What’s the key to a good interview – beyond the usual truisms we all know already?

15 Apr

There are myriad sources of advice for interviewing well, available online. A lot of them say the same things – anyone who turns up late, doesn’t dress to impress, isn’t attentive and engaging, only asks questions about things like the pay, or mumbles, frankly is probably not going to be the type of person who even knows they need advice on interviewing well. So what are the things you need to think about when going for a decent job, up against good people are who aren’t going to make obvious mistakes?

I have a weird relationship with interviews – I always think they’ve gone well, but I never get the job. My first library job in customer services, I didn’t get it but was put on a call-back list for next time they had a position. My second job, as a Project Assistant, I came second and I only got the job because the successful candidate pulled out. On the JISC project I just completed, I was encouraged to apply and was the only person they interviewed – so short of putting my feet up on the desk and listing ‘a penchant for theft’ among my weaknesses, I was pretty much guaranteed to get the job. In between all that, I had two unsuccessful interviews (at York University) and one application that didn’t even GET an interview, and prior to even working in libraries I had two unsuccessful interviews for researchy roles (thank God I didn’t get those) – and in all of these cases, I thought the interview went well, because I don’t get nervous for that sort of thing and I work so hard on preparing that I remember to make all the points I want to make, and I make them.

I finally broke this cycle a couple of weeks ago, when I interviewed successfully for a maternity cover at York – it’s in basically my ideal job for now, the role I’ve been aiming for since I knew I wanted to do this as a career. I’ll be the Academic Liaison Librarian for Music (where I did my MA, and know all the academics really well) and for Film, Theatre and TV Studies – that’s all one Department, with a fabulous new £24 million building, below:

Picture of a lovely new building, the TFTV Dept at York University

One of my shiny departments

So anyway, I got to thinking – what did I do differently this time than before (one of the panel had even interviewed me previously when I’d not got a job, which was lower graded and far less competitive) and what advice did I take into the interview that I found really useful?

Here are some things I did differently:

  • I wore a tie. I’ve not worn a tie since school, as I don’t like them much – I don’t wear them for weddings or job interviews, normally. I really wanted this job, so I figured I’d sacrifice my tie-related-principles in this instance… Did it make a difference? Maybe it did, I like to think my experience and ideas clinched the post though…
  • I went in with a better idea of what was really important about the post. When I wrote the Essential Advice for New Professionals blog post a while back, one of the most interesting things that came from the Comments that people wrote on it was the idea that not all Essential Criteria are created equal. Yes, they are of course all essential and therefore very important – but some of them will constitute a huge part of the job and others only a little. So it’s important to have lots to say about the most essential of the essential criteria. I spent a good deal of time thinking about this beforehand, and talking to people I knew within the organisation who might know useful things. (Big thanks to Tixylix who pointed out the importance of working out which criteria are more vital than others!)
  • I revisited the feedback I’d had from my previous unsuccessful interviews. We all know how important it is to get feedback – how often do you actually read it again after you first receive it? In particular, the last interview at York (in an academic liaison assistant role) had had a lot to do with Information Literacy involved with the post. When they asked me about info lit in the interview I said everything I wanted to say – when I didn’t get the post I was really disappointed as I actually thought I was over-qualified for it. But when they gave me the (very constructive) feedback, I realised they were completely right, and that I hadn’t done nearly as well as I thought I had. I’d talked about Info Lit, demonstrated an understanding of it, listed my experience – but I’d not said anything innovative, original, or ideas based. Much of the role was about devising Info Lit programmes, so of course they wanted someone with a little creativity – I’d not shown any. So this time, as the role I’ve just got is also heavily Info Lit based, I was ready to hit them with some actual IDEAS, not just a summary of what I’ve done. (By the same token, I did just give them a summary of what I’d done in other areas – there’s no point in explaining how you’re going to take over the world in an area for which you won’t actually have any responsibility if you get the job.)
  • I had to do a presentation. Previous roles haven’t been high up enough to require this, but I made the most of it. We only had 5 minutes, and we weren’t allowed slides or anything – but we could use handouts. In that situation, there’s so little opportunity to make much of an impression, you have to use what is available to you, so I made good handouts. I had six anonymised quotes from academics that I’d spoken to when researching the topic (actually five, plus one from Andy Priestner) that related to the points I was making, and one of those quotes was from one of the academics on the panel. I think this went down well (could have backfired of course…) as it showed I’d done my homework – and it was directly relevant, not just crow-barred in there. So I think making the most of whatever opportunities there are open to you is important.
  • I left them with a CV. In Higher Education, everything is application form based. York’s system is all online, and there is a fairly strict character limit so you literally can only just fit in what you need to say – as a result, lots of stuff I’d done wasn’t on there. So I asked if they’d be interested in a CV so they could see all the other things that weren’t on the form.
  • I tried not to JUST answer the question so much. By which I mean, every question in an interview is designed to assess you against set criteria – I tried to work out which of these criteria a particular question was pertaining to, and address that, rather than just the specific question. In the public sector there are no real spontaneous questions and nothing is asked without a purpose – they have to do everything incredibly fairly and openly. So there’s a grid of criteria, with questions that relate to those criteria, and each question you get asked will result in the panel writing down the evidence that shows you meet that criteria. Each question is given a score, then the highest total score wins. It really does seem to be that explicit and that simple – so you have to be hitting those criteria. It’s a question of asking yourself, what do they ACTUALLY want from me with this one..?
  • I answered the questions like the panel hadn’t ever seen my application form. I have a suspicion that application forms just get you the interview, but are then forgotten about once the interviews happen (and you get the job almost entirely based on the interview). So when I was asked a question I answered it fully, at the risk of repeating what they’d already read, rather than risking them not remembering what was on the form.

