Careers | Tips & Insights

Careers

Mastering Interviews: Essential tips to excel in your next job interview

Succeed at every stage of your career with these essential interview tips. From first impressions to final questions, learn how to handle tough questions confidently, navigate group interviews, and improve your interview skills.
Updated: 3 February 2024
6 min read
Candidate answering interview questions demonstrating effective interview skills during a job interview.

Understanding the interview process

If you're gearing up for a job interview, you're probably feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety. Interviews are your chance to show off your skills, personality, and passion. Whether you're a graduate or eyeing a more senior position, mastering the art of the interview is crucial.

This article will cover essential interview tips and strategies from nailing your first interview, presenting your portfolio (for the creatives amongst us), how to deal with interview curveballs with finesse, and much more. Whether it's your first interview or your fiftieth, the strategies shared here will help you present the best version of yourself and improve your skills. So let’s get started and turn those anxieties into opportunities!

 

Pre-interview preparation: Knowledge is power

General tips

Start with the basics: research the company thoroughly, know the job description inside out, and reflect on how your experiences align with the job requirements. Remember, knowledge is power. The more you know, not just about the job but about the interviewer and the company culture, the better you can tailor your responses.

Tailored advice for graduates

No professional experience yet? No problem. Link your academic and extracurricular achievements to the job, discuss class projects, your roles in clubs or societies, and even that challenging thesis you worked on. These are perfect for demonstrating skills like teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving.

  • Example for soft skill (Teamwork): Discuss how you orchestrated your university’s annual tech fair, highlighting the challenges you faced coordinating with different teams and how you overcame them through communication and collaboration.
  • Example for technical skill (Data Analysis): Explain a significant project where you utilised statistical tools to analyse survey data for your senior thesis, emphasising the technical capabilities used and the actionable insights generated.

These examples not only reflect applicable skills but also your ability to apply them in a practical context.

Tailored advice for experienced professionals

Bring data and results into your stories. If possible, create a concise portfolio or case study collection that showcases your work. For example, if you increased efficiency in a process, have the numbers to back it up. If you're in tech, a GitHub repository with your projects can be really persuasive.

  • Example for soft skill (Leadership): Describe a situation where you led a cross-departmental project to integrate new software. Focus on your role in managing the team dynamics, resolving conflicts, and steering the project to successful completion.
  • Example for technical skill (Project Management): Provide a detailed account of a time you lead a project that cut costs by 30%. Illustrate your strategic approach to budgeting, resource allocation, and timeline management.

The key difference between graduates and professionals in these narratives lies in the complexity of the examples and the strategic impact of the roles described.

 

Crafting your interview persona

Appearance and first impressions

Dress for the job you want, right? There's truth to that. Professional attire is a must. Also, pay attention to the details—like ensuring your clothes are well-ironed.

First impressions are not just about clothes; your body language speaks volumes too. Offer a firm handshake, make eye contact, and remember, a smile goes a long way. Also, be human in your responses, take time to think about your answers as this shows you value the the question being asked.

Communication skills

Use the STAR technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to structure your answers. It keeps your responses clear and concise. Also, mix professionalism with a bit of your own personality. It makes you memorable and relatable.

Emotional intelligence

Interviews are not just about technical skills. Emotional intelligence — your ability to read the room, adapt your responses, and remain empathetic towards the interviewer's questions is key.

For instance, once, when I sensed an interviewer was sceptical about my experience with a new software tool, I acknowledged their concern and shared a story about how I quickly learned a similar tool to complete a project ahead of schedule. Remember you can change the flow of the interview to match your strengths.

 

Interview stages: How to excel at each stage

As you progress in your career the interview process becomes more layered, often extending across multiple stages to assess different aspects of your fit with the company:

First stage: Screening

The first stage usually serves as a screening process. It's typically conducted by HR Teams or a recruiter, via phone or video call or by AI screening software. This stage is about ensuring candidates meet the basic job requirements, have the necessary qualifications and mix of technical and soft skills.

Here, it’s crucial that you can clearly articulate your experience and qualifications succinctly and your Resume and Cover Letter are tailored to the job description. For Cover Letter Tips, check out this article about how to write an effective cover letter.

Second stage: Technical or competency-based

In the second stage, expect deeper dives into your technical skills or specific competencies relevant to the role. This could involve case studies, practical tasks, or detailed discussions about your professional experience.

For instance, a software developer might be asked to write code in real-time, or a marketing professional might be given a scenario to create a compelling campaign. The key here is to demonstrate how your skills have been applied in real-world scenarios and to showcase your problem-solving capabilities.

