Ask the expert: interview questions from jobseekers

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We ask Careers Consultant Sean Russell interview questions sent in from our jobseekers including; covering a gap in a CV or explaining a career change, answering questions about weaknesses, specific academic interviews tips and the common "Why are you leaving your current job?" question.

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About this video

Sean Russell who is an ex-Director of the University of Warwick and the University of Birmingham Careers Services and has over 10 years’ experience interviewing people, shares some interview advice.


Alison: Hello I’m Alison Osborne from and welcome to our video series on ‘How to Succeed at Job Interviews’.

I am here with Sean Russell who is an ex-Director of the University of Warwick and the University of Birmingham Careers Services. Sean has over 10 years’ experience interviewing people and is now a career coach, trainer and consultant.

Alison: Sean, thank you for joining me today.

Sean: Pleasure.

Alison: We have had some questions come in from our jobseekers that I wanted to ask you:

So firstly, how might you cover a ‘gap’ in a CV and/or explain a career change?

Sean: Well ideally you won’t have to in an interview because you will have anticipated this beforehand and possibly chatted to them informally, but it’s absolutely key that if there is a gap in your CV - and not just because there’s a typo and you’ve put in the wrong year so that a gap appears by mistake - that you have an explanation. And that ranges from everything whether it’s travelling the world, which particularly is an issue with new graduates who have taken a year off, bringing out the positives, explaining that it was maternity leave - but not being defensive about it, as a very positive result comes out of maternity leave, and if you want to talk about skills; well it’s a wonderful example of being multi skilled - or if its due to illness, being in prison, just have a story that is going to sound positive, it’s hard to give further advice on that because it depends on what the gap is, but run it past somebody else, one of the things that is absolutely key is to run your answers past other people.

Alison: How do you answer a question about your strengths and weakness?

Sean: Well hopefully your strengths will be absolutely obvious because you will have written about them in your application form, but also it’s continuing to be confident about your strengths, I think some people suffer from ‘modesty disease’ sometimes, where they talk about ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ in terms of answering questions about what they’ve done, in terms of teamwork, the panel want to hear about what YOU’VE done, in terms of weaknesses, to a certain extent I think that question has gone out of fashion a bit, but if you are asked about your weaknesses the key thing is to come out with something that can clearly be improved, or it might even be that you don’t have weaknesses as such, because that’s quite a strong word, you USED to have a weakness in this particular area, and this is how you developed it. The other response is that your weakness might be something particularly technical, like ‘I feel that I need to know how to use excel spread sheets and I will go on a course’ but the key thing is to come out with an idea of how you’re going to improve or fill that gap.

Alison: So do you have any specific advice for academic interviews?

Sean: Well yes much of what I’ve said applies to all interviews, but particularly with academic interviews, the tone is going to be slightly different, in terms of being challenged, on what you say, on what you feel about your subject and in deed on your research, a presentation will be part of it, and unlike a presentation to a panel of 3 or 4, sometimes for senior administrative posts in universities, they might open it up to a range of people to come along, that will certainly be the case for an academic interview. And I think that the challenging nature, I don’t wish to scare people, but that might not be something that may not be used to, but you certainly will have done if you’ve been through a PhD viva, so think of that as the model, but probably actually less scary than a viva, and otherwise, particularly if you’re applying to a UK job from a different country or a different educational background, just check out the way that the university that you are applying for conduct themselves in terms of academic interviews.

Alison: What should you say when you’re asked about your future plans?

Sean: Yes, this tends to take the form of where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time? And it’s really difficult to answer, the key thing I think a panel are looking for are do you have aspirations to do your job as well as you can, to develop it and also, to be flexible. If there are requirements for you to flex your job and flex your role, particularly in the light of external pressures, which particularly in higher education has never been so true as in the last few years, what they don’t want is someone who is going to start a job and just do the letter of the job spec, or the bare minimum, I think answers to a question such as “well in 5 years’ time I would like your job”, pointing to the chair of the panel, unless you’re going to do this in a fairly light hearted way, probably is not the best way of doing it, unless you feel you’ve got such a rapport with the interview panel that you think you can risk a fairly light hearted answer like that, or it might not be light hearted!

Alison: What should you say when you’re asked why you’re leaving your current job?

