Types of Questions

The majority of interviews involve “competency” questions, but interviewers may ask other types depending on the position.

Competency

These questions are structured to reflect the competencies sought by an employer for a particular job rather than your life story, and are likely to be more detailed and persistent than those asked in a strictly chronological interview. The competencies sought by big employers are well described, and should be self-evident from any perusal of their recruitment literature or website. Smaller organisations may send you a job description and an ‘ideal person specification’, which will list quite clearly the competencies required for the job in question – the skills, experience, knowledge and other attributes that the organisation is looking for in its ideal candidate.

Interviewer meeting intervieweeWhile no interview can ever be entirely objective, the competency-based interview is structured so that each candidate is questioned about his or her ability to do the job in question. It can be helpful to imagine the whole process as a series of levels, each question being slightly more probing than the last.

The organisation may, for example, be looking for someone with organisational skills, and may choose to ask you a series of questions designed to steadily probe not only your own experience in this area, but your understanding of the skills involved. The questions may follow a pattern such as:

 

  • Would you describe yourself as an organised person?
  • How have you demonstrated organisational skills?
  • What did you do?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • What makes a good organiser?
  • Why are organisation skills important?
  • Surely … (challenge) …?

When you are preparing for interviews it is important to anticipate such lines of questioning and to think about what you have done in the relevant context. A range of examples from across your experience can help to provide evidence of your competencies. You might find the S.T.A.R. acronym useful – Situation, Task, Action and Result – when structuring your answers. When you use the S.T.A.R. structure, make sure at least 50% of your answer focuses on the actions you took, demonstrating your skills

Although the interviewers will be asking most of the questions, the interview is your opportunity to ensure that you convey your suitability for the job. If you have prepared well, you will already know what messages you want to convey, and it is up to you to make the most of every question put to you. A question commenting on your choice of university, for example, provides you with an ideal opportunity to highlight your ability to weigh up several options and to exercise your judgement, as well as to mention any other motivating factors that you feel reflect well on you – such as the opportunity to take part in a wide range of extra-curricular activities, or your desire to be stretched intellectually.

‘Difficult’ questions

Questions often perceived as being particularly difficult include those that appear to take a ‘negative’ tone, for example:

  • What is your biggest weakness?
  • What would you say has been your greatest failure?

and those which ask you to think about yourself in a different way. These might include:

  • How would your friends describe you?
  • If you were an animal/biscuit, what would you be?

The rules for answering these, and other, questions are the same as for answering any question. They are asked to see how you will react and to probe your self-awareness.

  1. Relax
  2. Be honest
  3. Emphasise the positive and what you have learnt from something that may not have gone according to plan

You might, for example, in answer to “What is your biggest weakness?”, reply 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 – but have learned to appreciate the different insights that they can bring to a project. This answer outlines a ‘weakness’, but turns the question around, so that you are able to stress both your strengths and your ability to learn from a situation. In some instances it can be helpful to give an actual example.

Business WomenThe strategy can also be used with questions in the second category, that ask you to think about yourself in a different way. These questions focus very much on your relationships with other people – particularly those close to you. Your answer could, therefore, easily cover your loyalty, your understanding or your readiness to help. Sometimes it can be difficult to say, “My friends think I’m loyal…”, without sounding rather presumptuous, and you may find it easier to preface these glowing attributes with, “I think that my friends would say…”, or, “I hope that my friends would say…”. 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 custard cream, for example, holds up well under pressure, is liked by everyone, and has a fine attention to detail.

If this is an area that you are concerned about, you may like to look at some of the books available for reference at the Careers Service – you might find Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Martin John Yate) particularly helpful.

  • Why will you leave this job?
  • Do you think equal opportunities are important?
  • What criticisms of this organisation would you make?
  • At what point would you compromise your principles in this job?

These and similar questions can all be answered well. Think about the answers you might give – what is the question seeking to reveal and why is your answer important to the interviewer?

Chronological

As the name suggests, these interviews will take you chronologically through your experiences to date, and are likely to use your CV or completed application form as a basis.

You will be expected to be able to talk about anything that you have mentioned in your application, and perhaps to explain why you have made certain decisions, or what achievement has given you the greatest satisfaction. In forming your answers, think about the key skills and requirements of the role you are applying for, so that you describe your experiences in a way that is the most relevant possible.

 

Technical

If you have applied for a job or a course which requires specific technical knowledge (e.g. in engineering or IT), it is likely that at some stage in the selection process you will be asked some technical questions, or have a separate technical interview. Questions may focus on what you are doing in your final-year project and why you are approaching it as you are, or on real or hypothetical technical situations. Be prepared to illustrate your knowledge to the full, but, equally, to admit to what you don’t know.

Academic Job Interviews

For academic job interviews, large panels are common, with up to ten or sometimes more interviewers. Interviewers may be academics from your discipline but also from other departments, and from Human Resources. Try to find out who will be interviewing you so that you can research their interests. You may also have a number of ‘informal’ one-to-one interviews before or after your main panel interview from a number of academics. Treat these as part of the interview process but also see it as a chance to learn more about the department and job.To prepare for the interview, review the criteria and think about your evidence of how you meet each criteria. Try to talk to others who have experienced academic interviews and arrange to practice with your supervisor, a colleague or a careers adviser.

Some general questions to prepare for:

  • What attracts you to this position?
  • What are the key achievements of your most recent research project?
  • How does your research fit with the departments research objectives?
  • What opportunities for multi-disciplinary work does your research offer?
  • Does your research have any potential to serve the wider community and how do you propose to measure impact?
  • What are your plans for future research and how do you propose to fund it?
  • What research support do you expect from the institution?
  • What do you think makes a good supervisor?
  • How does your teaching experience fit you for this post?
  • What courses can you teach and develop?
  • How can you contribute to administration in the department?

If you have been invited to interview for a lectureship you will likely be asked to give a short presentation on your research, or a mock lecture for students. Here are some general tips for preparing:

  • Keep to the brief you are given and ask if you are unsure – e.g., timing, audience, topics
  • Anticipate your audience – try to find out as much as possible who will be present and their interests
  • Practice with colleagues and invite questions/constructive criticism
  • Have a clear structure and make sure you have enough detail
  • Engage the audience with regular eye contact
  • Use audio-visual equipment if appropriate and be sure to test any movie files etc beforehand
  • Consider taking prepared handouts for the audience
  • Invite questions
  • Thank your audience

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