Winning the interview game

Published: 03 Sep 2009

The selection interview is, perhaps, one of the most stressful types of interviews because so much depends on it — your income, your lifestyle, your choice of accommodation and much more. Most human resource specialists will, however, agree that interviews are not the perfect solution to finding the best candidate for a job but to date they are the best available option.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development “2008 recruitment, retention and turnover survey”, interviews based on the contents of curricula vitae or application forms are still the most frequently used selection method.

There is no magic formula to being successful at interviews but there is a strategy you can adopt to increase your chances of success. The strategy is based on having a good understanding of four key features of the interview process: purpose, preparation, practice and presentation.

Purpose

The whole point of a selection interview is for an employer to find the best person for a job. It might seem rather obvious but it is worth remembering this basic fact as you make your journey to the interview centre.

Interviewers are not the enemy and they are not out to get you. Try looking at the interview from an employer’s perspective. It is in their interests to make candidates feel comfortable and relaxed enough to talk freely about what they believe they could bring to a company or organisation.

Good interviewers should never make you feel you are being interrogated. They should create an opportunity for genuine dialogue between job candidates and employers. Good interviews should also help both you and the employer to make an informed decision about whether you are right for each other.

For graduate positions, such as pharmacist posts, where the competition is not so much among people with different qualifications but with different personalities, interviewers will probably be looking for company or organisational “fit”.

Employers want to employ someone who will fit in with the culture of a company or organisation and this is something that often can only be determined from an interview or assessment tests. It is, therefore, down to you to demonstrate that you have done your homework and know enough about the company or organisation to be able to demonstrate that you will fit in.

You also need to demonstrate that you possess those intangible elements, such as attitude and motivation, that your interviewer could not assess from your CV or application form.

Interviews come in a variety of formats, which are sometimes used in combination by employers. The telephone interview is often used as a preliminary to the face-to-face interview because it is a fairly uncomplicated way of assessing a candidate’s communication skills.

One-on-one interviews are often used in combination with the more familiar panel interview. The advantage of this type of interview is that it gives candidates the opportunity to relax and to talk without the stress of being observed by several people. The disadvantage of this type of interview is that it puts the decision-making about a candidate in the hands of just one person.

However, if it is used in combination with a panel interview, it can work to both the advantage of the interviewee and the employer.

Daunting though it may be, the panel interview does appear to be the preferred option for many employers. Panels are usually structured so that various “stakeholders” in a company or organisation have the opportunity to make an assessment about a candidate.

Panel members could include a human resources manager and a line manager. In some cases, potential colleagues are also represented on the panel.

Prepare

Once you have a good understanding of what employers want to gain from the interview process, you are in a better position to prepare for the interview.

Never make assumptions about anything. Read carefully through the company or organisation information you received and do more research to get up-to-date information and news.

You need to prove to an employer that you are interested in the company or organisation and not just the job. Annual reports and the news section of websites can provide useful background information and also give you a starting point for the list of questions you intend to ask during the interview. You also need to read through the photocopies that you should have kept of your application. Be prepared to talk about the strengths, personal qualities and achievements that you highlighted in your application. Think of evidence to support the strengths or abilities you believe you have.

You also need to anticipate the questions your interviewer(s) will probably ask you. Remember, they are using your application as the basis for further probing.

So if, for example, you wrote in your application that you are good at motivating others, what evidence can you provide to support such a claim? Are you a team leader for some social, community, religious or sports group? Have you been able to use your motivational skills to help others? Do you have a part-time job or are you involved in voluntary work that requires you to motivate others? Your ammunition during an interview is the evidence you can present to substantiate the claims you made in your application.

You also need to focus on the context of the job you have applied for. If the job involves working with a team then you can expect questions that will try to determine your team-working strengths or even weaknesses. If the post is in the private sector, you will probably be asked business-related questions or questions about your customer service skills.

Practice

The interview process is basically a dialogue between you and the employer. Both sides have to provide information and ask questions. You need to practise how you will present information about yourself and about your achievements. Cast a critical eye over your application form or CV and try to imagine what questions you would ask if you were the interviewer.

Good interviewers are trained to ask job candidates open rather than closed questions, so when it is your turn to ask questions during the interview, make sure you ask questions that begin with “how”, “why” and “what”. It is an unspoken rule that you should not ask questions about salary or benefits unless it is an absolute necessity and then, only ask the question at the end of the interview.

Try to ask questions that prove you have done your homework about the employer, that demonstrate you have the motivation to be productive in your job or that show you are interested in your continuing professional and personal development.

If you are being interviewed for a company in the private sector, you could ask questions about expansion, marketing of the company, customer-relation strategies and opportunities to network with colleagues working in other pharmacies within the group and so on.

Presentation

The final step in the interview process is presentation. The interview is your stage and you have to perform to the best of your ability. Job interviews are a competitive process but you are not in a position to weigh up the competition so you have to aim to be the best.

Presentation starts with your appearance. First impressions do count when you are being interviewed and interviewers will make some kind of judgement about you as soon as you walk into the interview room. Aim to look professional and smart but do not overdo it.

In her book ‘Ultimate interview’ 1, author Lyn Williams suggests that you should “dress like a smarter, more polished version of the staff already employed”.

If, after all your preparation, practice and presentation, you do not get the job, view your interview as a learning experience. Ask for feedback about your performance and about what you could have done better and use any feedback constructively to improve your performance at your next interview.

References

1. Williams L. Ultimate interview. 2nd ed. London: Kogan Page; 2008.

2. Hodgson S. Brilliant answers to tough interview questions. 3rd Ed. Harlow: Pearson Education; 2008.

For some ideas of the type of questions interviewers ask, take a look at ‘Brilliant answers to tough interview questions’ by Susan Hodgson.2 The book lists some of the most common questions asked by interviewers, such as:

  • What would you say is your greatest achievement to date?
  • What are your three greatest strengths?
  • What new ideas would you bring to the job that other candidates would not?

Each listed question is then followed by suggested answers, which you can adapt to suit your own circumstances.


Ruth McGuire is an education and training consultant, and journalist

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