Prepare for your First Job Interview

When you submit a job application or enquiry, you - the applicant - are in control. Normally you select the information to include in your resume (CV) and you decide where to put the emphasis. There is usually time to deliberate on each individual item and the opportunity to enlist the help of friends and colleagues.  

If your application is successful you may then be invited for an interview.  From this point on the employer is in control.  The employer determines the format of the interview and the employer sets the questions.  You must answer the questions in real-time without consulting friends or colleagues.  A great resume may get you an interview - but you need to follow-through at the interview to win the job. 

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation, ...

The preparatory work that you do in the days and weeks leading up to the interview is largely what determines your success - or otherwise.  

Organise Your Preparation

Interviewers do not ask arbitrary questions.  They want to know whether or not you will make a good employee, and their questions are designed to help find this out.  An interviewer will typically want to find out what you have to offer in each of the following areas:

  • knowledge about the job
  • knowledge about the company
  • transferable skills and personal qualities
  • past achievements
  • career plan

This is not an exhaustive list but it provides a useful structure around which to organise your interview preparation.

Area 1: Knowledge about the Job

If you have responded to an advertised vacancy there will normally be a job description listing the typical duties and skills.  You must be able to speak knowledgeably about everything that is appears in the job description.  Making yourself knowledgeable about the information that you have been given is the most basic requirement of interview preparation.

  • If there is anything in the job description that is unfamiliar then you must research it thoroughly before the interview - there can be no excuse for ignorance here.
  • If you have previous experience that matches the job description then you should be prepared to talk about it at length.  This is your strong point - make the most of it.
  • If the job description distinguishes between required skills and desirable skills then you should concentrate your effort around the required skills - but do not ignore the desirable skills entirely.

Area 2: Knowledge about the Company

If you have been given any information about the company then you should read it carefully and fully.  If there is anything that is unclear to you then you must research it before the interview.  Once again, familiarity with the information that you have been given is the most basic requirement.  

It has never been easier to find information about large and intermediate sized companies than it is today - use the web to answer questions such as:

  • How many employees does the company have?
  • How many employees, in your profession, does the company have?
  • What is the geographical spread of the company?
  • What are the companies products?
  • Who are the companies suppliers?
  • Who are the companies customers?

A smaller company may not have a web site, in which case you will need to be more creative in how you carry out your research.  

  • Do you know any of their current or past employees? 
  • Do you know any of their customers or clients? 
  • Do you have friends or family with any of this knowledge?

You do not need complete and exact answers to these questions but you do need a good general awareness about the company and its business.  If you are more knowledgeable than the other candidates that are being interviewed then you will earn kudos.

Area 3: Transferable Skills and Personal Qualities

There are many aspects of being a good employee that have little to do with the specific knowledge and skills that may be listed in the job description.  The employer will want to be confident that you will:

  • arrive on time each day
  • work cooperatively as a member of a team
  • take initiative when appropriate
  • be able to communicate effectively in writing, face-to-face and by telephone
  • be courteous to colleagues, clients and customers

A common way for an employer to gain an insight into one or more of your transferable skills is to ask you to describe a incident in which you have demonstrated the skill.  For example, "Describe an incident when you have had to deal with an angry customer".  You will give a much better answer to questions such as this if you have a collection of such stories prepared.

Area 4: Past Achievements

These will normally have been itemised on your resume or CV.  You absolutely must be able to speak at length about anything that is in your resume.  The interviewer is likely to be more interested in those achievements that are either:

  • particularly relevant to the job
  • particularly noteworthy or significant (e.g. Have you climbed Mount Everest?)

Be prepared to speak at length and enthusiastically about these achievements.

Area 5: Career Goal & Plan

It is good to have a career goal.  It indicates to a prospective employer that you are taking your career seriously.
  • Your goal should be ambitious - but achievable.
  • You should be knowledgeable about what your goal entails, and be prepared to discuss it enthusiastically.
  • You should have a realistic plan for achieving your goal and - of course - the job for which you are applying should be part of that plan.

