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Internships

how to shine in your work experience interview

How to shine in your work experience interview

Interview coming up for an internship or work placement? Know what to expect and what’s expected of you.

Getting work experience usually involves an interview. Some employers use a recruitment process for their internship schemes and programmes that mirrors recruitment for their graduate schemes, and your internship interview could form part of an assessment centre at which you’ll also face tests and group exercises. This is particularly the case with employers who like to fast-track successful interns into graduate jobs.

For more informal placements, you may get away with a quick chat about yourself and why you want work experience at that organisation, possibly over the phone. However, you could still be asked to complete a short task to assess your suitability; for example, would-be journalists might need to identify the best angle for a story.

Many employers provide information about what to expect. You may find further details via the employer hubs and your university careers service.

What to expect from your internship interview

You may have one, two or multiple interviewers. They might be HR team members, managers from the relevant part of the business or a mixture of both.

Most interviews have a structured format that has been set by the interviewers, with particular questions in a particular order. You need to go along with this, though it’s fine to seek clarification or ask for questions to be repeated. There is normally a chance for you to ask questions at the end.

Expect probing questions

Typically interviewers ask all candidates broadly the same initial list of questions (eg ‘Why do you want to work in law?’ or ‘What do you know about designing databases?’), although there may be some variation if they want to ask about a particular experience that you mentioned in your application. It is likely that you will then be asked follow-up questions, depending upon your answer. You may be asked to give more detail, clarify a response or expand upon a particular aspect. You might be challenged as to what you have said or brought back on track if you have gone off in the wrong direction.

Interviewers do this to make sure that you have understood the question and are providing the best, most relevant information in the clearest possible manner. Work with them. And learn to take a hint: it’s fine to defend an answer if you’re sure it’s right, but if you suspect that your initial answer was poor and your interviewer is trying to lead you towards a different response, don’t dig your heels in for the sake of ‘saving face’.

Typical interview questions

Formal interviews typically involve:

  • questions about why you are interested in the industry, field, employer and role in question
  • questions about your suitability.

Suitability questions at interview could include:

  • questions about your competencies
  • technical questions relating to the role
  • questions about previous relevant experiences
  • hypothetical questions relating to the role (eg ‘What might you do if X happened?’)
  • being asked outright ‘Why do you think you are suitable for this internship?’

How to appear professional

A key consideration for employers is whether you will behave appropriately in the workplace. This is even more important if you will interact with people from outside the organisation on your internship, such as clients, customers, suppliers or service users.

A little polite small talk when you meet and depart from your interviewers is a good plan. Stick to safe topics such as the weather, location or your journey, if you can find something positive to say. Wishing your interviewer a good evening/weekend (if appropriate) as you leave is a nice touch. Avoid topics such as your big night on the town, however friendly the interviewer appears to be.

Opt for smart business-wear unless you’re completely sure that it’s inappropriate for that organisation or industry. Being dressed more formally than employees who are going about their day-to-day jobs is not a problem – it shows you’re taking your interview seriously.

For men it’s straightforward – wear a suit, shirt and tie. For women, a trouser or skirt suit is the safest option, particularly for formal internships in industries such as finance and law. For more informal placements or industries smart dresses, skirts and cardigans are reasonable alternatives. Skirts or dresses should be at least knee-length when standing up. Tops need to be opaque and fully cover your cleavage, bra and midriff. Spaghetti straps are a no-no; sleeves are ideal.

Internship interview dos and don’ts

Do

  • Find out as much as you can about the employer, role and industry in advance
  • Plan your journey so you arrive on time
  • Try on your full interview outfit several days in advance so you have time to buy anything you’ve forgotten or to make repairs
  • Be polite to everyone, including the reception team
  • Engage in conversation with your interviewer.

Don’t

  • Say anything about your interview on social media or in public places near the interview venue
  • Talk non-stop
  • Give monosyllabic answers
  • Use words or make comments that could be deemed as offensive.
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