Career Snapshot - Interviews
Interviews are an inevitable part of recruitment for jobs and postgraduate study. It’s exciting to be invited to interview but many people find them a stressful experience.
The more prepared you are for an interview, the better you’re likely to perform. Start with the Career Snapshot: interviews video which gives an overview of how best to prepare. We also have two short presentations, Types of Interview and Interview Questions, which can help you to better understand the interview process. You can also use Shortlist.Me to practise video interviews as well attend interview workshops or book an appointment with a careers consultant.
Purpose and formats of interview
Success at interview comes from solid preparation and understanding the purpose of the activity. An interview is designed to establish if you have the potential to succeed and the motivation to perform well in the advertised opportunity. Whether you’re applying for a part-time job, an internship, graduate role or postgraduate programme, there are some rules that apply. If you understand these rules, and play by them, then you’re on route to success.
Purpose of an interview:
Three questions sit in the mind of an interviewer as they try to decide if you're suitable for their opportunity.
1. Can you do this? Do you have the right skills and abilities? This could be an assessment of relevant academic and technical knowledge, and evidence of relevant “transferable skills” such as working in a team, organising your time, or dealing with ambiguity. Explore Know your skills for advice on how to reflect on your skills and abilities.
2. Will you do this? Do you appear motivated for this specific opportunity with this specific organisation? The interviewer may explore your knowledge of the opportunity and the organisation. For example, in industry, they may check if you know what they do, what they make, how they work or who they work with, while in academia, they may check your knowledge of their module and project options or research focus. In both cases they want to see a genuine interest and passion for them. Explore Know your motivation for advice on how to identify your needs, values and motivators.
3. Will you fit? Can they picture you with them? This may assess how easy you will be to work with, or line manage, and if you’ll get on with others. It could also be an assessment of how well you communicate through the structure of your answers and your demeanour.
Interviews vary a lot, but whatever the format, the underlying principle is the same. The most common interview formats are outlined below.
These are usually short phone calls with a recruiter who is making a broad assessment on your suitability for an opportunity. The interviewer may ask you about information on your CV and why you have applied for the opportunity. They are checking if you have the core skills, and motivations, but they may also check your eligibility based on qualifications or experience. Telephone interviews are normally short, at around 10 minutes, and while they can feel very informal and relaxed, it is important to remember that the interviewer is deciding about your future in the application process. Telephone interviews have largely been replaced by recorded video interviews in recent years.
Recorded Video Interviews:
These grew in popularity with recruiters during the pandemic. The principle is the same as a telephone interview (see above) but technology enables faster processing of applicants which has made this format very popular with big organisations who attract lots of applicants. Typically, you will receive an email invite to an online platform where you will be asked to record your answers to several short questions. You will need a webcam, microphone, good internet connection and a quite space to record your answers. Follow any instructions carefully and make sure you look professional as the interviewer will get to see you. It is normal to have around 20 seconds to read a question and consider your answer before the recording begins, you then get around two or three minutes to give your answer. Many students dislike this interview format as they find the situation alien, but you can practise using Shortlist.Me to build confidence and get familiar with the setup.
Real-time Interviews (in person and online):
The traditional format for an interview is often imagined as an applicant sat in a room in front of an interview panel of two or three people. While this interview format still exists, many organisations have adopted technology as video conference platforms, such as Zoom or MS Teams, are readily available. The move online allows for real-time interactions, and it can expedite the interview process while reducing costs and carbon footprint through reduced travel. You may be invited to an in-person interview, but do not be surprised if your interview is arranged via a video call, even if you are in the same geographic location as it may simply be easier for the recruitment team to run interviews online and give all applicants the same experience.
Good preparation is the key to good performance. Spend time in advance of the interview doing some revision, in a similar way that you would before an exam. This can ensure you are well prepared to talk about yourself, the opportunity and ultimately it can help control any nervousness.
- Know yourself: Review your application documents. What was on your CV? What was written in your cover letter or application statements? Make sure you are familiar with these materials and be prepared to talk further about the experiences you have already mentioned. You could also consider your strengths and weaknesses too. For further support, visit our Know your skills webpage for advice on how to reflect on your skills and abilities.
- Know the opportunity: Read the opportunity advertisement again and try to establish the key skills and knowledge required. This can help you identify the types of questions you may be asked so you can start to prepare answers for these. For further support, visit our Reading Advertisements webpage to help you understand what your interviewer is looking for.
