Question time

Painstaking preparation, presentation and promptness are the keys to ensuring you get the most out of an interview

The old adage “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is never more true than at a job interview. As soon as the interview date is fixed, use the internet to review your prospective employer’s website and learn the company’s main facts and figures. Interviewers will not expect total recall, but the ability to demonstrate at least a basic understanding of their organisation is essential – the size of the company, number of employees, major competitors and so on.

You should also undertake a wider web search of the company to investigate any related news or PR items – if it has just been taken over by another company or announced record profits, for example. Asking applicants what they know about the company to which they are applying is an approach used by most interviewers. Failing to come up with relevant information creates a poor impression and reduces chances of success before the interview has had a chance to really get under way. Interviewers know that graduates apply for a number of jobs, so it is important to be able to explain what particularly appeals about each company when you are applying to work with them.

Having done your research, you are now in a good position to assess the areas you have experience in, a natural aptitude for or an interest in learning about. Make sure you bring these up in your interview, giving examples and making reference to the information you have gleaned.


Forewarned is forearmed

In addition to relevant qualifications, interviewers look for adaptability, initiative and the ability to communicate clearly. They will also want to see signs of maturity and integrity, and a willingness to learn, so think through these qualities and work out how to express them in the interview.

Consider, too, how you might answer common interview questions, such as: What motivates you? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What has been your greatest achievement/regret so far? What do you think you would least enjoy about this role? What first interested you in this job? Why do you want to work for our company? Why should we employ you? What do you think would be the biggest challenge about working here? Do you function better on your own or with others? Do you like being given responsibility?

Practise your answers to these questions in advance in order to be more confident when answering them on the day. You can also test out your technique with business leaders, courtesy of Jobsite UK’s interactive interview videos – see


Answering unusual questions

In any case, do not waffle – always answer the question asked without changing the subject. In addition to the standard questions, interviewers may throw in unlikely queries or statements to gauge how quickly you would respond to the unexpected in a work situation. “Sell me this pen,” for example, is the sort of challenge that might crop up in an interview for a marketing or sales job. Another example might be: “If you were an animal, what would you be and why?” Employers pose these questions to test whether an interviewee has the ability to think on their feet, to judge creativity or to see if something unexpected would cause the candidate to be anxious. There are no right or wrong answers for this sort of question, so try not to be thrown off balance by them. See also “Expect the unexpected” later in this feature.

Following any invitation to attend an interview, confirm with the company’s HR department whether the process will take the form of a group interview, which is an approach often used when companies have more than one vacancy to fill. If you are scheduled to attend such an interview, aim to show your own strengths without being tempted to “win at all costs” or score points over other applicants. Group tasks may sometimes be used too to see how each candidate works as part of a team.

Being interviewed by a panel can seem more unnerving than talking to a single person. However, try to think of it as the company’s way of getting the best out of every candidate by ensuring all the relevant questions are asked. The panel may, for instance, comprise staff from various departments. The members of the interviewing panel will take turns to ask questions, so address the person who has spoken rather than trying to look at everyone on the panel at the same time.


First impressions

Many employers form an opinion about candidates within 30 seconds of meeting them, so first impressions are imperative. Turning up early is a good start – unexpected traffic jams and delays on public transport do happen! It is far better to be early and use the time to sit quietly, browsing through company literature or thinking through the possible questions in the reception area, than to sprint into the interview feeling flustered. Take the address and telephone number with you, along with a duplicate CV and a printout of the company’s key facts and figures to glance over while waiting. Check the interview’s location on a street map in advance and work out how long it will take to get there. If travelling by car, allow plenty of time to find a parking space; if using public transport, check for any delays using, for example, regularly updated travel advice websites.

It’s important to dress smartly for an interview, but avoid new clothes or shoes in which you might not be comfortable. On meeting the interviewer, look them in the eye, offer a firm handshake and smile. Being nervous is natural, but also keep in mind that you’ve already endured, for example, a number of nerve-racking exams before even reaching this stage – and you survived them. It’s a good idea to film yourself being interviewed by a friend or relative to take note of your body language: looking down at the floor while answering a question, for instance, can make you look hugely depressive and uninspiring, while a smile can work wonders.


