I often get asked to provide guidance to people looking for a career in PR and communications and many of their queries focus on how to handle job interviews.
Despite recruiting for very different organisations and roles, I find most interviewers tend to have a very similar approach to asking questions. Job interviews are a bit like exam papers – the same topics are always there, just sometimes dressed up in different ways.
I’m always surprised, therefore, when so few candidates shine in addressing the most obvious topics.
In my experience there are six questions that are likely to appear, in one form or another, in most interviews and if you prepare properly, these questions should provide you with all the opportunity you need to sell yourself effectively.
Why do you want the job?
An unbelievably obvious question. So obvious, in fact, that candidates seem to overlook its significance and don’t prepare a strong answer.
At a very simple level, if you can’t explain really clearly why you are interviewing for this role at this firm, you won’t get hired.
But many people focus too much on “the job” part of the question rather than the more significant “why” and “you”. This isn’t the time to talk at length about all the great things the job would involve. The interviewers already know that. It is the time to explain why you want it more than anyone else.
This is often the first question you will be asked in an interview and should be your strongest answer. Use it to set the scene for themes or arguments you want to develop in the interview, demonstrate your passion and interest in the job, and highlight the key reasons why you would be the perfect candidate.
Can you give a practical example of when you have done this?
Most jobs involve a level of technical knowledge or expertise that potential candidates need to demonstrate. Sometimes in interview you will simply be asked if you have a skill or not – eg. “have you got experience in dealing with the press?”. However for each key skill you want to promote, you should prepare a practical example of how and when you have used it, to help bring your abilities to life.
If you are applying to be a line manager, for example, it’s not enough to say you have lots of experience in managing teams. Be prepared to give a brief example of the sorts of team dynamics you have dealt with, maybe an issue or two you’ve had to overcome and the skills you’ve developed as a result. Similarly if the role involves budgetary control, be ready to provide brief examples of the range of challenges this has provided you with and what you’ve learned.
Experience-based questions make for better interviews, both for the interviewer and the interviewee. The employer gets more honest and grounded answers, the candidate gets the chance to provide a more memorable response. Make sure you take it.
Why do you want to leave your current role?
Interviews are a chance for candidates to tell their personal story – their narrative, if you like. Providing a sense of the journey you are on, where you have come from and where you are heading helps employers to see the logic of why you are sat in front of them today.
Unfortunately many candidates find it uncomfortable to talk about their existing role. Perhaps there are some frustrations about the role that the question may bring to mind – i.e. poor pay, fallouts with the boss, etc. In most circumstances, these aren’t relevant to why you should be hired for the next job, so set them aside.
Instead, try and explain what you have gained from the role and how it has helped you to progress your career on to the next stage. This could be opportunities it has opened up (the chance to develop new skills or experience) or avenues it has helped to rule out (confirming that you would rather concentrate on one aspect of the work rather than another).
Whatever it is, how you talk about your current role says a lot about how you think about your career and also the sort of employee you are. Don’t miss this opportunity to continue to reinforce your overall story.
What do you want to be doing in five years’ time?
Although another question people often find tricky, this is actually the same question as the one above, but framed in a different way. It is best answered by going back to your core narrative. What is your overall sense of purpose, professionally? What have you learned so far and where do you want it to take you? Providing this context will help the employer understand why you see this job as the important next step in your career.
Usually (though it does depend on the job you are applying for), prospective employers don’t expect people to stay in their organisation forever, so don’t feel the need to pledge the rest of your working life to your would-be boss. You also don’t need to describe in detail where you will be in the future (how could you know?), just the type of role and activity you want to be involved in. So if you are applying to be a press officer, saying you want to progress to the role of manager and ultimately to head up a busy newsroom shows ambition, is a logical next step and is a motivation most employers would see as a positive.
Of course there are some obvious watchouts here too. Where you are heading in the future does needs to fit with the role you are currently applying for. If you want to be an air hostess and are applying to be a trainee accountant, a reasonable employer might think you aren’t likely to be a good long term prospect. Also, whilst five years in the future is a good timescale to think about your next move, be wary of bringing that any closer. It takes a fair amount of time and investment to get the most out of new hires and employers will see it as a negative if you give off the impression you will want to move on too quickly.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and what did you learn?
It’s a less obvious question, perhaps, but it’s still not unusual for employers to ask about your weaknesses, mistakes you’ve made or things you’ve got wrong. Answering it successfully definitely requires some thought and preparation. Unfortunately, saying nothing at all or providing a poor example is just as bad as highlighting a major failure on something that is key to the role you’re applying for.
What employers are looking for here is honesty, self-awareness and the ability to learn from mistakes. So talk about something you took personal responsibility for, what went wrong and then, critically, the learnings and insight you took from the experience. Even better, choose a story that has an element of humour about it. Ideally they will come away thinking you are human and occasionally mess up but, perhaps unlike other candidates, you are open in admitting your mistakes and have taken steps to ensure you don’t repeat them.
Do you have any questions for us?
The final question of a tough interview and by this point, most people simply want to get out of the room. Yet the invitation to ask the panel questions is often the best opportunity of all to showcase your skills and reinforce your key messages.
This is because it is the main or only time the panel will talk without the help of a pre-prepared script. By asking smart questions, it’s possible to engage them in a conversation about something that accentuates your strengths.
It also provides you with a chance to direct the conversation. So if you didn’t get a chance to mention something that’s relevant to your application, or didn’t do justice to a previous topic, a carefully worded question could provide you with the opportunity to have another go.
In addition, there’s more than one person doing the choosing at an interview. Let’s not forget, you also need to decide whether the job is right for you. Showing you have done your homework and have well thought-out questions will give off the impression you are taking the opportunity seriously and will also help you to make up your mind about them as an employer.
Preparing questions for the panel in advance is a must, but try and make notes as the interview progresses so that you have something fresh and relevant to ask. That said, this doesn’t give you permission to grill them for 20 minutes. Two or at most three brief questions will suffice. Interview panels work to tight schedules and they won’t thank you if your interrogation means they overrun or have to skip lunch.
I tend to find most hiring decisions tend to come down to the same core set of issues. Who has demonstrated they have the best skills to do the job? Who seems to be the best fit with our culture and approach? Who has the most potential to grow in the role and organisation? And also who wants the job the most?
As the core issues about hiring are often the same, so the questions actually used in interviews are also fairly consistent. Even if they are dressed up in a different way, these six questions are common in interviews and you should be certain your answers to each promote your best qualities to the full.