Get to Work

Now that you know the areas the the interviewer will be interested in, you need to anticipate the likely questions in each area.  This is not an exact science and you clearly cannot predict all of the questions accurately or reliably.  However, you will benefit from puting in the effort:

  • You will anticipate some of the questions that will be asked.
  • You will anticipate others questions that are similar to those that will be asked.
  • As a result of this preparation, you will approach the interview with much more confidence than you might otherwise have.

Here is the method that I recommend:

  1. Brainstorm to Generate Likely Questions
  2. Organise the Questions
  3. Prepare the Answers
  4. Rehearse the Answers

Step 1: Brainstorm to Generate Likely Questions

Write down all the questions that you can think of relating to each of the five areas described above.  Do not worry at this stage about spelling, grammar or organisation - just get the questions down on paper.  Do not try to complete this on a single session.  Create an initial list and then return to it the next day to see if you can add to it.

Get help from a friend or colleague.  

  • Ask your colleague to compile a list of questions - without looking at your list.  
  • Swap your lists and see how they differ.  
  • Can either of you now come up with any new questions?  

Do not let that helpful colleague get away - you can use him again later!

Step 2: Organise the Questions

When you can no longer think up new questions, it is time to begin organising your list.  Begin by grouping related questions together.  Does the grouping suggest any questions that you have missed?

Distinguish between:

  • likely questions - those which are likely to be asked
  • unlikely questions - those which are not likely to be asked

For each question, identify any:

  • opportunities - Does the question give you an opportunity to highlight a strength or show yourself in a positive light?
  • threats - Does the question have the potential to expose a weakness or show you in a negative light?

It is time to find that helpful colleague again.  Ask him to read and comment on the groupings and distinctions that you have just made.

Step 3: Prepare the Answers

Prepare bullet point written answers to each of the questions in your list.

  • If you have insufficient time, you should concentrate your effort on the likely questions, at the expense of the unlikely ones.
  • For each question, think about the opportunities and threats that you have identified:
    • Opportunities:
      • Ensure that you make the most of of your strengths.  
      • The longer you spend talking about your strengths, the less time will be available to uncover your weaknesses.
    • Threats:
      • You do not need to draw attention to your weaknesses but, if it is clear that the interviewer has recognised one then you should be prepared to discuss it openly.  
      • Show that you are aware of the weakness and that you are doing something to overcome it or compensate for it.  

If - for example - your written English is poor, enrolling on an evening class on Writing for Business will demonstrate that you are taking the weakness seriously and are determined to overcome it.  The interviewer will view this positively.

Now that you have draft answers to all the questions in your list, try to anticipate any follow-on questions that might be asked.  

Question:   "Where would you like to be in five years time?"
:   "I'd like to be taking a lead role in managing a significant software project..."

Follow-on Question:   "Do you have any experience in project management or in supervising staff?"

If there are particular follow-on questions that you would prefer not to be asked, then you might consider adjusting your original answer to avoid the unwanted follow-on.  Add any likely follow-on questions - with corresponding answers - to your list.

Well done.  You now have a list of likely questions and answers; you have also identified a range of possible opportunities and threats, and thought about how you will handle them.  I am sure that you already feeling more confident about the interview - you are certainly much better prepared.

Now where is that helpful colleague when you need him? Ask him to read and comment on the answers you have drafted.  Can he think of any potential follow-on questions that you have overlooked.

Step 4: Rehearse the Answers

You have drafted your answers in bullet point form.  At the interview you will be required to answers in full, spoken sentences - so you need to bridge this gap.  I do not recommend that you prepare full written answers - they are unlikely to sound natural when read aloud.  Instead, I recommend that you practice delivering your answers in spoken English, using your bullet point notes as support.  You might do this in front of a mirror, or in  the shower but - initially at least - it is probably best if there is no-one else around.

