Interviews: How To Prepare

Background Research
Skype/Video Conferencing
On The Day of the Interview
In-person (short, all-day, multiple day)
What To Expect
Disability Accommodations
Phone Interviews


An interview is a conversation between you and a potential employer. Ideally, it will be a mutually informative dialogue within which you both benefits from learning one another. The candidate uses the interview as an opportunity to share information about her/his background and qualifications, to express interest in the hiring organization and to pose questions to the interviewer. Likewise, the interviewer uses the conversation to promote the hiring organization and to determine if a good match exists between the candidate and the position. While this exchange of information is an integral aspect of the conversation, the "fit" between you and the interviewer(s) how natural the conversation is, how much you enjoy one another's company, how confident and positive you seem and how interested they are in being stranded at an airport with you for 5 hours can be just as important.


BACKGROUND RESEARCH

An important component of any pre-interview preparations is the application process itself. It will be the information you provide on your resume/CV and in your cover letter that will attract the interest of employers and make them want to interview you. In general terms, the most attractive information will be the information that is most relevant to the reader. This is information that articulates the connections between your past experiences, knowledge, and the skills you used to be successful, with the expectations of the employer. In the same way that performing some background research on organizations and job types is very important when constructing an effective set of application materials, any additional background research you can do prior to an interview will help you to be able to show why your background and expertise makes you a good fit for the position. To do this you have to understand the needs of the employer and the perspectives of the people who you will likely be talking to during an interview. If you can get the names of the people you will be interviewing with, then make sure to spend some time understanding their backgrounds and career paths. This might help you to focus on experiences that you might share in common with one of your interviewers, which can sometimes help to build rapport during an interview itself.

So, get to know the organization, the industry, and the position. Spend time reviewing organization websites, and familiarize yourself with the organization's divisions, mission statements, and history. Learn about the industry, what are the most important trends in this field and how is the economy affecting the industry. Get some sense as to who the key players are, and be able to speak the "language of the industry." 

Make sure that some of your background research focuses on you. It is important to know yourself and your career objectives. Employers are not interested in candidates with undefined career goals; they aim to fill jobs with qualified candidates who have some sense of direction and know how their skills support their job objectives. Even if you don't know exactly what you want to do, you have to be able to confidently tell an employer why you are interested in this particular job at this time. Think about your own abilities and experience in relation to an employer's needs. Be able to discuss why you want to work in this type of industry, division, and/or company. Identify your strengths in relation to each job for which you interview. Review your resume for experiences - whether they are related to education, work, or activities - that you can use as examples to support your skills. Anything on the resume is fair game, so also be prepared to describe or explain any item on it.

Your background research into employers will help you to identify the types of interviews and interview questions you can expect. Consider using your network of contacts to see if you can talk with people who have more specific experiences with an employer, or who can offer you some helpful insights into the interview process. Talk to alumni currently working at the organization to get more detailed information about what it takes to be successful there. You are not expected to be an expert in the particular field, but you should have enough knowledge to formulate meaningful questions to present to the interviewer. You can also visit the "mock interviews and resources" page to find tools you can use to explore companies, industries, and industry-specific interview questions (e.g., glassdoor.com, Vault, Wetfeet). This information will become very important when you start thinking about how best to answer interview questions. Thinking about your experiences from the employers' perspectives will help you to be able to talk confidently about them, and show that you can tie in your previous expertise to your future work effectiveness and productivity

Quick tip #1                                  

Know what to expect. Make sure that you know the format of the interview, how long it will be, and exactly who you will be meeting with. It will help to do some background research into your interviewers to see if any aspect of your past experience is particularly relevant to them. This may help you choose which illustrations of your skills you use in some of your answers. You can ask these questions to your point of contact at the employer usually the person who gets in contact with you to schedule your interview.

On-campus recruiters typically offer on-campus information sessions where they provide some of this background information, and provide an opportunity for you to ask questions and speak with representatives from the organization. These opportunities are listed on the Career Services calendar. Make use of on-line library resources available to you to help you complete thorough background research (e.g., ABI/Inform database managed by the Lippincott Library). You can usually get an overview of the organization, its products and/or services, its philosophy and new developments, from its website or annual report. Also, the Lippincott and Van Pelt reference collections house a variety of trade journals and online resources which discuss current issues in the field.

