Interviews

Interviews

Being invited to interview is a good sign as it means the recruiter is serious about your application and is looking to build upon an already positive picture. Interviews are used to indicate whether you will fit in with colleagues, present a confident and professional image with clients or customers and cope with the pressures of the job.

Interviews are also your opportunity to find out more about what the role involves and what the organisation is like so that you have enough information to decide whether to accept the offer of a job or place on a course. 

Our top tips for success

To summarise here are our top tips -

  • A typical first interview can last from 30 minutes to an hour, but there are different types of interviews with different formats
  • If you’ve got an interview and don’t know what style it will take, it is a good idea to ask the organisation in advance
  • Preparation is essential. Research the job and the employer thoroughly, and think about how your experience and abilities match the requirements. You should then feel confident to make the most of the opportunity
  • Keep a copy of your application. The interviewer may use it to plan their questions
  • Be ready to elaborate or give further examples of skills and qualities outlined in your application. Interviewers are very keen on evidence
  • Be clear about your strengths and be prepared to deal with any weaknesses; most can be presented positively
  • Plan to arrive with some time to spare so you can gather your thoughts. Double check all the details to make certain you attend at the right time and place
  • Try out your interview clothes. Sober and conservative is a safe bet for most jobs. Check you feel comfortable and confident in them. You want as few distractions as possible on the day
  • There may be other assessment exercises in addition to the interview, such as a presentation or group discussion. See our page on Assessment centres for more information.

Types of interviews

Face-to-face interviews

This may be one-to-one between you and the interviewer, or there may be two interviewers, such as a specialist in the job and a member of Human Resources. Some interviews may have a very formal style, while others feel more like an informal conversation about you and your interests. Be aware you are still being assessed, however informal the interview may seem. 

Panel interviews

These involve several interviewers sitting as a panel, with a chairperson to coordinate the questions. This type is popular in the public sector.

Telephone and video interviews

Phone or Skype interviews are increasingly used by companies, often early in the selection process. Prepare for them as thoroughly as a face-to-face interview. See ‘Tips for Video Interviews’ later in this section and our Information Sheet 'Telephone Interviews'.

Group interviews

At group interviews, several candidates are present and are asked questions in turn or take part in a group discussion. You may be invited to put questions to the other candidates.

Sequential interviews / multiple mini-interviews

These comprise two or more interviews in turn, sometimes referred to as ‘stations’ with a different interviewer each time. Usually, each interviewer asks questions to test different sets of competencies, motivations or understanding. However, you may find the questions cover the same subjects. If this does happen, make sure you answer each one as fully as the time before.

Portfolio-based interviews

If the role is in the design, media or communications industries, you may be asked to bring a portfolio of your work and have an in-depth discussion about the pieces you have chosen to include. For advice about discussing design work and projects, see 'Technical interviews' below.

Academic interviews

Used for further study or research positions, the questions focus on your academic history to date, your interest in the subject, and your long term goals.

Technical interviews

Jobs or courses that require relevant knowledge and skills may include 'technical' questions or perhaps have a separate technical interview. These questions may focus on:

  • Your knowledge of the company’s products/services, or industry-standard processes or software. Research what the company does and how it operates, and revise the relevant parts of your course.
  • Design work and projects you have done. This should be easy to deal with if you can talk through your ideas and the approach you took. Familiarise yourself with your projects and practise summarising them concisely. Use STAR to structure your comments:
  • Situation: Explain the context of the project. Task: What was your objective/purpose? Why did you choose this project? Action: What did you do, why and how? Result: What was the outcome? Were the objectives met? What did you learn/gain?
  • Solving a hypothetical technical problem.Take time to think through the problem and describe your thought process. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek clarification. Your approach to the problem and your analytical thinking are being assessed and sometimes getting the “right” answer is less important than demonstrating your creativity, logical approach and enthusiasm for the challenge.
  • Subjects you have enjoyed on your course. The interviewer will be looking at how keen you are and depth of understanding. You can prepare by re-familiarising yourself with topics you’ve studied and talking about them enthusiastically.