On top of this, I prepared answers for around 20 questions – there was only 1 question in the interview where I had to truly think on my feet. For what it’s worth, I had examples ready for:

1.  Prioritising workload

2.  Prioritising resources

3.  Knowledge of resources

4.  Working under pressure

5.  Managing a budget

6.  Creative problem solving

7.  Handling a difficult situation

8.  Delivering bad news

9.  Effective written communication

10.Effective oral communication

11.Information Literacy pedagogy

12.Recording and analysing user feedback

13.Working well in a team

14.Something outside of work that might help me in the role

15.Short-term plans

16.Medium-term plans

17.Questions to ask the panel

18.Why I wanted the job

19.Why I’d be good at it

20.Strengths and weaknesses

A lot of these came up, either directly or indirectly, so I was pleased I put the work in. Incidentally, back in the day when I had exams (A-levels and that sort of thing) a lot of people said things along the lines of “no point in revising on the day – if you don’t remember it by then, you never will.” I find this to be utterly misleading – personally I found reading my crib sheet right up until the 5 minutes before I went and announced myself was really valuable.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. What would you recommend people know about interviewing, that goes above and beyond all the usual stuff you can easily read online?

-    thewikiman

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  • Aspen Walker April 15, 2011 at 4:23 PM

    RT @theREALwikiman: What's the key to a good interview? Grokking this…

  • Niamh April 15, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    Aha, hence the questions about music librarians to follow! Congratulations on the job, sounds like you were about as prepared as anyone can ever be! I recommend the blog from the music librarians here in Cambridge: if you haven’t come across it already.

  • Niamh April 15, 2011 at 9:44 PM

    By the way, you should try to get to the IAML World Conference if you can at all, it’s in Dublin this summer and under €300 to attend: It’d give a good overview if you haven’t worked in music libraries before.

  • Diana La Spina April 16, 2011 at 6:52 AM

    RT @AspenWalker: RT @theREALwikiman: What's the key to a good interview? Grokking this…

  • Ned Potter April 16, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    Would love your ideas and comments: What's the key to a good interview – beyond the usual truisms we all know already?

  • thewikiman April 16, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    Thanks for the tips Niamh!

  • KimBoo York April 16, 2011 at 1:54 PM

    Those are all great recommendations for any interviewee to follow! And congratulations on your awesome new dream job!

    Having been on the hiring side, though, I’d like to point out that all the preparation in the world won’t clear the most important hurdle: personality mesh. It’s not about having the “right” personality, but rather having the temperament and personality that matches the place of employment. You can’t prepare for that, and sometimes that sinks the most qualified candidate from the get-go. I’m not saying this to depress people, but to stress that if you do all of the things listed above and still don’t get the job, it might be for the best — you may not “match” the type of people you would be working with. I’ve had to pass over candidates who were excellent for certain positions but whom, I could easily see, would not get along with their supervisor or co-workers. On the flip side, I was once told I did not get a job I thought I was a shoo-in for because I am “too independent,” which is not something I can or want to change; so in the long run, I’m sure it was a good thing I did not end up working there. Even if it breaks our hearts, sometimes these things happen for the best reasons in the long run. The important things in a job hunt are preparation and resiliency!