[top]




WHAT TO EXPECT

You may have 2-3 separate interviews for certain types of jobs you apply to, but some job applications may actually involve more than this depending on the industry or field. In most cases, there is a first round screening interview that happens over the phone (or Skype), as part of on-campus recruiting (OCR), or at a conference (for academic jobs). Shortlisted candidates from the first round will then participate in one or more in-person interviews at a future time, often on-site at the employer. The format for screening and in-person interviews can be as varied as the many different jobs out there. Here are some general recommendations for the type of preparations you can make for these different interviews types focusing mainly on the practical and logistical aspects you will face.

Phone Interviews

To help facilitate interviews that occur off-campus, Career Services offers space for telephone interviews and equipment for video conferencing interviews. For information on reserving interviewing space, please click here.

If you know you are having a phone interview, and know who you will be talking with (and you should ask about this beforehand), then your next priority is to figure out which phone you will use, and who will be calling whom. If you are using a landline, then choose a quiet location (and turn off or mute your mobile phone!). If you are using a mobile, then choose a location that is both quiet and has good reception (and is not too far away from a landline in case you need one). If there will be several people on the other end of the line, then chances are that they will be using a speakerphone. These do not always provide the greatest voice clarity, and this makes it especially important that you be in a quiet location. Double check the time zone when confirming the call time for interviews with employers from other states or countries. Since the interviewer cannot see you, you do not have the advantage of using visual non-verbal cues to reinforce your answers and convey enthusiasm about the position. Therefore, you must make sure that your tone of voice is as energetic as possible. Making sure that you are well-prepared and well-rested before the interview will be helpful in this regard. It is often said that smiling while you speak enables you to maintain a natural and upbeat tone without becoming monotone in your pitch. While notes may be helpful, do not become so relaxed as to read them verbatim. This can make you sound stilted and less engaging to the employer. If an employer calls unexpectedly and you are not prepared or in a good location to interview, always feel free to suggest setting up an appointment to have the discussion at a later time.

Quick tip #2

Use your notes. The downside to phone interviews is that it is not possible to read the body language of the interviewers to know if your answers are coming across well. The benefit of being on the phone is that you can have some notes in front of you to refer to if needed. Don't read any of your answers people can easily tell when something is being read, and you won't come off as sounding very personable. However, just down some key points you want to get across in your answers, and you can refer to these as you are speaking to make sure you have covered everything. If you are having a conference call with several people, make a note of their names as they are introduced so that you know who you are talking to.

Skype/Video Conferencing

To help facilitate interviews that occur off-campus, Career Services offers space for telephone interviews and equipment for video conferencing interviews. For information on reserving interviewing space, please click here.

If you are using professional video conferencing equipment, then chances are that the location will look professional. You may still want to set up a test connection with staff at the company prior to the interview to ensure that the systems are compatible with one another. If you are using Skype, then you have a lot of work to do to ensure that the image that comes across on the employer's computer screen is a professional one. You will need to ensure that the backdrop, the lighting, and the ambient sounds are all maximizing your professionalism. You can find additional information on this here. You should be dressed professionally since the interviewer will see you. If you are Skyping from home, then ensure that your friends, family, and (most importantly) pets are not going to make an appearance during the interview. The fuzzy tail of a cat quivering across the screen, or its pitiful meowing for food, will not make a good impression. Do some practice interviews ahead of time with people you know, and get feedback from them about how you come across and look on their screens. Make sure you follow these tips. You can also use InterviewStream to get a sense what you look like when answering questions. Pay attention to the lighting to ensure that your image is clear without being bleached out by the light or hidden by shadow. Remember to double check the time zone when confirming the start time for interviews with employers from other states or countries. As always, make sure that you turn off or mute your phone. Be prepared with the phone numbers of your contacts at the employer in case there is any technical trouble. It may be necessary to have a phone interview instead if it is not possible to connect by video.

