Interview success is virtually guaranteed

January 18, 2002

With first-hand experience of screwing up an interview, Peter Hartley set about developing a PC package to help graduates nail that dream job.

As a young, fresh-faced undergraduate, I had delusions of creativity. I fantasised about that job in advertising where I could sway the population with one carefully chosen phrase or image. The "project assistant" job at the agency in London looked like the first step. Arriving in good time for the interview, I was ushered into the manager's office. He leaned back in his opulent leather chair, smiled and said: "Hello, Peter." I leaned back in my less opulent leather chair and awaited the first question.

Silence filled the room for what seemed like an eternity. After what must have really been about 30 seconds, I realised that questions would not be forthcoming. I panicked and simultaneously shifted into babble mode. After about five minutes, during which the manager nodded and smiled but still said nothing, I tried to give myself a break. "Your company brochure says you have very ambitious plans for expansion. What are you thinking of doing?" "A very good question, Peter. What do you think we should be doing?" On reflection, I should have leapt over the desk, slapped his legs, and asked him for the research evidence to support his interview tactics. In practice, I reverted to babble mode.

I did not get the job.

I have terrified successive generations of final-year undergraduate students with that story. And those students have told me about their experiences at interviews, ranging from the traumatic to the bizarre. "If you went to Mars tomorrow, which three things would you take?" "Is bitter or lager better?" These are not the most obvious tests for a prospective career in valuation and property management.

Perhaps the most recurring theme is the value of preparation. This does not mean learning a script about your strengths and ambitions. It does mean developing self-awareness - having clear and realistic ideas about yourself so that you can anticipate typical issues and lines of questioning. It also means developing self-confidence so that you are able to talk spontaneously and convincingly.

To help undergraduates develop these skills, I regularly deliver a session - currently being developed into an online tutorial - that addresses the key interview issues. And I know my advice works. Unbeknown to me, one student used a tape of my session to prepare for a job where I chaired the interview panel. He gave a very impressive performance, got the job and then revealed his method.

Although students receive institutional support, resource limitations mean that university careers and employment services cannot provide unlimited individualised assistance. That is why, with help from the Centre for Multimedia in Education, I devised the Interviewer software, to fill the gap between the general advice that universities can offer students and the necessarily limited opportunities for "real" interview practice.

Interviewer works with a multimedia PC plus a specific but relatively inexpensive webcam. Users can choose from a range of interview sessions, each of which poses eight questions on a particular theme.

One session, for example, mimics the typical milk-round starter interview; one session focuses on personal skills; and another offers difficult open questions.

Users are presented with a professional interviewer who asks real interview questions. The system automatically records the user's answers and then invites them to review and try to improve their recorded performance. Users can access expert hints and tips on-screen, and read comments from the interviewer's perspective. The hints and comments are also available as a handout for later reference.

The software has already achieved recognition - when it was chosen as one of 30 finalists from 0 entries at the last biennial European Academic Software Awards in 2000.

Users may feel that the system is worth while without having a significant impact on their later performance. But in-depth interviews with students who used the program to prepare for interviews suggest that Interviewer does help to improve performance.

The most pleasing reaction was: "It definitely made me more confident." It appears that this was achieved in three main ways. Students felt that Interviewer helped them to polish or naturalise their performance; helped them to prepare for difficult or unexpected questions; and allowed them to check their nonverbal behaviour.

The following quotes illustrate these reactions:

  • "I found it really realistic. It helped me get used to being in front of someone. I actually felt a bit nervous at firstI I had a shaky voice when I started to use it. You need to treat it as if you're going for a real interview, then you know you can answer questions under pressure. I probably wouldn't have been able to talk to you like this (referring to the researcher) if I hadn't used it"
  • "I thought 'no wayI I don't look like that' (referring to the way he moved his head a lot during the interview)I You want the interviewer to see something good and this gives you the chance to see what the interviewer is seeing."

One of our aims this year is to investigate these reactions in more depth to help fine-tune the system. I should emphasise that Interviewer should not be viewed as a replacement for advice and careers sessions but as a supplement to them. Perhaps if it had been available all those years ago, instead of panicking, I would have turned my uncontrolled babble into focused narrative. But then again I am still teaching and that advertising agency has long since disappeared.

Peter Hartley is professor of communication at the School of Cultural Studies, Sheffield Hallam University. For more information: www.shu.ac.uk/cme

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