  • Niamh April 16, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    No problem – looking forward to hearing how you get on! Bursaries available for IAML from

  • thewikiman April 16, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    KimBoo, yep I agree with you. I definitely think not getting certain jobs can be the ‘right’ thing. I was really disappointed about all the jobs I didn’t get but I may have been wrong for them and I probably wouldn’t be where I am now (which is where I want to be) if I had got any of them…

  • Ian April 16, 2011 at 5:34 PM

    Speaking as someone who has interviewed and coached staff applying for jobs, the one thing I always tell people to do is to really paint a picture when answering questions. Make sure your answers have a beginning, a middle and an end and are clear and simple to follow. The interviewer should be able to put themselves in your shoes and have a clear idea of exactly what you have described.

    Fairly simple, but it has generally worked for everyone I have coached or interviewed.

    Incidentally, one thing I always hate after a failed interview is people saying “it wasn’t meant to be”. It annoys the hell out of me!

  • thewikiman April 16, 2011 at 5:45 PM

    Ian, that’s a good point – the begginning, middle and end thing is particularly important if you have a tendancy to ramble. We are all told you must answer fully in interviews, but soemtimes you just have to stop speaking otherwise the memory of the really good thing you just said will be eroded by you trailing off because you felt the need to keep going!

    You and I need to get together and discuss fatalism – I feel very similarly, although I’ve tempered my extreme views now to ‘you can’t tell if it wasn’t meant to be or not until at least a couple of years after the event’… :)

  • Tom Roper April 16, 2011 at 10:17 PM

    I have to say that Kim Boo’s approach, above, seems to me to border on the discriminatory. I’ve been on both sides of the table. When members of a panel I’ve served on have said about a candidate, ‘how would they get on with N or M’, I dismiss that as irrelevant. If you only recruit people who fit in, you have a self-perpetuating elite.
    I don’t say that to minimise the tensions that can arise in workplaces; they exist, but they have to be dealt with. If someone ruffles a few feathers, that may be no bad thing.

  • Bobbi Newman April 17, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    What’s the key to a good interview – beyond the usual truisms we all know already?

  • khaled Noubani April 17, 2011 at 12:54 PM

    RT @librarianbyday: What’s the key to a good interview – beyond the usual truisms we all know already?

  • Michelle Ann Farella April 17, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    RT @librarianbyday: What’s the key to a good interview – beyond the usual truisms we all know already?

  • Ned Potter April 18, 2011 at 8:38 AM

    Last call – anyone got any good intervieww tips beyond the usual stuff we all know already to add to this as a comment?

  • Sarah Maule April 18, 2011 at 10:06 AM

    I always think it’s a good idea to go into an interview thinking “What do I want to get from this job?” you’ve obviously applied and they know you want to work there but what would you get in return? e.g. chartership support, ongoing training opportunities etc. If these are the areas you’re interested in you don’t want to be stuck in a job where they aren’t valued.

  • thewikiman April 18, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    Sarah, yep I agree in principle – it’s reeeally hard to do in reality though… There are two types of job hunting I suppose – neccessary and luxury. If it’s neccessary (ie you’re unemployed or about to be) then there may be a little less discretion applied than in the luxury. But I agree – getting a job you know you’re not right for from the start probably isn’t going to end well.

  • Vassiliki April 18, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    First of all, congratulations on your new position. That is great news. I agree with all the interview strategies that you have listed. Being well-informed allows you to relax during the stressful interview process.

    What I take into interviews which I think may make a difference is that I love my profession & I don’t hesitate showing my enthusiasm during interviews. I’ve only missed out on 3 jobs and I’ve held 10 library positions in over 23years (of course, I have now jinxed myself and my luck is over). Due to a mentor’s wise advice when I was 19, I have never hesitated in admitting to a lack of experience/knowledge but I have always pointed out that I am always willing to learn. Skills can always be taught. It is much harder to find staff with a positive attitude.

  • thewikiman April 18, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    Thanks Vassiliki! Really excellent points. I think a related note is, if they ask you about your weakest area (in terms of experience needed to do the job) it’s probably better to be upfront about your lack of experience and say, as you indicate, that you are willing to learn (and a fast learner) than to paper over the cracks and give a tenuous answer the panel will see right through…

  • mginotherwords April 18, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    Be honest and be yourself. I had an interview once when they asked me why I wanted to relocate to the UK and I gave a very serious answer about my skills and professionality as if that side of my life was the only thing I had to offer. I must have sounded quite cold and surely a bit fake! At the next interview, for another job, I decided to play it honest and at the same question I said: “because my boyfriend lives in Cambridge and I’m trying to join him!”. Needless to say, I got this job and worked with amazing colleagues who apart from being professionals were also nice human beings. It depends on the context of course and it’s always a matter of assessing quickly who is sitting in the panel in front of you, but playing honest and give a well rounded picture of myself has proved successful so far. Great article, anyway – I loved the tie detail!