Case studies

Case interviews focus on your business knowledge and are particularly used in management consulting. They present you with a typical challenging business problem for which there is unlikely to be one single right answer. Case interviews are designed to test your conceptual and analytical thinking, as well as your commercial awareness.

Employers are looking for you to engage in a two-way discussion about the case, working through the problem and discussing your ideas. They will primarily be assessing how you go about dealing with it, rather than your specific answers, so aim to present your thoughts in an organised way by:

  • describing the issues linked to the problem
  • explaining some possible solutions
  • analysing the options, possibly with a view to recommending a course of action.

Some major management consultancies provide advice on how to prepare for case interviews, and there is an example case study in our Graduates First package (see our section on ‘Assessment centres’).

Types of questions

Of course, you cannot predict the exact wording of the questions you will be asked at an interview, but you can expect certain topics to come up including:

Your education

Your subject knowledge and the reasons for the choices you have made, such as your choice of university, your degree subject and modules, and what you feel about your studies.

Your work and other experience

The work experience you have: what you have done, your achievements and the skills you have developed. Your other experiences outside of study, including leisure activities, student societies, and positions of responsibility may be discussed, to get a more rounded picture of you.

Your reasons for wanting the job or course

Your knowledge of the job or course to check your motivation and whether your understanding of what it involves is realistic. Questions could include: 'Why do you want the job?' and  'Why do you want to work for us?'

Research details about the course or the employer, and check the latest information about them on news sites and their social media. You can also use social media to research profiles of the organisation (read our section of the website). You are not expected to be an expert on the employer’s business, but are expected to know something about what they do and how they do it.

Competency / criteria-based questions

These questions are based on the competencies or qualities that an employer is seeking for a particular job, usually detailed in the job specification or advert.

The interviewer looks for evidence of your relevant skills and so may ask you to describe examples of when you have, for instance, worked in teams, motivated others, or dealt with a difficult situation.

Use ‘STAR’ to help you structure your answers

  • Situation– Provide some brief details about the situation so that the reader can understand the context of the example
  • Task – Explain the objective/purpose, i.e. what you were aiming to do
  • Action – Describe what you did. Summarise your actions in 4 or 5 individual steps, if possible
  • Result – Finish with the outcome. Show that you met your objectives and, if appropriate, comment on what you learnt from the experience

  Use our short course to look at how you can demonstrate your skills in competency based and motivational questions (University of Sheffield students only)

These questions aim to find out what types of tasks you are particularly good at, and what you enjoy doing, looking for evidence of your motivation and energy. Rather than asking for examples, they focus on your typical approach to work, the activities you enjoy and do well, to assess if you match the strengths that are necessary in the role.

Hypothetical questions

Questions like ‘How would you organise …?’, put you in a problem-solving situation, giving you the chance to show how well and how quickly you:

  • Identify the situation
  • Analyse it
  • Generate possible solutions
  • Make a decision
  • Plan your action.

If you need time to think about it, then ask, but use the ‘Identify, Analyse, Generate, Decide and Plan’ structure to discuss your solution. The way you tackle the problem is usually more important than the answer.

Dealing with ‘problem areas’

Some questions may focus on your ‘weaker areas’, A-level or module re-sits for example. Your reaction to the difficulty is more important than the difficulty itself. Do you know what went wrong? What did you do about it? What did you learn? Most ‘failures’ can be turned around to reflect well on you.

Do not try to rehearse your answers word-for-word. Instead think of your key information and experiences and use the questions as opportunities to describe these.


Interviews - on the day

First impressions are very important - This applies to everyone you meet, from reception staff to interviewers.

A good impression helps the interview start on a positive note, as it shows you are open, friendly and can cope with a challenging situation. Look at the interviewer, give a firm handshake and smile. Try to relax - your nerves will subside as the interview gets under way. Skilled interviewers will help you relax as that helps them to get clearer information.

