12 Mistakes that Will Ruin Your University and Job Interviews

15 April, 2014

Image shows someone with a badly done-up tie. The tie is blue; the rest of the image is black and white.

Very few people enjoy going to interviews.

Many crumble in this high-pressure situation and fail to do themselves justice, and we’ve all experienced the feeling of coming out of one thinking, “I wish I’d said this” or “I wish I hadn’t said that”. It’s largely down to nerves that people to make some avoidable mistakes during interviews, but being aware of these potential pitfalls in advance can help you prepare for them and keep things running smoothly. In this article, we’re going to show you some of the most common things people get wrong in university and job interviews and how to avoid making these mistakes yourself.

Which universities or subjects will invite you for an interview?

Image shows a trumpet lying on some sheet music.

Performing arts degrees almost always have an interview, usually alongside an audition.

If you’re not applying to Oxbridge, you’re not necessarily off the hook when it comes to being called for an interview. Oxford and Cambridge are by no means the only universities that use this admissions method. Many other universities make use of interviews during the selection process, although it’s hard to give you a definitive list of universities and courses, as the subjects for which applicants are called to interview varies from university to university and from department to department. There are also numerous exceptions to general trends; an application to study English, for instance, generally won’t require an interview, but Warwick and Queen Mary University of London both interview for this subject. As a rough guide, you can reasonably expect to be interviewed if you’re applying for any of the following universities or subjects:

– University College London (most subjects)
– Imperial College London (most subjects – some departments may also request your involvement in group tasks and selection activities)
– Professional training degrees, such as medicine
– Performing arts degrees, such as music
– Some science courses, such as engineering or computing

If in doubt, look at the website of the department whose degree you’re applying for and this should tell you whether an interview forms a standard part of the admissions process.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all University Admissions articles."Common mistakes in interviews and how to avoid them

The good news is that although there are many common mistakes, they’re all avoidable. Rather than just listing the things you can get wrong, we’ve also included practical advice below on what you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

1. Not preparing

Image shows a young woman reading at a desk by a window.

If you’re being interviewed for English, make sure that the answer to ‘what are you reading at the moment?’ is suitably impressive.

Lack of preparation for your interview is one of the biggest ways to guarantee a major downfall. For instance, you’re likely to be asked about your personal statement in a university interview, so if you can’t remember what you actually wrote in it, you’re not likely to do a very good job of answering questions about it. Similarly, in a job interview, you’re in for trouble if you can’t answer questions such as “which parts of the job most appeal to you?”

How to avoid it

Although you might think it’s impossible to prepare for an interview when you don’t know what questions you will be asked, mistakes through lack of preparation are easily avoided.

– Re-read your personal statement (or covering letter) and have a think about what kind of questions you could be asked. Write down some notes to help clarify your possible responses.

– Revise any books you mentioned on your personal statement. Do some additional reading about them, such as some literary criticism, to prepare you for possible academic discussion.

– Thoroughly read through all the information you can get your hands on about the course and what it involves. Note down the aspects of the course that you most like the look of, and why.

– Keep an eye on news stories relating to your subject in case these should come up in conversation. Have an opinion on them, as this will show that you keep abreast of developments related to your subject.

– Prepare for obvious questions, such as “what are you reading at the moment?” if you’re interviewing for English.

– For job interviews, thoroughly research the company, including reading through its recent press releases. Also read through the job description and be prepared to answer questions on how you can meet its requirements, and what experience you have that shows your capability.

You can’t prepare for every question, and indeed interviewers may put questions to you because they know you will almost certainly not know the answer; they may want to test your reaction to unfamiliar problems. But you can definitely prepare for the basics and avoid embarrassing silences.

2. Confusing the course with another one

Image shows Saladin and Guy de Lusignan after battle of Hattin in 1187, painted by Said Tahsine.

Don’t comment on how much you’re looking forward to studying the Crusades in a Modern History course.

You are expected to have read up on the course in detail, so making any kind of faux pas about what it involves is a big no-no. Talking about a subject that’s not on the course, because you’ve confused it with a course at another university, is unlikely to go down well with your interviewers. To this end, it’s also advisable to avoid asking a question along the lines of “what topics will I be studying?”; you may think that it shows you’re taking an interest, but in fact it shows that you haven’t read up on the course. The same applies to job interviews; you’re probably applying for several jobs at once, but that’s no excuse to confuse the particulars of the one you’re interviewing for.

How to avoid it

Before you go into the interview, refresh your memory about this particular course or job by reading the details in your prospectus, on the university website or on the employer’s website.

3. Showing doubts

Displaying any kind of doubt about whether this is the course or job for you will get you crossed off the list immediately. Don’t ask your interviewers whether you’ll be able to change to a different course if you change your mind, and don’t let them know if this was actually your second-choice course or job (even if it was). You need to convince them that this is THE one and only course for you and your enthusiasm needs to come across.

How to avoid it

Remain positive and enthusiastic at all times!

4. Relying on your achievements

Image shows people sailing a boat on a quiet sea.

You can, however, use your achievements as a springboard: “While learning to sail for my Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award, I learned a great way to keep calm under pressure…”

However impressive your list of achievements is, this isn’t what the interview is about; you can’t just fall back on them. Your interviewer will have seen your qualifications, grades and awards on your application form. The interview is there so that they can look beyond these achievements to find out more about who you are, what your motivations and opinions are and how you approach academic problems.

