2. Interviews & Assessment Centres


Interviews can be carried out in a number of ways and their format can greatly vary. Some interviews may be an informal chat, others may be formal structured conversations with one or more individuals, whilst others might be a day-long assessment centre. When you get invited for interview, the employer should explain what to expect and what you might need to prepare for i.e. delivering a 5-minute presentation. If in any doubt, always contact the recruiter to get the specific information you need as it is important that you do not get any nasty surprises and are prepared for the particular style of interview. 

Assessment centres
Assessment days have become increasingly popular for organisations to select the right people for their job roles. They will last at least half a day, if not the whole day, which can be quite daunting if you have never attended one before. Therefore, knowing what to expect will allow you to prepare and possibly practice in advance. An assessment centre will test you on a variety of skills used to measure your suitability for a job, which is why organisations sometimes prefer them as they feel it reflects a truer picture of your capabilities. The types of exercises and tests you will be facing are usually a subset of the list set out below.

Multiple step processes
In some cases the process will involve more than just one interview or one assessment, particularly if you are applying for larger organisations. At the most basic end of the spectrum, you may be invited to a first interview with an HR professional; if you are successful you may then be invited to an interview with members of the team you would be expected to work within. Alternatively, you may start the process with a telephone interview, followed by a face-to-face panel interview, followed by an assessment centre including personality testing and various group tasks, finishing with a social gathering.

You will find below an overview of the various types of stations that you may encounter in the recruitment process.

2.1 - Distant interviews (Telephone / Webcam)

Increasingly recruiters and employers are resorting to telephone or webcam interviews to get a first glance at a candidate. This helps keep costs down but also ensures that they can see a maximum of candidates in a short amount of space. For candidates, the benefit is that they don't have to travel to an interview and can do that doing normal working hours without arousing suspicions.

2.2 - Face-to-face interviews

2.2.1 - One-to-one interviews

One-on-one interviews are a very common form of interviewing because they can be organised without the need to synchronise many diaries. They are also popular with candidates, who can feel more relaxed than panel interviews. Although intense, they shouldn’t feel like an interrogation and that the interviewer' role is to catch you out - the interview is a two-way process for both the employer and the candidate to decide whether the other party would be the right choice for them.

Therefore, it is particularly important in this type of interview to establish rapport by being friendly, genuine and down-to-earth - but don’t overdo it so you come across as false. The very nature of such interviews can make it feel more informal but always keep in mind that you are there to sell yourself, so avoid becoming too chatty and over-familiar and keep to the same structure of answering questions as you would for a panel interview.

The variation in the conduct of the interview can vary greatly depending on the experience of the interviewer i.e. a seasoned in-house recruiter/HR professional vs. a newly qualified manager who has little interview experience. The latter could potentially be more difficult, particularly if you feel some questions may be inappropriate (see our section on Illegal interview Questions). Either way, even if you feel the interviewer may be struggling with the situation (which sometimes happens!) never underestimate their position as they could still make that ultimate decision as to whether or not to hire you.

One of the main disadvantages of one-on-one interviews is that you have to hope that your interviewer likes you as there will be no one else to fight for you.

2.2.2 - Panel interviews

These interviews are generally more formal and organised with a standard set of questions for all candidates and more likely to be used in larger organisations where the position either reports to a number of different people or has close links with other departments. They are deemed to be fairer than a one-to-one as a number of different opinions are taken into consideration during the hiring process, which, in turn, makes the interview more thorough and rigorous. They are often used in the public sector to ensure a level of cultural equality and diversity because of the possible mixed demographics of people on the panel.

The other advantage to the employer is that they are more time-efficient and can eliminate the need for second or third interviews as a number of those involved in the decision-making process from different parts of the organisation can interview the candidate at the same time. Each panel member will take turns to ask questions relevant to their interests and after the interview, the candidate can be discussed and rated from each member's perspective.

Facing a number of people on the panel can be intimidating and therefore, it can be a useful tool for an employer to measure how well a candidate handles stress and their ability to interact with a diverse range of individuals. The number of people on the panel can vary between 2-8 and they would be mixture of relevant specialists e.g. Human Resources, Line Manager, sometimes a user of the service if a charity or public sector organisation.

One way to lessen the impact is to try and find out beforehand who will be on the panel and make sure you know their names and job titles prior to the interview and from an organisational standpoint, what their perspectives are likely to be. There is usually a ‘chair’ and that person should be fairly obvious - their role is to guide the meeting and they generally take a central position in the room. If unsure, a quick call to HR would give you the relevant information and if are hesitant to do so, remember, knowledge is power!

Each panellist will have their own agenda about what they are seeking to find out about you so it is important that you come across as well-rounded in your ability to do the job and that you can effectively display a number of personal attributes. For example, your Line Manager will be testing your skills, experience and knowledge whilst HR will be assessing whether you would be a good cultural fit, and a user of the service may be looking for your ability to show empathy and compassion.

