Graduation day in Portsmouth, one of the last steps in the transition between studies and the world of work - alongside the dreaded application and selection process!
So you have just heard back from a recruiter after having applied for their company’s graduate programme, or an undergraduate placement. You have gone through their first round of screening, possibly some online tests, and they now invite you for the next step of the process, which is an interview - most likely via video.
Panic not! It may seem daunting, and you immediately feel the pressure to do well, with the prospect of securing the role becoming more tangible. Here are a few tips, from my professional and own personal experience, which I hope can help you prepare:
1. Congratulate yourself - this is an achievement
Before getting into full preparation mode, take a moment to acknowledge the fact that, with tough competition out there, getting to this stage is an achievement in itself which you should be proud of. Of course the aim ultimately is to secure a spot on the programme, however getting to this stage should already boost your confidence, for this and other endeavours, whatever the outcome.
2. Put a bit of structure around your preparation
Without going for a full-on detailed project plan on a massive spreadsheet (as tempting as it is for some of us..), it is wise to think about your time between now and the interview, and the preparation steps you wish to take. Take the 5-6 key things you need to do to prepare (feel free to use the next points as a checklist if you find them helpful), and plot them in your calendar, making sure you do not leave all the preparation for the night before - give your brain a few days (and nights) to process the information you need to get clear in your head on the day of the interview.
3. Do your research - part 1, the company and the role
This is important for a couple of reasons. First, it is quite likely that at some point you will be asked to explain your motivations to join the company, and this will need to involve some of the characteristics of the organisation, their activities, some of their key projects, etc. Look through their corporate website, and do a search to find the most recent articles involving the company. Then looking at either the role profile or graduate / undergraduate programme description, try and understand how it fits into and contributes to the company’s bigger plans.
In addition, your interview is very likely to include questions asking you to demonstrate that you meet some of the key traits expected from the role or discipline you are applying for. These traits are often linked to two things: the attributes and expectations you can find on the role or programme description, and the wider values and / or behaviours of the organisation, which you should get familiar with - these can usually be found on the company’s corporate website, either specifically mentioned, or can be extracted from other statements such as the company purpose, vision, mission, or other “how we work” statements.
4. Do your research - part 2, the interview
Try and get information on the format of the interview from the recruiter (the information is sometimes also actively shared as part of the invitation). If you are informed that it is a competency or strength based interview, it will involve asking you to share examples from your experience illustrating certain traits (see points 3 and 5). These are usually based on more generic attributes and behaviours, as opposed to technical questions, which may also be included and will be more focused on the specific discipline you are applying for.
If possible, try and find out the names and positions of the people interviewing you as part of the interview panel. Looking up their profile on LinkedIn beforehand may help you feel more comfortable and familiar once you actually meet; yes, they may see that you have looked them up, but they won’t hold it against you; let’s face it, everyone likes a bit of attention! That said, do not take it to the other extreme of trying to generate much interaction with the interviewers before the interview, as this could cross the line between proactive and intrusive.
5. Look back
As explained in the last points, it is likely that you will need to provide examples from your own experience to illustrate certain personal attributes or behaviours (those you would have uncovered as part of point 3). It is important to be prepared for this, and to do so, you should look back at all your experiences over the past couple of years. Of course, you may not have much, if any, professional experience, which is absolutely understandable and acknowledged. This is where you need to be able to identify achievements and learnings from any type of experience you might have had. And this could be a wide range, here are a few I can think of:
Involvement in a student union
Sports activities, through the practice of the sport in itself, and any role played in the running and life of a sporting team or organisation (by the way, do not worry if you are not the sporty type, it is far from the only way to demonstrate being a team player or having the drive to push yourself. Trust me!)
Weekend or evening jobs - do not underestimate what you might have learned while working a few hours a week in a pub, a supermarket, or a shop (I must have quoted lessons from my time as a theme park ride operator for a good 10 years!)
Volunteering for charity or community support activities
Other activities linked to personal hobbies or interests (you’re the treasurer for your local annual cosplay convention - talk about it!)
For all these experiences, it is important not just to describe what you were doing, but more importantly to clearly and succinctly bring out what contribution you made, how you may have faced any challenges, and what you learned from it, keeping it close to the traits and attributes you are trying to illustrate. A common advice to structure this is to use the STAR method, focusing on the Situation, Task, Action and Result (you can find more detail on this method on many websites by doing a simple search).
Think about preparing some examples from your experience, structured using the STAR method: Situation, Task, Action and Result
In addition, you may be asked questions focusing on a particular technical domain or discipline. The preparation wouldn’t be very dissimilar from what I quoted above, except that you are more likely to draw on experience from your university work or placements to date for purely technical questions.
