Interview skills

Authors: Laura Brammar 

Publication date:  20 Aug 2008


It’s not all about luck, says Laura Brammar—there are concrete ways to improve your chances

While the very thought of an interview might make you feel queasy, it is important to remember that being shortlisted means you have overcome the first hurdle. Your application was strong enough to make it into the final few. Nevertheless, challenges still lie ahead, and to perform at your best on the big day you need to prepare thoroughly.

Before the day

Preparation is essential to performing well in an interview. Whether or not you feel confident, good preparation will always help.

Know yourself

Of course, you will have kept a copy of your application form. Now is the time to reread what you wrote from a fresh and analytical perspective. Try to think about your application from the selectors’ point of view. What are your strong and weak points? Which areas might need clarification? Which aspects of your application are your “headliners” that you want to emphasise to the selectors?

The selectors will be asking the candidates the same questions but is there anything within your application which may prompt further questions? Be prepared to expand on any of the information you have given.

Know the role

Just as within a clinical scenario, it’s vital to learn as much as possible about the situation you are dealing with. Use all available resources to gain a clear understanding of the role. From rereading the person specification to talking with the departmental staff and current post holder, use various channels to build a comprehensive and thorough understanding of the role for which you have applied.

The person specification is especially useful as it acts as a “road map” for what the selectors are looking for. It also signals what skills, qualifications, experience, and personal qualities you need to perform successfully.

Know the context: local and national

Local: A visit before your application or before the interview can be a good way to improve your understanding of the role and its context. Whether you are visiting a district general hospital or a GPs’ practice you can use the visit as an opportunity to learn more about the key issues pertinent to the role. It can also be a valuable way of establishing positive relationships with potential future colleagues. Prepare some questions which will illustrate your enthusiasm and professionalism. Remember that while the visit may be described as “informal” it may also be viewed by the selectors as an initial way of ascertaining whether you are suitable for the job. This is particularly so for consultant posts, where you may be working alongside consultant colleagues for many years.

National: You also need to be prepared to discuss issues relating to your specialty and other important health related topics. What is currently a hot topic within your specialty? How confident are you in discussing, for example, recent Department of Health policies such as the new GP contract or patient involvement units? Do you know your European Working Time Directive from your national service framework? If you’re asked to expand on issues of clinical governance what might you say? If necessary, refer to the Department of Health website ( [Link] ) to refresh your knowledge and keep up to date.

Know the selectors

Another way to prepare is to find out who’s on the interview panel before the big day. While the content of the panel will vary depending on the level of the post, it may still be useful to have an insight into who may be asking the questions.

Know the details

With your application details fresh in your mind and the clinical audit cycle on the tip of your tongue the last thing you want to be distracted by is worrying about getting to the interview on time. Give yourself enough time to check thoroughly key details such as the date, time, and location of the interview. Double check that you have the telephone number to hand in case of last minute mishaps. Make sure you know exactly how to get there and how long it will take, and if possible think about alternative routes in case of transport problems. With all these things in place you’re far more likely to get a good night’s sleep before the interview.

On the day

Interviewers are not concerned only about what answers you give to their questions. There are many factors that they will be taking into consideration, from how you dress to how you cope with “difficult” questions.

Essentially, they are also asking themselves three key questions during the interview:

  • Do you have the ability to do the job?

  • Do you have the motivation to do the job?

  • Do you complement the existing team?

While your ability can be illustrated by your specialist and clinical skills and experience, you can also refer to your transferable or “softer” skills (such as communication skills or team working skills) to show further your suitability to the role.

Motivation is key in an interview, and failure to show enthusiasm for the role can often lead to rejection. Use the research you have done into the job to convince that this is the role for you. Don’t be afraid to refer back to your motivation for the role as regularly as possible, without sounding too evangelical.

The selectors will also be aware of the existing team you will be working with. For this reason they will be asking themselves if you have the appropriate interpersonal skills to blend well with your future colleagues. Use your rapport building skills to present a positive, approachable, and professional attitude as someone who is willing to collaborate with existing members of the team.

First impressions

Always be punctual and give yourself time to calm down. Clearly, professional appearance and behaviour are vital, so dress accordingly but also comfortably. Be aware of the “unspoken conversation” of your body language: smile, make plenty of eye contact with the panel, use gestures if they feel natural, but don’t be excessive. The reality is most people feel quite nervous during interviews, which is perfectly natural. Indeed, candidates who appear relaxed during an interview can sometimes give the impression that they don’t really want the post. That said, first impressions do matter so aim for a positive smile and a firm handshake to start you off on the right foot.

Their questions

The panel’s questions will cover a range of topics from your clinical skills and experience, to NHS issues, to specific competency based questions that are focused on specific skill sets. Again, the person specification will indicate which skills you are likely to be asked about.

If you’re asked a question which you don’t understand or are unclear about, ask the panel to clarify it before you begin your answer.

Additional questions might be more reflective in terms of your personal qualities (for example, “What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?”), your career direction (“Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”), your life outside work (“What do you enjoy beyond medicine?”), or your opinion on a potentially controversial issue (“What’s your opinion of the Tooke report?”). With regards to the last type of question, aim for a balanced answer with a clear statement of your own perspective and opinion; don’t just sit on the fence.

Your answers

Whichever question you are asked, the following tips will help you strengthen your answer:

  • Structure your answer by “bookending” your response with a review of the question—for example, Q: Why do you want this post? A: I want this post for a variety of reasons, such as X, Y, and Z. In summary, I want this role for the diverse reasons I’ve just outlined. This technique reminds you of the key part of the question, provides a framework to your answer, and, crucially, provides a neat end to what you are saying

  • Give a specific answer rather than generic assurances—for example, “A recent example of my leadership skills would be . . .

  • Include enough information about what you actually did. Use the STAR acronym (situation, task, action, result) to provide further structure and help you to focus on the specific question

  • Don’t undersell yourself; try to use as many first person statements as possible, especially in combination with active verbsfor example, “I coordinated . . .’’or “I liaised with . . .” Avoid using “we” as it is often too vague to highlight effectively your individual input.

Your questions

It is likely you’ll be asked whether you have any questions at the end of the interview. This is the final impression you will leave on the panel, and therefore rather than provide a monosyllabic “no” try to capitalise on the opportunity to remind them of your enthusiasm for the role—for example, “No thank you. I’ve had the opportunity to clarify any questions I had and I am satisfied that this is exactly the type of role I’m looking for.” While it would not make a good impression to ask a trivial question, it would be useful to have a couple of substantial questions in mind. Either way, don’t forget to thank the panel before you leave the room.

Afterwards: negotiations

If possible it is best to wait to be told the outcome of the interview and to receive any feedback. If that’s not possible explain this to the selectors in advance.

Want a dry run?

The BMA Careers Service works with doctors to improve their interview skills through its tailormade practice interview service. A bespoke practice interview based on your specific application can be excellent preparation for the real thing ( [Link] ).

Competing interests: None declared.

Laura Brammar careers adviser, C2 Careers

 laura.brammar@careers.lon.ac.uk

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: