How to...succeed at first interview stage

Interviews are really stressful. We all know that. You’ve an hour or so to impress the socks off the person you’re talking to, and at the same time, you’re trying to find out whether they’re a business you want to join. Even though you know you can do this job, you’re probably worried about what you’re going to say, whether you’re going to come across as a bit of an idiot and how you’re going to manage not to talk utter rubbish at times. First interviews are not usually the most fun you can have, and to top it off you’re taking time off work.

We’d like to let you into a secret. Your interviewer is probably thinking along the same lines. I love interviewing - I’d do little else if I could get away with it – but for your interviewer, it’s not likely to top their list of things they want to do. They want to get on with their proper job, fill the hole in their team, find the superstar who’ll take their company to unrivalled greatness and not have to talk to any more recruitment people. They are really, really hoping that you’re the right person. You’re already further ahead than you thought you were.

With this comforting thought to give you a boost, let’s look at all the ways you can maximise your chances.

Prepare. This is absolutely critical, with a capital everything. Research the company, the interviewer, the job – talk to other employees if possible. Look at Companies House website and find out how the business is performing. Find out about the non-business things they get involved with. For example, do they support a charity that you have a personal connection with?

Dress appropriately. Unless you are explicitly told otherwise, wear a suit. This is a uniform of sorts and in these early stages, you’re playing a part. If you’re male and you don’t like wearing a tie, take it with you in your pocket so you can put it on if everyone else is wearing one. Polish your shoes. Sort your hair out. Avoid anything divisive – beards, trainers, low cut tops, very short skirts, very high heels. You will be judged by your appearance, however irrelevant you may feel that is, and you’ll never know. If you need a guide, have a look at the company website to see how they present themselves. 

Practice interview questions. This is BY A MILE the most useful piece of first interview advice we can give. Most nerves are due to uncertainty about whether you’ll be able to put across why you’re the right person for the job, or that you’ll be asked a question you don’t know the answer to. Write down a list of all of the questions you think you’ll be asked and then answer them. Not on paper, out load. Say them to your spouse, a friend, the dog, the mirror; anything to get the words flowing out of your mouth. By the time the interviewer gets to question three, you’ll be in your element and able to relax, which means you’ll perform much better.

Remember that you are selling, not buying. Whether you applied for the job or headhunted, at this first interview stage you’re on a shortlist. Your job is to make it through to the next round when you’ll be buying, not selling. You have to be offered the job to turn it down.

Be keen and enthusiastic – the interviewer is probably proud of their company and their role. They’re still working there for a reason. Don’t make rude comments about the décor, even if the interviewer starts it!

Spend some time navel-gazing (before the interview, and probably not literally). You’ve taken the time to go for an interview, so think about why you want to join the company and why you want the job.

Eye contact and body language are really important. There’s a fine line between good eye contact and looking like a serial killer; similarly, a firm handshake doesn’t mean you try to crush your opponent with your death grip. Practice with friends and family. Take your cues from your interviewer. Don’t be afraid to look up to the ceiling when you’re reflecting on how to answer a question. If you don’t like maintaining eye contact, one really good tip is to focus on the bridge of your interviewer’s nose, just between the eyebrows. Try it on a friend. I bet they don’t notice.

How you say things is just as important as what you say. Most of what you say won’t be remembered, but your interviewer will take away an impression of whether they like you and whether you’ll fit into their team. Use positive terms rather than negative; talk about opportunities; don’t bad-mouth your previous employer. Allow the interviewer to get to know you and try to introduce something personal about yourself – what are your interests outside work? Ask them questions, too – how long have they been with the company? What do they like about it?

Take your time and calm down. You’re not in a race and you don’t have a chess timer ticking away next to you. Listen carefully, ask for clarification if necessary (also a good way of stalling for time a little) and if your response is likely to be detailed, say so in advance and stop every now and again to see if they’re with you so far. This will also help if you’re inadvertently wandering off the point or if the interviewer doesn’t need to hear anymore – either because you’re absolutely right or totally wrong. 

Closing the interview is a tricky thing to judge. Generally, interviewers hate to be closed with a direct “so when do I start?”, but it is possible to gauge how you’ve done with a more subtle “what’s the next stage likely to be?”. You probably already know, though, as it’s incredibly rare for both parties to come away with entirely differing views on how it went.


Hopefully, these hints and tips will give you some confidence. Keep an eye out for our interviewer’s guide, too, to get a picture on how the person on the other side of the desk might be feeling. Above all, don’t forget that your interviewer is human, and will probably be a bit unsure about how they’re going to work out whether you’re the right person for the job. Be friendly, be positive, be honest if you don’t know something and be enthusiastic about your future with the company. You’d be surprised how much this counts.


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