- Know the organisation and sector: Revisit the organisation’s website and explore any recent publications or articles they have posted. You can also explore social media and news sites to find information about the organisation, or similar organisations, to help understand the sector they operate in. It is also worth reviewing the organisation’s values to see how they claim to operate; for example, if they talk about “community” or “collaboration” then it is likely they will have interview questions that focus on working as part of team. Talking to people who have knowledge of the type of work can be helpful too (see our Networking webpage for related hints and tips) or access specialist business databases for up to date industry information. You can also explore our How to research job sectors and occupations webpage for more insights. If you are interviewing for postgraduate study, you should also explore module options or the research focus of the department or research group you are applying too.
- Know the practicalities: Read the invitation to interview carefully and make sure you understand what is expected of you and any deadlines that apply. For example, you may be asked to complete some paperwork ahead of the interview or to collate education certificates or to have proof of ID with you. If you are meeting in person, or on real-time video call, it is professional courtesy to confirm your attendance. This is also the time to plan any necessary travel arrangements, or secure a quiet space for a video call, and set some time aside to choose your outfit to help make a strong professional impression.
It can be a good idea to remember that while the interviewer may appear to be in control, you as the interviewee, have a great opportunity to learn more about what is on offer. You can get a feel for the organisation through the interview process and gauge if their values, and the way they operate, will be a good fit for you.
Typical interview questions
You can be asked many questions during an interview and every question has a purpose. You need to assess the reason for the question and provide the most appropriate answer that you can give. Interviews work on the principle that your past experience and behaviour is a good predictor of future performance. It is therefore important to set time aside for self-reflection before your interview and to consider what experiences you could discuss during the process. Our short presentation on Application and Interview Questions can help you learn about the type of questions asked in interviews and some suggestions on how to answer them. Think about how you might respond if faced with these question.
Top tips for handling interview questions:
- Take a moment to think before you speak. Do you understand the purpose of the question? If in doubt, you could ask for clarification rather than risk giving an irrelevant answer.
- Be prepared to talk and avoid giving single word answers. Make sure what you say is relevant and to the point. Do not be too brief, but also avoid very lengthy answers. Typically, an answer may be between one and two minutes in duration.
- Speak clearly, at a reasonable pace, and without too many hesitations like ‘ums’ and ‘ers’. Practising interview answers aloud before the interview can help to ensure you’re speaking fluently. Try recording your answers so you can listen back to them and self-critique. Shortlist.Me contains a feature that provides feedback on the speed of delivery.
- Try not to over rehearse or script your answers as this can make you appear stilted, robotic, or inflexible in an interview.
- Focus on positives where possible. An interviewer may explore something where your experience was not great, or which did not have a successful outcome. Turn the focus to talk about what you learned from that experience rather than focusing on the failure.
- If you are faced with a particularly difficult question then you can ask for a few moments to think about your answer, or ask if you could revisit that question later, but do not do this too often.
Types of Interview Questions:
- Generic questions – These often come early in the interview as a form of icebreaker to get to know you. They help you feel at ease by allowing you to introduce yourself and your enthusiasm for the opportunity. Examples may include:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Talk me through your CV.
- Why are you suitable for this opportunity?
- What do you do in your spare time?
- Motivational – These questions focus on what motivates you and your reasons for applying for the specific opportunity. The interviewer is keen to understand if you appreciate what they do and how they do it. They also want to see if your values align with theirs. This can be a great opportunity to showcase you’ve done your research. Talk about products, projects, or clients specific to them.
- Why do you want to work for us?
- Tell me about some of the work we do?
- Which of our values speaks to you the most, and why?
- What motivates you?
- How do you know you’ve had a good day?
- Competency or Situational questions – These focus on skills and experience relevant to the opportunity, for example the skills are often listed in the advertisement. These types of questions often begin with “give me an example of…” or “describe a time that you…”. Examples may include:
- Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team. What was your contribution to their success?
- Give me an example of when you demonstrated initiative.
- When have you handled competing deadlines.
- Strength-based questions – These questions seek to explore your unique selling points. The interviewer may ask open questions that allow you to choose the skills and attributes that you feel are important to the role. Examples may include:
- What is your greatest strength?
- What three things would you bring to the role?
- What has been your greatest achievement and why?
