Brushing up on your interview technique

Interviews. Love or hate them, they're play an important role in the selection process - yours and your perspective employer. So how can you best prepare for an interview, and make sure you come out of the experience on top?

Prepare Practically!

Plan your journey

It sounds obvious to say it, but make sure you know where the interview is going to be, especially if the organisation is based in several locations. Do some forward planning; work out how you’ll get there and how much time to allow for the journey, taking the time of day into account. Aim to arrive with enough time to catch your breath, freshen up, have a few minutes’ quiet thought, and get a “feel” for the place and the people you meet before your interview starts.

Dress the part

Make sure you have an appropriate outfit ready to interview in. Alison Leach, Manager of Joslin Rowe’s Office Support Division, recommends going for the corporate image with a dark suit and shoes, even if the company operates a dress down policy. If you’re attending an interview in the media industry, less formal attire may be more appropriate. Remember that people make up their minds about us in an instant, and your image will say a lot about the way you feel about yourself and your career.

Prepare Mentally!

Think Me Plc! And You Plc! How will they fit together?

Alison Leach says: “It’s important to remember that it’s a two way process, because you need to make a good impression, but you also need to get something back in return.” Think about the information you’re going to need to make the right decision about your next career move and how this opportunity ahead of you fits in with that. Will this be the job and the organisation for you? Will you fit right in? Will the role develop you in the way you want? Devise some questions to ask which will enable you to acquire the details you want to give you a thorough idea of what the day to day role might be like and where it might lead, what support you can expect for career development and why the position is available. This makes it easier to weigh up with role with your career and lifestyle aspirations.

Equally, the interview gives those people from the company who meet with you an important opportunity to assess how your professional and personal needs, and consider how well those will fit in with the role they have in mind. Questions such as “Tell me about your last role” gives the employer a chance to link your responsibilities between your most recent position and the job they have open. Outline the transferable skills you have and be prepared to give examples of them. Describe how your position fitted in the company and talk specifics, so that the picture is a very clear one.

Do your homework. Research. And research.

Apart from dressing the part, what else can you do to make a good impression? Show you’re interested in the company and that you take your next move seriously! Be enthusiastic about the research you’ve done.

Sarah Thomas, Metro Manager at Office Team, emphasises that “preparation is the first step towards a successful interview. Know pertinent facts about the firm, such as annual sales revenue, affiliations and locations.”

“Have some questions written down and typed up,” Alison Leach of Joslin Rowe suggests. “If all the questions are covered during the course of the interview, then say so, but it shows you’re done some preparation and thought about the interview ahead. And visit the organisation’s web site to see if there is any up-to-date news or developments and take a copy of that to the interview with you.”

What might they ask me?

You can imagine the scene. You’ve just met your interviewers and offered them a good strong handshake with plenty of eye contact and a smile, so you’ve made a good start. You’ve settled into your chair and gone through the pleasantries about the journey, making sure your comments are positive. And now you’re waiting for your first serious question. And the interviewer says, “Well, tell me about yourself.” And your heart falls to the floor. “What are you supposed to say?”

“Tell me about yourself” is actually a good start, because it enables you to give the interviewer a BRIEF overview of those aspects of your background that qualify you for the role on offer. Look on it as a friend, an ally, an opportunity to sell yourself strongly and clearly. It’s a chance to make a good opening pitch, to catch the employer’s interest in the skills you have to offer, to give them a vital insight into the person you are and the role you want. If you know it’s coming, you can prepare for it. You’ll fluff it if you don’t. Remind yourself of your unique selling points (USPs) and how those will impact on your prospective employer. Equally, when they finish the interview with a question such as “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?” remind them of what you can offer.

“An employer will want to know if you will fit into the company and will the company suit you and your career ambitions,” Sarah Thomas explains. “So you can expect broader, more behavioural questions as the interviewer tries to decipher your main personality traits.”

Think about the role you’re applying for and consider questions employers might ask to ensure they recruit the best person for the job. “Employers will ask questions to test your competency in soft skills, “ Alison Leach advises, “such as: “Tell us about a situation where you’ve had to handle a problem” or “give us an example of when you had to be diplomatic with someone.” Think about your strengths and weaknesses, because you are likely to be asked about those.”