6. Look ahead
To prepare for questions which will focus on your aspirations and motivation to join the company, and a particular role or discipline, it is good to consider what you might envisage a career with them to look like. And rather than trying to establish a list of roles you might want to take on in the next 5 to 10 years, I tend to find it more compelling when people are able to articulate what, as part of the company’s activities and strategy, someone is looking to make a contribution to. This is a good opportunity to bring out the passion you have for a particular topic, together with the knowledge you have acquired about the company. It could be quite specific and directly connected with the company’s product or activities (being part of a specific advancement in technology for example if you are an engineering graduate), or a little broader within the domain you wish to progress into (what motivates you to make a difference in the company by working in Project Management, HR or Finance for example).
It is clearly understandable that at this stage of your career you may not have articulated a clear path for yourself over the next 10 years, it is the case for many. This is where having an understanding of what you enjoy and what gets you interested and excited is the best place to start.
When preparing to talk about your future career aspirations, think first about your interests, and what you can talk about with genuine enthusiasm and passion.
Once you have brought together all these bits of research, it is time to practice answering a few questions. For some, this will feel very awkward, however it truly is valuable practice. In my time, this would have involved answering questions while looking in the mirror. These days, you may want to record yourself on your phone, so you can watch yourself back to get a better sense of how you come across, and what you might need to adjust. This may well make you cringe, however you need to go past it and persevere as it will really help. You can spot some language habits you might not have been aware of yourself (things like saying too many “erm..” or “like”), which may distract from the message you are trying to put across.
Rehearsing with a friend may also help, although your closest friends and family will be biased and wanting to be encouraging, so may not be the most honest in terms of constructive feedback, so it could be best to try and find someone a little less personally close, perhaps a colleague from university going through the same process, to provide mutual support.
8. Choose your look
The invitation may indicate a certain dress code, however with video interviews this is less likely to be the case. In any case, a business formal attire as default should always do the trick. Some companies may have a much more relaxed dress code generally speaking, and it is worth checking the people portrayed on their website to get a sense of what the general atmosphere feels like (and I mean of course office-based people on their website, do not turn up with the high-visibility jacket and a hard hat!). Despite this, it is an interview setting, and I would still step the formal nature of your outfit up from what you might see.
Importantly, choose something you are comfortable wearing, isn’t restrictive and still puts across elements of your personality. Feeling comfortable in how you look will help with your own confidence and help you focus on the interview itself. Consider anything that helps you with this - even if you are the only one who knows; I tend to wear cufflinks I received as presents as a form of moral support, and my T-rex socks to give me extra oomph!
9. Get the logistics in order
You won’t always be able to test the technology prior to the day, however whenever possible try and do so. Especially if the video interview runs using one of the main platforms out there, you’ll be able to download the app and try it for yourself beforehand. In any case, being clear where you will do the interview from will be key, as well as ensuring that it will be quiet on the day (get your housemates to commit to quiet time if they can’t leave you on your own!).
You can find advice on the web about setting yourself up best for a video call. A couple of simple points would be to make sure you have light in front of you rather than behind you (don’t sit in front of a window), to try not to have too much clutter in the background (no need to try and impress with shelves full of books!) as this may be a distraction, and I would personally avoid background filers for the same reason (also because it uses up more bandwidth which may impact the quality of the connection). And don’t forget to have water ready with you before you start the call.
As and when we return to face to face interviews, logistics take a whole different dimension, and involve mainly planning your trip to the location of the interview, being clear on how to get there (I personally do like a dry run, or recon trip when possible), and allowing yourself plenty of time to account for possible disruptions on the way (I tend to try and locate a café close to the office where I can sit down and relax before the interview in case I am early).
10. Take a deep breath
Finally, try not to rush through your preparation at the last minute, or the night before, per point 2. The same advice goes as you might have received for exams, which is that it is always good to give your brain a little time to process everything you have prepared and thought through, especially during the night before the interview. So pulling an all-nighter to try and read more or do some more last minute preparation may actually be a disservice as you won’t give yourself a chance to get your thoughts in order. The time just before the interview should be about getting you in the right headspace, rather than trying to absorb more information. And try not to put yourself under too much pressure, and keep things into perspective, balancing your ambition and motivation for the role with an understanding that this is one of many possible paths to success.
This is it, you should now feel fully prepared, full of confidence, and ready to show your true self in its best light! And if all else, just put all your trust in your lucky pants...