These days, companies are all about efficiency. And sometimes, unfortunately, that leads to a Hunger Games-ish approach to hiring, where multiple people are brought in for a single position interview. Let’s face it—unless you’re truly at ease in front of a group of people talking about yourself, this kind of job interview can feel about the same as that nightmare where you’re sitting in school, and keep getting flubbing answers in front of the entire class.
It doesn’t have to be that way—let’s look at ways to tackle the group interview process (either with a crew of fellow interviewees or a panel of interviewers) so that you’re looking good and increasing your chances for getting to the next round.
The Panel Interview (a.k.a. The Firing Squad)
When you walk into a job interview room and multiple people from the company are already there, your resume in front of them, lined up like the Supreme Court waiting to interrogate your fitness for the job, it can be intimidating. As a rule, one-on-one interactions are easiest for us to handle. This panel interview adds a number of dynamics: different personalities, different expectations, possibly different levels of involvement in the job you’re seeking. That’s a lot of navigate without warning (or at least without knowing ahead of time what the interviewers would be like). Let’s look at some top strategies for dealing with the panel interview.
1. Don’t show fear.
It’s true in the animal kingdom, and it’s true on the job hunt. When you walk into the room, whether you expected to be greeted by a panel or not, don’t be intimidated. Fall back on the interview skills you’ve been practicing. (You have been practicing those, right?)
- Make eye contact as you walk in the room.
- Shake hands like a boss.
- Don’t slouch! Keep your posture straight, but not too rigid. You want to look confident, not stiff.
2. Learn and use the panel member's names.
Make sure you know the names of each of the people interviewing you, and be sure to address them by name throughout. It’s a nice personal touch, and shows you’ve been paying attention. “Mike, that’s a great question. In my experience…” “Linda, I’m glad you asked that. At my previous job…” It gives a more conversational tone to the interview, and makes it feel more like a give-and-take instead of a firing squad.
3. Make sure you know what each person does, and roughly why they’re in the room.
Chances are, each person is there because they’re invested in this job opening somehow. Maybe the role has two managers, and a Human Resources rep is there to facilitate. Perhaps the person who holds the job you’re applying for works with multiple departments, and they want reps from each department to feel comfortable about the hiring choice. Whatever the case may be, it helps if (when you learn the names) you also make note of each person’s role. If it’s not made clear, it’s okay to ask. “Linda, can you tell me more about how your team works with the person in this role?” Again, it’s better to make this an engaging conversation.
You can take notes to make sure you have everyone straight, but keep them brief, and don’t spend much time writing and breaking eye contact.
4. Don’t focus too much on any one person.
Obviously, when someone asks you a direct question, you’d want to start by making eye contact and launching into your answer. However, try to move back and broaden the answer so that it feels like you’re talking to all of them. Vary your eye contact, and make sure you’re addressing each person at some point.
A trick you can use while answering questions: call back to other points, if they’re relevant. “…And that’s the biggest challenge I faced in my last job. To Mike’s point earlier, it’s a situation that helped me grow professionally.”
5. Answer questions like you would for any other job interview.
Odds are, the questions themselves won’t be different in a panel interview—just the format is different. So you can expect to field the same kinds of questions you were already prepared to face (experience, anecdotes, skills). Stick to that gameplan! It’s just a matter of balancing that same conversation between a few different people.
6. Get everyone’s contact info.
It may be that you only dealt with Jeff from HR previously, but you’ll need to send individual follow-up thank you notes to everyone who met with you. At the end, it’s a good idea to ask for everyone’s business card—or if they don’t have those, be sure to get at least an email address. “Jeff, would you be able to send me the contact information for everyone in this meeting?”
The most important part of a panel interview is keeping your cool, and your confidence up. You’re already prepared for an interview, so you don’t need to be thrown by the fact that there are more people to talk to. Whether it’s one person or four, remember: the focus is on you, your achievements, and your many qualifications for this job.
The Group Interview (a.k.a. Interview Thunderdome)
The other unusual group interview format you may encounter is the kind where you come for your interview, only to find several other candidates waiting in their own interview suits, arriving at the same time for the same interview appointment. This is not an uncommon interview format in early rounds, when companies are trying to narrow the applicant pool to the true candidates. It can also feel like walking into a gladiator competition. There’s only one job opening, but there are at least several of you. How do you make sure you come out on top?
1. Enter confidently.
Whether you expected the group format or it threw you for a loop when you walked through the door, don’t let that show. Once it’s apparent that you’re all there for the same interview, embrace it. There’s no changing it now, so don’t show disappointment, dismay, or fear that your interview prep was for a different format, and ohmanwhatdoIdonow? Stay cool, keep your posture and your eye contact going.
2. Make friends—really!
You know the reality show cliché, “I’m not here to make friends?” Ignore that. You’re not here to expand your social circle—you have a job to get. But you don’t lose anything by being nice to the people who are in the same position, if you have a minute for small talk ahead of the interview. Worst case, you’ve broken the ice. Best case, you’ve made a new networking connection, regardless of whether either of you gets the job. You don’t need to cultivate the kind of relationship where you’re vacationing together or arranging playdates with your kids, but being friendly is an easy way to help put yourself at ease. Shake hands, ask neutral questions, learn names. It’s worth the effort.
3. Don’t be intimidating.
Yes, only one of you can get the job. Yes, that means you have to eliminate the competition somehow. But being aggressive (talking over the other people), trying to run down others so you look better, or going for straight one-upmanship isn’t necessarily going to help you. And in fact it could hurt you, if the group interview format is a test to see how well you interact with others unexpectedly. Be on best behavior, and focus on the skills and experience that make you great for this job. Don’t worry about the others.
4. Don’t be intimidated, either.
Again, you want your confidence level to stay up. Focus on what you’ve practiced for your interview, because you’re still going to need those talking points and body language. The main difference is that you may have to think on your feet, and you may have to wait a bit longer than usual between questions, but this is still a job interview, and you know how to tackle this.
5. Be yourself.
Again, don’t worry about the others. You got this interview on your own merits, so stick with that and make sure you’re not stretching to be what you perceive the others to be.
6. Speak up, but don’t talk over others.
It’s not about who’s the loudest. You want to be memorable, and you should make sure that you’re being noticed, but don’t try to answer every question. And definitely don’t interrupt others, or insert yourself in their questions. You’ll get your turn, and you can focus on shining in your own speaking opportunities.
7. Listen to everyone.
It can be tempting to tune out everyone who’s Not You, but it’s important to listen to what everyone else is saying. It can help you gauge how the conversation is going, and what you should be highlighting in your own answers. You also want to make sure that you’re not just repeating what other people have said—you want your answers to be unique to you.
8. Follow up.
It’s especially important to tick off all the boxes when you’re directly up against other people. Get the interviewer’s contact information, and promptly follow up with your thank you note. This shows you’re On It, and this little bit of organization and effort can give you a nice boost coming out of the interview. If you didn’t expect the group interview format, don’t point that out in your note. Just keep it at a simple, “I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with you and the others today. If there’s any other information I can fill in, or questions I can answer, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
Whether you’re facing a panel of interviewers or a squad of potential competitors, the most important thing to keep in mind is that at heart, this is still the same old job interview. Keep doing what you’re doing—neat clothes, good body language, a solid roster of examples and talking points to bolster your resume—and you’ll be just fine.
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