1. Planning and Preparation

1.1 - Researching the role

It is fundamental that you understand the purpose and details of the role so that you can prepare appropriately for questions they are likely to ask and to make a note of any questions you may want to ask them at the end.

Try to get as much information as possible about it, either through the company directly or via the recruitment agency. The more information you have about the role, the better placed you are to demonstrate why you are a strong candidate. Some job adverts can be quite vague so if you unsure as to any aspects of the job, don't be shy in asking for more information - after all, if you don't fully understand the requirements of the role, how can sell your key strengths?

Your first step should be to go through the job advert or person specification thoroughly as this will provide the basis of your interview questions i.e. "What specific skills can you bring to this post?"  Based on the criteria they are asking for (which can be easily identified if they have provided an "Essential/Desirable" section as part of a Job Specification), it is possible to predict the type of questions you might be asked and to start thinking about some examples you could use which demonstrate how you meet their needs. Some organisations will be very helpful and send you as much material as possible to help with your planning and even tell you which competencies you will be assessed on! This is extremely useful information in preparing for example-based questions.

Finally, do not make assumptions that all jobs with the same job titles will be exactly the same, e.g. an HR Assistant in a small company could be more greatly involved in working alongside the HR Advisor on other projects, rather than in a larger company whereby the role might be purely an administrative role.

1.2 - Researching the organisation

Ensure that you give yourself sufficient time to thoroughly research the organisation - not only will you come across as informed and enthusiastic but the knowledge you have about them will also help to build your confidence. A very common interview question is "Why do you want to work for this organisation?" - It honestly won't do you any favours if your response is "Well, the job is paying £5,000 more than my current role." Even if that is true, you will have to come up with something better than that to make an impact!

The internet is an invaluable resource, you should firstly look at their own website to find out as much as possible about them. Take your time to read their website or company literature to find out about key people in the organization, their mission and value statements, company size, locations, structure of the company, their main clients, the company history and aim to impress them with the knowledge you have about them.

Take particular interest in their areas of growth/development if you think you have a specialised skill to offer e.g. if a company are looking to develop into Europe and you speak a European language, this could be a useful skill to highlight.

You should also carry out broader background research and try to understand the environment in which an organisation is placed and who are their key competitors; information that might be obtained from specialist trade journals, media, or third party reviews about the organisation which could be found on the internet. If you later get invited to an interview, the research that you have done could make for a couple of interesting questions to ask them - another factor to make you stand out from other candidates" more obvious questions.

If you know someone in the company, try and find out about their experience of working for them but only quote positive aspects about the company during your interview!

1.3 - Simple preparation tasks

It is surprising how many candidates will fail before the interview begins by turning up late through lack of planning. Always use this checklist to ensure you have prepared thoroughly at least a couple of days ahead, particularly if you have to travel a fair distance.

Where is the company based?

You will need to plan your route in advance and ideally visit the location pre-interview so you know exactly where you going on the day and can pre-empt any possible delays or disruptions to your journey. Maps are always helpful and some employers will enclose one when sending out interview details (otherwise use the internet to download a map of the area).  If you are unsure, you should phone and speak to a receptionist to get precise details in finding the location and check details such as the nearest train station. In situations where the role is based quite a distance from your home or in another city, it may well be best to travel the day before and book into a hotel. This may seem costly but can be a very worthwhile investment if it means getting to the interview on time and without the stress of a long journey.

What time is the interview?

It is critical that you do not arrive late for your interview and leave others waiting to see you as it immediately demonstrates lack of professionalism. Once you have found out the location, you should plan to give yourself extra time to get there in case of unexpected delays, particularly with longer journeys. It is much more beneficial to have time to relax and go for a coffee if you are exceptionally early rather than arriving breathless and red-faced because of rushing to get there or having to apologise for your lateness! Ideally, you should arrive at the premises approximately ten minutes beforehand.

Who will be interviewing you?

You should find out the name of your main contact, who will be interviewing you and what their positions are in the company. This will help you prepare for the types of questions they may ask and will help you to tailor your answers to appeal to the relevant interviewers, i.e. if you applying for a technical role and are asked a question by someone in HR, they are doubtfully looking to assess your technical competence, they are more likely to be testing you on other skills such as communication, teamworking, etc. However, the Technical Director may require a more detailed technical answer from you so it is really about impressing the right person with the answer you give.

Do not forget that interviews are also about you assessing the company as your prospective employer and if you take an immediate dislike to someone who could be your manager, it would be useful to know who that person is at the interview.

1.4 - The 24 hours before your interview

Food and drink

You should use your common sense in preparing the previous day for an interview. Do think about getting a relatively early night, so you feel refreshed when you wake up and one that doesn't involve too much alcohol! Even if you are feeling increasingly more nervous by having to wait around for a whole day for a late-afternoon interview, don't think that having a quick drink will be a good idea to sort out those nerves. If alcohol is smelt on you, it would eliminate any chance of success, no matter how well you performed in your interview.

Although not quite so detrimental, do also avoid smelly food the same day and the night before (if it's a morning interview) which can leave a lingering scent on you. Not only can it be very unpleasant to smell garlic/onion etc. on someone's breath, but it can also come out through the pores of your skin so whether you sweat a lot or it's a hot day, it's definitely worth sacrificing your favourite spicy meal until after the interview!  Additionally, if you are a smoker, don't light up just before your interview as you will bring a tobacco-odour into the room with you which can be very off-putting for non-smokers. Ideally, the clothes you are wearing should be clean and smoke-free.