How to avoid it

Try not to hijack the conversation with boasting about your achievements; if you’re asked what you think about something, it’s not enough to say that you’ve won an award in a related area – you need to demonstrate your intelligence by engaging in academic discussion.

5. Dishonesty

Just as you should never lie on your personal statement, you should never lie in an interview situation either. The interviewer is likely to spot it straightaway. For example, however tempting it might be to claim in your English interview that you’ve read a particular text, because you think it would make you look good, it’s far better to be honest and say you haven’t read it. No interviewer will expect you to have read everything, and things will be far worse for you if you say you’ve read a text and you then get questioned on your opinions about it – when you haven’t any!

How to avoid it

Avoid a red face with a positive answer such as, “I haven’t read it yet, but it’s next on the list – and I did enjoy this other work by the same author…”

6. Being overly familiar

Image shows a man and a woman shaking hands.

In an interview situation, it’s OK to let the interviewer take the lead, e.g. address them by their title and surname if they address you by yours.

Though a few pleasantries at the beginning and end of the interview are fine, and a good way to break the ice, you should avoid trying to chat to your interviewer too much or too informally. An interview is a formal situation and over-familiarity is not appropriate. However easy-going your interviewer seems to be, this isn’t the place to complain about your problems, to say how much you’re looking forward to the university party scene, or to ask the interviewer personal questions.

How to avoid it

Remain calm and professional at all times, and treat your interviewer with the utmost respect.

7. Arrogance

Do not assume that just because you’ve been invited for a university interview there’s a place with your name on it. For job interviews, you can be even less sure about your chances of securing the job, with the odds higher because there are likely to be even more candidates for one position. The interview stage is to help the university make up their minds about you, and if you come across as overly cocky, you may find that the interviewer doesn’t warm to you.

How to avoid it

Again, remain professional and put your opinion across respectfully.

8. Boredom

Image shows a detail from the painting 'Self-Portrait, Yawning' by Joseph Ducreux.

Would you accept a candidate who couldn’t even maintain concentration in the interview?

You need to maintain enthusiasm and interest throughout the interview if you are to make a good impression. If you appear bored during the interview, what are you going to be like to teach, or as an employee? Apparent boredom can also be taken as a sign that you’re not particularly interested in the subject you’ve applied to study.

How to avoid it

Even if you’re not that interested in a particular topic of conversation (few people find every aspect of their course fascinating), don’t let it show. Keep focused on the conversation and don’t allow your mind to drift.

9. Negativity

Even if you’re not being negative about the course itself, any hint of negativity on your part may come across as a lack of interest in what you’re being interviewed for. If you’re negative, this may be what the interviewer remembers about you – and that’s not the kind of person they want on their course or in their business; negativity spreads and you could be someone who could bring down the mood of a class or team. What’s more, in a job interview, never talk negatively about your previous employer, if you have one. The interviewer will recognise that you could be talking about them in this way in the future.

How to avoid it

Even if you feel like saying something negative, adopt a positive and enthusiastic demeanour for the duration of the interview. If you feel yourself about to say something negative, either don’t say anything or turn it into a positive.

10. Not making eye contact

Image shows a woman's green eyes.

Practise interviews with friends, family or teachers – they will be able to advise you if the amount of eye contact you’re making is appropriate.

Body language is very important in interviews, as it says a lot about the kind of person you are. It also speaks volumes about your ability to cope under pressure; you’re in a high-pressure environment in an interview, but you’ll be put into other high-pressure situations as part of your university course or job, so your interviewer will be assessing how well you cope with it. Not making eye contact makes you come across as shy and unconfident, and it’s a little rude, too.

How to avoid it

Make frequent eye contact with your interviewer, and if there’s more than one interviewer, look confidently from one to the other. If one of them asks you a question, maintain more eye contact with them while you’re answering their question.

11. Dressing inappropriately

Turning up to an interview dressed informally (think T-shirt, jeans, trainers) is a huge mistake because it shows that you don’t have respect for the institution or company and haven’t bothered to make an effort for them.

How to avoid it

Always dress smartly for an interview: a smart suit for boys and a smart dress, trouser suit or smart top and skirt for girls. Don’t neglect your shoes; smart black shoes, or optional heels for girls, rather than trainers or Converse.

12. Being late

Image shows an old-fashioned alarm clock that, instead of displaying a number, simply reads 'LATE.'

Aim to be at the interview 5-10 minutes early. If you’re worried you’re going to be far too early, research cafés nearby where you could wait.

It seems astonishing to think that anybody could even consider being late to an interview, but it does happen. It’s not always the candidate’s fault, of course – traffic, for instance, can throw a spanner in the works. Poor organisation also leads to tardiness.

How to avoid it

Lateness can be avoided by allowing far more time than you think you’ll need to get to the interview, or even staying nearby the previous night if you’re travelling a long way. If you’re stuck in unexpectedly severe traffic, or some other emergency befalls you on your journey, phone the university or department to let them know you’re running late. They’ll be much more understanding if they know the reason and can reschedule you than if you simply don’t turn up, or turn up late without prior explanation.

We hope you’ve found these tips useful and that you can attend your next interview feeling more confident. The main takeaway from this article is the old Boy Scouts’ motto: Be Prepared!






 

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Image credits: banner; trumpet; reading; Crusades; sailing; handshake; yawn; eye contact; late

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