Fail to prepare = prepare to fail

Yes, it may be a cliche- but it’s true. If you are selected for an interview it’s vital that you spend time preparing. You may be surprised how many interviewees don’t do this- and very rarely will they be offered the job. Which is a real shame as often they were a very good match for the position.

A lot will be expanding on research you have already done when applying, but I would say you need to invest at least another hour to prepare, and ideally more. Good preparation really can make all the difference. Look at these two examples that show a lack of preparation…

One graduate wore a crumpled t-shirt to a zoom interview for a consultancy position (having not read the interview tips I sent); the feedback was that he ‘looked like he had just got up’ and he literally had- as I called him 5 minutes before to check he was prepared. He then dropped the bombshell that he didn’t have a shirt as he was not at his home.

Another graduate did a Zoom interview on his phone, logged on late and spend the first 5 minutes adjusting the position (and was asked to remove a coffee cup that was in front of the screen, blocking the view).

And this example of first-class preparation…

An employer I work with had been looking for someone with knowledge of a specific type of software that is not in common use (it’s not taught at university and there are not a lot of experienced candidates available); we spoke about a Plan B which was someone with experience of another type of software, albeit they had concerns for long-term commitment as it would be a bit of a change in industry. I spoke with a graduate who said he was very interested, they agreed to see him, In the days before the interview he downloaded a tuition package and started learning the software- which really did create a very good impression. They decided to offer him the job almost as soon as they heard that.


You need to research the business, at the very minimum looking at the website; learn a bit about them and what they do. Look at projects they have completed, sectors they supply to etc- there may also be information on areas such as company values.

You may be asked ‘what do you know about us’ and it can be very awkward if you can’t say anything (of course you should have been on the website before, but doing a bit more research will help). You don’t need to memorise a huge amount, but perhaps have a sentence or two to summarise. If it’s a technical type role think about how your duties would fit in with the bigger picture. If it’s a more commercial role then you really need to be looking at other things like their social media channels, and competitors.

Go through the job description again, and make sure you are ready to discuss this if asked. And be ready to address any potentially difficult issues if there are any, such as a 2:2 degree, or a gap in employment.

Initially you may be asked to tell the interviewer about yourself; its often just to break the ice, and help you relax- and also so they can learn a bit more about you. Some may mean in relation to work / studies; others may mean more a more general answer. In general a mix of the two may be best. But not in too much depth- maybe a minute or so.

You may often be asked a competency based question, for example ‘tell me about a time you…’ It’s not always easy to predict what these will be, but in general these will be related in some way to the duties or skills required. A good way to answer this is the STARR method:

Situation: A situation you were in, or perhaps a task you were working on;

Task: What did you need to do, why, what challenges did you face;

Action: What did you do- if it was a team example then make sure you focus on your involvement;

Result: What was the outcome, include any recognition or accomplishments;

Reflection: Was there anything you changed, or took forward with you, afterwards.

Try and choose an example with a positive outcome, including where you learned something.

You may also be asked strengths based questions, which are more about you. It could be about strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you, why you want the job. Again, try and focus the answer on things that are relevant to the role.

Overall, try not to say the first thing that comes to mind, think before answering- and if needed ask if you can have a short time to consider an answer. And try and give responses that are related to work, even if the work was not directly related to the role you are applying for. Education examples, for example using writing an essay as an example of working to a deadline, can often lack a real dynamic effect.

At the end you may be asked ‘have you any questions for us?’ and it won’t give a good impression if you say no, so try and have a few memorised (or write them in a notebook and ask if its ok to refer to this). In general, I would say two is ideal, any more may be pushing it a bit. If your interview is with a line-manager, then something technical would be ideal, but if it’s with a more general manager or someone from human resources just be aware that they may not be able to answer anything too technical, so maybe ask about the company culture, what they enjoy about working there, or opportunities for development. Avoid asking about things like salary or holidays; or things you should know already, such as what the business does.