Some people really cannot face food when they are nervous but it is recommended to have something nutritious before your interview to give your body the energy it needs to function well. The last thing you want is your stomach rumbling for everyone to hear or being unable to think properly because you are starving! At the same time, it is not advisable to have a full three-course meal at lunchtime as you may just feel too sleepy afterwards!

Final checks

Before you set off, make sure you have everything you need. Do you have the interview offer letter? Have you been asked to bring any certificates? Are the premises difficult to find without a map? What is the weather like and has rain been forecast? (In which case, be sure to have an umbrella with you). Do you have a copy of your CV? This is always advisable as it could be useful to have it to refer to either during or immediately before the interview.

On arrival, you should have a quick check of how you look in the toilets. Particularly for women, hair that was meant to be neatly tied back may not look quite as tidy because of your journey, your lipstick may have smudged or mascara might have run if it has been raining. If you are someone who sweats a lot, particularly when nervous, have a pat down and try to calm yourself and wash your hands. It is not very pleasant to get a soggy handshake and won't do you any favours in creating a good first impression!

Mobile phones

Finally, be sure to switch off your mobile phone before your interview. There is nothing worse than a ringing phone during the interview process but in case you should forget and the worst does happen, do apologise to those interviewing you and switch it off immediately - NEVER attempt to take the call!

1.5 - Mental Preparation

Dealing with nerves

Some nervousness is good as it gets the adrenaline pumping around our bodies, making us alert and focused which can help to improve our performance. However, you don't want nerves to take over to the extent that you can't speak or think properly and come across as overly tense and jittery. It is perfectly normal to feel nervous before an interview but it's important to remember to relax - keep anxious, negative thoughts from your mind and instead, try to focus on giving a calm and composed interview.

Most recruiters will understand that candidates may have pre-interview nerves and might fumble slightly on the first one or two questions. If you find this happens to you, don't panic, but you do need to aim towards getting in to a flow fairly quickly and getting some control back. Basically, the better prepared you are, the more likely you are to feel confident and focused, two important qualities you will want to demonstrate on the day. Do be aware that your confidence will inspire confidence in others so if you can show self-belief and conviction in what you say, the recruiter is much more likely to believe in you too. Equally, it is important not to go to the other extreme and appear over-confident or arrogant - it is about creating the right balance and demonstrating your strengths in an understated but assured manner.

Breathing Exercise

This can be a very useful way of managing feelings of nervousness. When we are under strain our breathing is likely to become shallow and we do not use all our lung capacity. The effect is to starve the brain of the vital oxygen it needs in order for you to think quickly and clearly. Deep breathing can counteract this.

Just before you enter the interview room, take several deep breaths. Inhale slowly, breathe in through your nose and try to fill your lungs completely. Watch your stomach move out as you fill up with air. Hold this breath for a count of three, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Concentrate on expelling all of the air that you took in. Feel your shoulders relax and your stomach flatten as the air is sent out. Repeat for three or four deep breaths only. This will flood your system with oxygen which will counter the unhelpful effects of the flight and fight mechanism.

1.6 - First impressions

Research has shown that your interviewer could have made up their mind about you within just 30 seconds of having met you. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to ensure you make an excellent first impression. In this short time, the other person forms an opinion about you based on your appearance, your body language, your demeanour, your mannerisms, and how you are dressed. These first impressions can be nearly impossible to reverse or undo, making those initial encounters extremely important.

Remember that the moment you enter the building you are being assessed so don't forget to smile at the receptionist when you introduce yourself - don't underestimate the added value they can offer in providing valuable input on first impressions of candidates! Use the few moments of waiting time to compose your thoughts, or read some company literature but whatever you do, make sure you act like a professional. That also includes whether a receptionist or someone else comes to collect you to lead you to the interview room - maintain a professional composure and keep conversation to pleasantries such as your journey, their building (if it's impressive) or the weather.

Here are a few tips about how to look the part:

  • If your interview outfit could do with an update, then you should think about investing in a new high quality suit/dress which is cut well and fits you perfectly. For management or executive roles, you need to look the part so the suit needs to be of the very best quality.

  • If you are applying to a very traditional organisation, then they are likely to have a stricter dress code i.e. dark-coloured or pin-stripe suit. In this case, try to demonstrate that you are "one of them" by fitting in to the look of their typical employee.

  • Aim for a contemporary rather than a classic look if you are trying to convey a more dynamic, creative, impression, i.e. a flattering dress rather than a formal business suit to convey your personality but avoid anything overly fussy or patterned. This is also important for more mature candidates who worry that they may be seen as "past it".

  • For organisations with a casual dress code, i.e. media companies, a smart co-ordinating outfit rather than a suit may be more appropriate but don't turn up in jeans even if that seems to be the company uniform!  If unsure, check before your interview.

  • All interview outfits should be clean, ironed and checked for fraying hems or straining zips and buttons so check and double-check when trying on your outfit.

  • Accessories are equally important. Briefcases and handbags should be smart and the contents well-organised. Pens should be decent quality (with the lid fixed on tightly if kept in suit pocket!) and business cards should be pristine and kept in their own holder.

  • Womens" hair should be neat and tidy and pulled back from your face if it's long. Coloured hair should be freshly done before the interview. Hair clips and bands should be functional and not distracting. If nail varnish is worn, it should be newly applied.

  • Use aftershave or perfume sparingly as it can be quite intense in a small interview room.

  • Get advice from those you trust as to how you look and if you want to change your image, try to get some free advice from a hairdresser or personal shopper in a department store. If you want a radical overhaul, you might want to employ the services of an image consultant.