The Lessons I’ve Learned from Interviews
Applying for jobs post-university is ultimately a disheartening experience. Having had three years as an undergrad building an academic profile for lecturers and seminar tutors to revere, a portfolio of countless assignments and insights in group discussions, now recruiters are expecting a brief two page summation of yourself and an hour’s interview in which to vocalize your talents. The comforts of having established yourself firmly within academic circles, building up a rapport with your tutors and seminar groups, is somewhat disjointed in comparison with the sense of anonymity you feel beyond this. Now the real anxiety of influence comes into play. The lecture hall doesn’t feel so crowded in hindsight in comparison with the hundreds of candidates all vying for the same position now. The interview can last up to an hour, sometimes half an hour, perhaps even twenty minutes, and within this time frame you have to sunder all your creative energy and make yourself relevant, knowing full well that everyone is trying to do exactly the same and that not everyone can be unique surely? For graduates who, like me, have chosen general subjects such as English and Philosophy, this task may seem monumental. Like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, we feel we have ‘Ability in the Abstract.’ You know it’s there, you’re capable, but how to defeat the timeless bias of employees who are won over by someone else’s trite catch phrases or self-exhibitionism?
- Don’t underestimate the impact of having a good vocabulary-I don’t mean the banal clichéd words which employers like to embellish their job specifications with. If you use words which are not thrown about so much in the course of an interview, you might just be remembered. You’re ‘hardworking’ but everybody can say that and it comes across as being relevant but no more compelling than if you express your preference for tea over coffee. Yet I find that employers take notice when you say that you work ‘tenaciously’ or ‘assiduously’. There’s no need to sound like a thesaurus, but eloquence and originality in the use of adjectives is a useful skill.
- Don’t let them know you’re intimidated-I genuinely think that the most arrogant and critical interviewers are more impressed if you manage to sidestep snarky remarks. Don’t be self-effacing if they’ve caught you out or want to make you feel recriminations over something plainly trivial. Make strong eye contact and maintain your conviction in yourself. Just the right level of self-affirmation against bias and petty criticism is more striking because it shows you are not so easily rebuffed.
- Don’t prepare too much-I have spent a lot of days preparing for interviews with painstaking attempts to make myself sound clued up on the job, the organization, the history, the web pages, etc. Yet sometimes when I’m actually sat in the interview I’m so overwhelmed by the excessive stream of facts and figures running through my subconscious that the wrong details come flooding to the forefront of my mind in answer to the question. Don’t become a repository for irrelevant information. It’s easy to read through a company website and think that if there is one detail you leave out it will cost you. I think that forcing your brain to retain every little detail is ultimately much worse, especially under the pressure of limited time constraint. Use this preparation period like you would when editing an essay. Choose the facts or details which resonate with you personally and leave out the rest.
- Find pause for thought-I find that an interview begins well and then, like your concentration levels during revision, after finding its peak it starts to dip. If interviews are an hour or longer, I think it’s especially hard to maintain momentum in your answers. The interviewer always offers you a glass of water at the start. Use it to bide your time. A small break in your constant stream of answers is perhaps essential to regain composure. Don’t be afraid for a gap here and there in your discourse, it’s not called a ‘pregnant pause’ for nothing. And if the pause is actually suddenly something more sinister-you’ve actually lost your train of thought or your mind’s sufficiently blank-just make light of it. The stress of an interview is a universal concept and why should we berate ourselves for having a shaky moment here and there? The interviewer knows it’s a high-pressure environment and if they’re reasonable human beings, they won’t immediately lose interest if you immediately lose steam.
- Don’t appear as though you’ve thought too much about your appearance-I honestly think that minimalism is best. I think if you look too polished and colourful, decked out with pussy bows, heavy make-up and eccentric jewellery, you may seem as though you would ultimately place too much importance upon how things will look in your job, as opposed to providing any real depth of work beyond this. Unless of course you are interviewing for a role in fashion, in which your choice of outfit will most probably be assessed as part of the interview. Otherwise remain minimalist but personable. I am an English Literature graduate and, to avoid appearing a little too ‘corporate’-which might translate to many graduates as ‘soulless’-I always wear something on my person to highlight my creativity or love of untold stories. I have a cameo necklace which is very old and has such an enigmatic face, so I keep the rest of my outfit very neutral so as to draw attention to it. I like to think that such small visual aids are like elegant frames in which to place yourself so you won’t be forgotten, without overshadowing or overwhelming a sense of who you are.
- Who are you?-You don’t have to work it out this year, this decade, this lifetime, never mind before the date of the interview. I don’t think anybody truly goes through their life knowing exactly who they are. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, the self is ‘a wedge shaped core of darkness’; it is always subject to doubt, contestation, revision and rebirth. It helps to build up a useful list of your talents and abilities but don’t ever fret that you are not finished or complete as a human being. Putting together a sense of identity takes years and I don’t think that any interview is demanding a finite profile of yourself, or it shouldn’t be. Jacques Lacan describes the evolution of every human personality as ‘the process of becoming’ which is never complete, rather it is ‘an ongoing process’. It’s fine to lack experience in some areas because your adaptability and capacity for self-growth should instantly entitle you to new areas of development.
The job market loves to advertise positions for people who are already experienced in a particular sector, barring the way for a younger generation who wish to continue their progress from academia and expand their skill set in a chosen industry. The transition period is stifling because there seems to be no gap in which academics can develop themselves for employment. Interviews should give the right people these chances who, to return to Conrad’s phrase, have ‘Ability in the Abstract’ and are waiting to translate that Ability to the Concrete. Yes, we may lack concrete experience, but surely the creativity, research skills, ambition and eloquence we have acquired at University should make us eligible to attain some experience in the first place?