Skills you mention as strengths will include transferable skills, essential in any position. But they can also include those you’re seeking to develop or which could be useful to the company in other ways, such as event planning, recruiting or training. And of course you’ll have some weaknesses – we all do, we’re only human. Key to handling these is to show that you have strategies for dealing with them.

Understand the Interview Process and how it’s changed

The essentials of interviewing have remained the same. The employer wants to evaluate a candidate. The candidate wants to evaluate the role and employer. But the main thing which has changed is that people are very much more technically savvy than before. “Interpersonal skills, communication and previous accomplishments are weighed much more heavily,” says Sarah Thomas of Office Team. So it’s important to stress your accomplishments, but do it honestly, sincerely and in a factual way.”

In these days where the personality of the PA is vital in securing good relationships with the boss and team, you may need to go through two or three interviews and this is especially the case of you’re applying for a role in a large corporate.

The first interview is likely to be with someone from human resources, to make sure that you have the right skills for the job, the right image, a “getting to know you” meeting. Be alert to the atmosphere and culture when you walk in through the front door and look for clues in the way you’re greeted by everybody and whether you feel you’d be happy walking into the office every Monday morning.

Remind yourself what employers are trying to achieve in an interview; this is especially helpful if you are being asked for what is like your third or fourth time, and you’re beginning to wonder when they’ll make their minds up. They may want you to meet more members of the team, so that you can assess whether you’ll be a good ‘fit’ or not. If you’re going to be working that closely with the team, and personality makes a huge difference if you are, remember it’s worth investing the time and energy to make that fit is the right one for you and your future employer.

The second is where you’ll probably meet the people you are going to be working for, and at that stage, the emphasis will be more on the quality of the fit with the team and personality of the boss and yourself – will there be an instant working chemistry or not? Will you hit it off in a working capacity with the team who interview you?

Alison Leach advises: “By the third interview, you’ll be getting to know the organisation and the people within it a little better and you’re more likely to hit the surprise question, such as “How would your friends describe you?” Think about the role and the type of person it will demand: “I’m easy to get along with” will be important for a team player. “I’m very independent” will be useful if you’re to be working a lot on your own.”

What’s the best way to make an impact and secure a much-wanted job at an interview?

Sarah Thomas of Office Team says “Be confident, professional and sincere in your enthusiasm for the job and your ability to assume the role and do it well. If you’re interested in the position, ask for it, or ask for the next interview if the situation demands. And if you get the impression that the interview is not going well, and that you’ve already been rejected, remain enthusiastic. Once in a while, an interviewer who is genuinely interested in you may seem to discourage you in order to test your reaction.”

Handling the toughees

There will always be those questions you’re dreading, such as “Why should I hire you?” Sarah Thomas suggests that you focus on specific qualities which make you a good fit for this position. Talk about what you know about the job from the description and how you can make a significant contribution. Relate examples to back it up. But don’t say that you’re the best candidate for the position - you can’t know that because you don’t know who they are. For all you know, you could be the only candidate!

“What salary are you looking for?” is another question you might be asked. Generally speaking, it’s wisest not to enter into these sorts of discussions early on in the interview process. But if you’re pushed, again preparation will show through. If you’re job hunting, you should acquire a good overview of the range of salaries PAs at their various levels are commanding in the region and industry you want to work in. Once you have done your homework, look at how you measure up against your findings and come up with a figure you’re comfortable with.

Be prepared to move FAST!

Don’t be surprised if the interview process moves along faster than you expect it to. Many employers want to recruit fast, and they know that the best candidates will be snapped up. Check your mobile phone more often than usual when you’re job hunting and respond to calls from the agency, if you’re using one to find your next position, as quickly as you can.

Finally…a Last Thought to take with you.

“What,” I asked Alison Leach, “would you say to a candidate who was just on her way out of the door to her final interview for a much sought after position? What advice would you give her?”

“Be relaxed, and be yourself, and be calm,” Alison advises, “because if you aren’t, the company may choose you for the person you were at the interview and not yourself. And it’s important to remember that you’re still on an interview, even if you’re on your third meeting and things are going well, so don’t let your professional image slip in any way.”

Good Luck!

Further Reading: Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions by Martin John Yate

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