Be prepared with a number of questions to ask at the end that would involve different panel members so that again, you are trying to capture everyones attention and it will also demonstrate your interest in various aspects of the job and the organisation.

It is very important that your eye contact is maintained with the whole panel throughout your interview (see previous section on Body Language).

Overall, try not to let your nerves get the better of you (panel members know this type of interview can be daunting and their aim is not to intimidate you!) so if you only remember to smile occasionally, do so at the beginning and end of your interview so that they have a pleasant first and last impression of you.

2.2.3 - Different styles of questioning

There are traditionally two types of questioning:

  • Standard (also called unstructured) interviewing: panel members can ask any type of question they like provided they are not illegal (see our section on illegal questions). Under the standard interviewing technique, the questions are seemingly random and do no seek to test specific aspects of a candidate. The decision to recruit or not is then based on a general feeling about the candidate. This style of questionning is often adopted by employers who value relationships (often because the company is small) more than numerical evaluation of skills. It is easy to set up, but can often just lead to a "chat"-based interview and lose effectiveness as a result, mainly because employers often end up recruting someone who is "nice" but may not be effective at their job.
  • Competency-based (also called structured) interviewing: competency-based interviews are based on questions designed to test a set of specific competencies agreed by the company and communicated to the candidate in advance. Each question has a particular purpose and has a specific marking scheme. Questions often ask for specific examples where the candidate has demonstrated a particular skill or attribute. Each candidate is the scored according to that marking scheme and the job is given to the highest scorer. The advantage of competency-based interviews is that the interviewer knows what he is looking for and candidates also have an idea of what they need to prepare, particularly in terms of demonstrating capability through the use of real-life examples from their past career or their social life. (See our section on competency based interviews for more detail)

2.3 - Presentation

The aim of presentations is to test your ability to analyse an issue and to convey it to a varied audience. It is therefore as much a test of your maturity as it is a test of your communication skills.

Whenever applicable, the letter inviting you to the interview (usually the shortlisting letter) will nearly always include details of any presentation that you may be required to prepare, including the topic, the type of audience, the anticipated duration, the format and other important details such as the PowerPoint version in which your file must be saved and whether the presentation needs to be emailed before the day.

If the organisation intends to give you the presentation topic on the day of the presentation itself then the letter will say so explicitly. As such, if the shortlisting letter does not contain any mention of a presentation, you can reasonably assume that there won’t be one.

See our section on how to prepare a presentation for further detail

2.4 - Group discussions/task

Group interviews are a popular way for employers to assess a large number of applicants in a cost-effective and timely manner. As organisations increasingly recognise the value of teamwork and healthy interpersonal relationships amongst their employees, group interviews have become more common and they are often used to determine qualities such as communication/influencing/leadership skills as they can be easily assessed.

Many candidates view group interviews as gruelling and potentially awkward situations as they spend hours with their competitors and yet have to display good teamwork skills! Therefore, knowing what to expect will put you in prime position.

Normally an employer will start by giving a presentation of the company and give everybody the opportunity to introduce themselves. They will normally then outline the structure of the day and the tasks that will be undertaken; which could include role plays, group discussions or problem-solving exercises (some may seem obscure such as building an object together but the task is irrelevant as they are assessing your team working skills and not the end product). During the day there is normally very little one-to-one interaction with the interviewers, instead they will be seated around the room quietly observing and taking notes.

See our section on how to handle group discussions and tasks for further detail.

2.5 - Psychometric and aptitude test

The term ‘psychometric testing’ encompasses anything from abstract reasoning, verbal reasoning to other sorts of IQ-type tests but, for most interviews, it is used to refer to personality tests such as Myers Briggs or Belbin Tests can be carried out under supervised exam conditions, though candidates are often allowed to take them online from home at a suitable time. In some cases, psychometric tests are used by employers simply to decide in which team to place you when you get the job (or so they will have you believe) but in many cases it either informs the shortlisting for the interview or dictates what questions you may be asked at the interview. Occasionally, personality tests are complemented by an interview with a psychologist to validate and develop the findings of the exercise.

See our section on psychometric and aptitude tests for further detail

2.6 - In-tray exercise

Besides a recruiter being able to observe your behaviours and characteristics closely, in-tray exercises are also very good at assessing how you would cope with prioritisation & time-management tasks and making decisions under pressure; all of which are difficult to judge purely based on an interview (even though competency questions often cover these skills). The tasks could include responding to emails, analysing and summarising a report, dealing with an angry customer by phone, managing conflicting events in your calendar, etc. It is important to work quickly but accurately through the tasks.

