Undercover applicant: telephone interviews

The Gateway gets a real-life account from a student who's survived them

We spoke to a student who's recently had a couple of telephone interviews for marketing positions at consumer goods companies. Here's what they had to say about the experience.


I'd done some telephone interviews in the past, so I knew what to expect but I was still quite nervous before the first one. Both companies said that my telephone interview would be a competency interview, so I knew I'd have to draw on my experiences. To prepare, I Googled "competency questions" and worked through a list of the ones that came up most. I also spent a lot of time on the companies' websites, so if they asked me about their graduate schemes I'd know what they involve. I also found out about their main competitors, recent deals they'd done, and recent marketing campaigns. I knew these things might not come up in a competency interview, but I think they're still handy to know, just in case.

I also went to some related careers events at my university. One was a marketing workshop run by one of the companies I'd applied to, which I felt was a lot more useful than just reading about the company's marketing strategy on their website because I got to talk to people who'd actually worked on their strategy.

I also went to a practice interview with another company that I'd applied to, which was very helpful as well. I was told they have a formula that they want your answers to interview questions in: context, action, result. They then went through my CV with me and pointed out where I could change things into that format, which meant not saying "I did these tasks on my work experience programme," but more "I took the initiative to get this particular kind of experience, then saw that this needed changing so took further action, and the result was this." Thinking about your answers to interview questions in this way means you're more likely to be answering a question in the structure recruiters want. I think my interview went better because of that advice.

On the day

I did both of my telephone interviews in my room at university, but I made sure I locked my door so that there wasn't any chance of anyone bursting in, which they might have done if I'd left it open.

The first interview was really early in the morning and I'd just woken up ten minutes before it started. I hadn't had a shower or breakfast, and did it in my pyjamas - and it affected my performance. I think it's a good idea to get up at least half an hour before the interview starts and have some food and drink. Also, putting on smart clothes might be a good idea, as it would put you in the right frame of mind.

I'd definitely recommend finding somewhere where you're going to get reliable reception. I had no technical problems in either of my recent telephone interviews, but I had a couple of them when I was studying abroad last year and because my signal wasn't very good, they were extra difficult.

The assessment

In both of my interviews there was very little about the industry I'd applied to - the questions were pretty much all competency questions. Both interviews seemed to have a very rigid structure - the interviewers obviously had a list of lots of questions to get through.

To give some examples, I was asked to talk about a time when I'd improved customer service, a time when I'd had to make a decision quickly and persuade others, and a time when I'd been part of a team that had used different skills to achieve a goal.

In both of the interviews they also asked me about times when I'd failed to complete a task, achieve a goal, or meet a deadline. I'd had some advice on that kind of question at my interview advice event. I was told that interviewers don't really mind that you failed at something, but want you to show that you learnt from the experience and know what to do differently in the future so that the same thing doesn't happen again.

During the interviews, I had a sheet in front of me with all the information about the company that I might need to mention and all the competency questions that I thought I might be asked with two or three examples to use in my answer for each of them. It was helpful to have that because I felt more in control, but I think it's good not to have too much information. For the competency questions, for example, I just had bullet points giving the gist of what I wanted to say. If you have full sentences, I think you could panic, forget where the information is on the page, or sound really robotic. But short bullet points calm you down and help you feel that you're in control.

One of the difficult things about telephone interviews is that it's hard to gauge the interviewer's reaction to what you're saying. On the phone, you really can't tell what they're thinking. For example, in one of my interviews, my interviewer just said "Okay" after everything I said, and I had no idea if that was a positive sign, or if it meant I was doing terribly.

The outcome

Both of my applications are still ongoing, and in one of my telephone interviews they told me straight away at the end that I'm through to the next stage!