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Interview formats, common questions and how to prepare

Posted on November 23, 2015

At this moment, in an office far away, an interviewer is shuddering at the prospect of asking the same question for the umpteenth time today. The simple fact is that some interview questions are asked more than others. And that’s good news for you and your job hunt.

Why? Because it means you can take a decent stab at anticipating what you might be asked when it’s your turn in the hot seat. With a bit of thought you can plan some answers ahead of time. Result? You calm your nerves, appear totally unflappable and ace your interview.

What do we know? As a specialist recruitment consultancy with 25 years in the bank, we have learnt a thing or two about hiring. Here’s your express guide to the different interview formats, common questions and how to prepare a zinger of a response for each one.

Telephone interviews

Most hiring processes now begin with a telephone interview - a quick and easy way for recruiters to begin screening out the good candidates from the not-so-good. Your goal is to secure a face-to-face interview, rather than get the job - so don’t panic. Make sure you are in a place with reliable signal (or use a landline) and - more than anything - make sure it’s quiet. Background noise will distract both you and your interviewer and derail your conversation. Your voice is doing all of the heavy lifting here. Speak calmly, clearly and confidently.


Common Telephone Interview Questions:

How would you define the role?

The interviewer is looking for assurance that you have a good understanding of the industry and your role within it. Revisit the job description and think about how your strengths tie in.

What do you know about the company?

Your goal here is not to simply regurgitate the highlights from the history section on the company website. Rather you need to show that you understand what the company represents and - more importantly - indicate that it resonates with you, your strengths and your beliefs. Provide concrete examples.

Why are you leaving your current job?

Okay, this is a difficult one. The crucial thing is to remain positive. Slinging mud at your previous/current employer will set alarm bells ringing. You don’t want to leave a bully boss, you want to work in a more open and progressive environment. You don’t want to escape a hollow corporate job, you want to join a culture where you feel you are making a difference. Aim to show that you have had your head turned by a fantastic opportunity, rather than suggesting that you are trying to jump ship by any means possible.

Video interviews

Slowly but surely, some recruiters are replacing telephone interviews with video calls via services like Skype. That gives you a few extra things to think about. Firstly, you’ll want to get used to video calls if you are not already. Schedule some calls with your nearest and dearest. Secondly you need to consider the placement of your webcam. If you are taking the call in your bedroom, it’s best to make sure your clothes aren’t strewn across the floor. Avoid a shadowy face by making sure any light sources are in front of you. And if you are using a laptop or tablet, check that it’s fully charged.

Common Video Interview Questions:

Tell me about yourself

You know who you are. This question should be easy! Unfortunately it’s so vague that it can leave you in a tangled, tongue-tied mess in no time. Where do you start? The goal is to keep things short, sweet and focused on your professional life. It’s your first opportunity to show why you are the best fit for the job, but keep it simple. You should have everything covered in five minutes.

Touch on two or three specific achievements and show how they relate to the post. A nice structure to follow is present-past-future: you start with where you are now, move onto how you started your career and end with your ambitions for the future. Finishing with a quick line about a hobby outside work is a neat way to build rapport and will help to put both you and your interviewer at ease.

What are your strengths?

Stop being so modest. You’re amazing and it’s time to sell yourself. Focus on strengths that are relevant to the position and be as specific as you can, providing examples of how you have shown each strength in the workplace. If you can quantify your qualities (“My knack for public speaking led to my department winning a £100,000 contract against ten competitors”), then you are onto a winner. Finally, be honest. Don’t invent strengths you don’t have just because you think it’s what the interviewer wants to hear.

Face-to-face interviews

You know the drill here. You, a desk and the hiring manager. One-to-one. By now your interviewer will have a reasonable understanding of your CV. Expect questions designed to drill down further into your professional life and see how well you fit the available role.

>> How to prepare for an interview
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Common Face-to-Face Interview Questions:

Tell me about a challenge you have encountered and how you responded

Everyone goes through difficult, stressful challenges sometimes - be it personally or professionally. It’s how you deal with them that counts. The key here is not to dwell on the negatives of your story. To keep your answer neat and structured, use the STAR formula:

  • Situation - What was the challenge and context?
  • Task - What was the specific task you had to achieve?
  • Action - How did you respond?
  • Result - What was the outcome?