Final stage: Cultural fit and executive buy-in

The final stage often involves meetings with senior leadership or key stakeholders. The purpose here is to assess cultural fit and to gain buy-in from the top executives. This is your chance to demonstrate how your vision aligns with the company's strategic goals and to showcase your potential for long-term contributions. Discussions may steer towards scenarios involving leadership, conflict resolution, and strategic planning.

At each stage, it's important to tailor your approach:

  • First Stage: Be concise yet thorough in your explanations. First impressions count.
  • Second Stage: Bring evidence of your achievements and be prepared to demonstrate your expertise practically.
  • Final Stage: Focus on interpersonal skills, alignment with corporate values, and strategic thinking.

Understanding these nuances can significantly influence the dynamics of the conversation and the overall outcome of your interview series. Be prepared to evolve your tactics as you advance through these stages, keeping in mind what each round aims to assess.

 

Mastering technical interviews

For Software Developers

Prepare for coding challenges and algorithm questions. Platforms like LeetCode are your friends here. Practice makes perfect. Also, be ready to explain your thinking process — why you chose a specific coding approach or algorithm.

For Financial Analysts

Expect to dive into Excel tests or case studies that explore your analytical skills and familiarity with financial modelling. Brush up on key financial concepts and be prepared to discuss real-world applications of your skills.

 

Presenting your portfolio (for creatives)

General guidelines

Your portfolio is your visual resume. Include a variety of projects that showcase your creativity and adaptability. Arrange it logically, perhaps chronologically or by type of work and make sure it’s neat and accessible online if possible.

Advice for UX Designers

Highlight projects from concept through to execution. Include wireframes, user flows, and even user testing results. It’s impressive to show the problem-solving journey, not just the shiny end product. Visit the UX Design Institute to learn more about how to prepare for a UX interview.

Advice for Graphic Designers and Software Developers

For graphic designers, diversity is key — show branding, digital, print, and multimedia work. Software developers should include code samples, repository links, and technical documentation. If you collaborated on a project, highlight your specific contributions.

 

How to answer common interview questions

For graduates

Graduates entering the workforce can expect to encounter interview questions that focus on their potential, adaptability, and learning capabilities. Here are four common questions:

  1. Can you tell us about a time you had to quickly adapt to a significant change?
  2. Describe a situation where you worked as part of a team. What was your contribution?
  3. Tell us about a time you overcame a challenge?
  4. How do you prioritise your tasks and manage time effectively?

Example answer using the STAR technique:

Question: Describe a situation where you worked as part of a team. What was your contribution?

  1. Situation: During my final year at university, I was part of a team assigned to develop a mobile application for our project.
  2. Task: My role was to lead the user experience design and ensure the interface was user-friendly and met the project's requirements.
  3. Action: I collaborated closely with both the development and design teams to create wireframes and prototypes. I organised weekly meetings to gather feedback and iterated on the design to incorporate this feedback effectively.
  4. Result: The application received excellent reviews for its ease of use and efficiency. It was showcased at our university's project fair and caught the interest of a local startup, leading to a collaboration offer.

For experienced professionals

For those with work experience, interview questions tend to revolve around their expertise, past job performance, and how they handle complex work situations. Here are four common questions:

  1. Can you discuss a time when you had to lead a challenging project?
  2. Describe an instance where you had to make a difficult decision in your previous role.
  3. Have you ever dealt with a conflict within your team? How did you resolve it?
  4. Tell us about a time you brought innovation to a process or task at work.

Example Question:"Discuss a successful project you led and the impact it had.".

Response: As project manager at [XYZ Company], I led a team to overhaul the customer relationship management system. This initiative reduced system downtime by 40% and improved customer satisfaction scores by 15% within the first quarter post-implementation. My role involved coordinating between software teams and business units to ensure that requirements were met and timelines were adhered to.

 

Handling tough interview situations

Prepare for curveballs. Difficult questions can throw you off balance, but with preparation, you can handle them like a pro. Be honest but positive and try to frame these moments as opportunities for growth and learning.

Navigating tricky questions

Here are some examples of challenging interview questions and responses that you can adapt to your situation:

Why are there gaps in your employment?

"I took a few months off to enhance my skills through a coding bootcamp. This has allowed me to stay updated with the latest technologies and has significantly improved my coding skills.".

Why did you change career paths?

"I found my true passion in [new field] after working in [previous field]. The decision to switch was driven by where I can add the most value and feel most engaged with my work.".

Describe a time you failed.

"In one project, I underestimated the resources needed which led to a delay. This experience taught me valuable lessons in resource allocation and project timeline estimation. Since then, I’ve implemented a new protocol to assess all project needs more accurately."

