Interviews are far from perfect. Whether you are a graduate, newly qualified or a Head of Tax, the interview will likely consist of around 45-90 minutes of unstructured conversation, which leaves plenty of room for impression-management, memory bias and simply ‘screwing up’ what should have been said. There are answers you should prepare, questions you should be asking, and common mistakes you should avoid, which will be explored in this article.
No doubt you will have researched the company in-depth, mind-mapped the fit between your CV and the role and potentially even gone through earlier rounds of interviews and survived the psychometric testing.
Despite many candidates preparing what can seem like heaps of company research and technical revisions, unstructured interviews are generally a relaxed approach to exploring candidates’ fundamental interest and competence. Reflections on personal interests and competencies are amongst both the most basic and forgotten aspects of preparation, at all levels from the newly qualified to the Heads of Tax searches.
The aim is not to rehearse answers to the effect of becoming robotic or scripted. Rather, it is important to evaluate your own motivations and skill-set as a business-case offering and reflect on how this can be illustrated to a decision-maker in perhaps just one hour.
Quite simply, an interest-based question is one which probes your motivations for leaving/applying. The recommendation is to bullet-point 5 features of interest, from your research of the company and specification, to each of the following questions:
1. Why are you leaving?
2. Why this company?
3. Why this role?
Mistake #1 – answering a different question
When taking interview feedback from clients, it is often surprising to see how many candidates have answered a completely different question when running through these fundamental considerations. Or at least, surprising to see how many candidates have digressed, or mixed two (or more) questions together in a way which leave the interviewer with real uncertainty over the original query. For instance, "why this company?" is too often taken for "why this role?" (very distinct), before really digressing into reasons for leaving (when not asked).
Mistake #2 – demonstrability and memorability
It is not uncommon that candidates' interests in applying are rather similar. Imagine you’re interviewing 4-5 candidates, back-to-back, and all interviewees list the same features of interest here. How do you filter out those which seem the most genuine, and more pressing, how do you remember who said what, if all reasons are near-identical?
Though the reasons for applying within the competition pool may be practically the same, usually one person’s answers just stand out. In these cases, their interests are often articulated in a way which just ‘sticks’ as both demonstrable and memorable, to the extent there’s no need for the interviewer to revert and check their notes.
The solution: Reflect on your BFFs, in advance
You can reflect on what from your Background leads you to this Feature of interest (in the company/role), and how this relates to your and Future intentions (BFF). Contextualising the answer with a past sentiment and forward-looking goal in this way anchors your reasons as both demonstrable and memorable, relative to just listing the same features of interest as your competition pool. The suggestion is not to launch 5-10 BFF’s at your interviewer in one go. Rather, the aim is to concisely deliver those Features of interest (elaborating where appropriate), while being ready for the follow-up question of “why is this aspect interesting?”.
A competency-based question is one which asks for behavioural descriptions in a given scenario, intended to probe a specific capability. For instance, “tell me about a time when you showed ‘x’…” (past-orientation), or “tell me what you would do if ‘y’…” (future-orientation).
The questions below are not technically competency-based, but often determine those which follow. Here, the recommendation is to list 5 answers to each of the following questions, once having examined the job specification.
1. What are your strengths (why hire you for this)?
2. What are your weaknesses (why not hire you for this)?
Mistake #3 – the questions candidates set themselves up for
Often, it’s not the format of the follow-up (competency-based) questions which are difficult, but the capability which the candidate has pitched themselves against. For instance, if an answer is “I am self-motivated/a hard-worker", the only follow-up competency-based question foreseeable is “tell me about a time when you showed self-motivation/hard work?”. Would the person asking, or answering this question look more ridiculous? The likelihood is that if a time-bound, specific follow-up example cannot be provided, your reason is neither sufficiently demonstrable nor memorable beyond that already achieved by a CV.
The solution: Set your answer up as a STAR
For every response you provide, you need to be ready for the follow-up question, “tell me about a time when you have shown this”. This follow-up question is asking for a specific example of behavioural patterns you have shown (or would show) in a given situation, and not descriptions of your general responsibilities. The go-to structure to handle competency-based questions effectively is the STAR format. This consists of a specific Situation you were in, a Task you were faced with, the behavioural Actions ‘you’ (not ‘we’) took, and the Results you achieved.
The STAR format can also apply for future-bound competency-based questions. In these instances, STAR can be adapted by contextualising the answer with a hypothetical situation and task, before running through anticipated actions and results. Whereas most candidates would simply list the actions they would take, ‘setting the scene’ of your actions in this way can help orient your own thinking and communicate your actions to the interviewer more tangibly.
Mistake #4 – impression-management, rather than honesty
While this question is often seen as horribly cliché and perhaps a little uncomfortable to answer openly, no selection process is complete without this being considered in some way. We all have developmental areas, and ostensibly, both parties would rather be aware of these from the start, rather than when expectations are falling short, 3-6 months in. So, think carefully prior to falling into the trap of framing disguise a strength as a weakness (e.g. “I’m a bit too much of a perfectionist”).
The solution: reflect on as many weaknesses as possible
Thinking about where your strengths may fall short against the job specification and what you are doing to address this gap will leave you in good stead to manage the topic of developmental areas when they arise. Asking this question back (e.g. “where might you see my developmental areas in relation to this role?”) is also a great follow-up question to openly address any potential reservations.
Overall, these questions are a little cliche, but for good reason - they are essential for both the interviewer and interviewee to ask, especially in a selection process which is largely unstructured. If after a discussion with your recruiter, you just can’t list at least one key answer to any of these questions – really consider if this opportunity is worth interviewing for at all!
Some of the most common mistakes in preparing for unstructured interviews revolve around these basic reflections made (or more often not made) in advance, which impact on the demonstrability and memorability of answers for these fundamental questions, and the followups.