Question time

Throughout the interview, maintain eye contact as much as possible. Ask for a glass of water and sip it to provide time to consider your replies. When answering a question, don’t waffle – if you are unsure about a question, ask for elaboration, and never answer with a simple “yes” or “no”.

Employers are looking for intelligence and confidence, but not hyperbole. So, while it may be entertaining on TV programmes, claiming to be the most intelligent graduate in the UK will not go down well in reality. Don’t downplay talents, though – just keep a balance and don’t oversell. It should go without saying that lying on a CV or at interview is insupportable. Exam results and other such facts can be checked, and any candidate found to be lying will almost certainly be rejected as untrustworthy.

There are tricky questions, and then there are illegal questions. So, what can’t you be asked during the course of a job interview? Well, as with life in general, context and interpretation are key, but – as a general rule – interviewers should not make specific reference to your place of birth, ethnicity, religious affiliation or background, marital status, any children you may have, sexual preferences, age, physical or mental health, or personal lifestyle choices, such as recreational drug use. Any such questions posed to you during an interview, directly or indirectly, could be interpreted as discriminatory and therefore illegal.


What to ask

Interviewees are usually given the chance to ask their own questions, too. Always take up this opportunity as failing to do so shows a lack of initiative and suggests a lack of interest in the company. This is your chance to ask questions such as: How has the position become vacant? Where does the role sit within the team/department/organisation? How is employee performance assessed? What are the long-term opportunities? Is there a training programme or financial help with study for further qualifications? Are mentors assigned to new members of staff?

You’ll probably only ask two or three questions, but try to prepare half a dozen or so in advance, as some of the topics may be covered in the interview before this opportunity arises. A word of caution: this is perhaps not the time to ask about holiday allowance, sick pay entitlement, drug-testing policies or criminal-background checks.


Negotiate the best package

Most first or graduate-level jobs offer little scope for negotiating a better salary than that advertised. However, in case the opportunity does arise, research beforehand typical salaries for graduates and entry-level employees in similar roles in other companies. Note that London-based jobs often attract slightly better salaries than those located elsewhere in the UK because of the higher costs of accommodation and travel in the capital.

Indeed, irrespective of location, costs will mount up when you first start to work, so your money may not stretch very far. Most graduates starting full-time employment need to buy smarter clothes, for example, so be ready to be flexible – if the salary seems low, try negotiating other aspects, such as an automatic pay increase after an annual (or, even, six-month) review. In some companies nothing is negotiable, but if a firm job offer has been made it is always worth asking about any extras before accepting it.

Salary is only one part of a job package, though – there may be staff benefits and rewards schemes on offer, too. These can include loans to help with a deposit for accommodation; stock or stock options; medical, dental and other health benefits, such as gym membership; bonuses based on performance and/or profit-sharing; help with costs of training or further qualifications; relocation costs; student loan repayments; or interest-free annual travel tickets. Ensure that everything agreed at interview stage is reiterated in writing before signing the contract of employment, carefully checking the details of any loan repayments and so on before you do so.


Review the interview

At the end of the interview, thank the interviewers politely and with positivity, even if the discussion seemed to go badly – the result may, in fact, be a pleasant surprise. Even if you felt that there was little connection with the interviewer, don’t be deterred if the job itself still appeals as that person may not be the line manager for the post. Remember to ask about the next step in the application process since there may be second interviews for successful candidates.

Following the interview, take some time to review what happened – being interviewed is a beneficial experience, so learn from it and use it to get the most out of similar situations in the future. Think through what went well, what went badly, what needed more preparation and what could be improved at subsequent interviews.


Weigh up your options

Remember that an interview is a two-way process: some applicants turn down a job offer if the details of the post do not match their expectations or if they feel that the company would not offer them enough scope for progress. Weigh up any reservations alongside other factors, such as lack of success in applications for previous jobs. If offered the job but still in doubt, be honest and ask for an appointment for another meeting to clarify any concerns. Finding the right job can take time, and for many people the process can seem disheartening, especially when the inevitable rejection letters drop through the letterbox. However, if you approach every interview well prepared and positive, congratulations should soon be in order.




Be prepared for the weird and wonderful at any job interview

Applicants who were applying for a traineeship at the Clark Construction Group probably weren’t expecting the following question at their interview. “A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?”