- Technical questions – These are asked if there is specific technical or commercial knowledge required for the role. They test your subject knowledge and explore if you have a strong grasp of the core technical competencies required. Examples may include:
- How would you calculate the dissolution rate of a pill? (Pharmaceutical sector)
- What are the disadvantages of off-shore wind farms? (Energy/engineering sector)
- What GDPR considerations should we consider if using a cloud-based service based outside the EU? (IT/Data sector)
- Unusual questions – These may seem quite random or bizarre. They are often used to test your logic, reasoning and problem-solving abilities and explore how you react under pressure. Examples may include:
- How many sugar cubes would fit inside a Boeing 747?
- Tell me how you would make a cup of tea for me.
- Describe what a sunset looks like to someone who is blind.
Explore the ‘further resources’ tab on this webpage for further information including links to many examples of interview questions.
Making a good impression
You are being judged and assessed by your interviewers throughout the process, so it is important to give a good professional representation from start to finish. Your interviewers will explore if you have the relevant skills and experience, but they will also judge if they can work with you, manage you, or place you in front of clients or stakeholders. Interviews can be tiring but is important to remain focused and maintain a positive exterior.
Creating a positive image:
Oscar Wilde is attributed to the phrase “You will never get a second chance to make a first impression” and many studies have shown that people forge an opinion of others within seconds of meeting them. Your first impressions at interview are very important which can be stressful but hopefully the hints below may help.
- Appearance – Pick your outfit in advance of the interview and ensure it matches the expectations of the industry. Professional office attire is typically expected by most professional roles, but smart casual may be acceptable for more informal opportunities. Imagine your interview is a first date, you want to make a good impression so clean clothes and tidy hair are easy wins.
Lighting - Video interviews can leave you at the mercy of your webcam and its evil trickery. In this blog post Looking better on Video Calls the author, Thomas Angus, discusses how to setup your work area to get the best light. In addition you should ensure your background compliments your professionalism.
- Smile – It is good to smile at the start of the interview as this can help build rapport with the interviewer.
- Eye contact - Try to maintain good eye contact. Look at your interviewer if you’re in the room with them, or if you’re online, look at the camera and screen. This can be hard for some people, but this helps to show that you’re genuinely interested, and it can demonstrate a level of confidence.
- Talk – This sounds obvious, but be prepared to talk, but don’t talk too fast. The interviewer needs to process the words you speak, and a super-fast delivery can be very hard to follow. You can get feedback on your speed of delivery form Shortlist.Me.
- Hesitations - We all use filler words when we speak such as “erm” and “hmmm”. Some people see these as weak while others defend them as authentic and genuine. You shouldn’t fixate on giving a flawless delivery as this does not sound genuine but you should be mindful of your hesitations to ensure your delivery has a good flow. You can get feedback on your use of filler words form Shortlist.Me.
- Posture – Sit comfortably but with a reasonably upright position. Do not slouched as this can appear too casual. You can also use moderate hand gestures but try to control nervous fidgeting; clasping your hands together may help with this but do not sit with your arms folded as this can look defensive or disengaged.
Dealing with nerves:
We all suffer from nerves to an extent. Adrenaline can help us perform at our best, but too much is a problem and can result in butterflies, hands or knees trembling, sweating, your mind going blank and feeling over emotional. To help control your nerves in preparation for interview you may want to consider the following tips:
- Prepare – You will feel more confident in your research, and in how fluently and positively you can talk about yourself and the opportunity.
- Be organised – Know all the practicalities of how to access the interview, who might be on the panel, and prepare what you will wear in advance. This will minimise your risk of being late or creating a disordered impression.
- Visualise – You have passed the initial stages of recruitment so try to see yourself as a confident candidate who can deal smoothly with the interview questions.
- Relax – Develop a relaxation strategy, which could involve some yoga, deep breathing, positive visualisation, or whatever works for you.
- Breathe – Nerves can make you rush – so slow down and take time to breathe.
Disclosing a disability:
The decision on if, or when, to disclose a disability can be complex. However, if you are going to need practical assistance for an interview (e.g. mobility or a speech-to-text reporter), then it is important that you contact the interviewer beforehand.
- Reasonable adjustments - Within the UK there is a legal obligation on employers to change their recruitment process to ensure a candidates can be considered for employment. From an employer’s perspective, it is preferable if an interviewee discloses before the interview as it will allow them to make the necessary arrangements if you are going to need practical assistance.