In-person (short, all-day, multiple day)

There can be many things to do to prepare for in-person interviews depending on whether they are performed in an On-Campus Interview suite, in the local area close to where you live, or in another part of the country (or another country altogether). When you have to travel to an interview, make sure that you understand who will pay for travel arrangements, how they are to be made, and what records you need for reimbursement. An on-site interview is at least half-day and most are full days, so get sufficient rest the night before. If you are traveling directly to the interview, make sure that you wear a suit that does not wrinkle easily and avoid messy foods. Use your travel time to relax and gather your thoughts. If you will be spending the night before the interview, you may be invited to a night-before reception and dinner. If so, be personable and professional because such events are still "part of the interview." When you settle in at the hotel, continue to convey your professionalism by not charging items to the room. One of the most important logistical steps you can take to be prepared for in-person interviews is to know where you are going. If possible, do a dry-run by finding the actual place where you will be interviewing. You do not want to be late to your interview because you were rushing around trying to find where you are meant to be. If you visit the location, think about how long it will take you to get there under different traffic conditions. Find a local coffee shop in case you arrive too early and need to wait for a while. If you cannot do a dry run, use Google maps to get a street-eye view of the building and area so that you are not wandering around lost. If you haven't talked face-to-face with representatives from the employer before, then you also need to make the right impression when you first meet them. Take a look at the "Etiquette/Appearance" resources to learn more.


Quick tip #3

Clarify reimbursement arrangements. If you have to travel to an on-site interview, make sure that you are aware of what can be reimbursed. Some organizations routinely pay for travel expenses. Others, such as government agencies or smaller firms, may be less likely to do so. If in doubt, simply ask what the organization's policy is on travel reimbursement when you are scheduling and confirming your interview time and schedule.

Whatever the type of interview you are having, there will likely be an opportunity for you to practice ahead of time. For example, if you interview will involve you giving some form of presentation, then you might be able to do a trial run within your academic department. It you will have to participate in case studies, then finding a campus/student group to practice with will be very helpful (e.g., Penn Graduate Consulting Group, Penn Biotech Group). Being confident in an interview will be the result of you knowing your subject extremely well (which in this case is you and your experiences/research), and having had the opportunity to practice talking about yourself, your interests, your research, your abilities, your strengths, and your skills. You will never know for sure what questions you will actually be asked in an interview, but the more you practice a broad range of interview questions, the more likely it is that you can handle anything thrown at you by the interviewers.

Quick tip #4

Get practicing. As soon as you know you have an interview coming, call Career Services to schedule a mock interview. This is a great opportunity to practice answering questions and see how you answer them by watching a recording of the mock interview itself. Try to give yourself enough time before your actual interview to be able to absorb the feedback your get from your advisor. You can also set up a phone mock interview if you cannot come in, or use online resources such as InterviewStream to practice in the comfort of your own home. There are going to be questions that you know will come up in any interview, and so it is worth making sure you have good answers for questions like: "tell me about yourself," "why do you want this position?," "what is your greatest strength?" Approaches to answering these and other questions are addressed here.

[top]


ON THE DAY OF THE INTERVIEW

Whether you are calling the employer, or turning up for an in-person interview, make sure that you are on time (arrive 5-10 or minutes early for an in-person interview, but no earlier). This is your first chance to show your commitment, dependability, and professionalism. You also want to make sure your appearance is appropriate for an interview.

Quick tip #5

Make sure you have phone numbers. If you know you are going to be late for an interview, be sure to call your contact at the employers and let them know. However, try not to be late!

Prepare your interview materials before the day of your interview. Bring several copies of your resume, a list of references, and, if appropriate, any work samples. Keep a hold of these until someone specifically asks for them, or you need to illustrate something that you are talking about in an answer to an interviewer's question. Make sure all of your materials are all up-to-date. You might want to bring a pen and notepad to jot down any information you may need to remember between interviews (this can be a good way to keep track of all of the people that you meet during a series of in-person interviews), but you should not take notes during any of the actual interviews.