In-tray exercises are best approached as follows:

  • Read through all the information carefully and follow the instructions given
  • Quickly read through ALL the items on the page
  • Prioritise urgent tasks - try to identify who the request is from and their level of importance
  • Justify the decisions you make - there is not usually a right a wrong as long as you can back up your reasons
  • Check for any deadlines and whether there is any room for negotiation
  • Weigh up the importance of dealing with a particular issue
  • Delegate any tasks if possible to more appropriate people in the organisation<./p>
  • Important - stay calm! Be rational in your decision-making process

2.7 - Role play

These are generally not a favourite for many people! The purpose of the role play exercise is to test how you respond when put on the spot and your ability to deal with a difficult situation. It assesses your competencies and behaviours which are a pre-requisite of the role so you need to fully understand what the recruiter is looking for you to display (this should be clear from the Job Description). They will be looking to measure the effectiveness of your communication and interpersonal skills under pressure.

There is not usually a right or wrong to the outcome - you are being assessed on how effectively you can handle the situation.

Role-plays are usually carried out by actors or specifically trained individuals. They can include any kind of situation that would emulate a typical scenario you could be faced with in the role. This could include:

  • Dealing with a difficult customer
  • Managing a demotivated member of your team
  • Negotiating a sales deal

The timing of them may vary but usually you will have around 10 mins to prepare so make sure that you read the notes carefully and are clear about what you are meant to do. Keep aware of your body language by maintaining eye contact and an open posture.

2.8 - Case study exercise

Case studies are particularly popular in assessment centres for graduate roles in management consulting, banking, accountancy and financial services but they can also be part of assessments for other business sectors and industries. They are typically based on real-life business cases.

They are sometimes part of a group work activity or can be an individual exercise. You will usually be presented with a work-based scenario and asked to examine the evidence before presenting your findings and resolutions. They may also drip-feed further information for you to assess and review throughout the activity.

Although you are being tested to see how you cope with the unfamiliar, any research preparation you have carried out will be to your advantage as it will make you more informed of the company and the type of work they are involved in. Most of the larger organisations will have sample case studies and recent press releases for you to view on their website which you should read beforehand or try to get this information from their company literature. Aim to get a feel for the type of work it is involved in and the type of business decisions it has to make or advise clients on. Also do some wider reading to further increase your awareness of any issues and developments in the particular business sector.

Ensure you are clear about what you are being asked to do, understand what the problem is, what your role is and what are the key objectives to be achieved. As you are expected to manage you own time, you will need to ascertain whether yourself or someone else needs to be allocated the responsibility of time-keeper, allowing for time to prepare for the final presentation at the end of the task.

If it is a group work exercise, you should co-ordinate with the others to divide up the tasks between you and be conscious of the behaviours they will be assessing (see marking system on page 20). Although you may be thinking about your role within the group, it is equally important to remain focused on the objective. The final presentation should be relevant, clear and concise, and should include a summary of your conclusions and recommendations.

Note - Some Careers Services run workshops and presentations on how to successfully prepare for assessment centres. There are also a number of companies on the internet which provide such services.

If you have a disability that may affect your performance in any of the exercises mentioned, discuss the matter with the employer before attending the assessment centre.

2.9 - Social Interviews (Also called "Trial by Sherry")

A social interview may include being invited to attend a company social event, such as a lunch or early evening drinks with key members of the department. There are actually two purposes for this type of interview.

The first purpose is to get to know you in a more informal way to determine if you are a good fit with the team, bearing in mind they already know that you can do the job. In today's increasingly team-based work environment, compatibility with the team is crucial to success. If they are trying to win you over, social gatherings help to sell a company as an enjoyable place to work, as happy staff may well be their best form of promotion.

The second purpose is to see how you perform in a social setting, especially if you will be interacting with customers or clients whereby they could be assessing your presentation (body language), communication skills and personality. It is important to understand that you still need to be on your guard and treat it as part of the interview process so whilst doing well may not gain you major points, doing badly can cost you the job.

A few tips:

  • Keep your alcohol consumption low, even if others don’t, as you may end up drawn into inappropriate conversation
  • Don’t eat anything messy (like spaghetti!)
  • Be aware of your table manners
  • Keep the conversation to a general nature on the job, your background, the department, etc. Avoid telling jokes, even if you are the entertainer amongst your friends!
  • If you are a smoker, restrain, even if others invite you to join them. It could go against you, especially if it means interrupting a one-to-one with the hiring manager to dash outside
  • If you are being hosted by people who may be reporting to you (i.e. a secretary), make sure you ask about them as well as talking about yourself. As tempted as you may be to impress, you will score more points if you show genuine interest in them
  • Don’t be the first or last to leave. After the hiring manager goes home, staying for a couple or more drinks to be polite is acceptable but you do not want potential colleagues remembering you for being a party animal!