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Interview Technique | The Careers Service Interview Technique – Oxford University Careers Service
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Learn about the sector and organisation

Most employers will expect you to display some understanding of their business, its size, its products/services and the sector in which it operates. Ask yourself:

  • What do I know about this organisation?
  • What attracts me to this organisation?
  • Who are the organisation’s competitors?
  • How does this organisation relate to its competitors?
  • What have I done to find out more about this organisation?
  • What issues are affecting, or are likely to affect the sector?
  • Is the sector in a state of growth or decline?
  • How is the market changing or developing? How are the organisations in it responding?

An interview won’t be a general knowledge test, but you should have an understanding of what is going on in the world at large. It is a good idea to watch/listen to good news programmes or read a quality newspaper every day in the lead up to your interview, and to think, or talk with friends, about current news stories and issues of importance, in case they come up on the day of interview. You might also consider following on twitter some key news channels and organisations in the sector you are applying to work in.

Useful research tools

You can use the internet to search for information from newspapers and journals relevant to the sector to which you are applying. More specifically, the following resources may be useful:

  • LexisNexis – use this archive of worldwide newspapers and journals to search for recent news about the employer (available from ox.ac.uk domain machines).
  • Employers’ websites.
  • FT company reports – a free service offering company reports (either for download or by post) from several hundred companies. Most companies will also send out a copy of their Annual Report to enquirers.
  • Rocket News – a five-day international news archive, available free of charge. It is useful if you are away from Oxford and cannot use LexisNexis.
  • Google News – searches 4,000 news services.
Prepare points to make

Learning pre-formed answers by rote is not the most useful way to prepare for an interview. The responses are likely to sound false, and an unexpected question that does not fit your ‘script’ could leave you floundering. Instead, prepare a series of points in line with the job description / person specification, stressing those aspects of your experience, qualifications and skills that match the requirements most closely. As well as being prepared to explain how you fulfil these requirements, to demonstrate your motivation you must also be able to explain why you want this job with this organisation.

It is important to remind yourself of the messages you have already conveyed to the recruiters in your CV/application form, and to be prepared to discuss anything you have told them. Read through your application, and imagine you are the interviewer. What questions would you ask in their shoes? Make sure that you can give at least one example (and preferably more) for each of the competencies (skills, experiences, knowledge and other attributes) that the employer is looking for, and that you can talk about those experiences in a positive way. Ask yourself:

  • Why do I want the job?
  • What skills have I gained from my academic/employment/extra-curricular activities that are relevant for this role?
  • What are my ambitions?
  • What prompted me to make particular decisions/undertake certain courses of action?
  • What was my best/worst decision?
  • How have I learnt from these experiences?
  • What did I learn about myself when I … ?
  • What would I identify as my main strengths/weaknesses?
Prepare questions to ask

It is always a good move to prepare two or three questions that you would really like the interviewers to answer, as this will demonstrate confidence and a genuine interest in the job for which you have applied. Be careful, however, to avoid asking questions which have already been answered in the graduate brochure or other literature sent out with the invitation to interview, also avoid asking about holidays or other benefits, as these are generally inappropriate at this stage of the recruitment process. You might want to ask:

  • How will I be assessed/my performance appraised?
  • What factors distinguish successful employees from less successful ones?
  • I see (for example) that you are expanding into Europe – what would be the chances of my working there at some point?
  • I read that you might be merging with X – how, in your view, would that affect the current workings of the organisation?
  • Do you have any particular concerns about my application at this stage in the selection process?
  • What is the typical career progression for someone in this position?
  • Is there anything else I can provide to help you make your decision?

 

If your questions have been asked in the course of the interview, say exactly that. If you are not invited to ask questions, or feel that there are key points you have not been given the chance to make, you can ask at the end of the interview whether now would be an appropriate time to raise this.

How to deliver answers

Top tips

  • Be yourself: if you adopt a new persona for the interview, the result is likely to be insincere and transparent.
  • Honesty is the best policy – and if it is discovered later that you have been dishonest, you are very likely to be dismissed. Admitting, for example, to a period of poor motivation during your A-Levels shows more integrity than blaming someone else for poor grades, so don’t feel that you should ‘cover up’ these incidents – present them positively as learning experiences.
  • Be prepared to talk: avoid “yes/no” answers and expand as often as possible, but don’t over-communicate. Take your cue from the interviewer. Ask, ‘should I continue?’ or ‘does that answer your question?’ if you unsure if you have said enough.
  • Pace yourself and try not to talk too quickly.
  • Think about the structure of your answers: you might summarise at the end rather than trailing off. Use the S.T.A.R technique and emphasise your actions if describing a situation.
  • Ask for clarification if you need it or request a moment’s thinking time, before tackling a particularly difficult question. You might also take a sip of water to create a natural pause. This is better than saying the first thing that comes into your head.
  • Be balanced in your answers, and try not to sound too obsessive about any one aspect of your life.
  • No-one is allowed, by law, to ask you about your marital status, ethnic background, disability, sexual orientation or religious affiliation, unless it is a bona fide occupational qualification, so be aware that you can politely decline to answer such questions, by saying for example, “I don’t see what relevance my sexual orientation has to the job for which I have applied, and I must ask that you withdraw the question” or “I really don’t see my marital status as having any affect on my ability to do this job, or my commitment to the organisation should I be appointed”.

