Practice makes perfect (or at least a lot better) when it comes to job interviews…

iStock_000012224388XLargeInterview waitA lot of the students I’ve seen recently are in the thick of job interviews and most are pretty clued up on the importance of preparing for the interview – research the company well, know your own job application inside out, prepare for the sorts of questions you are likely to be asked, especially those competency-based ones etc etc. But when I ask if they’ve actually ‘practised’ their interview technique or answering questions, the answer tends to be ‘no, not really’ or sometimes ‘How would I do that?’. You might think that as long as you’ve done lots of reading about the company and role, know your own application inside out and written down your answers to possible interview questions then you’ve prepared well. But the candidates who really shine at job interviews are often the ones who not only have the skills, experience, qualities and motivation that the employer is looking for, but can also convey all that effectively and make a positive overall impression in the interview. Interview skills are like any other skills in that, while they may come a bit more naturally to some people than others, they can (and need to) be trained and developed  through a bit of practice.

Imagine you’d signed up to run a 10k race for charity.  You wouldn’t expect that just reading a book about running and perhaps writing a detailed race plan would be enough to enable you to run your best on the day. Without putting in the  training practice you’d probably end up walking most of the route and be very sore afterwards. Whereas if you’d trained well, you’d start the race feeling more confident and give yourself the best possible chance of performing well and enjoying it. A trite analogy maybe, but it’s much the same with interviews. A bit of practice can boost your confidence going into the interview and really improve your performance.

So how can I practise my interview technique?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Book a mock interview with a careers consultant at the Careers Service. Note: You need to have a real job interview coming up, so that the consultant can tailor the interview appropriately, and you can book one mock interview per academic year.
  2. Practise with a friend. Give your friend a list of interview questions and ask them to pick a few at random to ask you. Ask them to give you honest, constructive feedback – you can take it!
  3. Practise in front of a mirror. You might feel a bit silly doing this but practising answering interview questions in front of the mirror enables you to focus particularly on projecting positive body language (see below).
  4. Record yourself on your mobile phone or other device. You could even video yourself. Playing back a video or audio clip of how you answered the question can help you to be a bit more objective about your performance and spot things that you might not normally be aware of. If you record the same answer several times you can also compare each recording and check your progress.

Things to look out for when you play back the recording (or for your friend to give you feedback on)

1. Body language: do you look like you want the job? Try to be honest with yourself. Sometimes I’ll do a mock interview with a student whose answers are great, but their body language seems to shout apathy and boredom. I recently interviewed a student who told me one of her greatest strengths was her “motivation and drive”, but she said it looking sullenly at the floor with her arms crossed. If the content of what you are saying and the way you’re communicating it don’t match, then you’ll quickly lose credibility with the recruiter. If you find it hard to be objective about your own performance, get feedback from a friend.

Common mistakes include:

  • Poor eye contact. looking at the floor, your hands or around the room rather than at the interviewer)
  • Not smiling enough
  • Insipid (or overly vigorous!) handshake. Remember how important a positive first impression is.
  • Folded arms – can make you look bored or defensive.
  • Leaning back in your chair – can make you look a bit too laid back or even smug.

2. Voice and articulation: are you clear and cogent? I interviewed a student the other week who said he really struggled with telephone interviews. I asked if he’d had any feedback from previous interviews, and he said they’d only said that he wasn’t very clear and that “his personality didn’t really come out”. When we did the practice interview, his answers were excellent and really well prepared, but he sounded like his application form, using long sentences and formal speech, and he also spoke too quickly, running his words together, which made it quite difficult to understand what he was saying. Verbal communication is very important in any interview, but remember that in telephone interviews – without the distraction of those non-verbal cues – it’s the only thing recruiters have to make their judgement on. Common mistakes include:

  • Speaking too quickly, running your words together or not pausing for breath at the end of clauses or sentences. Make it easy for the recruiter to understand you.
  • Monotone speech – introduce some variation to your speech (e.g. going from soft to more powerful to make an important point or emphasising key words) to ensure you sound interested and interesting.
  • Stilted language and overly long words and sentences. Sometimes this can come from rehearsing and reciting answers verbatim. Talk to key points instead of trying to memorise complete answers and use short sentences and plain English. You’ll sound more natural and be more comprehensible.
  • Too many fillers like ‘erm’ and ‘you know’. Recording yourself and practising answering the same answer over and over again until it comes naturally and sounds fluent can help reduce these a lot.
  • Waffly and unstructured. Think before you speak and, if you can, quickly decide what points you want to make before you start answering. This will help you answer the question in a concise, structured way and avoid rambling . Try to show the recruiter where you are going with your answer (using signposting words like ‘Firstly… secondly’ can be useful).

Good luck! If the Careers Service has helped you improve your interview skills and you are offered the job, do let us know (we love good news!). You can email us at careers@manchester.ac.uk or post a comment below.

Further resources:

All Undergraduate Undergraduate-highlighted

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