By Colm Boyd

13 Nov 2019 - 12:11

7 steps to shine at a job interview

Most of us don’t enjoy talking about how great we are. Neither do we get some weird rush of excitement when forced to show humility-on-demand as we respond to some question about our greatest weakness. Even very simple job interviews are a challenge, and even more so in a non-native language. This post suggests a few things to keep in mind as we prepare for the specific requirements of a job interview in English.  

Step 1: Research the company and also their English

Any interviewer will tell you that one of the most immediately noticeable things is whether the candidate has done some research on the company. This research becomes more important than ever when interviewing in a different language because it allows us to see the type of words which we will need to understand, and possibly use, in the interview. Every company speaks its own dialect, preferring certain words and expressions over others. What interviewers in one company refer to as key behaviours might be called something like professional attitudes in another. While one tech start-up refers to their clients as users, another will prefer to call them customers. A quick read-through of the most relevant parts of the company’s website - and indeed the job offer itself - will let you to see the preferred English expressions of the organisation. It might also help you to amaze your interviewers when you understand them perfectly after they use some impossibly obscure acronym.

Step 2: Think of how to explain your examples in English

Interviewers love stories. When they ask you a question like “Do you consider yourself a team player?”, they don’t want some vague response where you tell them about how much you get on great with everybody. They want a concrete example about a time when you worked in a team and achieved something. It can help a lot for you to think before the interview about what “stories” you would like to tell, allowing you the time to search for the necessary English vocabulary. Of course it’s not possible for you to predict exactly what questions they’ll ask but you can at least ask yourself what examples from your work history you’d like to talk about. Choose examples which make you look good and which are relevant to the position you’re applying for. Walk into the interview with 5-8 clear examples in your head. Then, for each question which allows a “story” answer, choose which example is most appropriate and start talking in wonderfully pre-researched English.

Step 3: Don’t get lost

With the stress of an interview, it’s easy to lose your train of thought. Doing an interview in English, it’s more important than ever to listen carefully to the questions and give concise, relevant answers. When giving examples, many HR websites suggest using the STAR formula to help structure your answers. Doing practise interviews with students in class, I have noticed that this formula tends to help students a lot as it allows them to explain complex concepts by using concrete examples which are much easier to explain. It also helps students to conclude their answers, avoiding the common problem of leaving our listeners hanging.

Step 4: Practise answers to typical interview questions.

As daunting as a job interview can be, let’s not get carried away: it’s not brain surgery. Many of the topics are predictable, meaning you can prepare answers for the typical questions that get asked in English-speaking interviews. Of course the interviewers will also ask other questions but you don’t want to end up kicking yourself if you go blank when they ask you about some basic issue. Practise some simple answers to obvious questions, ideally using examples and even more ideally using STAR format as outlined in the previous steps. This British Council video exercise could give you some ideas. And don’t just practise answers in your head, say them out loud. Often I find that students don’t realise that they are lacking some essential vocabulary on a particular topic until they actually start speaking. If you have a friend who’ll listen to your sample answers, great. Otherwise you could simply talk out loud to yourself at home, maybe even recording yourself on your phone and then listening back to focus on sentence structure and pronunciation.

Step 5: Prepare some notes

To complete the above steps, it’s probably a good idea to write some things down on paper. Many companies don’t just allow you to look at your notes during an interview, they actually encourage it. One interviewer recently mentioned to me that if a candidate brings notes to the interview, it’s a good sign that they’re really interested in the position and have put in some effort. Helping yourself through the interview by glancing at some simple bullet points that you’ve prepared is even more understandable when the interview is in a non-native language for you. This might not be suitable for very informal interviews but more generally, why not? What interviewer would object to you using some notes so that you can do your best possible interview in your best possible English?

Step 6: Think of useful expressions.

A quick Google search will show you a wealth of useful expressions for job interviews. Only you can decide which expressions feel right for your particular case. To stimulate your imagination, below are five words/expressions which I personally think would impress the interviewer.

Talk somebody through something: This phrasal verb simply means to explain the details of something. Interviewers use it a lot (e.g. Can you talk us through your Sales experience?) but it can also sound good in a response.

Interviewer: Tell us about a time when you provided good customer service
Interviewee: Ok. I’m going to talk you through an experience that I had when I had just started working as a Project Manager …

Liaise with: This expression means to act as the point of contact between separate people or groups. It’s a great verb to use when you want to emphasise your great communication skills.

When I was working in the billing department I needed to liaise with the Finance team and our many suppliers.

Background: This is undoubtedly the most appropriate word for talking about your working history or even your previous studies. It is usually used as part of the expression “have a background in …”.

As you can see from my CV, I have a background in Social Work and I’ve been able to transfer a lot of those skills to the Human Resources sector.

Savvy: This adjective means that you possess expert information in a certain area and are able to use this knowledge in a practical way. It usually follows a noun or an adverb.

When I started working in Accounts, I realised that I needed to be really tech-savvy so I did a short course in spreadsheet development.
I think a big part of working in Marketing is to be financially-savvy so that you can make the most out of your budget.

A good fit: As you can probably imagine, this expression simply means that you would be suitable for the requirements of the position.

Interviewer: Why should we hire you?
Interviewee: Well, I think the combination of my personal qualities and my professional background are quite unique and so they’d make me a really good fit for the role. 

To learn more useful words and expressions, you could also consider doing a free British Council online course on English for the workplace.

Step 7: Dealing with nerves

Any experienced English teacher will tell you about the effects of nerves on a student’s level of English. Many students go from an 8 in the classroom to a 5 in the formal speaking exam. Obviously, this is very relevant if you’re going to do a job interview in English. So what can you do? The preparations of the previous steps should help to alleviate nerves in some way, allowing you to feel eager to get to the interview and impress everybody with your amazing English. Beyond that, there are also some other small tricks that could help you out. The night before the interview, you could check out some videos by HeadSpace with simple suggestions on how to relax. On the day of the interview, try to speak some English beforehand to warm up (ideally with another person or even just talking to yourself in the shower). And don’t forget the power of listening to a relaxation podcast or soothing music as you travel to the interview.

In conclusion: do your research, prepare the English that you will need, explain your ideas in a calm and structured way. And if you can, try to remind yourself that both you and your English are more than sufficient for the job. Good luck!