Tactics of selection: the first interview


At the first interview stage of the recruitment process, the odds of getting the job are still very long. A candidate has met the academic and perhaps the personality profile the employer is looking for, but it is likely that anywhere up to 100 others have also passed this test – 100 to 1 odds. The challenge now is to shorten the odds

When the Duke of Wellington said that The Battle of Waterloo ‘was won on the playing fields of Eton’ he could have been stressing the importance of preparation. As with so much else in life, preparation for the first interview is pivotal.

To have a fighting chance at this stage, the candidate needs to treat it like an exam. Although recruiters will be aware that candidates could have interviews with other employers, they will want to be sure that a candidate has genuine reasons for applying to their company. Just wanting a job, rather than wanting a job with that particular company, is not going to get a potential employee very far.

The candidate should set about researching the company systematically. Key areas of research will be company history, leading executives, financial performance, recent news, global structure, recent successes and failures, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

This information serves as a minimum requirement to get through the early stages of the interview. The interviewee also needs an understanding of the basic functions of the department and the job applied for, as well as some background on the company’s graduate recruitment programme.

Candidates should also find out exactly what graduate position they are being considered for. There is nothing worse, for example, than going to an investment banking interview wanting to be a trader, when one is being interviewed for a back office position.

The first interview is normally carried out by a company’s human resources team. They are likely to be attending numerous universities interviewing for a number of different graduate positions.

From their point of view, the purpose of the first interview is to match potential employees’ character profiles with the corporate culture of the company and individual departments within it.

Interview check-list

A candidate should consider the following:


The purpose of all interviews is to enable both parties to make an informed choice. A candidate needs to perform a balancing act between conveying the right message in their answers, and asking the right questions to be able to make an informed decision if they are offered a job.

The first interview is a macro interview and questions should focus on the company and its approach to undergraduates’ hiring, training and development. Candidates should put time aside to prepare questions, research the answers and ideally ask for more information in the interview. The quality of a candidate’s questions says a lot about their research and the seriousness of their application.

Under the microscope

Everything that a candidate says and does is being assessed. The interviewer is assessing both style and content. This is a very subjective part of the process for the interviewer, who must whittle down a large number of applicants down to a manageable shortlist.


There is a saying that enthusiasm sells. So if a candidate feels enthusiastic about certain aspects of the company, the job or their own life, they should demonstrate it.

Know thyself

Recognize strengths and weaknesses. There should be alignment to the psychometric test or questionnaire. Candidates should be able to back-up any comments with real life examples.


Be prepared for shock tactics: not every interviewer will be pleasant. There are many cases where there may be two or more interviewers involved at this stage, and it is not uncommon for someone to take on the ‘bad cop’ role. This person will put the interviewee under pressure by being confrontational, questioning answers aggressively and testing the resolve or depth of true knowledge, feeling or desire on issues.

Logic and consistency

The interviewer is looking for a consistency of message. For example, in the types of job and company applied for.


First impressions last. Some people say that one never looks as good as at the first interview. Invest time into preparation. If in doubt, it is better to err on the side of being more conservative.


Be early, know where to go, and plan the journey. If an interview is at 1700 in London the time taken may be longer than it takes at 0800 because of rush-hour traffic, for instance. Being late for a first interview is a killer.

Top tips

Do not arrange an interview for the morning after a big night out. Chew a mint or gum before arriving, and watch out for cigarette or kebab breath. If nervous, put some tissue paper or a paper towel in a pocket – this is good for wiping the sweat from hands before handshakes.

Frequently asked questions

This list cannot be complete, but thinking through the following questions is good training.

  • Why that choice of subject/degree course at university?
  • Which other companies have you applied to/had interviews with?
  • Why are you applying to us/for that position?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or in a group?
  • What are you looking for in a graduate role?
  • What do you think are some of your good qualities or traits?
  • Who do you admire? Why?
  • What makes a successful person? Who do you think is successful?
  • What is your greatest achievement? Why?
  • What are the most important factors in a job?
  • What would be the ideal job? Why?
  • Can you describe a typical day in the job you have applied for?
  • What job would you like to be doing in X years time?
  • What job do you think you will be doing in X years time?
  • If you had a million pounds, what would you do? How would you invest it?
  • Describe the biggest problem you have faced in the last six months? How did you handle it?
  • Is there anything in your life you would do differently?
  • Do you feel pressure? How do you deal with it?
  • How do you deal with failure? Give an example?
  • What differentiates you from your peers?
  • Tell me about your parents/siblings?
  • How would your friends describe you? Your brother or sister? Your parents?

Recruiters have also been known to ask what question a candidate least wants to be asked – and then gone on to ask it. There is no mystery: recruiters want to see what is special about the candidate, in order to be able to select the best people for the positions they are looking to fill.

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