Where do you see yourself in five years?

"I see myself as a seasoned [your job title], where I can contribute not only through my technical skills but also by mentoring others. I'm particularly excited about opportunities for growth and leadership in [field/industry]."

What are your salary expectations?

"I'm looking for a range that reflects my experience and skills, as well as the market rates for similar roles in the area, which is around [give a specific range]. However, I’m open to discussing further based on the total compensation package."

Stress interviews

Some interviews are designed to push you to see how you handle pressure. Stay calm, take a moment to think before you answer, and don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. It shows you’re thoughtful and thorough.

 

Navigating group interviews: Stand out while fitting in

Group interviews can be particularly challenging as they test not only your individual competencies but also your ability to interact and work with others. Here are some key strategies to help you handle group interviews with poise and distinction.

Understand the dynamics

Realise that a group interview is not just about evaluating your answers, but also about observing how you engage with others. Employers are looking for team players who can contribute effectively while supporting a collaborative environment.

Listen actively

Listening is as important as speaking. Show that you value others’ contributions by nodding, maintaining eye contact, and building on their ideas when it’s your turn to speak. This demonstrates respect and a willingness to cooperate rather than compete.

Communicate clearly

When you have the floor, communicate your points clearly and succinctly. Avoid dominating the conversation or interrupting others. Balance is key — you want to be remembered for the right reasons.

Show leadership qualities

Leadership isn't about taking over the conversation. It's about facilitating discussion, encouraging quieter members to contribute, and sometimes mediating differences. Exhibiting these qualities can set you apart as a potential leader.

Be mindful of body language

Non-verbal cues are incredibly telling in a group setting. Make sure your body language reflects engagement and openness. Avoid crossing your arms, slouching, or appearing disinterested.

Engage with all participants

While you may feel inclined to focus on the interviewer, engaging with fellow candidates can showcase your teamwork and people skills. Addressing others by name and acknowledging their viewpoints shows a collaborative spirit.

Highlight your unique strengths

Think about what unique strengths you bring to the table and find opportunities to demonstrate these. Whether it’s your problem-solving skills, creativity, or technical knowledge, make sure the interviewers see what sets you apart.

Handling a group interview well can demonstrate that you are not only a strong individual contributor but also someone who can thrive in a team-oriented environment, a vital quality for many organisations.

 

Questions to ask the interviewer

Asking the right questions during an interview not only demonstrates your interest in the role and the company but also helps you determine if the position aligns with your career goals. Here are seven insightful questions you can ask your interviewer:

  1. Can you describe the day-to-day responsibilities of this job?

This question helps you understand what your typical day might look like and the core activities you'll be expected to perform. It gives you a clearer picture of what the job entails and whether it matches your skills and interests.

  1. What are the company's values? What characteristics do you look for in employees to represent those values?

Asking about the company’s values and the traits they value in their employees can help you determine if there is a cultural fit. This is crucial for long-term job satisfaction and success.

  1. What are the biggest challenges facing the company/department right now?

This question shows that you are thinking ahead and are interested in the realities of the position and the company. The answer can also highlight potential areas where you can make a significant impact.

  1. What do you like most about working for this company?

This question gives you a chance to hear a personal perspective from the interviewer, which can be very telling. You’ll gain insights that you can’t find on the company’s website or through other sources.

  1. How do you evaluate success here, particularly in this role?

Understanding how a company measures success can help you align your goals with theirs. This question can also lead into a discussion about the performance review process and growth opportunities within the company.

  1. What are the prospects for growth and advancement?

This question can help you learn about your career potential at the company. It shows that you’re interested in staying long-term and growing with the organisation.

  1. What are the next steps in the interview process?

This is a practical question that shows you’re eager to move forward and it helps you understand the timeline and competition. Knowing what comes next also allows you to prepare adequately and follow up appropriately.

These questions not only underscore your enthusiasm for the role but also equip you with vital information to make informed decisions about any job offers you might receive.

 

Post-interview tips

Follow-up etiquette

Always send a thank-you email within 24 hours – even if the interview didn’t go as expected. It shows professionalism and gratitude. Reflect on your interview performance in this note and reiterate your enthusiasm for the role.

Evaluating job offers

When offers come in, don’t just jump at the first one. Consider how it aligns with your career goals and values. Don’t be shy about negotiating; it’s part of the process.

 

You're ready to take your interviews to the next level!

Interviews are your stage to demonstrate your professional capabilities and personal values. With these strategies, you’re better prepared to turn any interview into a job offer. Remember, each interview is a learning experience, and practice really does make perfect.

So, take these tips, tailor them to your needs, and knock that next interview out of the park!