- Take ownership - You control how your disability is explained to an employer so it can be beneficial to emphasise the positive aspects of your disability. Further information can be found on our Support for students with disabilities webpage.
Structuring your answers
Humans like stories. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which makes them easy to follow. Your interview answers are stories that discuss your past experiences, they require a structure, or framework, to make them easy to follow.
There are many frameworks that can be used to provide structure to your interview answers. Here we will discuss three; the 'STAR' Framework; the 'Rule of Three'; and the "Journey Narrative".
The STAR Framework:
The STAR framework makes it easier for an interviewer to follow what happened, when and why. The STAR framework is best used to give examples of skills, behaviours, or competencies. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Results.
- Situation - Provide some context for your story and set the scene for your interviewer. Mention when your story took place and who was involved. Give enough detail to bring the story to life.
- Task - Outline the objective or goal you were trying to achieve. Give some specifics where possible.
- Action - Explain what you did and how you did it. Focus on what ‘your’ role was what ‘you’ specifically did.
- Results - Describe the outcome. Relate this back to the ‘Task’ and clarify if this was accomplished. You could also mention if you learnt anything or developed new skills as a result.
Example STAR answer to “When have you worked in a team?”. “(Situation) I was nominated to lead a team of five people during a group project in the second year of my MEng degree. (Task) Within six weeks we prepared and tested several code scripts, wrote a technical report and delivered a fifteen-minute presentation to academics and industrial partners. (Action) I identified the strengths of individuals within the team and assigned a series of tasks that best suited each person. I set in place a series of meetings to enable team members to report back on progress and therefore allow reallocation of resources should anyone fall behind with their work. Before we ventured into the laboratory, I ensured we had constructed a project plan and that all members of the team were clear on their role and responsibilities. (Results) We completed the assignment on time and were award a high 2:1 grade overall. This experience taught me the value of clear communication in meeting project deadlines.”
Read more about the STAR framework in our Career Planning and Successful Applications Guide.
The 'Rule Of Three'
Humans are culturally adapted to remember things in threes due to brevity and rhythm. This 'rule of three' presents itself in many areas of life, for example, UK Government Covid messaging “Hands; Face; Space”; the Highway Code's “Stop; Look; Listen” or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Act III, Scene II, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”.
You can create a personal rule of three if you consider what you want your interviewer to remember about you. By stating three things you can then provide evidence for this to expand your answer. This can be useful to address ice-breaker questions, tackle strength-based questions or help form a concluding statement. If your three items align to core competencies or behaviours related to the opportunity, then you can make a strong and memorable positive impression.
Example "Rule of Three" answer (in response to “Tell me about yourself”). “There’s a lot I could say about myself, but I think three key things I’d like you to know about me are that I enjoy collaboration, innovation and responsibility. Firstly, in terms of collaboration, I have enjoyed working with others on group assignments, lab projects and within community activities while at Imperial College. This has helped me to develop my team working skills and be better able to communicate with a variety of different people in different settings. Secondly, for innovation, I enjoy discovery and finding new ways to do something. Recently within my College society I implemented a new way to schedule meetings using an online App which made the process much easier for the committee. Thirdly, I like to take responsibility and I am happy to put myself forward for leadership roles or to take on additional challenges. For example, at Imperial I have been a class representative where I gathered feedback from my peers and provided this to our academics to help influence changes to the course.”
To create your own rule of three you could consider these questions:
- What three things do you want the interviewer to remember about you?
- What three things are you most proud of in your life to date and why?
- What three things would you be looking for if you were interviewing someone for the opportunity?
The Journey Narrative:
Be prepared to tell your story with a coherent narrative that highlights your key skills and showcases your values. This takes the interviewer on a journey that highlights your accomplishments and value.
- You can start by identify a list of key events, stages and decisions you’ve made. Think about the particular people and events that have shaped your life and the activities you’ve engaged in. Get behind the facts of your CV and explore the rationale of why you did, or didn’t, do certain things. From this you may identify recurring skills and strengths (our webpage on Self reflection may assist).
- You also need to consider what the interviewer wants to hear and try to identify which experiences and life events best evidence the skills, behaviours and values they are looking for (our webpage on Reading advertisments may assist) . Your narrative needs to fit the opportunity your are applying to so it will evolve and adapt overtime.
