Interview tips: answers to readers' questions

Our answers to your questions about graduate recruitment interviews

"Once I've answered all the questions, is there anything else I can do at the end of an interview to make sure it leads to a job?"

Steven, Durham University

Thinking about what kind of questions you'll be asked and how you'll answer them is an extremely important part of preparing for an interview. But you're right, Steven, that there are other things to think about too.

For a start, don't feel that the interview has to be limited to what the interviewers want to talk about. If, at the end of an interview, you think something important about you or your experience hasn't come up, go ahead and mention it. And good interviewers will always give you a chance to ask questions to get any extra information that you need.

At the end of the interview, it's also important to make sure that you're clear about what the next steps will be. Your interviewers should let you know when they'll in touch again and, if there is to be one, what the next recruitment hurdle will be - perhaps a written exercise or a second interview. If they don't give you any indication, you should feel free to ask.

Once you get home, remember to send a thank-you email. It's a great way to indicate your enthusiasm for the role, and can also be a good opportunity to ask any follow-up questions or to add any relevant pieces of information about you that have occurred to you since the interview.

Over the next few days, get in touch with your contacts again if you don't hear back from them within the timeframe they indicated, though bear in mind that recruitment is a complicated process where things often take longer than expected.

Let's hope you'll receive an invitation to take the next step forward, or even a job offer. But if the worst happens and you're rejected, ask for feedback - if someone has taken the time to interview you, and you've shown real interest in the role, they'll normally be prepared to tell you how you struck them as a candidate and what you could do to improve for the future which is bound, sooner or later, to lead to a job offer.

"I've applied to work for a small company and they've asked me to "meet them for a chat" in a cafe. Is this an interview or not? Help!"

Anna, University of East Anglia

Congratulations Anna! We can officially confirm that this is very much a job interview.

But, although the setting may be more relaxed than other interviews you go to, you shouldn't be any more relaxed about your preparation. Do your research, plan how you'll answer the questions that might come up, and plan your route to the meeting point carefully.

However, do bear in mind that small companies do sometimes do things a bit differently to large ones, so you might need to take a different approach in some ways than you would if you were interviewing with a large graduate recruiter.

The vibe of the interview is likely to be a bit less formal, which can throw up a few challenges of its own. For example, you may feel uncomfortable wearing your usual interview suit - try to ascertain what the company's dress code is in advance and dress accordingly. And you may find yourself having to deal with eating lunch or interruptions from waiters about your drinks order as well as difficult questions.

As you get started, don't be fased if the interviewers seem as keen to get to know you as a person as they are to quiz you about your experience and skills. In a small company, culture and "fit" with the team is particularly important, so even when you're being asked about the festivals you went to last summer, you're probably being assessed - though, unlike with a tough technical business question, there are probably no right or wrong answers here!

Once you're into discussing the nitty-gritty of the business and the job, remember that with small companies, flattery works a treat. Your potential employers will know they don't have the high profile or the instant appeal that a big company might have, so showing that you've made the effort to research them thoroughly beforehand and genuinely want to work there is likely to go down very well.

And finally, don't be surprised if the interview turns into a planning session - small companies don't have the time or money for recruitment that big ones do, so are likely to only put time into candidates they're really interested in and to want to get things going right away. Play your cards right, and you might even get offered a job on the spot!

"I always get really nervous before interviews, and I'm worried it affects my performance. Any advice?"

Marco, University of York

Nearly everyone gets a bit nervous before a job interview, so this question is a great one.

One of the best things you can do in the days before the interview to avoid nerves on the day is to make sure you're well-prepared.

That means both making sure you're set up for the substance of the interview, but also that you sort out exactly where to go, what time you're going to leave your house, and what you're going to wear - being able to sport a freshly dry-cleaned suit rather than a slightly grubby one is sure to give you a bit of a confidence boost!

On the day, it's important to remind yourself that your interviewers are actually your allies - strange as that may seem.

They've seen potential in your application, are interested in finding out more about you, and want you to see you at your best - they might ask tough questions, but they're just giving you a chance to show your full potential.

But what if, despite taking the precautions above, in the interview room you find your mind going blank, your hand shaking uncontrollably, or your mouth making funny noises?

Don't panic. Simply stop, breathe, take a drink of water, and you can even ask for a moment to gather your thoughts or for the interviewer to repeat a question of a piece of information. All these tactics should help your nerves subside - and your interviewers probably won't even notice that anything is amiss.

If all else fails, here's our favourite interview tip: picture your interviewers in their underwear.

It may sound strange, but it really works - it takes your mind momentarily off whatever about the interview is making you anxious, and reminds you that your interviewers are (probably) ultimately just ordinary people that you're having a chat to.

And finally, don't get too nervous about your nerves - a little bit of adrenaline in your bloodstream helps you stay alert and think quickly, which is just what you need for a good interview performance.

"Should I prepare set answers for the questions I think I'll be asked in my interview? I want to be ready, but I don't want to sound robotic."

Rachel, University of Cambridge

We think it's a good idea to prepare answers for all the questions you think you might be asked. Most people do so for questions about their potential new employer like "What do you know about us?" or "What is it about this role that attracts you?" However, when it comes to questions about yourself, it can be easy to assume you'll always automatically be able to give a good answer - you're the expert, right?

