How to prepare for a job interview
Whether it's a part-time job at uni or a full-time job after graduating, our job interview checklist guide covers the questions you may face, what you should wear and more...
- Why is a job interview important?
- How do job interviews work?
- How do you prepare for a job interview?
- What should you wear for a job interview?
- What should you take to a job interview?
- What questions will you be asked in a job interview?
- What questions can you ask in a job interview?
- What happens next after a job interview?
- Final job interview tips and 'don't dos'
Why is a job interview important?A job interview is a key part of the job application process. An interview gives an employer the chance to put a face to a name after having read your CV and cover letter, and then dig further into the skills, experience and knowledge you’ve stated.
An interview also lets an employer see how you approach a question or problem when put on the spot – some interviews will call for candidates to complete a task on the day.
While you can write (and re-write) your CV or cover letter before submitting it, or prepare for an interview to some extent, you can’t guarantee exactly what questions you’ll be asked on the day. This allows an employer to compare you against similar candidates.
An interview can give an employer a feel for you as a person and decide if you would get on well in that team and working culture.
But an interview is also an opportunity for you as a candidate to judge whether that role is right for you. Here you can meet the people you’ll work alongside, visit their office and get a feel for the environment (including the commute), and ask any questions you have about the role.
What happens in a job interview? How do they work?An employer will formally invite you to an interview if they’re confident you have the required key skills and experience on paper, based on what you’ve stated in your CV and cover letter.
Some employers may schedule a phone or video-call interview before meeting you in person, to save time or spare you a long journey if you live far away (if you live abroad, for instance). This may also be the case if they’re not sure you’re right for the role and want to learn more about you, before going further.
An average interview will usually last between 40 minutes to an hour – they can be shorter or longer – and involve you answering various questions about what you’ve stated in your CV or cover letter (so it’s definitely worth reminding yourself beforehand about what you wrote here). This may include talking through examples where you’ve demonstrated the skills or experience required for the role or faced a particular situation (these are known as ‘behavioural interview questions’).
You may also be asked how you would respond to various hypothetical scenarios that you're likely to encounter in the role. These are known as ‘situational interview questions’.
Expect further questions depending on how you answer.
An interview may be ‘task-based’ meaning you’ll be asked to prepare and deliver a presentation or complete a task on the day – you should be told about this beforehand. Here are some examples of interview tasks for different types of jobs:
- Data analyst: analyse a series of data (eg website analytics, demographic breakdown) and explain what observations you can make
- Press relations or communications manager: write an engaging press release for a fictional event or announcement
- Retail assistant (customer-facing): role play with the interviewer playing a customer with a specific problem, to see how you interact with them
- Graphic designer: present and talk through a portfolio of your previous work
You may be called in for multiple interviews for a single role. This will depend on several factors, such as the role itself (such as how senior it is), competition, urgency to fill it, your experience and that employer’s approach to recruitment.
Here are some rough examples of the interview processes you may go through for different roles:
- Weekend/part-time job in a small café: one interview with a manager only
- Weekend/part-time job in a supermarket (major chain): group interview involving exercises and role-playing tasks, followed by an interview with one or two individuals (including a store manager)
- Graduate or full-time office role: interview with mid-level manager (whom you’d report to directly) and human resources representative, followed by a second or third interview with the same mid-level manager, plus a managing director, involving a task (eg presentation)
An interview will likely be organised and coordinated by a human resources or recruitment representative at that organisation. They’ll arrange when/where/who/for how long you’ll be meeting, plus anything extra (eg documents to bring, any tasks to complete).
If anything comes up or you have a question, they should be your point of contact. Don’t forget to check your spam/junk folder in case they get in touch and the email slips through the net of your main inbox, and also check your voicemail.
How do you prepare for a job interview?
- Read carefully all information given to you in advance. Make sure you understand what it means and what you have to do – it’s a simple way to show you take instructions well.
- Practise how you might answer these popular interview questions – below we have some tips to help you.
- Research the company/organisation. Make sure you have a solid grasp of what they do, any key developments or news about them (or the sector they’re in), and perhaps a little about their history or background. In fact, this can help you when asked about why you want to work there specifically.
What should you wear to a job interview?Regardless of what the job is, dress smart and sensibly.
Don’t go for anything distracting (eg wild colours or patterns). Stick to formal colours (eg black, navy, grey). Wear something that you’ll feel comfortable in (but no jeans or trainers) – it can help you relax.
The following guide might help, particularly for more corporate environments (whereas other workplaces might be more informal eg creative fields):
- Men: suit jacket or blazer, shirt, tie, trousers. Part-time roles might get away with a smart jumper over a shirt and tie.
- Women: button-down shirt or blouse with a long skirt or trousers, or a formal dress.
Extra tips checklist:
- See how employees dress normally: look on their website or social media profiles for pictures or videos to get an idea of what an average day in the office looks like, and how formal/informal things are.
- Show you’re mindful of details: iron your clothes, polish your shoes, get a haircut, shave etc.
- Take an appropriate bag: a smart satchel bag is a safe bet.
- Don’t wear a piece of clothing for the first time: an ill-fitting suit jacket or squeaky shoes may throw you off.
- Check the weather: pack an umbrella and suitable jacket if necessary.
What should you take to a job interview?