Sean: Stress the positive, ‘I’ve enjoyed my job and found the current job fulfilling but I want to extend myself’ if you’re moving into a different role, then focus on the transferable skills, so you might be moving into a different sector, a different department within a university, so stress the skills you’ve got, stress the fact that you want to stretch yourself, that it’s a new opportunity, it’s all about professional development, and you can’t go too far wrong.

Alison: What if the interviewer says you’re over qualified, why do you want this job? How would you handle that?

Sean: Sometimes that question can be wrapped up in ‘we see that you applied for this job which will be a drop in salary’ and the key thing is, particularly on the salary side is to say well, it’s not an issue for me’, without going into too much detail so you don’t sound defensive, like ‘the property prices are less, I can cut down on my food bills’, don’t need that sort of detail, and it could well be that having spent some time managing, you’ve enjoyed it, you’ve done that but what you really want to do is focus on, perhaps, immediate delivery to people, whether it’s working with clients, or individual students, or whatever it might be, again, with the risk of sounding like a broken record, its stressing the positives, it’s not saying ‘ I can’t cope any more - I can’t stand managing teams any more, all they do is bring me trouble ‘ its focussing absolutely on the positive, and I think one thing that’s worth saying at this point, is that if you’re finding it really uncomfortable explaining why you’re applying for these jobs then possibly the job may not be the right one for you.

Alison: Have you got any suggestions for how to answer the ‘why should we give you the job’ type of questions?

Sean: Yes, it’s a question which typically comes at the end of the interview, and some people feel very challenged by that, particularly if it’s delivered in a fairly firm way, but actually it’s a great opportunity to summarise why you are the best person for the job. And all the way along hopefully you’ve been thinking in terms of bullet points of evidence, and that’s the opportunity to talk about your personal qualities, your experience and your aspirations for your potential for doing a really good job, as its advertised at the moment, and taking it forward over the next few years, particularly in ways that might match the organisations 5 year plan, so it’s a lovely opportunity really to nail the job. And certainly be prepared for that question. And also be prepared for a similar question which might be along the lines of, the panel might say, ‘is there anything you feel we haven’t asked you? Or is there anything you’d like to say before we finish the interview?’

Alison: At the end of the interview how to achieve a balance between not asking enough questions and asking too many?

Sean: The key thing is don’t ask the question where the answer is really obvious. Like, who are your competitors? Well, if you’ve got this far you should know. What are the key issues facing the higher education sector at the moment? You should know that question. It might be that you have prepared a list of questions - when I say list I mean probably about four or five - and they’ve all been answered, if so, say so, and also you might refer to a couple of those questions, so you might say well I did have a question about how the university is planning to expand its widening participation scheme, but actually you told me a little bit about the strategy so I now know the answer to that question, so thank you very much, and even if you don’t ask questions, one advice is having them on a piece of paper and just looking at the list you’ve got prepared and saying ‘yes I did have a few but I find now that they’ve all been answered. ‘ so in a way you’ve said ‘well actually I have done my homework’ what I would not recommend is that you have your ten questions and you stick to asking all ten questions, now a good interview panel, particularly a chair - and ive done this in the past - having seen the candidate pull out their 20 or so questions, say oh I see you’ve got a lot of questions perhaps you could just pick out the first two or three, but really you shouldn’t be asking the panel to make that sort of decision, it makes things a little bit uncomfortable. And it could well be that questions come up during the course of the interview, because particularly in terms of follow up questions in the interview, the interview may seem more at times like a conversation, and there could be things that come out of the interview that you just want to check towards the end, and for me those are the best sorts of questions.

Alison: And finally, tackling difficult questions, the kind of question like ‘if you were a fruit what fruit would you be and why? How do you start dealing with those?

Sean: Thankfully the trend for asking those sort of questions, outside of industries such as advertising , PR, I think even some law and finance companies used to ask those questions, where the answer was irrelevant, it was how you dealt with something really, really unusual, and if you are asked those questions, which I think is hugely unlikely particularly in the higher education sector, I wouldn’t get too panicky about it, you might take a moment or two to think about it and you might come out with an answer to the fruit question by saying well ‘I’d be a banana because obviously then I’d be a-peeling’

Alison: Well thank you very much for your time Sean.

Sean: Not at all - absolute pleasure, thanks very much indeed.

Alison: You can see more videos, careers advice, blogs, case studies and much more on our website Careers Videos

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