Perfecting the Interview

Job interviews are not easy. They can cause many people a lot of anxiety, and this nervousness then means we aren’t able to portray ourselves in the best light. We can stumble over questions that we would otherwise easily discuss in normal conversation.

I have had many interviews were I have simply gone blank from being so worried I wouldn’t say the right thing. I have also had interviews with incredibly challenging questions. Once, I was given a four part question – I managed to answer part one and part two, but had to continually ask for a reminder of the question (needless to say the interviewers said they perhaps needed to rethink the structure of that one!). I have had complex hypotheticals asking for very specific answers that required so much more information than was provided. Some interviewers really like to put you on the spot, and while some people thrive under this pressure, others find it very challenging.

There are many interviews I have succeeded in, and even more that I have not. So I thought I would share some of my learnings and tips for others in similar positions.

Tip #1:

Research the company. Go on their website, read their mission and values. Look at any awards they have won or anything out of the ordinary they do. Pick something that resonates with you and remember it. Why does this resonate with you?

Many times you will be asked – why do you want to work here? This is when you can say “When I researched this company, I noticed that you did X and this really resonated with me because it aligns really well with my value of Y…” etc. It shows you are really interested in working for them and not just any old place that will give you a job.

Tip #2:

Prepare examples. The most challenging, and seemingly favourite questions of interviewers, are behavioural questions. Things like “Tell us about a time you successfully adapted to change?” or “What would you do if such and such happened?”. Many of the hypotheticals you will have to think on the spot. But having some good example stories pre-thought out can be a live saver and hold off the panicky thoughts.

Some examples can be multi purpose – they may show a time that you used initiative, as well as a time that you over came challenges. Memorise and practice these stories using the ‘STAR‘ method – Situation, Task, Action, Result.

Tip #3:

The question I always struggle with the most is a version of – “Tell us about a time you had to deal with conflict.”

I was always concerned that no matter what I said, any sort of conflict would look unprofessional. I never knew what to say. So recently, I reached out to Twitter and asked people what they thought.

The responses were incredibly helpful. Many explained that conflict is not a negative thing, as I had thought. “Conflict should be healthy, it doesn’t have to be negative. It should mean people are comfortable to express differences and find a path to a compromise” said one commenter, “If I interview someone and they can’t come up with an experience of conflict or difficulty at work I worry they’ve had such a sheltered life they won’t cope. All large workplaces have issues. A good answer shows how you dealt with it, and how you would do it next time.” said another.

Suggestions for examples included; “Professional difference of opinion with consequences, different communication styles leading to misunderstandings”, disagreements with colleagues over how they deal with a particular situation, and “the challenges of having to work with colleagues who have had more traditional / conservative professional values, which can create tensions that need to be resolved. I framed it within the context of change management.”

The overwhelming theme to everyone’s responses though, was to talk about how you dealt with the issue, what discussions you had, what compromises you made, how you moved forward, and what you learnt.

Tip #4:

Be memorable and personable. I was told once that people prefer to hire someone they can see themselves enjoying working with, than someone who knows everything. Of course, you need to read the room, but smiling and building a quick rapport will do wonders. Maybe you can make a slight joke if its appropriate. Try to connect with the interviewers, they are just people like you!

And they may be interviewing lots of other candidates. So you want to be remembered. Try wearing something professional but memorable. I have an amazing blazer which is blue and white striped. It’s professional but always gets lots of comments from colleagues, it really catches the eye. This is my next interview outfit for sure! I also have a necklace that is a Dr Seuss book cover, again I get so many comments on it. Something like this can help to break the ice in an interview. Someone may say “I love that necklace” and you can say “Yes, I just love Dr Seuss, the stories are so imaginative but also have such great underlying morals..” and they may reply “Oh yes, I just love The Lorax, did you know…” and suddenly you’re having a brief conversation and feeling more relaxed and they like you and will remember you.

Tip #5:

Take your time. It’s ok to think about your answer. Sometimes, I do some stalling tactics. I say “hmmm, that’s a great question”, then a take a deep breath, and then I take a sip of water and then I hopefully have thought of something to say. You can also ask interviewers to clarify a question for you.

Think about your body language – I always put my hands together on the table in front of me, and when I talk, I use them for some emphasis. Don’t cross your arms or wring your hands together or fidget.

Tip #6:

And of course, the tips everyone already knows: Be early. Practice and prepare. 

Before the interview, I practice the most common interview questions and my answers to them. Not scripted, but key points I want to remember for examples, projects, situations etc. I will share the list of common questions I use below. I then write a few dot points under each one to memorise. I always make sure I have some questions to ask the interviewers at the end – this is really important. Some good examples are questions around the culture of the organisation, opportunities for professional development, or key projects you might work on.

Plan how you’re getting to the interview. I always plan to get there 10 minutes early, then I give myself extra time incase there is a problem (train delays, traffic, no car parks, any unforeseen event). If I get there more than 10 minutes early, I stay in my car and read over my interview preparation notes. Always take a pen and paper.

Before I go in to the interview, if I have that 10 minutes to wait – I try just to focus on relaxing, practice some mindfulness, positive thinking and deep breathing. Build your inner confidence.

Common Interview Questions:

*Note – these are based on my experiences as a school/academic librarian and may not be as relevant for other types of roles.

General Questions:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • Why would you do well in this job? / Why should we hire you?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • Where will you be in 5 years?
  • What motivates you?
  • What are the top skills needed in this job?
  • What makes a good/efficient team?
  • How do you research something?
  • What do you see as the future trends in this field?
  • Do you have any questions?

Behavioural Questions: “Tell us about…”

  • A challenging experience?
  • A time you were adaptable to change?
  • A time you used initiative/ambition?
  • An example of analytical thinking – use logic to achieve a goal, problem solve?
  • A time you dealt with a difficult person/conflict?
  • When you showed excellent customer service?
  • When you had great communication? What about a miscommunication and how you solved it?

This is only a starting point – I’d love to add to my examples so please let me know any common questions you’ve been asked that aren’t in the list.

Good luck with your interviews, remember – you can do it!


2 thoughts on “Perfecting the Interview

  1. A great post – I love it!

    In some ways, I find that “Why do you want to work here?” – often the first question – can be the most critical of questions. If you can’t convince the panel that you *really* want to work in that organisation in that position, then it’s already over.

    In some sectors – particularly the public sector – interview questions will be closely aligned to the Key Selection Criteria. I find this to be a useful framework for predicting questions and preparing answers in advance.

    Also – really important – have some questions ready for the panel. This can be tricky – I’ve been burnt in the past by asking the kinds of questions that I might have known the answer to if I’d done more in-depth background research. These days I use the opportunity to learn more about the people who I might be working with, such as their management style, vision for the team, etc.


    • Thank you for the great feedback and excellent advice! I agree, aligning your preparation with the KSC is a great tip. I also like the suggestion on asking about management styles and visions for the team, a great addition to my list of ideas 🙂


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