- copies of your CV and cover letter (or enough for however many people you’ll be meeting)
- correspondences (printed out) including contact details, location and map where you’re going (in case your phone dies)
- phone or portable charger
- breath mints
- small bottle of water
- good luck charms?
What questions will you be asked in a job interview?As well as expanding on what you stated in your CV/cover letter, you may face the following popular interview questions:
- ‘Why do you want to work at this company in particular?’
- ‘What do you think you can bring to the role?’
- ‘What do you know about the field/sector/company?’
- ‘Can you give an example where you’ve done x?’
This last question is a behavioural interview question, and we’d recommend using the S-T-A-R approach to break down and structure your answer, to ensure you’ve covered all bases:
- Situation: what was the event or problem you faced?
- Task: what were you asked to do to address this situation?
- Action: what steps did you take to address this situation?
- Result: what impact did your actions have on the situation?
Talk about a time where you had to go above and beyond your normal responsibilities.
Situation: ‘In my role as a shop supervisor, we experienced a small flood during our busiest period one year. Closing the shop for the day wasn’t an option as the loss of revenue would have had a significant financial impact on the business.’
Task: ‘Once we received word that it was safe for us to open the shop, we needed to clear up so it was in a satisfactory condition for business. We also had to communicate to our customers that we would still open and to bare with us if they came in.’
Action: ‘I called the rest of the team and explained the situation. While I was tactful about the potential financial impact on the business (so as not to raise unwanted concerns), I did communicate the importance of this period for us and that this was an extraordinary set of circumstances. Fortunately, I had cultivated a positive working relationship with the team up to that point and managed to persuade them to come in to help get the shop ready.’
Result: ‘Those scheduled to work came in early to help get the shop ready, including a few members of staff who weren’t meant to be working. I quickly allocated roles as staff arrived and we were able to open as scheduled, with revenue unaffected.
We kept customers informed of the circumstances via our social media channels. This extra effort to do so earned us some empathy, with one customer even showing up with snacks and beverages for the team.’
You may also be asked a few softer, personality-led questions (especially if a human resources representative is present for your interview). These are less about testing your skills and knowledge for the role, and more about how you think and might fit into that environment:
- ‘If you were an animal what would you be?’
- ‘What annoys you about a job?’
- ‘What’s your biggest weakness?’
- ‘Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.’
Finally, it could be worth practising how you talk about your general experience in a punchy and attention-grabbing way, to hit the ground running in your interview.
What questions can you ask in a job interview?Make sure you go armed with a couple of questions of your own. This shows you’re genuinely interested in the role and are keen to learn more. Plus, it can take some pressure off you for a moment, by reversing the roles and giving you time to listen.
Have more than one in case it’s answered before you get to ask it. Obviously, if it’s already been covered, don’t ask it again…
Here are some possible questions to ask (but try to tailor them to the role or company so they don’t sound too broad):
- ‘What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing as an organisation?’
- ‘If I’m successful, what project/s would I start working on?’
- ‘What training or development opportunities do you offer?’
- ‘What paths have previous individuals in this role taken?’
- ‘Who will I work with day to day?’
- ‘What do you like best about your job/the organisation?’
What happens next after a job interview?This will depend on where an employer is in their search (eg how many candidates they plan to see, urgency to fill the role etc). Find out as much as you can about this, especially if you have other applications ongoing. Ask if there are any further stages you might need to go through after this one (eg medicals, background checks). They'll want to know how long your notice period is if you’re currently working (so find this out).
Depending on your own circumstances, decide whether it’s worth continuing to apply to other roles in the meantime. Searching for and applying to jobs takes time (tailoring your CV, writing cover letters etc), so it might make sense to hold off on this. If you’ve spent ages preparing for an interview, a day off might be a relief before hitting the applications again.
If you’re successful, you’ll be made a formal offer including salary, title of role and when they’ll need an answer by if you would like to accept. Note that there may be some conditions to the offer (eg passing background checks or medical tests, or subject to your references checking out).
If you’re happy and want to accept, it’s best to wait until you receive and sign your new contract before giving your notice at your current job (provided you don’t want to give your current employer the opportunity to better their offer and keep you).
If you don’t want to accept the role, let them know, politely explaining why not – don’t just disappear without a word! If you’re lucky and they really like you, they might be able to make arrangements to persuade you otherwise: a higher salary, flexible working hours, or a delayed start date, for example.
Your new company will likely get in touch with your references to check that everything you’ve stated in your CV is correct – so hopefully you’ve not lied or embellished the truth here. They can only ask your references certain things about you, namely your performance and the role you had.
Once you’ve signed your contract and handed in your notice, all that’s left to do is work your final weeks, complete any handover and try not to well up during your leaving speech!
Final job interview tips: checklist
- Check your journey a few days before your interview, the night before and right before you leave to work out the best route or see any delays – this will also give you an idea of whether the commute is viable.
- Make sure you’re going to the right location, especially if the company has multiple offices.
- Make eye contact, smile and take your time answering a question. If you get stuck, take a deep breath and ask the interviewer to repeat or clarify the question.
- Manage your online presence. This could be updating your LinkedIn (or even setting one up) or making sure your Facebook, Twitter etc don’t contain anything you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see. Either delete tweets, remove tags from photos or set everything to private.