Throughout the interview you should try to relax think of it as a conversation, rather than an interrogation. However, remember that you are being interviewed from the moment you pick up the phone or arrive for an in-person interview, until the moment that you put the phone down or leave the building. It can certainly be beneficial to be courteous to everyone you speak with. It will not just be the interviewer who is evaluating you anyone you interact with (e.g., administrative assistant) could have a say in hiring you, even if it is just a small one.

During your interview experience, make sure that your body language is positive and confident. Greet any interviewer with a firm handshake and an enthusiastic smile. Make eye contact with the interviewer and speak in a clear voice.


Quick tip #6

Making eye contact. A good tip when meeting with someone new is to make sure that you hold eye contact long enough to be able to discern the color of their eyes.

Interviews can be nerve-wracking times, and you want to avoid mumbling, speaking too fast, or nervous gibbering. Make sure that you minimize some of these general indicators of nervousness by being aware of your body language:

  • Frequently touching your mouth
  • Fiddling with you hair
  • Faking a cough to think about the answer to a question
  • Gnawing on your lip
  • Tight or forced smiles
  • Swinging your foot or leg
  • Folding or crossing your arms
  • Slouching
  • Avoiding eye contact

Try to overcome these issues by projecting your answers in a strong, confident manner, making sure that the loudness and tone of your voice remains constant right to the end of each sentence. Many people have a tendency to start their answers confidently, but then they get quieter, and quieter and quieter until their answer disappears. The flipside to projecting your answers confidently is to also make sure that you are listening to what the interviewers are saying. Either consciously or subconsciously, the interviewer may reveal what they find important information that you can use when trying to come up with relevant answers to their questions, or when talking with other interviewers that you meet from the same organization.

Treat each successive interview as if it were your first. Maintain your enthusiasm with each new person you meet. If you are asked the same question for the sixth time, remember that the person who asks has not yet heard your answer. Recognize that you will be visiting a working organization and the people you see may not be able to devote exclusive attention to you. Don't take it personally if an interviewer takes a call; pick up the thread of the conversation when the interviewer is free again.

Quick tip #7

Leaving a good impression. Be aware of signals that indicate that the interview is over. An interviewer may stand or express appreciation for your time. This is your clue to close the interview. Express your enthusiasm for the organization and, if you are interested in the position, ask the interviewer when a decision will be made and when you may call. Maintain eye contact and return a firm handshake if a hand is extended. Close the interview with the same enthusiastic and energetic style with which you approached it.


When an employer invites you to an interview, he or she generally already thinks you may be qualified to do the job. The interview is the time when both candidate and employer exchange enough information to allow you both to determine whether you and the organization are a good "fit" for each other. Therefore, think of an interview as a highly focused professional conversation. Use the limited amount of time you have to learn about the employer's needs and discuss the ways you can contribute to meeting them.

[top]


DISABILITY ACCOMMODATIONS

If you need specific accommodations for your interview, then you should discuss these with the employer while you are confirming times, locations, and who you will be meeting with. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified employees and applicants with disabilities, unless such accommodations would pose an undue hardship to the employer (e.g., too costly, too extensive, too substantial, too disruptive). If you need accommodations, it is your responsibility to let the employer know. While it is the candidate's responsibility to request the accommodation, employers can ask candidates with obvious disabilities if they have any accommodation requests. Discussing your needs with the employer can be done verbally, but you should also confirm arrangements by email so that you have some written documentation of what was agreed upon. If you request an accommodation that the employer is not familiar with, they can ask you for additional information. Some examples of accommodation requests for employers at the interview stage can include:

  • Sign language or speech to speech interpreters for people who are deaf or have significant speech impairments.
  • An accessible meeting or interview location for people with mobility impairments.
  • Using email, texting, or a telephone relay operator rather than direct phone communication for people with hearing or speech impairments.
  • Electronic formats of materials and applications in advance of interview.
  • A counselor or representative for the candidate asking to be contacted in advance or requesting to go on the interview with the candidate.
  • A technology device or modification from a person with a hearing or visual disability.
  • A schedule adjustment.

More information on accommodations during the interview process can be found on the following websites:

[top]