Be aware of your body language. We all interpret positive and negative messages that a person’s body language gives out.

  • Sit up straight, with your shoulders back, so you look confident.
  • Keep hand gestures under control.
  • Respond with nods, a smile, appropriate eye contact, etc.
  • Try not to speak too quickly; slow down a little.
  • Speak clearly.

You will be keen to answer questions promptly but try to avoid interrupting your interviewer. It’s fine if you need to take a moment to think before answering.

Respond to encouragement from your interviewer and any signals that indicate if more or less information is needed. In some interviews though, each candidate is asked exactly the same questions and the person conducting the interview may simply move on to the next question without reacting to what you have said. Don't be put off by this. They are simply ensuring all candidates get the same chance.

Interviews for PG study and research

Interviews for PG study or research will vary tremendously depending on the institution concerned as well as the type of course and academic discipline. For example, if you are applying for a programme with a high research content, it is likely that you will be asked about previous academic projects and other research experience you may have.

You’ll also be expected to talk about your research interests, showing that you have read relevant papers, particularly those by your potential supervisor. For more vocational courses, you are likely to be asked to explain your relevant work experience and skills you have developed, plus your career interests.

More obvious questions you may be asked include why you want to undertake the programme and why you have chosen that institution. You will need to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm when you answer these. It is also your chance to find out as much as you can about the opportunity, so prepare a few questions about the course, facilities, academics and anything else where you’ve not been able to find the information on their website or course information.

Mock interviews and tips

The Careers Service's Interview Simulator helps you prepare by practising interview questions, using advice from recruiters.

You must be a student at the University of Sheffield and use your University email address when you register. If you are a graduate, please email us at: careers@sheffield.ac.uk and provide us with your name, department and registration number. Access to our services is available for up to 3 years after graduation.

Video interviews

Increasingly, employers request a video interview as part of the recruitment process. Our short video provides tips to ensure success. 

How to handle job offers

After an initial verbal or email offer, you will usually get a formal written offer with details such as:

  • salary and hours of work
  • period of notice required for either party to end the contract
  • date you will start work
  • holiday entitlement and other benefits, e.g. pension scheme and bonuses
  • any required ‘probationary period’ before the job is ‘permanent’

The offer may be ‘conditional’, e.g. subject to satisfactory references, medical checks, a specified degree class, or security checks.

The offer forms one half of your contract of employment. If there is anything you do not understand or think has been omitted, you need to ask the employer. If you are unsure about any aspect, discuss it with a careers adviser before contacting them.

You probably have a good idea about whether you want the job but do think carefully about your needs and options. Accepting an offer of employment in writing constitutes your half of the employment contract. When the job is confirmed and no longer conditional, you should withdraw from all other job offers, interviews, and remaining applications.

Job offers can cause problems if you have other applications pending, but do not accept one with the intention of hoping to turn it down in favour of another employer. Verbal and written acceptances are legally and morally binding. The best advice is to thank the employer, explain you are definitely interested and ask for some time to consider it, giving them a date by which you expect to respond. If you are uncertain what to do, discuss it with a careers adviser.

If you decide to decline an offer, let the employer know as soon as possible so they can offer the job to someone else. Thank them and outline your reasons if appropriate. Be professional and considerate as you may come into contact with this employer again in the future.

What to do if you're not successful

Ask for help. If you are getting to interview or assessment centre then your applications are fine, so something could be going wrong during selection. Think about how well you prepared, what happened, how you responded to questions, and whether you think you showed real enthusiasm.
Ask the employer for feedback. Not all employers will discuss their decision but they may give you advice. Discuss things with a careers adviser to help identify any problems.

Remember, there may not be much wrong with what you did. You may have only just missed out, so keep trying; you will become even more skilled and confident with practice.


Have you been for an interview recently?

If you've recently had an interview or attended an assessment centre, why not tell us a bit about your experience? Your feedback can help us better understand employers' recruitment processes so that we can provide relevant advice and information.