Be specific. Finish on the positive. Emphasise the outcome. You rock.

Why do you want this job?

they have achieved. Remember, you will likely be competing with a lot of candidates. You have to be genuinely enthusiastic about the opportunity.

What is your greatest professional achievement?

Again, don’t shy away from selling yourself. Yes, it might feel unnatural. But it’s necessary if you want the job. Try to pick an achievement that demonstrates skills that are relevant to the post you are applying for. And revisit the STAR formula to keep your answer neat and tidy.

What are your weaknesses?

It’s a common question, but it still catches people out. For the record, unless you travelled to the interview riding a celestial orb from the heavens, “I don’t have any weaknesses” is not an answer. Nor is attempting the mind trick of turning a positive into a negative - “Oh I’m just such a perfectionist!” Get real. Be honest. Your interviewer (who has weaknesses of their own) is looking for signs that you have the ability to look analytically and honestly at your personal development. Essentially you have two options:

  1. Identify a weakness before highlighting how you are taking steps to improve it;
  2. Identify a former weakness and explain specifically how you turned it into a strength. The secret is to be honest, without raising red flags. Your interview won’t last long if you come clean about your penchant for Monday morning lie-ins or your knack for the elicit theft of any food left in the staff kitchen.

Do you have any questions?

Asking pertinent questions shows your interviewer three things: that you are confident, that you are curious, that you are considering the job opportunity seriously. Ask about the future of the company. Quiz the interviewer on what they like about the company. Take the opportunity to ask anything that hasn’t been covered about your role. Just make sure you avoid asking questions that suggest you haven’t done your research or - worse - that you weren’t listening during the interview. Still not sure what to ask? Here’s some inspiration.

Panel interviews

With more people on the other side of the table, panel interviews can be intimidating. But this is your opportunity to wow three (or more) people in one fell swoop. Panel interviews are often one of the final stages of the recruitment process and normally take place after a successful first interview. Questions tend to be more hypothetical, designed to get you talking about yourself, your skills and the company in detail. You may be questioned on different aspects of the job by different members of the panel. Or the interview may be more unstructured and conversational. Either way, you need to give each person a decent level of eye contact. Finally, remember that by now your recruiter will have a sneaking suspicion that you are the best person for the job. Confirming that suspicion is easier than proving it wrong.

Common Panel Interview Questions:

What do you think we’re doing right and what could be improved?

This is about bringing ideas to the table. Every company has challenges that they could be coping with better. Your interviewers are looking for your understanding of the business, their industry and their audience. What was wrong with the last marketing campaign? What’s missing from the product inventory? Which customer needs are not being met? Nobody is going to mind you zeroing in on what you think is a weakness within the company - as long as you can justify it and speak with diplomacy and tact. But the most important things here are ideas, problem-solving and creative thinking.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Another classic. In reality you have no idea where you will be in five years. Nobody does. But there are a number of important things your interviewers are looking for. The first one is loyalty. Recruitment is expensive. So is your salary. In return it’s reasonable for your employer to expect you to hang around for a while. Yes, ambition is important. But alarm bells will ring if your planned career trajectory is too steep, or you have ambitions about working in a different industry. Secondly your interviewers want to check that your career plans are in line with the available position. After all, if you are happy you are less likely to leave. And finally they want to make sure you understand your role. Focus on the skills required for the job, the opportunities you will gain and how that ties in to the bigger picture of your career. The more specific you can be about the aspects of the job that excite you, the better.

Group interviews

It’s the least common interview format - and, for many, the most challenging. Gathering with other applicants and going toe-to-toe can be stressful. And your interviewers know it. They are testing how you respond to pressure situations. Rather than a series of questions and answers, the interview will likely be discussion-based with a hypothetical problem for you to solve. The most common mistake here is to hog the floor, talking over everyone else. Listening is a valuable skill in any business and the trick is to build on the conversation, putting across your opinion persuasively without dominating airtime.

Over to you...

When it comes to interviews, preparation is everything. It’s true that you can’t possibly prepare a stock answer for every conceivable question. There will always be moments where you must think on your feet. But a little anticipation can go a long way - and preparing answers for common questions is a great way to calm your nerves and ensure you put across your best self while you’re in the hot seat. Oh and get used to practicing in front of the mirror, cat, friends and family. Practice makes perfect.

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