Two stage interviews

Some employers like to do an initial first stage interview, then a follow up one. There can be various reasons for this. In some cases the first interview can be more in-depth; or in other cases it is the other way round. Either way, there are some things to bear in mind:

  • After the first interview, write down the questions you were asked and your answers, then think about them. Was there anything you wish you had said that you didn’t, perhaps a better example or something you could have expanded on. Or are you happy with it. There is a chance the question may be asked again, and you can update your answer (or leave it as it was- it’s ok to repeat it).
  • While you will have done well to get through, there is still work to do, so make sure you build on what you have already done. It may be new people you are meeting, or different questions, so you need to continue to impress.
  • In the first interview you may have learned more about the business and role; you can use this when thinking of questions to ask them if given the opportunity to do so.

Other things to bear in mind

  • Thank the interviewer for their time at the end. If your interview is through a recruiter then either call or email them asap afterwards to give feedback- this is important in case the employer calls the recruiter to discuss.
  • There may be an initial online interview through Zoom or Teams for example, or maybe by telephone. Remember, these are still interviews so treat them with equal importance. Make sure you are somewhere that you will be undisturbed, and if it’s online try and get somewhere with a plain or uncluttered background if possible, or make use of the ‘background effects’ option if there is one. If it’s online and you are using your phone, make sure it is positioned properly so they can see you. And make sure you have the invite email ready so you are ready to join the meeting on time.
  • In terms of clothing, in certain businesses including more creative type environments, the dress code will be expected to be more relaxed. In most other environments I would say you need to be smarter. For females there is more scope for different types of dress; for males, it was always a suit, tie and shirt, but now that is also more relaxed to some extent- but I would always say at minimum a shirt, trousers and shoes. And make sure shoes are polished and clothes ironed.
  • For face-to-face interviews make sure you know where it is, and how you will get there- plan to get there early, maybe ½ hour or so. You can wait somewhere nearby, then go into the offices 10 minutes before the interview. Don’t go into the offices too early- it can leave people feeling awkward. And if someone has given you a lift then they will need to wait somewhere else too- they should not really be going into the offices with you.
  • If you get nervous then there are some things that may help, such as making sure you breathe deeply, and maybe even saying to the interviewer that you are slightly nervous as you really want the job; this in itself can show a bit of confidence, and also lessen the risk of the mistaking nerves for something else, such as lack of preparation, or disinterest. The interviewer liked you enough to invite you for an interview, so they will want to help you do your best.
  • Try and get some eye contact with the person you are speaking with, as a lack of this can sometimes be a reason for an interviewee being unsuccessful. How much eye contact? Well, I have read various differing views, but in general around 50% of the time, and in 10 second bursts (anything more can be a bit uncomfortable for the interviewer), and a quick glance could indicate disinterest. Also, try not to fidget as it can give an impression of distractedness or nervousness (this is a problem I myself have sometimes, as I have a lot of nervous energy- a coping mechanism I use is to hold my hands together then I can’t do it).
  • Research shows that at least 10% of people are Neurodivergent. Neurological variations can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and tics. And some of these conditions may result in some of the behaviours in the last point. For example, an autistic person may find it difficult to hold eye contact. So, how to approach this? I read this article that gives a great perspective. The key thing is that the writer has turned her condition into an asset in terms of the role; and also made the interviewer aware, so actions cannot be misinterpreted (though I appreciate that it is not always easy to have the confidence to do this- if it is through a recruiter then please do let them know, so this can be passed on). And if you require any reasonable adjustments to be made please do ask.

This guide is a summary of some of the key areas, if you would like to find out more about certain areas then an internet search will bring up more information.

Matthew Parry,
Director. SME Graduate Employment

SME Graduate employment is a specialist graduate recruitment agency. Covering permanent roles, fixed-term contracts, student / undergraduate and graduate internships, and sandwich placements. All areas of the UK, and most industries and job types.

You can see student and graduate jobs advertised here and read more blogs and advice to help develop your employability skills here

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