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

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

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