- You then need to set your story to a timeline to bring it to life. You could start in the present with where you are now, then go back in time to explain what brought you to the present. You can then give some details about your current experiences to help to bring your CV to life.
Example "Journey Nartrative" answer (in response to “Tell me about yourself”). “My name is Alex and I’m a second year Chemical Engineering student at Imperial College. During my A-Levels I really enjoyed the satisfaction of resolving mathematical equations, the complexity of chemistry and the problem solving of my business studies course. I was unsure what to pursue at university until I attended an online talk about chemical engineering and I learnt that the subject focuses on design processes to create products we use in everyday life. This seemed to bring together all the subjects I enjoyed into once place and I was fortunate to gain a place at Imperial. During my time at Imperial College I’ve been intellectually challenged on a daily basis and I’ve enjoyed the collaborative problem solving approach we use in the course. I enjoy working with others as it helps to develop an idea and it brings forward the best of our collective minds. Alongside my studies I’ve also been involved in Imperial Racing Green, the racing car society at Imperial, where I’ve been part of the cooling team helping to create effective cooling methods for engines and breaks while minimising drag. This has been a great experience as it’s provided interdisciplinary learning and I’ve built friendships with people outside of my course. While at Imperial I also joined the Consulting Society and I’ve attended various talks from industry sponsors. I’m currently enrolled to be part of an 8 week project providing market entry and competitor analysis for a financial organisation. I’m hoping to apply my data analysis skills to this task and I’m looking forward to the collaboration with other students and mentorship from an industry expert.”
Careers Service Support And Resources:
We offer a variety of information and events specifically related to interviews including:
- Events - We run regular presentations and workshops designed to enhance your chances of success in the application process. These sessions include interview advice and support which can be booked via JobsLive.
- Shortlist.Me - You have access to Shortlist.Me where you can practice a variety of video interviews. You can record your answers to questions and use the feedback tools to reflect. This can help improve your interview performance and confidence.
- Appointments - You can to discuss interview preparation and technique, we also offer Mock Interviews too. Explore our webpage for further details and book via JobsLive.
Additional external resources:
We have collated resources below that offer further information to help you prepare for interviews. Those listed were found to contain useful material at the time of their inclusion, but we do not control the content of the sites and all links are provided in good faith. If you have any concerns about the content of any site or, if you have additional resources you feel would benefit other students, please contact us on email@example.com.
Many organisations offer advice and insights on interview questions. We have compiled some but it is also worth exploring the career pages of companies you may apply to as as they often offer their own advice too.
- The team at Prospects provide their opinion on the most common interview questions on their interview questions webpage.
- The National Careers Service give their advice for Common interview questions.
- The TargetJobs team have created a series of articles on Interviews and assessment centres with several focused on handling tricky interview questions.
- The staff at Indeed offer recruitment advice and resources for employers including their section Interview Questions And Answers which provides useful insights into frequently asked questions.
- The organisation TotalJobs offer their article 20 most common interview questions (and how to answer them) detailing what is expected from the obvious and more bizarre questions.
- The recruitment advisers at Monster offer 100 Interview Questions on their website with some details on how to answer these.
- The team at TheMuse created Your 2022 Guide to the Most Common Interview Questions and Answers detailing their top 50 questions and ideas on how to respond.
- The Glassdoor team have also compiled a blog detailing their 50 Most Common Interview Questions & How to Answer.
Preparation for an academic interview is no different to any other interview but questions may be more focused on your research experience, projects and technical expertise. We have compiled some further resources below.
- FindAMasters provide their webpage Masters Interviews – Questions to Expect and How to Prepare.
- FindAPhD offer their article The PhD Interview – What to Expect and How to Prepare for relevant support.
- Jobs.ac.uk provide resources for succeeding in academic interviews.
- Vitae offers advice to prepare for academic job interviews and they have a commonly asked questions in academic interviews webpage too.
- Telephone Interviews - further information to help you prepare for telephone interviews is provided on TargetJobs website How to Handle a Telephone Interview.
- Video Interviews - The PWC interviews e-learn platform provides six short modules to help you prepare for video interviews. It will help you to understand what employers like PwC are looking for and steps to take before, during and after your video interview.
- Interview Master Class (by Career Cake) - In this 58 minute video, Aimee Bateman, (recruiter and career coach), shares her interview expertise in this Interview Master Class which is accessible though LinkedIn Learning.