It’s the kind of bizarre riddle that might seem entirely inappropriate for a job interview. Thing is, the way in which a candidate answers a tangential question like this can reveal a lot about his or her ability and personality. So it’s worth being prepared for them so that you can best respond in a cool and composed way.

Take your time to think about the question and why they might be asking it. How does it relate to the company or the role? Is it a chance to show off your computational ability, lateral thinking or engineering know-how? Or is it just there to test your personality and creativity? Or does the questioner want to find out how you might respond under pressure?

First of all, there are questions that are designed to test how you would use your general knowledge to mentally estimate the necessary information. “How much would you charge to clean every window in Manchester?” requires you to estimate how many properties exist in the city and how efficiently you might delegate staff to fulfil a task. When Google asks its prospective employees “How many cows are there in Canada?” they might expect them to expand on the myriad reasons why humans require cattle (milk, dairy, meat, leather and so on).

Other questions (“Sell me this desk!”) test your ability to conduct basic strategies required to do your job, others (“If you woke up and had 2,000 unread emails and could only answer 300 of them how would you choose which ones to answer?”) are designed to find out how you’d prioritise a work schedule. Other kinds of questions (“If we came to your house for dinner, what would you prepare for us?”) might be aimed at discovering what kind of person you’d be in a work and office setting.

The most abstract questions (“How would you describe the colour yellow to a blind person?”) have no right or wrong answers. You should be looking to provide various different ways of answering these questions. In this instance, you might answer in terms of physics, aesthetics, human feeling or metaphor. Some answers might be synaesthetic (“yellow the feeling of sun on your skin”), some might be rooted in science (“yellow is a specific measurement of nanometres in the electromagnetic spectrum”), others might use philosophy to define what is meant by “colour”, invoking concepts of “colour realism” against “colour fictionalism”, setting “colour reductionism” against “colour primitivism”. All of these things are ways of testing how you’d use lateral thinking to solve challenging problems.

And what about the penguin question? Amanda LaChappelle, HR Director at has the following answer. “My penguin is going to come in the door and say, ‘You should hire Amanda – she’s organised and she really has her stuff together. You want her to lead your team.’” And the sombrero? “He’s wearing that because he had a margarita before he came in.”

Other unusual job interview questions

  • If you woke up and had 2,000 unread emails and could only answer 300 of them how would you choose which ones to answer?
  • Why are manholes round?
  • George Soros walks into your office and says you can have a million pounds to launch your best entrepreneurial idea. What is it?
  • Name three Nobel Prize winners.
  • If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
  • What didn’t you get a chance to put on your CV?
  • Tell me something that you think is true, that nobody else agrees with you on.
  • Tell me a joke.
  • How many children are born every day?
  • What were you like as a child?
  • How many piano tuners would you estimate operate in London?




Do your homework

Companies are going to be impressed by candidates who can display a keen interest in – and knowledge of – their business. So swot up on the company’s latest facts, figures, reports, products and plans. You should also research recent trends in the industry as a whole – the more information you have at your disposal, the more confidently you’ll perform.

Do some practice

Interviewing is a skill and, as with any skill, you’ll get better with practice. If your university careers service offers interview training, set up a session. You can also get friends to act as mock interviewers to help you get used to talking about yourself in a clear, coherent way, and even film yourself doing so. Prepare answers to some of the most commonly asked questions, but also be ready to improvise based on your research.

Do dress smartly

Err on the side of caution – too smart is always better than too casual. In an ideal world, we’d all be judged purely on our ability and experience, but the truth is, appearances matter, and most of us make key judgements on every person we meet within a few seconds, based purely upon how he or she looks. Instant impressions count, and you want yours to be good, or you’ll be running to catch up for the rest of the interview.

Do relax

Easier said than done, of course. But the simple fact is, the more relaxed you are, the better you’ll perform. So don’t give yourself any unnecessary worries – prepare properly, plan your route in advance and arrive early. Smile, speak clearly and make your answers concise and to the point – don’t be tempted to waffle.

Do ask questions

The company has shown an interest in you by inviting you to an interview, so return the favour. When researching the company, prepare some questions – around half a dozen – about the company and aspects of the job, although be sure not to ask about anything that’s already been covered in the interview.