary’. The following questions are designed to help you do this:

  1. what went well? For example, which questions do you feel you answered well? Did you establish rapport with your interviewer(s)? Did you feel you had prepared adequately to answer behavioural questions?
  2. which questions did you find more challenging to answer? What was difficult? How did you go with answering them?  What would you do differently next time?
  3. what did you notice about your interviewer(s) responses?  Think not only about what they said but also about any facial expressions or body language that you noticed;
  4. how did you feel during the interview? (Be honest with yourself here – the notes you make need only be for your personal use!) Was anything said that prompted a strong reaction in you?
  5. how well were you able to explain you background, skills and experience to the interviewer(s)?
  6. did you mess up with any of your answers?
  7. how satisfied are you with the way you were able to draw on your preparatory work? Were you able to make clear links between your background and experience and what the employing organisation needs? Would you expect your interviewer to have been convinced?
  8. what will you do differently next time?

The practice of reflecting on your experience and making notes about it can at first seem tedious and an unnecessary reliving a stressful experience.  However when ‘reflective practice’ becomes a habit, it can make a valuable contribution to your professional development for the long-term as well as to your current job search.

Looking for more ideas?

For members with an interest in further reading about topics covered in this guide, the following articles are available on the website:

Managing your professional image for career success

Reflective Practice – a personal productivity tool

Dr Janet Fitzell
Janet Fitzell is an organisation development consultant and facilitator. She provides consulting services through FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd which she co-founded in 2001. Consulting projects with corporate, not-for-profit and public sector clients have focused on organisational review, strategic planning, leadership team planning and development, governance improvement and workforce strategy development. Janet also provides individual coaching and mentoring to managers and professionals.