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How to ace the interview

Lynley Soper

Career Advisor at the University of Otago
Lynley Soper, Career Advisor at the University of Otago reveals the best ways to impress during graduate interviews.

What made you want to become a career advisor?

I love stories and once I figured out just how much power you have over your own career story, I really wanted to help others learn how to do it for themselves. I still get excited by the potential in people – it’s a very real privilege being even just a small part of someone’s career journey.

How did you get to your current position and how long have you occupied it?

Careers was a real change of direction for me, involving going back to tertiary study, and building experience from the ground. I have been in the field for ten years, starting out in private practice, working mostly with teens and young adults developing early career plans. Three years ago I joined the team at the University of Otago’s Career Development Centre – and found my dream job! 

What does your work involve day-to-day? 

One of the things I love most about my work is that every day looks different! My role involves face-to-face appointments with students, presenting workshops and organising career-related events.  I also have responsibility for liaising with our Science Division and work with individual departments there to develop and deliver specific career programmes for them.

Advice for students and graduates

How should students best prepare for a graduate or internship job interview?

The secret to preparing for an interview, is to prepare! Rocking up to an interview wearing something nice, having a good handshake and hoping the questions go your way just won’t cut it for graduate and internship interviews.  You are competing against your classmates and everyone else with a similar qualification, so … do your research. Find out everything you can about the job, the organisation and build your knowledge about the sector or field. Go through the job description thoroughly. If you know who’s going to be on your interview panel, find out a bit about them.  Equally importantly, doing your research enables you to make some pretty accurate guesses as to the kinds of questions you will get asked – and therefore gives you time to think about your answers before you go in. Think about your points of difference too – what are your strengths in relation to what the employer is looking for and what is your evidence of these.  How can you prove you have the ability and aptitude to be successful in the role? 

What resources can you recommend students use before interviewing for a job?

Check out your University’s Career Service. Typically they will have available a range of written and online resources, probably a video practice tools (such as Big Interview), as well as workshops or seminars and the ability to discuss your interview preparation with a qualified Career Advisor.   

Google can provide you with links to a myriad of useful resources too, as well as job sites such as Seek. And don’t forget to know the employer’s website inside-out. 

What questions should students prepare to answer?

There are a number of questions that are very common in interviews, regardless of your industry and the role you are applying for.

One of the very first things in most interview is when you are asked to ‘Tell me about yourself?’ It’s the question everyone says they hate and yet is so common there is no excuse for not being prepared for it. This is not where you get to talk about your siblings, where you went to Primary school or the music you are into! Interviewers typically use this question to see your verbal communication skills in action – how well you can talk with people you don’t know well. You can use it as a way to highlight who you are, why you are applying for the role (make sense of your application), and what your points of difference are – in other words, get your interview off to a strong start.  It’s often quite nice to finish this question off with a little info about what you do outside of work too. Employers like to see that you have a well-balanced lifestyle, and often personal interests provide interesting points of connection with the person across the table from you.

Commonly you will get asked about your strengths for the role (make these relevant and provide some evidence). Equally, you may be asked about your weaknesses – the tip here is to choose something that is relevant and shows self-awareness (BUT is not a deal-breaker for the role you are after) and most importantly, show that you are working on managing or developing these so that they will not be a problem if you get this role.

You are likely to get asked about anything that’s on your CV – the content of your degree and what you enjoyed (and why), your work or volunteer experience, anything really so be prepared to talk about.

This most common component of most interviews are the Behavioural or Competency-based questions, and often you will be told in advance that this is the case. Behavioural questions are the ones that start, ‘Tell us about a time when…?’ For the employer this is a way of getting some insight into the way you work and/or respond to situations, helping them to predict how you will behave in similar situations in their environment.  While you can’t predict exactly what you will be asked, you can usually make a well-informed guess based on your research into the role. Will they want to know about the way you work in a team? How you handle conflict? What you do when you have made a mistake? How you communicate with clients or resolve problems etc? The job description is a good starting point for identifying the things you are most likely to be asked about (see the next section for tips on how to prepare your answers to these questions).

And almost always you will get asked towards the end of the interview, ‘Do you have any questions for us?’ A lack of questions here might indicate a lack of interest, so always go into your interview with 2-3 good questions up your sleeve (or at least show that you had them at the start – if they get answered during the interview).  

What techniques can you use when answering questions in an interview?

Questions are your opportunity to sell yourself – back up what you have to say with evidence – avoid one-word closed answers to questions (Yes, No etc).  

Once you have worked out what some of the most likely Behavioural questions you will be asked are, think about the examples you will use for each one. These can come from many aspects of your life and will remind the interviewer that you bring a breadth of experience to the role.  Thinking about the examples you are going to use means you will have your best stories prepared (we all know that awful feeling of walking away and suddenly thinking of example that would have been much better!).

For those all-important Behavioural Questions, the widely recognised and looked for format for answering these is the STAR technique.  Employers and recruiters are actively looking for your answers to be structured in this way. So when you are talking about ‘a time when…’ you need to start with a brief description of the Situation, some detail about the Task at hand (what was the actual problem etc), what Action you took to resolve it and what was the Result.  Sometimes it is useful to finish with what this experience Taught you or what you Learned from it.  

The STAR(L) technique not only keeps your interviewer happy, it gives you an easy to remember framework while you are talking, so you tell them everything they want to know and don’t go off on a tangent OR run out of words altogether! Google the STAR technique for more info.

What are some little known facts about the interview process you think every graduate should know?

  • It’s vital to show your motivation – WHY you want the role?
  • Employers are often looking for someone who will fit in with their existing team (culture).
  • Your attitude and ability to have a professional conversation is super important.
  • Your body language says a lot – employers will be using this to inform their evaluation of you as a candidate, even if they don’t always know they are doing it.

What’s your number one golden piece of advice for students when interviewing?

Be Yourself! Relax, breathe, be confident in your preparation – and remember the interview is also your chance to suss out the organisation and whether you want to work there. 

What are some good ways to really impress hiring managers in the interview? 

Again – do you research before-hand.  Come prepared to answer questions thoughtfully and articulately. And have good questions to ask about the role and the organisation.

Show great communication skills – great eye contact, a firm handshake, build a connection with each person on your interview panel, demonstrate your ability to build relationships and participate in professional conversations. 

And what about dress code?

Dress like you already work there.  Subconsciously, this makes it easier for the interviewer to picture you in their workplace.   If you are not sure, or the workplace is casual it probably pays to play it safe and go slightly more formal.  Remember, you wouldn’t turn up to an interview for a farm job in your suit – nor wear your gumboots to an interview for a graduate business analyst role. 

A word to the wise...

  1. Start thinking ‘networking’ while you are still at Uni. All kinds of opportunities come to you because of who you know.  Look after the relationships in your life and seek to grow your network of people who are doing cool and exciting things.  Surrounding yourself with the right people will help you grow your own potential.
  2. Say ‘Yes’ to new experiences – they will give you more skills and create more opportunities than you ever thought possible. 
  3. Professional courtesy and good manners goes a long way. Say Thanks, follow-up, turn up. The people you meet in interviews are potential employers or colleagues of the future.  Look after relationships and avoid burning bridges along the way.