Got a job or apprenticeship interview coming up? No worries - follow this guide and you’ll leave everyone impressed.
Prepare, prepare, prepare!
Prepping for an interview may not sound fun (or even possible - how can you guess what they’ll ask?) but it’s really important. It’ll give you confidence going in, and there actually are common questions that you can prepare for so you’ll know exactly what to say if they ask them.
So, how do you prepare?
1. Research the employer
Don’t just rely on the info provided in the job description. Head over to the company’s website and look at their mission and their recent projects. Check out their social media feeds, blogs, or any news stories they’ve been featured in, if you can find them.
The goal: Find out what makes this company unique. You’re likely to be asked why you want to work at this company in particular, and it’s great to be able to point to specific things about them. Plus, it might give you ideas for questions to ask at the interview.
2. Find out what they’re looking for
A lot of interviewers use a technique called ‘competency-based questions’, which basically means they want you to prove you have the right skills for the job. Start by using the job description to create a list of 5 key skills required for the role. If you’re lucky, these will be listed explicitly (e.g. good problem-solving skills); if not, you may need to read between the lines. If there’s really nothing to go on, head over to Unifrog’s Careers Library tool, search for the role that most closely matches the one you’re going for and note down the ‘Skills required’.
The goal: Understand exactly which skills they’re hoping to see you demonstrate. Even if they don’t use competency-based questions, these will be good skills to find ways to highlight in the interview.
3. Prove you’re the perfect match
Now for the tricky bit – think back over your experience to date and try to find examples of how you’ve demonstrated those skills. Think outside the box and draw on a wide range of experiences – anything from helping out with a school assembly to work experience placements. Look through your CV for inspiration (the employer will likely base a few of their questions on your CV anyway). Also, if you’ve been diligently filling in your Unifrog Competencies and Activities sections, awesome – this is when all that hard work will really pay off. You really want to be coming up with specific examples, even anecdotes.
Here’s an example to get you going:
Interviewer: If you join us as a waiter, you’ll often be in high-pressure situations with a lot of competing demands. How are you at prioritising tasks?
Applicant: I have a lot of experience with that, actually. I’m still a student, so balancing the work for my different courses is something I’ve gotten used to - but I also am captain of my football team and look after my younger siblings when my parents have to work late. One week last autumn, I had essays due, I needed to help out with tryouts for the team, and my parents needed me to mind my siblings. I sat down and worked out a careful schedule, balancing out things that couldn’t be changed - I couldn’t just leave my siblings home alone, so that of course had to take priority - and places where I might have a little more flexibility, like starting the essays early so that I wouldn’t actually be finishing them during that crazy week, or trading off with the co-captain to show up at tryouts a little bit late. Of course, in a restaurant setting I wouldn’t have time to make plans this way, but the experience has helped me get better at sorting out priorities on the fly, too.
It’s easy to panic and say, ‘Yes, I’m really good at balancing different things, I think it’s a really important skill,’ but that doesn’t actually show the interviewer that you’re good at it. A specific story lets them see a time you’ve put that trait into action.
The goal: Be ready with specific, concrete examples of your skills, so that instead of racking your brains in a panic, or answering really vaguely, you have really specific evidence to demonstrate your competencies.
4. Prep other common questions
In addition to competency-based questions, you might be asked something that has nothing to do with the job you’re applying for and it’s easy to think that the interviewer is trying to catch you out. Honestly, they're not - often, they’re using some odd questions to ask something else in a less direct way. Here are a few examples of odd interview questions with explanations of what they might really be getting at:
- Question – What’s your biggest weakness?
- Meaning – Are you able to identify areas you can improve in, and admit to them? Also, are you going to struggle with any aspects of the job?
- Reason – Everyone can always improve on something. Employers want to see that you’re aware of areas you may not perform as well in and willing to work on them to improve your performance. It’s also useful for them to know if you see yourself struggling with something they know is going to be really important to the job!
- Useful tip – Don’t be cocky, and don’t try to think of something which sounds impressive (‘I’m too much of a perfectionist’ is a typical example of this). No-one is perfect and there’s no harm in being honest.
- Question – Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
- Meaning – Do you have a plan? Are you going to stay with the company or is this a stop-gap? Are you ambitious?
- Reason – Employers are usually interested in developing their staff, but they can’t help you progress if they don’t know what you want to do! They also want to see how your ambition lines up with their company.
- Useful tip– You don’t need to have a full five-year plan for this; you just need to show that you have an idea of how you could grow with the company.
- Question – If you were a piece of stationary, what would you be and why? What kind of dog would you be? What’s the best gift you’ve ever been given?
- Reason – This kind of random question is becoming more common and they’re used for loads of reasons. Firstly, employers want to see how you react when you’re put in a situation you can’t possibly have prepared for. Do you panic or take it in your stride? Secondly, they sometimes just want to lighten the mood a little. Interviews are stressful and employers know that. Throwing this kind of question in can help to break the ice. Most importantly, employers want to see your personality, and your answer to this kind of question can give them an insight into how you’ll fit into their team.
- Useful tip– Don’t overthink it - there’s no ‘right’ answer to this. Answer with your instincts and don’t take yourself too seriously.
5. Ask questions of your own
Almost every interview will end with the interviewer turning things around and asking if you have any questions. You might think it makes you seem clever not to have any, but it’s actually better if you do! Obviously don’t waste their time making up questions just for the sake of asking them, but here are the types of things you could consider asking:
- What’s one thing you think someone starting this job should understand going in?
- What does successful performance in this role look like?
- How would you describe the company culture? What is your work/life balance like?
- Ask about specific projects or goals that you came across in your research
- If it’s an apprenticeship - How many apprentices have successfully completed the programme? What employment opportunities will there be at the end of the apprenticeship?
4. Final steps
Once you’ve prepped your answers, it might be worth arranging a mock interview with the careers service at school/college if possible, or with a friend/relative if not. This will help you get used to answering unexpected questions and keeping your cool.
Plan your route to and from the interview, allowing yourself plenty of time in case of traffic jams. Public transport can be unreliable at times, so consider getting a lift off a family member or friend if possible. And make sure you plan to arrive a little bit early!
On the day…
- Dress smartly – you probably won’t need to go out and buy a full suit but aim to dress as smartly as possible whilst remaining comfortable.
- Take a copy of your CV and a copy of your preparation notes in case you’re asked to wait a while.
- Set off half an hour earlier than you need to, just in case.
- At the interview, keep an eye on your body language – smile and shake the interviewer’s hand when you meet them, avoid slouching in your seat and maintain eye contact where appropriate. It’s also usually okay to take notes, but ask first.
- Don’t rush your answers – take the time to think them through before you answer.
After the fact…
Remember you don’t need to accept a job if you realise it isn’t right for you. If the interview makes you uncomfortable for some reason, or you realise the position they’re describing isn’t quite like the job description, you’re allowed to say no! Be polite, but don’t feel guilty or think you need to make excuses to them.
If you don’t get the job, you can ask for feedback so that you know how to improve for next time. It’s always possible that you were a really strong candidate and there just happened to be someone else who was even stronger. Every interview is good practice, so just keep going!