Getting through the interview is key

Grad Week: What do employers expect from candidates as they try to sell themselves in the interview

“Before you go for interview, ask yourself why you have applied for this job, because the employer is likely to. Unless you can show that you have really thought about it, you will get off to a bad start.” Photograph: iStock

“Before you go for interview, ask yourself why you have applied for this job, because the employer is likely to. Unless you can show that you have really thought about it, you will get off to a bad start.” Photograph: iStock


His CV looked perfect. Aidan had taken the advice of a friend who works in recruitment: he reached out to contacts through a LinkedIn profile that represented his strengths and professional values; compiled a succinct cover letter; tailored a CV, free of spelling mistakes, to the job spec and shown the impact he had made so far, as well as shown how he had all the key attributes needed for the job.

The company was straight back in touch. The round one interview went well, or so Aidan thought. But he didn’t get past the second round. What went wrong?

Seamus Whitney, owner and manager of Whitney Career Guidance, says employers want to see “the three Cs”: confidence, competence and commitment. “The employer needs to see that they want to do the job and are enthusiastic about the role. Working in management and HR, I interviewed hundreds of people for jobs who could answer my questions, but I didn’t always get the sense that they were hungry for the role. It has to come across that you want to join the company – even if you don’t.”

Increasingly, universities and colleges are incorporating work experience into the degree programme, which gives their graduates a particular advantage. This year, UCD’s relatively new four-year humanities programme, which includes a work experience placement and a research project, rose from 301 to 348 points, while the more familiar three-year degree fell from 381 to 336 points.

Ability and experience

Hiring managers ultimately want to see that you have the skills, qualifications and experience to do the job, says Whitney. “For certain jobs – such as engineering or chartered physiotherapy – you do need the baseline experience, but you can also indicate any relevant work experience to back it up. Of course, most graduates won’t have extensive work experience, but that’s okay. They can pick out the most relevant information from part-time jobs or college work. If they’re going to be a teacher, for instance, they may have done some coaching. If they are hoping to work in design or multimedia, they may have experience designing posters for a college society.

“When I worked in HR, I would rather a middle-of-the-road graduate with a 2.2 degree and a good head on their shoulders than someone with a first but who can’t blow their nose and needs their hands held. I always hire the person: I’m not necessarily looking for someone with a first from Trinity, but I do want them to be committed to my company.”


How can a graduate show commitment in an interview? “They should be showing that they are a quick learner and that, even if they don’t have a lot of experience, they are enthusiastic and ready for a challenge, and they won’t let you down if just given a chance.”

Whitney generally prepares job applicants for the interview by going through about 20 questions that are likely to come up. About four, however, are key. “Before you go for interview, ask yourself why you have applied for this job, because the employer is likely to. Unless you can show that you have really thought about it, you will get off to a bad start.”

Companies are also likely to ask what you know about them. “We interviewed for a receptionist and asked what she knew about us. It turned out that she thought she was interviewing for another company.” She didn’t get the job.

“Employers want a little more than: ‘I read your home page.’ Have they really gone to the effort of finding out what the company is about?”

Expect to be asked about your strengths, Whitney advises. “This is where it is useful if you have put together a skills profile on your CV. I’d suggest to anyone going to an interview that they write a one-page essay on their strengths. If they then recite if from time to time out loud, they will realise if they are getting tongue-tied.”


Money can be an awkward topic but, let’s face it, few of us would get out of bed, even for the best job in the world, without being paid. So when is a good time to discuss dough? “Don’t ask at the first interview,” says Whitney. “The second interview is the time to address the area of compensation and benefits.”

Most interviews will end with the employer asking the candidate if they have any questions. “This is a good opportunity for you to make an impression on the employer. If you can ask good, open-ended questions about the company – not about your pay or holidays – this is a chance to change the dynamic. You are in control and building the relationship. Think of broad-based questions on the training that will be given, or a follow-on question based on an area you have researched. Maybe they have opened a new branch in Galway, and you are asking about the plan.”

Employers want to see “the three Cs”: confidence, competence and commitment. Photograph: iStock
Employers want to see “the three Cs”: confidence, competence and commitment. Photograph: iStock

Employers may also wrap up by asking: “Is there anything you’d like to add.” This is a good time to sell yourself, says Whitney. “I advise people to say: ‘I want you to know that I would really love to work with this company, I feel I can do it, and will do what I can to make it a success if I get a shot.’ The longer you stay in the interview, the better.”

Technical questions

Aidan now knows that he fell down when they asked him about the company, and that he wasn’t as prepared as he would have liked for some of the more technical questions they asked him about their work. But he’s picking himself up and learning from it: don’t be afraid to politely ask for feedback from the company if you don’t get the role.

If all goes wrong, finally, it’s not the end of the world. Finding the right job can take a few months. Sometimes, it really does work out for the best: this journalist was down to the last two candidates for a job completely outside of journalism or PR, but I fell at the last hurdle because, instead of doing my research the night before the interview, I ended up in A&E. At the interview the following morning, I was exhausted and unprepared. I was very disappointed but, in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t get it.

In another instance, I was all set to start a new role but it fell through at the last minute; again I was disappointed, but I’ve worked with them in a different – and much more suitable – capacity since. There are good jobs out there right now, and employers want talented graduates, so keep looking and don’t be disheartened.

Eight top tips for a standout CV

Maria Lalor of Pitman Training Swords has many years of experience in organising and running training courses, placing people in jobs, reviewing CVs and preparing candidates for job interviews. These are her top CV and cover letter tips:

1. The cover letter should have an opening line mentioning the role you are applying for, followed by three paragraphs: why you are applying for the role and are a good fit, why they should read on and interview you, and a short section showing you are familiar with their business.

2. Personal summary: these few lines should be right up the top of your CV and outline your key skills and how they are relevant to the job.

3. Avoid spelling mistakes – otherwise employers might think you’re too lazy to proofread and that you don’t care if you make a bad impression.

4. Tailor your CV to every job. Show you have read the job specification, and know what skills and knowledge are needed. Highlighting key words and phrases in the job spec can help.

5. Highlight any work experience, volunteer work, or clubs and societies you have been involved in through college.

6. If you have been very focused on the academics, it can be a good idea to highlight the skills you picked up on modules, as well as any teamwork or project work.

7. Focus on where you have made an impact, showing what changes you brought about through work, volunteer, or extracurricular life. Don’t be vague: if you organised or helped to organise an event that brought in money or got a big audience, say so.

8. Layout is important. If your CV is sloppy or badly laid out, it’s really off-putting [this journalist once made a formatting error when transferring his CV from a Word to PDF file, and only realised when he had sent it how confusing and messy one part looked. I never did hear from that company].