Bear in mind that you are not trying to learn off the answers - learning by rote is far too inflexible.  You are rehearsing the answers in order to:

  1. learn the information that is in your bullet point notes
  2. gain fluency in talking about and around the relevant issues

Try answering each question in a variety of different ways:

  • the short answer
  • the longer answer
  • add some background leading in to your answer
  • give your answer in a way that allows you to draw attention to one of your strengths

When you have made some progress and you are happy with your fluency, it is time to arrange a mock interview.  Perhaps it is time to buy your helpful colleague a drink or a box of chocolates - you are going to be bothering him again.

Step 5: Reflection

Well, how did the mock interview go?  What do you think of your performance?  What does your mock interviewer think?  Make a list of positive points, where you performed well - and a list of negative ones, where you need to improve.

  • If the positive list is longer than the negative one, then congratulate yourself - you have worked hard and you deserve the praise.
  • If the negative list is longer, then be thankful to have uncovered the difficulties before the real interview.

In either case, you will want to review both lists to see how you can consolidate your successes and improve on any weaknesses.

Some Common Interview Questions

These videos (by Denham Resources 2009a2009b) present alternative ways of answering common interview questions, such as:  
"Describe going above and beyond at work."
"How do you stay current?"
"Share a project from start to finish."
"What's your greatest achievement?"
"What's your biggest failure?"
Why do you want to work here?
"Where do you see yourself in five years?"
They illustrate the good, the bad and (in some cases) the ugly of interview performance.

 How do you stay current? 

This is an opprtunity to demonstrate that your professionalism goes beyond the narrow requirements of a specific job.  You will score well here if you can show that you are active in a professional body - not simply a member.  You can do this by talking knowledgably about recent and upcoming events.  A knowledge of relevant professional literature will also strengthen your case - particularly if you can refer to specific articles.  If you can relate your professional activities and reading back to the job for which you are being interviewed you will earn bonus points.

 Share a project from start to finish 

This is an opportunity to for you show qualities such as leadership, planning and teamwork.  Choose a project that was challenging and successful, and for which you had significant responsibility.  Describe your role in the project and how the project fits into the wider context of your organisation.  Once again, bonus points if you can relate the project to the job for which you are being interviewed.

 What is your greatest achievement? 

Choose an acievement that allows you to highlight your most positive characteristics and, if possible, ones that relate to your qualities as an employee.  Describe the achievement and explicitly identify the personal characteristics that enabled you to be successful.  To make the most out of this opportunity you should also attempt to indicate that the characteristics are relevant and important to the job for which you are being interviewed.

 What is your biggest failure? 

This is an opportunity to to show that you are reflective and can recognise and acknowledge your own weaknesses. Be honest about your failures and try to demonstrate some insight into why they  occurred.  Accept responsibility for your mistakes and avoid blaming others.  Bonus points if you can choose a failure that you ultimately turned into a success.

Why do you want to work here? 

This an opportunity to demonstrate what you know about the company and the specific job.  It will be assumed that you are knowledgeable about the job so you absolutely must put this across convincingly.  Knowledge of the company is the icing on the cake - what markets does it operate in? - who are it's customers? - what are it's values? - how does it like to be perceived?

Where do you see yourself in five years? 

This is an opportunity to demonstrate that you are serious about your career - that you have a goal and you have a realistic plan to achieve it. To be convincing you must be able to show how your recent employment fits into this plan and - more importantly - that the job for which you are being interviewed is an important step in the plan.


A great resume may get you an interview - but you need to follow-through at the interview to win the job. The key to success is preparation.  One more time ...

The key to success is preparation.

There are many more short videos on Denham Resources YouTube Channel (Denham Resources 2009b) - demonstrating responses to prompts such as:

  • Why should we hire you?
  • What are your salary expectations?
  • What would you do to gain respect?
  • What is your ideal job?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • Share a conflict resolution.

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