Careers and Enterprise

Prepare for interviews and assessment centres

Your interview answers are your opportunity to explain your abilities and provide evidence to prove you have the ability to perform well in the role.

Getting interview ready

Get it right:

Whether your interview is a phone, video or face to face interview, the preparation is generally the same. As with the application process, the key is to start with the job description. Here the employer has listed exactly what they are looking for in the ideal candidate, so you can be sure that the questions are likely to be based on these criteria. If they mention problem solving, using initiative and negotiation skills, make sure you prepare some examples to demonstrate each of these skills.

Competency interviews are based on the theory that if you have used a skill effectively in the past, it is highly likely that you will be able to use the skill effectively again in future situations. Think about various situations where you have successfully used and developed your skills (including part time work, volunteering and extra-curricular activities), so you have a number of examples you can choose from on the day.  

Answer the question being asked and not what you would like to be asked. Your responses will be graded on how much evidence you provide for what they are looking for, so stay focused on the topic to avoid receiving low scores. The STAR technique is a good method for structuring your answers.  Rather than spending lots of time describing the situation, the interviewer will be more interested in the results of the task and what you learned from it. They will also want to know about your individual achievements and contributions, so avoid phases in your answers such as ‘we did x’ and ‘we decided y’.

Find out about the organisation and the industry they work in, so you can show in your answers that you understand what the company is trying to achieve and how the role you are applying to is part of that. Visit their website, Facebook or LinkedIn page and pay attention to their core values, key principles or mission statement. Understanding more about the company, the role and the industry as a whole will help you to provide relevant answers in your interview. This commercial awareness is important in all industries and get set you apart from other candidates being interviewed.

The more you prepare and practice, the stronger and more confident your performance will be on the day. Practice explaining your examples allowed to get you used to articulating your thoughts. Contact Careers & Enterprise to arrange a practice interview. We also have video interview software this is a useful additional way to practice, even if you interview is face to face and not by video. You can even download our list of interview questions, and use these as a basis to practice answering questions in front of a mirror! Remember, preparing your examples is not the same as memorising answers. You run the risk of sounding unnatural, but there is a danger that you’ll not answer the question properly or will forget your words. Base your preparation on key bullet points that you can elaborate on instead.

For interviews that are by phone, Skype or video make sure that you have a quiet space arranged so that you are not going to be interrupted on the day. Check that the technology is working beforehand, and for video and Skype interviews make sure that your background is tidy and professional.

As part of your interview you may be given a work related exercise. This is where the employers ask you to complete a task that is similar to the types of tasks the successful candidate will be responsible for.  For example, for finance or data roles you could be asked to look at some financial data and make some suggestions or comments about your findings. Or for marketing or customer facing roles you could be asked to write some promotional text or send an email to a client. This is a much smaller version of an assessment centre, so see our resources on this topic for information on how to prepare.

Remember! Check the time, date and location of the interview, and the name(s) of the interviewer(s). Plan how to get there and how long the journey will take, so you arrive in plenty of time. It is better to be early rather than late and you can always go for a coffee or a walk around the block beforehand if you need to. Look for alternative routes just in case there are transport issues. Have their phone number available in case you are delayed.

On the day

Get it right:

Make a good impression as soon as you enter the building. Be polite, professional and friendly to everyone you meet, including the person at reception for example, as they might also be asked for their opinions about you. Use positive body language – firm handshakes, smiling and making eye contact with the interviewer(s) to help you feel more confident and to build rapport.

Make sure you are comfortable and relaxed before the interview starts. Breathing slowly and deeply can help to calm you beforehand. Remember that you have impressed the recruiters so far with your application and that the interview if an opportunity for you to find out more about each other, so you have a lot to be confident about!

Pay attention to the interviewer(s) and listen carefully to the questions. Ask for clarification if you are unsure whether you have understood correctly. If possible, choose answers from different areas of your experience, such as your course, your work experience and your extra-curricular activities so you can discuss a range of examples from different situations. It is fine to use the same example for a different answer though, if you feel it best illustrates the skill they are looking for.

Structure your answers to ensure that you explain clearly the contribution you made or the actions you took in any examples you give. Make sure you have answered the question fully, and ask if the interviewer(s) would like more explanation if you are unsure. However, don’t provide too much unnecessary information. Using the STAR structure can help keep your answers on track. Having a practice interview will help you get a sense of whether you are providing enough detail in your responses.

