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How not to answer graduate job interview questions

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Having formats for good answers can help, but it’s still possible to slip up. Here are some common pitfalls to step around.

We all know the importance of making a good impression. Our article on common job interview questions went into detail regarding some easy ways to respond well, but we thought a follow-up on some little known pitfalls would be helpful. So here are just a couple things to keep in mind, phrases to stay away from and general advice for rising to the occasion.

Try not to rehash your resume

Even when it sounds like they’re asking you to. Job interviews are all about giving interviewers information to make hiring decisions. By rehashing your resume, you’re effectively “doubling up” on the same information, which is redundant. 

You can avoid this trap by focussing more on qualities surrounding that experience. For instance, if you’ve spent three years waiting tables, talk about the skills you developed and their pertinence to this position. If you’ve been working in retail for two years, focus not on the job, but on the value you’re bringing them from that job. 

Mind your body language

The things you don’t normally pay attention to could be what lower your chances of success. Even with a fully rehearsed can of prepared answers under your belt, little things like failing to maintain eye contact, sitting awkwardly, looking around the room too much and more can be what make interviewers uneasy.

Here are a couple of tips for presenting yourself in a job interview:

  • Either cross your legs or have them parallel, feet planted on the floor. Having your ankle on your knee, falling victim to ‘restless leg syndrome’ or any other ways to sit may be distracting and disconcerting. 

  • Don’t fold your arms. According to former FBI agent and author of What Every Body Is Saying Joe Navarro, it can mean a variety of things. It can be a sign of anxiety, attempt to relieve stress, defensiveness, frustration or coldness, among others. None of these is likely things you want to convey to your potential future employer. Keep your hands in your lap or on your knees. 

  • Maintain eye contact, but break away occasionally so as to not make the interviewer feel uncomfortable. There’s definitely a sweet spot. Finding it can require some practice. 

  • Try not to make any sudden movements, like reaching to scratch an itch quickly, or swift gesturing while you speak. Staying relaxed is the name of the game. 

  • Speak at a moderate, gentle pace. Either too slowly or too quickly can lead to misunderstandings. It’s ironic when a candidate professes their sublime communication skills at a breakneck pace! 

Dress to impress

Do some recon before heading into your interview and learn the dress code. Many of you are doing this already, but for those who aren’t, it’s a freebie. Just dressing right can make the difference. You can read more about the specifics of dressing well for job interviews here

Don’t makeup answers if you don’t have them

It’s totally fine to say you don’t know something. This is a graduate job after all; you’re not expected to know everything. What you can do instead is tell them how you’d go about acquiring the answer. A process is often just as good as the answer itself after all. Showing you’re able to learn on the fly and fill gaps in your knowledge without oversight or direction is an incredible positive, which you can showcase just by admitting you don’t know. It’s also a mark of confidence. 

Avoid talking exclusively about your university experience

We sometimes talk about putting university experiences below everything else, but that’s not because we don’t value uni. It’s because having gone to university isn’t unique. If an employer is looking to fill a graduate position, then by default all eligible candidates are either graduated or about to. You could make a similar case for part-time retail or customer service jobs in that many students have those too. But there’s the rub. Not all of them do. If you’ve got some part-time work experience, it says a lot about your character. You’re not the type to just show up to your lectures and go home. You’ve got a work ethic! Now this, of course, isn’t necessarily an entirely fair assessment, especially considering some disciplines are more time consuming than others, some students spend their time volunteering or taking part in other worthy activities etc. But it’s safer to assume employers are thinking this way than not. Instead, focus as much on professional experiences as possible, be they part-time work or internships directly applicable to the position you’re applying for. Volunteering comes next; extracurricular university activities after that. Only if none of those is applicable should you talk about coursework/ assignments and associated experiences. 

Don’t overshare

Some interviewers can be very charismatic! It’s good to loosen up if it’s appropriate, but don’t lean into that too much. Everything you say should have a purpose in mind, whether it’s an anecdote, talking about your skills or otherwise. Aim for brevity and you’ll be more effective. If you catch yourself going into too much detail, just cut yourself short and get to the point, whether it’s relating to something they’ve said, expressing an idea or conveying why you’d be well-suited to a suggested job function. 

Doing this is easier said than done. We know! One shortcut to getting there is an answer template. If you have some format, it’ll go a long way to keeping your stories short and to the point. One we’re a big fan of is the STAR method. This is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action and Result. It’s an order in which to describe any given scenario. Start with the situation you’re in, then follow it up with the task that needed to be done. You then go into the action you or your team took and then what became of it. It’s those last two that are most important and can be discussed a little more. The S and T are essentially just contexts, so keep them to one sentence for each where possible. 

If you’d like to use a different method, the end result should be a succinct answer that informs them of what function you played in a positive outcome for your organisation. In the case of other experiences, like volunteering or uni competitions, this means the impact you had on your team. 

Practice reducing oversharing by having friends ask some of those common interview questions to you. Get them to pretend they’re falling asleep if you’re going too long! 

A word to the wise…

It takes a lot of practice to become a job interview master. So if you’ve ever made these mistakes, it’s important to not beat yourself up. Recognising they were mistakes, to begin with, is a big step. Keep putting in those applications, don’t get disheartened and wrack up those interviews. Every single one builds upon your previous experience, helping you develop a skill you’ll use for jobs throughout the rest of your life. 

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