Interview Tips: What Drives Interview Selection Panels Mad

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There is a great deal of advice on applying for jobs and being interviewed. This article looks at the process from the selector’s point of view. The more you can understand where they are coming from, the better prepared you will be. The following is drawn from years of involvement in recruitment in the HE sector, teaching, the civil service, the armed forces and a range of blue chip graduate recruiters. Selectors are busy people; you need to understand them to avoid driving them bonkers….


If you prepare well, your application will be clear and relevant and selectors won’t feel they need to be telepathic in order to understand why they should interview you.

  • Research the role: read the job and person specification and annotate both. Mark your strengths and weaknesses, then ask someone who knows you and your work for their opinion to ensure you’re neither being over-confident nor too modest

  • Ask for clarification: contact the employer for more information. They can be helpfully indiscreet e.g. ‘There is a deputy for this role, but we want to bring in some new ideas’. Prepare for this informal conversation as you would for an interview. Plan your questions and note down their answers. Keep it brief, but be prepared if they ask about your interest in the role and previous experience. Getting in touch can: show initiative; build rapport; unearth more than is in the published specifications. 


Reading and short listing applications is often an occasional and extra job for many panel members; so don’t make their job even more difficult and time-consuming…

  • Overlong covering letters/personal statements – I’ve seen ten sides for a middle-management job; aim for two. Some letters might be longer if they contain lists of publications, but these could be presented as appendices.
  • Too much narrative, not enough commentary – general and rambling personal and work experience biographies make it hard for selectors to pick out salient points or easily see the connection between your experience and skills and the job and person specification. Make it easy for them use the headings in the specifications as your ‘essay plan’
  • Gaps in work history - deal with them in your application or possibly before you apply. At the very least, have an answer prepared for the interview.
  • Who’s going to be interviewing you? This is key. Individual panel members may well have specific questions relevant to their relationship to the role, so find out who they are and what they do. If you can make reference to their role in the interview, so much the better.

Interview Questions

Interviewers get uncomfortable if you are uncomfortable or lacking in confidence through lack of preparation, so consider the following…

Why this job and why now? – this ‘warm-up’ question can throw candidates. Real-life answers for senior roles such as: ‘isn’t it obvious?’, ‘to be nearer my family’, ‘my current employer won’t give me a bigger office’ don’t really tell the panel anything except that you haven’t really thought it through and may well leave within 3 months if appointed. If you’ve started your cover letter by addressing this question, expanding it at interview shouldn’t be a problem

Why this organisation? Selectors will expect you to have done your research, especially if you’re moving into a new area to apply your transferable skills or to a new employer. They want to hear that their organisation is special (even if you have ten applications currently in circulation) Speak to people who already work in the company or university or who do the same job elsewhere. Check out annual reports or recent strategy documents (essential reading for jobs at universities) so that you can demonstrate your knowledge of key issues and developments and implications for the job you’re applying for

Overlong answers tend to be thin on detail– it’s hard for even the sternest interviewer to interrupt, sometimes it’s easier for them to not bother as you talk yourself out of a job marvelling smugly at your command of English and the sophisticated syntax and creative use of metaphor while all the time….well, you see what I mean. Be aware of their body language, the ‘rabbit-in-headlights-‘ look, the fixed grin which means you’ve probably gone on too long. Think in terms of two or three bullet points of evidence, at least to start with….and practice

Extreme body language is not only off-putting, but can immediately exclude you if the role is customer/client/student focussed. E.g fiddling with watch/jewellery. Also be aware of eye-contact. Ask a work colleague who has seen you in formal situations (i.e. committees, giving presentations) for feedback

Negotiating salary, conditions of work – interviewers, especially if it’s a panel of more than two, just may not have the authority to negotiate. Occasionally, the culture of an occupation or employer may be different, so check this out. And you’re in a much stronger position to do this after they make you an offer and you also then have time to think.

And finally, any questions for the panel? – don’t put the panel in the uncomfortable position of cutting you short as you work your way through 20 questions. Ask yourself:

-       why am I asking this question now and to this panel?

-       can I find this information somewhere else?

-       why am I asking more than 3 questions when I know they’re on a tight schedule? 


Panels don’t like: flustered candidates because the IT is causing problems; applicants who exceed the time; obvious lack of rehearsal.

Solutions: Check out the format and venue. If it’s to be a PowerPoint ask if you can send it through and have it loaded up, but still take it on a USB, but make sure it doesn’t contain presentations for jobs with their competitors.

Practice in front of a critical friend: for timing, clarity, and content.

Assessment Centres

Ideally, an assessment centre models the job you’ll be doing. They are as much about how you do the task as much as doing the tasks successfully. Three things to bear in mind:

  1. Data handling (written/numerical) – read everything before you start the task; watch your time; be aware there may not be a right answer
  2. Group exercises – don’t talk yourself out of the job. It’s not who speaks loudest or longest who scores the highest marks. Demonstrate a range of team roles
  3. Leadership – it’s not always about showing who is the leader; leadership comes in many forms.


And if you really want to understand what it’s like to shortlist and interview, ask your current employer if you can participate or at least observe as part of your CPD. The more you understand the process, the less likely you are to make avoidable mistakes



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