I had a ‘milestone’ birthday recently. Not so much key to the door but needing to change the locks! It has made me rather reflective. It seems only yesterday that I graduated and started frantically applying for jobs, partly because of pressure from my parents who were keen for me to start earning as soon as possible but mainly so I could maintain the independence I had started to appreciate at University and which was being decidedly cramped by moving back home to share a room with my younger sister.
With an estimated one in five 16- to 25-year-olds currently out of work (according to figures from the Office for National Statistics)it is so important, with competition so fierce for fewer vacancies, that candidates give themselves the best possible chance of impressing at interview.
As a company, we recruit at executive level however, we are regularly asked by our contacts or indeed our own friends and family for advice on behalf of people starting their career, so we thought it was worth revisiting these key points:
Look the part
Unless applying for a role in the creative/performing arts or in creative media, the dress code for any corporate interviews will be business dress. It is still the case that people make judgements based on appearance and so you must make sure that you look impeccable. This doesn’t mean getting into further debt buying an expensive suit. High Street stores like Next, M&S and Primark do classic suits at incredible prices. Shirts should be clean and ironed, shoes clean and polished. If wearing a tie, learn to tie a proper Windsor knot (a big fat knot or a skinny tie won’t look corporate enough, neither will a tie which finishes half way down your shirt!). Click here for a video guide to Windsor knots from our friends at House of Fraser! Hair should be clean and tidy. Gents – you should be clean shaven – no excuses. Keep jewellery to a minimum and tattoos well hidden. This isn’t about stifling your individuality rather than ensuring that what you say is what is remembered rather than how you look.
You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t greet an interviewer with a smile. This is SO important and will say so much about you as a person and about how you will potentially be perceived by future colleagues, customers and clients. It is widely accepted that people hire people they like and so, like it or not, one of your jobs in an interview is to get them to like you as well as demonstrate your suitability for the role. Your smile should reach your eyes and this will also help you overcome the inevitable nerves.
Practice your handshake. There are people, myself included, who have a negative opinion of someone with a weak handshake. It simply speaks volumes. A firm handshake with a warm smile and eye contact says several things. That you are confident. That you want to be there. That you are interested in the person you are meeting. You will only fully realise the negative effect of this when you are on the receiving end!
Approximately 70% of communication is non-verbal and so take care that your body is not letting you down! Sit up straight, don’t fidget, keep hands relaxed on your knee. Don’t lean too far back – you may look too laid back or even worse, arrogant. Getting your posture right will make you look interested, keen and confident even if you are very nervous!
Do your research
Not doing your research on the company is unforgiveable. Information is so readily available online and you should learn quickly where to access that information. The company website should give you oodles of information (but take care not to recite this in the interview – it’s too easy, you need to show that you’ve worked harder to set yourself apart from the crowd). Look for press articles, make sure you understand who their competitors are and how they are performing. Research your interviewers on Linkedin. Check out Glassdoor.co.uk for employee reviews and interview tips. If you are applying to a company led by a well known figure, make sure you have read their autobiography. A classic (if a little clichéd) interview question is ‘which business leader do you most admire and why’. To give an answer without having done your research will not set you apart from the masses.
There are many different types of interviews ranging from structured competency based interviews to informal ‘audition’ style assessment processes. One thing is certain, you will be faced with some questions that are really tricky. This may be because they are ‘off the wall’ eg. if you were a biscuit what kind would you be (yes, this really happened!) or because they are potentially controversial eg. “why did you drop out of your course/switch courses?”
Again, there are plenty of resources online which give examples of tricky questions so doing your research will help. If the worst comes to the worst and you simply go blank, simply say “I’m sorry, I need to reflect on this question, please could we come back to it later?” This will buy you some time which is useful for those ‘abstract’ questions. If you simply do not know the answer, then say so. Trying to blag your way through could leave a negative impression. Also, the ability to be honest about what you do and don’t know (while showing a willingness to learn of course) is a quality most employers will admire and understand in a school leaver or grad.
Know your subject
If you are applying for a University place or a Grad Scheme and have completed a Personal Statement focusing on your interest in a specific subject, make absolutely sure that you can elaborate in detail about any points you make in your statement. You can be sure that a savvy interviewer will focus on these points and chances are, they will know more about it than you. By reading around your subject and keeping abreast of current affairs, you should avoid getting caught out. For instance, if you are applying for a place at medical school and mention your deep interest in a field of medicine, make sure that you know of any medical advances that have been made which have hit the headlines. Equally, if applying for a Grad scheme at a major retailer, make sure you know the current share price and the latest profit results. You may also be asked for your opinion so again, be prepared to explain your position on potentially controversial subjects which involve taking an ethical standpoint.
Interviewing well is a skill that can be learned and of course honed with experience. However, even in your first ever interview, the one thing that you should be able to talk confidently about is you. This does take some preparation however. Sit down with a blank piece of paper and write down your achievements (at school, university or in your spare time). Think about what made you successful and what you enjoyed about these successes – was it the sense of achievement you felt when you completed a project or was it the buzz of working as part of a team? What role did you play, what did you do well and what could you have done better? Ask your parents, teacher, tutors, friends and peers what they consider to be your strengths and weaknesses and think about how you can ‘package’ these to be attractive to a prospective employer. Remember, you are there to sell yourself and the key to selling anything well is to know the ‘product’ inside out. Most of all, you must be passionate about it!
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