Be positive, but don’t lie as it is easy to be caught out in follow up questions. It is common for interviewers to ask about a time when a situation did not go plan or was challenging. They are not trying to trick you – difficult situations are common in all types of work. The interviewer is looking to find out how you responded to the situation and what you learned from it, so they can see how you are likely to cope with a similar situation in the future.

If you are not sure about a particular answer, you could use a phrase such as ‘that’s an interesting question’ or ‘I’ll just take a second to think about that’ or you could take a sip of water to give yourself some more thinking time whilst avoiding a long and uncomfortable silence. If you are really unsure how to respond, you could ask the interviewer to repeat and then clarify the question.

At the end of the interview, you will be asked if you have any questions. This is your chance to find out about the organisation and show your genuine interest in them. Avoid asking about the salary, annual leave or anything else that you could easily find out yourself. Instead, prepare one or two questions around the recruitment process (e.g. what are the next steps?), the role itself (e.g. If I were to be offered the position, what projects might I be working on in the first few months?), or what they enjoy about working for the organisation.

After the interview

Get it right:

Once the interview is over, write down as many questions as you can remember. Where there any questions that you found difficult to answer? Is there anything else you think you can do to improve? Take a note of these thoughts before you forget, as it will help you with your preparation for your next interview.

It is also common to leave an interview realising that perhaps the role or organisation wasn’t right for you after all. Think about what your reasons for this are, so you can use this to inform your future job hunting and applications.

If the employer doesn’t contact you when they said they would, or if it has been more than two weeks since the interview, try ringing them to check the situation. If you were not selected, ask for some feedback to help you improve your performance at future interviews. Even if you are not offered the job, going to interviews is good experience, and will increase your confidence and help you feel better prepared for the next time. Stay positive and learn from the experience, taking the time to work on any of the areas you found challenging. Remember you can book an appointment to talk through the experience with a Careers Consultant to get further support and advice. 

Seeing an interview as a learning experience, as well as an opportunity to get a job, will help you to get the most out of the interview.

Assessment centres

An assessment centre is normally the final stage of the selection process and involves completing a range tasks that are relate to the role you’re applying for. This tends to include any number or combination of the following activities: presentation, group task, case study, interview, written exercise or networking session. This allows recruiters to see how you respond to tasks within a simulated work based scenario. It is also an opportunity for you to showcase your skills abilities in a practical setting. 

Get it right:

Look at the job description to give you an idea about what sort of tasks to expect on the day. Jobs that involve dealing with statistics or finance might include a data analysis related task. Whereas roles based on writing or dealing with large amounts of text are likely to ask you to write a report, produce some marketing copy or summarise a range of information provided. Brushing up on your commercial awareness beforehand, so you are familiar with what the company does and what the key issues in the industry are will help you to provide informed and professional responses.

Our downloads section contains details about how to prepare for and perform well at the different types of activity you could be given on the day.  Below are some general tips for the day.

For all tasks it is important to read or listen to the instructions beforehand, so you are clear about what you have to do. Make sure you know how much time you have and whether there is a word limit. Leave time at the end to check for errors. Plan ahead so that you have enough time to complete each task. If it’s a group activity, try to agree with the rest of your group how you might split the tasks between you, to make the best use of the time available.

Be pleasant and professional with everyone you meet. Employers are observing your ability to communicate effectively and they’ll be looking at your eye contact and body language, and how well you use appropriate professional language and behaviour. Whilst you should be confident and to and make contributions to discussions, listening to and encouraging others is just as important. The employer wants to see that you could represent the organisation well to a client, and will usually ask you a number of questions. Answer confidently, and respond calmly and constructively when your ideas are challenged.

Show your group working and interpersonal skills by treating the other candidates as team members during the tasks. Remember, if you work together and produce good results as team, it will reflect well on you all. The recruiter wants to see how your skills match against what they’re looking for and are not scoring you against the other candidates.

Assessment centres often include lunch and coffee breaks. Although these are seen as the 'informal' parts of the day, you are still being observed! This is a great chance to demonstrate your communication skills and show you can make a good impression. Ask questions of current employees about what they are working on or what they enjoy most about the role / company for example. See also our networking guides. 

Think about what you did well and any areas you found challenging, as this will help you prepare for future assessment centres.