In fact, it's as easy to go blank on your career history or motivations as it is on details about your potential new employer if you haven't prepared properly.

We recommend that, once you've done some research about the job and the employer and thought a bit about yourself and why the job would suit you, you write down all the questions you think you might be asked - about the job and yourself - and try to think of three key points to make in response to each one. If you can't do so, go back and do more research or thinking. Aiming for three points should ensure you have enough to say without making your answer too lengthy or complicated.

The next step is to memorise your three points for each question and practice answering the question out loud, either just to yourself or to a friend or family member if you can persuade them to listen - you might feel a bit stupid, but it's surprising how much verbalising your thoughts can reveal gaps and weaknesses.

Don't learn an answer off by heart though, as you want to stay flexible enough to respond to the exact way in which the interviewer phrases the question and for your answer to feel fresh and genuine on the day. Just think of your bullet points as your signposts along the way to keep you going in the right direction.

Remember, however, that it's likely you'll face at least one question that you haven't prepared for at all, so be prepared to think on your feet too!

"They say that interviewers make their minds up very early on. So how do you make a great first impression?"

Paul, Nottingham Trent University

Thanks for a great question, Paul. Let's start with the basics. You'll begin to be judged well before you've said anything substantial, so it's important to get interview fundamentals like clothes, timing and attitude right.

Choose appropriate clothes (a suit for anything in the City and for "non-suit" workplaces try to go for an outfit one or two notches smarter than those you think employees generally wear). Whatever you're wearing, make sure your appearance is generally neat and tidy - for example, clean shoes, smart bag, no unkempt hair.

Make sure you're on time as you don't want to keep the interviewers waiting, but what's said less often is that you shouldn't be too early - your interviewers will be busy people and won't appreciate it if it feels like you're pulling them off track. We think 5-10 minutes in advance is a good middle ground to aim for.

As you come into the building and wait in reception, be polite and upbeat with everyone you meet. Anyone from a doorman to a receptionist to the junior team member who walks you to the interview room could report back on you - and if you get the job they'll be your colleagues, so why not get off on a good start?

And then once you actually meet your interviewers, there are three key things to remember for those very first moments: good handshake (firm, but not too firm), eye contact, smile. Then be prepared for some small talk - have something innocuous and positive to say about your journey there - though also be ready to be posed with a big question immediately.

But whether they ask you what makes you suitable for the job or if you came on the Tube, resist the temptation to tear off at 100mph. You're likely to make a much better impression with your first answer if you pause, breathe, and think for a moment before answering.

"What sort of questions should I ask the interviewer at the end?"

Zaarii, Birkbeck, University of London

The "do you have any questions for us?" stage is a very important part of the graduate recruitment interview process.

Used well, it can be a great opportunity to impress those assessing you. And remember that graduate recruitment interviews are also about you assessing an employer, so see it as also your chance to find out anything you need to know to decide if the job is right for you.

With these aims in mind, we'd suggest that there are three main kinds of question you could consider asking your interviewers.

First, ask for an explanation of anything that came up during the interview that you didn't understand, or for any more information that you need about any of the areas discussed. Good interviewers understand you're being asked to digest a lot of information quickly and should be happy to give you any clarification you need.

Next, move on to ask one or two of a list of questions that you've prepared in advance about the job or the employer - as you do your research and think about the position, you should find that there are extra things you'd like to know. These could be about the employer's competitors, their plans for the future, or typical career paths at the organisation.

But make sure that answers to these questions aren't easily available on the employer's website or in graduate recruitment materials, and that they haven't been given already during the interview.

Finally, you could ask your interviewers about day-to-day life at the employer or their own careers there. By doing so you'll access information you probably couldn't get anywhere else, show them that you're seriously thinking about what a job there would actually be like, and be engaging on a personal level with people deciding whether or not they'd like to have you as a colleague.

But remember that if you've researched the employer and the position well, and the job is one to which you're well suited and that you actually want, you should find good questions naturally bubbling up in your mind. If there's nothing you want to know after doing your research or at the end of an interview, then the question you might want to ask is whether the job is really the one for you.

"What's the best way to answer "Why do you want to work here?" - it's always going to come up and I want to make sure I get it right."

Camilla, University of Surrey

You're right, Camilla - "why do you want to work here?" is a question that will be asked in every graduate recruitment interview in some form.

That's because graduate recruiters want to know that you have a good understanding of what the job involves and that you're excited about doing it - especially at a graduate level, enthusiasm for a role can be as important as expertise to getting hired.

So you need to address these two areas in your answer. You can do so in any way that makes sense for you, but here's a suggested way of going about it, if you'd like a template to follow.

Start by concentrating what appeals to you about the particular industry the employer operates in. You could talk about what it is about the work done by people here that interests you, or how you think the industry is going to grow or become more influential in the future.

Then move on to why you want to work for the employer who's interviewing you in particular. Perhaps an area of work they specialise in is one you'd like to try, or perhaps there's something about their particular way of doing things or their culture that you like. This is a good place to mention anything you've read about the employer, any employees you've encountered, and any awards or other distinctions the business has won.

Finally, focus on you. Why does a role at this employer represent a great next step for you as an individual? Remember that your interviewers are interested in getting the best person for the job and less interested in making sure that you get to fulfil your career goals. But they are keen to make sure that the person they recruit is well-suited to their organisation and motivated to make the most of the job.