  • Vassiliki April 18, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    My mentor suggested saying that “my comprehension of [the concept] is sound but the opportunities to put this knowledge into practice, so far, has been limited…” I have come to love this sentence :)

  • Suzanne April 18, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    Great advice, Ned. As always! I particularly agree with you and Vassiliki about not being afraid to talk about your weaknesses. An HR Manager in a law firm told me that’s the attitude she seeks – self-awareness. With careful thinking and preparation you can present your areas for development in a positive way and with enthusiasm. Cheerful honesty should be something for which we strive in an interview!

  • Sue Hill April 18, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    Wikiman – you are the man!
    Many of the truisms are broad brush strokes of the things you did to achieve this fantastic result.
    The tie is interesting. A senior candidate of ours had several ‘seconds’ at jobs she really wanted and was losing heart. I happened to spot her in the street one day and through she looked ‘tired’. I asked what she did for intrviews re hair and make-up – ‘nothing’ was the reply. Suggested she ‘make the effort’ next time. She did and although we both would hate to think a haircut and lipstick did the trick she did get the job. Like you she put in some serious second guessing prior to the interview.
    SOmething I always say about interviews is that they are a game: but one where you dont know the rules before you play. Oh and the rules change during the game.
    One truism about interviews is that there are three goldfen rules: preparation, preparation and preparation. I think you ahve shown that these are indeed the key.
    I could go on – but you get the point.
    Sue (Hill of SHR)

  • NicolaFranklin April 19, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    In case anyone missed these excellent tips RT@therealwikiman What's the key to a good interview….

  • Mandy Powell April 19, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    RT @NicolaFranklin: In case anyone missed these excellent tips RT@therealwikiman What's the key to a good interview….

  • thewikiman April 19, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    Thanks Sue and Suzanne, good to get some tips from the recruitment experts…

  • Phil Jones April 20, 2011 at 2:27 PM

    Great blog post – really helpful. I’m with Tom Roper on the subject of the “people like us” effect in interviews. It’s a real problem in the public sector where you can end up with a sort of hive mind mentality where everyone thinks in the same way and you end up with little innovation because if you diverge from the norm you are dissaproved of. It’s the surest way to stifle creativity and one of the reasons I’m for schemes which aim to encourage wider participation in the profession as long as they don’t amount to positive discrimination.

  • Sue Hill April 20, 2011 at 3:52 PM

    Your comment is twisting the conversation to fear by INTERVIEWERS. SOmething that interviewees dont always understand goes on. It is so important to recruit ‘difference’ – but many people rae frightened they wont be able to manage that difference. I am so with you on this. What is the point in having a row of clones. It is not just the public sector that falls into this trap. However as a candidate you need to pitch yourself as ‘moudable’ enough and being a fit with the team while showing that you can innovate, be creative and all that good stuff without wrecking the ship. Hard – burt doable.

  • Morwenna April 23, 2011 at 9:43 PM

    Congratulations Ned! Your post is really helpful. Being realistic, many of us will be reapplying for our own jobs or going for new ones in a very competitive world so, whatever our experience, it’s great to have some tips of how you approached your interview and reflections on it. My role is working with a similar sort of department – they’re all lovely so I’m sure you’ll have a good experience. (Thanks for the plug too!)

  • thewikiman April 24, 2011 at 7:23 PM

    Thank you Morwenna!

  • thewikiman April 24, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    On the subject of applying for our own jobs, clearly the key thing there is to answer every question as if the panel don’t know you and don’t know your history and expertise – you have to approach it just like an interview for a brand new job at a brand new place, which is really hard. I think most people realise this now, but there’s still a few people who make assumptions that the panel will not need to be told ‘I have X years experience of performing Y to a high level’ when in fact, you really do need to explicitly state all that stuff even if one of the panel is your line manager.

  • Ned Potter June 8, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    @stephthorpeuk Hi – yep, here it is:

  • Ned Potter July 7, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    @MissLauren1987 A couple of people have emailed me and said they found this helpful:

  • PS August 10, 2011 at 4:25 PM

    Good tips, thank you so much and I agree with you.

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  • Ned Potter October 3, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    @Jo_Bo_Anderson I listed 20 questions I prepared for my last interview here:

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