Work, Careers and muddling through

The interview: tips from an amateur pro

After having what must be something like my 600th interview recently, I’ve increasingly found myself thinking that they are actually pretty pointless (and I’m not saying that out of bitterness at not getting the job, because I can say I did get offered it with some smugness). Now I have probably interviewed for jobs more times than most, for various reasons (the most notable of which being that I am never happy in what I’m doing and so am always searching for “the one”). As time has gone by my interview to offer ratio has happily increased, but I guess it’s bound to when you’ve had as much experience as me!

Lady working on a laptop, perhaps preparing for an interview.

However, I’ve also become increasingly frustrated by a few things, namely:

  • the artificiality of the interview format – the table between yourself and the panel, the quickfire Q&A, the predictability of the arc of the questions, and a level of formality which will most likely never be observed again during the course of the actual job;
  • how an interview doesn’t really test how well you might do the job as how good you are at interviews;
  • the probing of your answers, the digging deeper which only makes you question yourself and doubt your authenticity, thinking you’ve said something wrong and they’ve caught you out;
  • the snap judgements being made about you in all of thirty minutes.

Of course people will say that an interview is a two-way thing; you’re assessing whether you’d like the job and want to work there as much as they are evaluating you (evidently). How come it never feels like that in an interview though? To me it has always felt like a defensive act, as if something I deeply desire is within reach and I’m begging these strangers in front of me to give it to me. Interviews bring out my impostor syndrome massively, along with the fact that I often apply for jobs that are actually beyond my experience or capabilities for some odd reason (and of course I’m highly affronted when I don’t get the job!)

My interview advice

Having had so many interviews over the years of my working life (all ten of them since leaving the slums of student life behind), I thought I’d put together my top tips for interview success:

  1. Don’t waste time interviewing for jobs you really don’t want in the first place. This might sound obvious but I think some people (myself included) do this just to get interview experience or because we have some vague notion that we might actually be good at embalming or enjoy wiping old bottoms under the pretence of benevolence. Sometimes we don’t have a choice and have to do what we have to do for our families and our bank balances, but it’s a good idea to apply and interview for roles that are vaguely within both your skill set and interests.
  2. Master the art of moderation. Fawn over the workplace and the panel a little bit but not too much so as not to appear sycophantic. Make eye contact with each panel member regularly, but don’t stare anyone out or you’ll look like a nut. Ask questions at the end as you’re expected to, but limit it to two. Big up your achievements and tell them why you’re the best person for the job, but show that you’re a team player and willing to learn. Be confident but also vulnerable; don’t underestimate vulnerability, it’s really important for human connection. They are humans after all and so are you, although you may feel like automatons in the interview room.
  3. Do your bleeding research and throw your newfound knowledge in there at any opportunity, although don’t do what I did when interviewing for a NHS job and start plucking numbers out of the air when asked about patient statistics because I’d forgotten all my research – needless to say I didn’t get offered that one! Make sure you’re confident of your knowledge before sharing it with an interview panel who know a heck of a lot more about the subject than you do. And prepare your examples (examples of teamwork, problem-solving, dealing with a challenge person/situation and prioritising are no-brainers).
  4. Just stop and think for a minute before you answer each question – you are allowed to! I have been as guilty as anyone of launching straight into my answer almost before the question is out of the interviewer’s mouth because the thought of any kind of gap or silence is intolerable. But why should it be? After all you have no reason to know exactly what question is coming at you and you may understandably need a moment to think it through. Tell the interviewer that but don’t apologise for it. If anything you’ll come across as thoughtful and considered in your approach.
  5. Lastly, learn from it, however hideous and uncomfortable it might have been. Ask for feedback, even if it went well but you still didn’t get it. Don’t be so cocky that you think their decision not to hire you is purely a reflection of their bad judgement and so asking for any feedback is pointless. Equally, realise that you are more than one bad interview and you can choose to take or leave any feedback you are given and move on.

Is there an alternative to interviews?

Lady holding mug with Like A Boss written on it.

I first read about alternatives to the traditional interview process when recruiting a team for a new department I was heading up, but although the ideas were interesting I found myself bound by an organisational culture which did not seem to support this, as I’m sure is the case with most British institutions and companies. Admittedly a lot of the ideas would involve investing more time than a single day of interviewing, for example, putting candidates through a sample day in the office or conducting an assessment centre type process. However, surely it can be said that interview panels can get it wrong when faced with judging a person’s entire character, skillset and motivations from a small fragment of conversation, perhaps accompanied by a measly skills test conducted often for the sake of it.

The traditional interview scenario seems to be firmly entrenched in our culture and any suggestion of departing from it draws gasps of astonishment and looks of confusion all round. I think it is an idea which needs to be pursued though, if we want to believe that an interview really is a two-way process. And if it reduces the amount of times the panel get it wrong, resulting in costly wasted time on an individual not right for the role (who for their part might not gain any benefit from the experience other than an unwelcome dent in confidence), then surely it’s worth having a conversation about. I’d love to hear what you think about this and if you have any ideas or tips to share, from one veteran interviewee to another.

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