Answering difficult questions

Questions often perceived as particularly difficult include those which appear to be an invitation to shoot yourself in the foot or those which ask you to think about yourself in a different way, such as: what is your biggest weakness? What would you say has been your greatest failure? How would your friends describe you? If you were an animal/biscuit, what would you be? When answering these questions relax, be honest, and emphasise the positive.

Remember – no employer expects you to be completely perfect and self-awareness is preferable to blind arrogance! You might, for example, in answer to the question, “what is your biggest weakness?” say that, although you think well independently, you wouldn’t be entirely happy in an environment where there was no teamwork (but would develop coping strategies!).

Or, say that you have a tendency to be nervous when presenting in front of large audiences and so in an effort to overcome this you have joined the debating society and now have strategies which help you communicate clearly to an audience when nervous.

Alternatively, you might say that your strengths lie in your ability to think problems through clearly, and that you can sometimes be frustrated with people who don’t work logically, though you have learnt to appreciate the different insights that they can bring to a project. These answers outline the weakness in each case, but turn the question around, so that you are able to stress both your strengths and your ability to learn from your mistakes.

If asked to compare yourself to an animal or biscuit (or colour, or piece of furniture), think about the personal qualities that you want to emphasise, and explain your choice. A plain chocolate digestive might suggest a professionalism that a strawberry wafer possibly does not.

After the interview

Ending the interview

End on a positive note. Thank the interviewer for his/her time, and reiterate your enthusiasm for the job for which you have applied. If the employer has not already made the next step clear, in terms of when they expect to let you know the outcome, go ahead and ask them.

Review the day

When you get home ensure you record all the questions you remember being asked at the interview. It would be helpful to keep an ‘interview notebook’ where you can jot down your experience and how you might answer them differently with a little more time to prepare. It would also be extremely useful for other students in a similar position to you, if you were able to fill in an interview feedback form on the Careers Service website.

Rejected after first interview?

If you have been invited to interview and subsequently rejected, you can safely assume that on paper employers consider you capable of doing the job for which you have applied, but that at interview their opinion has changed in some way. Consider whether you have substantiated the messages you have given in your application, and whether you are presenting a professional, confident image at interview. Replay to yourself some of the answers you gave – particularly the ones you found more difficult – while they are still fresh in your mind. It is always worth asking an organisation for feedback after an interview; at worst they will say no, and at best you will receive a detailed critique of your performance. If it isn’t obvious how you can improve your performance in future interviews, talk with a Careers Adviser.

Our resources

The Careers Service has an extensive resource centre at 56 Banbury Road, Oxford, where you can drop in to browse during opening hours (visit our website for details).

DVDs

  • DVD – Making an Impact: The Graduate Job Interview

Books

  • 101 great answers to the toughest interview questions, Ron Fry
  • Great answers to tough interview questions, Martin John Yate
  • Knockout interview answers, Ken Langdon and Nikki Cartwright
  • The interview book: your definitive guide to the perfect interview, James Innes
  • The essential phone interview handbook, Paul J Bailo
  • Brilliant interview: what employers want to hear and how to say it, Ros Jay
  • The interview expert: how to get a job you want, John Lees
  • Job Interview Success – Be Your Own Coach, Jenny Rogers
  • Steps to Success – Get That Job: Interviews
  • Teach Yourself Successful Interviews, Mo Shapiro, Alison Straw
  • Teach Yourself Tackling Interview Questions, Mo Shapiro, Alison Straw

Online resources

Interview Feedback Database

Video for interview practice

To see how you perform when faced with unknown competency question at interview, record yourself on a webcam, and use the video below as a prompt. There are three questions for you to answer.

Example interview questions

The Careers Service has prepared a list of possible interview questions to help you in your preparation. You might want to try recording yourself answering some of these questions (using your phone or webcam). If you don’t have a way to record yourself, you could practice in front of a mirror, or ask a friend or relative to interview you using these questions.

External resources
This information was last updated on 16 August 2017.
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