The graduate's guide to job interviews

An overview of the job interview process; tips on how to prepare, what to expect and how to show yourself at your best.

The purpose of a job interview is to find out whether there is a good fit of skills, experience and attitude between the interviewee and the organisation. This means that a job interview is not a test: there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers and you can’t ‘fail’. You will, of course, want to present yourself as well as possible and you can develop your interview skills with practice.

How employers use job interviews

The selection process for graduate jobs often involves more than one interview. Some companies recruiting graduates do so with just one interview, but the selection process for many graduate jobs tends to involve two steps:

A first interview, sometimes by phone, can be used as an initial screening. For graduate programmes, preliminary or ‘screening’ interviews, running to about half an hour, may be held on campus.

A second interview, which may be part of an assessment centre, will go into more depth about the fit between you and the organisation and job. This is held at the company’s offices. Interviews may be one-to-one or involve several people (a 'panel interview').

Some companies, particularly in competitive sectors such as consultancy and IT, tend to have multiple interviews but this is not the norm.

What employers are looking for in job interviews

Employers want to know that you can do the job and will fit into the organisation. It’s up to you to get this across to them. Good recruiters understand that you may be nervous, and they will allow for this, but if nerves mean you give very short answers it is hard for them to assess you fairly.

The interviewers are not there to interrogate you: it’s in their interests to put you at ease and bring out the best in you. They want applicants to be themselves, and to be open and honest. This means being able to talk about what inspires and motivates you as a person.
They won't be impressed, though, if you have not done your homework: you need to show that you have researched the organisation and have solid reasons for wanting to work there.

How to prepare for a job interview

Minimise your nerves by sorting out the practicalities. Reply promptly to an interview invitation. Get your interview outfit ready and make your travel arrangements well in advance. Aim to arrive early to allow for delays and to give yourself enough time to relax. Most organisations pay expenses so ask for receipts when you buy your tickets.

Then think about what you will talk about on the day. Revisit the employer’s recruitment literature and website, and re-read your application. Prepare a list of suitable answers to the most common questions. Think about the skills you can offer and have some real life examples to back this up. Prepare some questions of your own that show you have imagined yourself doing the job.

Rehearse out loud your answers to common interview questions. Get a friend to play the role of interviewer, or do a practice interview at your university Careers Service.

Finally, think about your mental attitude. Realise that they think you can do the job. Visualise yourself at the interview answering questions confidently. Try out some calming and confidence techniques. And get a good night’s sleep the night before.

What to wear to a job interview

Dress smartly to convey a professional and competent image. This means:

  • Invest in a decent suit – but don't bother with designer labels.
  • Polish your shoes, and avoid really high heels.
  • Avoid snazzy ties or glasses, and opt for minimal jewellery.
  • Ensure you are clean and well-groomed. Tie long hair back or up.
  • Don't wear too much aftershave or perfume; avoid eating garlicky or spicy foods beforehand; don't smoke.

What to expect from a job interview

You can generally expect the process to last a couple of hours. There may be some tests either before or after the formal interview (you’ll normally be warned in advance if this is the case). You may also be showed round the office either by the interviewer or another member of staff.

During the interview, you'll be asked a series of questions, often with follow-ups. Try to treat this as a conversation or business meeting, not as a test. For graduate-level jobs, questions tend to be competency-based – looking for evidence that you have the qualities and skills they are looking for. This is where your advance planning will help you.

Finally you'll be invited to ask questions yourself. This is a good chance to show you have really thought about the job and are keen to work for the organisation. It's perfectly acceptable to ask when you are likely to hear from them – as long as it's not the only question you ask.

Job interview checklist

  • Have you made your travel arrangements?
  • Is your interview suit clean?
  • Have you checked the organisation's website for any updates, and looked for recent news stories about them?
  • Have you read through your application?
  • Have you thought about what they might ask you, and the answers you might give?
  • Do you have some questions ready to ask the interviewers?

Job interview tips

  • Just before the interview, take a few deep breaths to help you keep calm and focused.
  • First impressions matter: make eye contact, have a firm handshake, and remember to smile. Be friendly and polite to everyone you meet.
  • Think about your body language and posture. Sit upright so that you look alert and receptive; use gestures sparingly.
  • Listen carefully, and take time to think before you answer a question. Speak clearly and slowly, looking at the interviewer while you are talking.
  • Remember, a job interview should be a two-way process. It also lets you assess the employer and whether you want to work for them.
  • Be yourself: if you try to be someone different you could end up in the wrong job.